I had no idea how to explain where I was going. “It’s this conference in Baltimore,” I told my professors when I explained why I’d be missing class. “It’s for writers, or something.” All I knew was that it was called AWP and that my creative writing professor would be presenting a panel on imaginative teaching methods. She suggested I check it out, and that’s how I ended up driving six hours from Western Pennsylvania to Baltimore one grey Wednesday evening in February, 2003.
19 years old and still trying to figure out what I could do with the English degree I was studying for, I’d never heard of AWP or any writing conference. But I was ready to rub elbows with the literary heavyweights, to furiously scribble notes as important wordsmiths shared their wisdom from a podium in a hotel ballroom. I was on my way to Literary Mecca. Had the conference organizers known I spent my entire drive to Baltimore listening to a 10-CD shuffle of Jimmy Buffett songs, I’m sure they would have turned me away at the door.
Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know that I’d get to hear Juan Felipe Herrera or E.L. Doctorow deliver keynote addresses about the power of writing even when you have no clue what you’re writing about. I didn’t know I’d get to share the dance floor with Rita Dove at the afterparty. I didn’t know you needed a credit card to check into a hotel.
Every morning that weekend I walked a mile of snowy sidewalk from my hotel to the conference headquarters. I wandered from panel to panel, I took notes, I read an anti-war slam poem at the open mic night. I had no idea what to do with my heavy wool coat so I just dragged it around, and in-between panels I piled it next to me with my thatched straw hippie purse. Sitting on the hallway floor, smooshed up against the wall with my lime green composition notebook balanced on my knees, I felt sort of inspired, but also lonely and overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure how to translate any of this into my life. I wasn’t sure my writing actually fit in here.
Then I stumbled upon the book fair.
Like Templeton at the carnival, I practically fainted at the sight of so many gorgeous things to devour. Literary journals! I didn’t know they existed, let alone so many of them! I scooped up book after book, and stuffed a folder with flyers, business cards, and calls for submissions. By the end of the conference I had shoved a library into my duffel bag. So this was what people like me could do with their lives! I didn’t have to resign myself to newspaper journalism or technical writing. My poetry and stories could find a home somewhere.
I’ve been to several AWPs since then, and some of the most magical memories of my young adulthood happened at these conferences all around the country. I turned 23 at AWP-Austin; 30, at AWP-Boston. In Atlanta, I read a few poems at the open-mic, and two editors solicited them for publication on spot. I danced my way through heartbreak at AWP-Denver at 27 and suspect I’ll be doing the same this year in Los Angeles. In 2012, I shared drinks in a Chicago bar with Isaac Fitzgerald, Cheryl Strayed, and my best friends. That was also the year I came home with a generous stack of free review copies from the book fair. I’ve tabled for Kore Press, read for Terrain.org, reunited with my grad school buddies, partied with my professors, and dreamed up creative collaborations over cocktails. I saw my first poetry chapbook for sale at the book fair in 2013. I fell in love with new writers. I shared hotel rooms and cab rides and business cards and lunches. All this to say, AWP has meant a lot to me.
But I’ve had some unpleasant experiences there too. I’ve felt overwhelmed, exhausted, overstimulated, left out, patronized, lonely, misanthropic, poor, uncool, and awkward. AWP, like any other conference attended by tens of thousands of people (many of them lovely, some of them not), can really knock you flat just as it revs you up. Still, each year I attend, I feel like I do it a little bit better. I learn how to navigate the conference a little more deftly than I had the year before. I figure out how to get what I want out of the weekend, and prioritize the things that mean the most to me. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years.
Maybe you’ve been fielding off-site event invitations for weeks now. Then you look at your “upcoming events” list on Facebook and can’t recognize half of them. Or you keep hearing about amazing panels but you forget when and where they’re taking place. A few days before the conference, give yourself an hour or two alone to sit down and plan out what you’d like to do while you’re there. Give yourself some kind of schedule. Be realistic about time and distance, and don’t try to over-schedule your days. Give yourself some breathing room in between events. And then. . .
Let your schedule get obliterated.
