AWP Nugget: Left-Brain Planning for a Right-Brain Conference

The process of creating art fires neurons in the right side of our brains. Planning and organization processes in the left side. Planning the most creative use of one’s time at North America’s largest literary conference requires whole-brain thinking.

This is a map of one of the two floors of the AWP Bookfair. I'm scribbling some of the booths and tables I'd like to visit, because I know there simply isn't time to visit each exhibitor. Ugh.
This is a map of one of the two floors of the AWP Bookfair. I’m scribbling some of the booths and tables I’d like to visit, because I know there simply isn’t time to visit each exhibitor. Ugh.

Every artist I interviewed  on my cross-country U.S. road trip understood the role of planning in living an art-committed life. Often it involved planning one’s day, to balance employer, family, and art. For the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference March 6-9, it requires planning one’s every minute. At least for me it does. How do I, in a few short days, squeeze in the best of hundreds of panel discussions, and hundreds more exhibitors? By asking myself questions.

  • What is it I most want to get out of this year’s AWP? This is my fifth straight AWP. Two years ago my goal was to find just the right low-residency MFA program. I discovered the Vermont College of Fine Arts at that AWP, and now I’m months away from graduating. Last year I wanted to gain a better understanding of what literary journals published creative non-fiction. I came home with dozens of journals, and (too many) subscriptions. This year my focus is on learning more about publishing options for my memoir, which I am only a few months away from completing.
  • What is the one thing I absolutely cannot miss? When building out my schedule, I consider this my tent pole, the one support structure that everything else is built around. For me this year there are three, all hosted by VCFA: an alumni reading (I’ll read at that), a dinner, and a reception. But it could be anything. A reading by one of your favorite authors. A panel discussion right in your wheelhouse. Drinks with a friend you haven’t seen in a year.
  • What is one area in which I want to grow as a writer? There are so many panel discussions it’s hard to choose. Even if I spent the entire conference in panel discussions, I would still have more than one in each time slot I’d want to attend. (I strongly recommend NOT going to panel discussions in every time slot; the heart and soul of AWP is the Bookfair trade floor.) As I work on writing my graduation lecture on novelistic writing elements of biographies, I’m realizing I’m hungry to learn more about the biography craft. So I’m hitting a panel Thursday morning with biographers who will be sharing tips on writing history convincingly.

Were I to add up the hours I’ve spent prepping for this year’s AWP, it would likely approache the amount of time I will actually spend at the conference. I’ve got a script worked out to the fifteen-minute mark. There’s some room for improvisation built in–I have intentionally not made Thursday night dinner plans, so I can be open to possibilities–but I also know that I have to be willing to abandon my script should circumstances dictate.

There’s one reward a good writer’s conference brings that doesn’t require planning. That is the sense of fellowship one feels, being surrounded by others who share your peculiar passion. Perhaps I should think of that reward as the tent pole of this year’s AWP.

Am I performing overkill here? Would it be wiser for me to just immerse myself in the conference and let things happen as they will? Oh, and stay tuned for daily AWP Nuggets from my time in Boston!

15 thoughts on “AWP Nugget: Left-Brain Planning for a Right-Brain Conference

  1. I spent a good part of yesterday trying to map out my AWP strategy. I ended up with a 14-page Word doc of all the events/booths/panels I wanted to make it to. Probably need to whittle it down a little further 😉

    Looking forward to seeing you at the Vermont College events!


  2. I’m like you Patrick in trying to optimize experiences through careful planning while leaving some room for serendipitous changes. Even with an overall structure in place, I’ve found at conferences, I’ve gotten the most out of random conversations with people between sessions – those face-to-face meetings that we never get from webinars etc. Enjoy the AWP!


  3. Corey Barenbrugge

    I’m not attending AWP, but I got a lot out of this post. Thanks Patrick!

    Your point about planning around employer, family and art is greatly appreciated. It’s something I struggle with and I have been making deliberate effort to get a better handle on my time. Fostering that left brain thinking when all you want to do is engage your right brain is an ongoing process, and I’ve always found such commitments to be the most rewarding.

    After all, I’d bet your commitment to planning has led to you transforming your life with art in only a few short years!


    1. Hi Corey! You know, if there was anything that united the several dozen artists I interviewed, it was life balance challenges, and the left-right brain was a central element of that. Even ones who made all of their money from their art still faced that struggle.

      Now my sample was a bit skewed. I found these artists because they were in some way putting their name out there. I know there are an amazing number of really talented artists who are not engaging the left brain sufficiently to draw the attention of an amateur videographer, and that is a tragedy. But I think the Artist’s Road readership is very much like the artists I interviewed; they are engaged online and are intellectually curious, the combination that helps when embracing whole-brain thinking in an art-committed life.

      Thank you for your vote of confidence at the end. I’ve always been a planner. I would say that I have to occasionally take in the advice of David, above, and allow for spontaneity.


  4. Wow, Patrick. Thanks for writing up your game plan and including what your goal was during your first year. I think for artists the world is full of wonderful, and sometimes, too many promising people, books and ideas. You make the conference sound fabulous. Have a great time.

    This year I am focusing on creating my first nonfiction book and finishing my first Dog Leader Mystery for readers 9 to 13. I plan to keep my blog running, plus my column for The Sonoma County Gazette. If I can do all that, I will have had a most productive year.


    1. Holy cow! That’s an ambitious agenda, but one I’m sure you can do, because you’ve clearly given it some thought and know what you need to do. It will be a most productive year indeed if you do all of that. But I would think that you should celebrate it as a productive year even if some of those things have to be delayed or put aside. The book I’m finishing now I had anticipated finishing a year ago or more. I allowed myself more time because I realized as I worked on it that it needed more time to be the best it could be. So work toward those goals, but listen to what the projects are telling you as well. You go!


  5. Pingback: MFA Nugget: How Much is Too Much? | The Artist's Road

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