So much of the magic of AWP happens in the spontaneous moments. Allow your plans to get messed up a little. Accept an invitation to lunch or drinks from the new friend you just made at Roxane Gay’s panel. Miss a reading because you’re catching up with your old professor at the book fair.
Find your people.
If I could draw a psychogeographical map of AWP, it would contain things like The Prairie of Ultra-Famous Novelists, the Archipelago of Screenwriters, the Hidden Grove of Hipster Poets, and Conference Burnout Cafe. The crowds might be intimidating but the writers that share your passions and interests are there somewhere. All conferences have ways of making people feel excluded, and AWP has its share of problems that need addressing, for sure. It’s a crowd of 10,000 humans, some of whom display the worst human qualities; there’s pretentiousness, arrogance, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and ignorance. But there’s also generosity, goodwill, inspiration, and empathy. There are courageous literary activists who are working to make the world of literature a more just and equitable place. Find the people that make you feel welcome, and stick with them.
Sit down, stretch, walk around, get some sunlight, get some air, do something that has nothing to do with the conference for an hour. Sleep, hydrate, eat, give your eyes a break from the lights. Find the closest grocery store to your hotel and stock up on snacks, things that will keep like granola bars, peanut butter, apples, bananas, oranges, nuts, dried fruit. Get mini-yogurts and baby carrots if your mini-fridge can fit them. You’ll save money on meals and your body will thank you for feeding it.
Spend one hour per day shopping the book fair, TOPS.
In fact, avoid the book fair on your first day. Don’t worry, everything will still be there tomorrow. Look, the book fair is beautiful but whenever I go in, I feel like one of those lab rats placed before a bottomless vat of sugar. I try to leave but then I’m like, “just one more table.” Give yourself a time limit when you go in; otherwise, you’ll try to get through the whole thing at once.
If a panel isn’t holding your attention, leave and check out another one.
Don’t be afraid to say hi to your favorite writers.
If you feel awkward that’s okay. They might feel awkward too. Remember that nobody is going to feel quite themselves surrounded by all those people under all those fluorescent lights. Don’t agonize over making the perfect introduction. The worst that can happen is that they won’t remember you later. Most likely, you’ll end up having a great conversation, so just get in there and introduce yourself!
Hit up the off-site events.
I didn’t start going to offsite events until my 4th AWP, but when I did, it was like a revelation. Find the readings that fascinate you the most. Some venues will have great atmospheres, while others will just not vibe with you. Feel free to leave if it’s too crowded or loud or even if it’s just not doing it for you. It’s probably 11pm by now and you need to sleep anyway.
If the idea of networking intimidates you, set small manageable goals.
Meet one new person each day and exchange contact info. If you only manage to have one meaningful conversation with a stranger during the entire weekend, that’s okay. In fact, that’s great! Keep that connection alive after the conference is over, and it will lead to others.
Accept that your moods might fluctuate throughout the weekend.
Without fail, at every AWP there’s always one morning or evening where I break down crying. I’m a sensitive flower, and sometimes it’s all just too much for me. I feel anxiety about making a good impression, meeting enough people, and getting enough done. Then I remind myself that I can’t do it all, and everyone else is feeling just as frazzled by the hustle. Give yourself permission to feel crappy. It’ll pass. Ramen usually helps.
Carry a portable cell-phone charger.
Every year I forget!
*WWS will be at AWP sharing booth #1504 with Lulu Fund. Stop by and see “The Amazing Submitting Woman” and drop in your business card for a chance to win a WWS tote bag filled with some literary goodies. You can also hear WWS cofounders, Ashaki M. Jackson and Alyss Dixson speak on WWS on the panel, From the Drudges, and cofounder, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo on the panel, Never on Your Own: Creating Community When Writing is Done.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe is the author of three poetry chapbooks: In The Songbird Laboratory, The Exhibit, and Rungs, collaboratively written with Margaret Bashaar. She has written essays, book reviews, interviews, and cultural reportage for Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, Midnight Breakfast, and L.A. Review of Books. Her poetry appears in Tupelo Quarterly, SpringGun, Sixth Finch, Interrupture, Terrain.org and DIAGRAM, among others. She has an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona.