MFA Nugget: How Much is Too Much?

BOSTON — In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell cites a scientific study that sought to determine if consumers equate more with better. They set up displays of various jams in a supermarket that customers could sample. When there were only six selections, a lot of people stopped. When there were two dozen, nearly everyone kept walking. More was not better.

I thought of that experiment Friday as I twice braved and then fled the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Bookfair. I tell anyone who asks that the Bookfair is the heart and soul of this conference. Book and journal editors are sitting at tables, waiting to talk to you about your work! Holy cow! But I have found that when there are more than six hundred such tables, I feel the urge to keep walking.

A view of Boston from the safety of a glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge between Copley Plaza and the Shops at Prudential Center. My favorite kind of snow is the kind I don't have to physically encounter.
A view of Boston from the safety of a glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge between Copley Plaza and the Shops at Prudential Center. My favorite kind of snow is the kind I don’t have to physically encounter.

I even scouted out the tables I would go to beforehand, to make it more manageable. Raspberry? Sure, one of my favorite jams. Fig marmalade? Sounds interesting. Prune? I’ll pass. But even having a customized map to guide me was not enough. Stimulus overload brought out my latent agoraphobia (fear of confinement) and out of the hall I went.

The second time I ventured into the Bookfair on Friday I did so because I was locked out of a panel discussion featuring my Vermont College of Fine Arts mentor Sue William Silverman. Why? The room had reached capacity. A VCFA alum and a VCFA faculty member stood outside with me in frustration. This has happened with regularity to attendees here. I just managed to get into one session Thursday that maxed out, and sat on the center aisle floor with us three wide in the gap. This despite their being about fifteen to twenty sessions per time block, far more than one could possibly choose from.

AWP likes to brag about being the largest literary conference in North America. Maybe that doesn’t make it the best. The highlight of my day on Friday? A stimulating conversation with a first-time attendee and fiction writer I met. How did we meet? After fleeing the Bookfair floor for the first time, I went to the Sheraton Hotel bar and ordered a martini. She sat down a couple of seats away, also fleeing the chaos. Our badges proclaimed what we were fleeing from, and gave us a way to start the conversation. I suspect that every single one of the 12,000 attendees would be someone I would enjoy meeting. But the only way she and I could meet was to actually leave the conference.

I will attend next year in Seattle, and I’m inviting my readers to join me there. It will be my sixth in a row. I always learn a lot, and I have this year as well. But I find myself longing for something a bit more intimate. I’ve attended in the last year or so a couple of one-day conferences sponsored by Poynter and Johns Hopkins, but they were too small to compare. I’d like a two-to-three day conference that perhaps offered three to four panels per time period, and perhaps fifty exhibitors instead of six hundred. I’m sure that conference exists. I need to find it.

After last year’s AWP I wrote a post of things I learned that will help you survive AWP. I would now add another one to the list; if you find yourself craving gin in the middle of the day, you clearly need to take a break.

Does anyone have any suggestions on conferences geared to writing or creativity that you find both manageable and rewarding?

10 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: How Much is Too Much?

  1. Pingback: Book Bank # 1 | Anjali Enjeti

  2. Perhaps, Patrick, you need to organize just such a conference — intimate, manageable, free martinis. Gatherings with a more focused theme would draw fewer and more focused attendees, don’t you think? Perhaps held after the “big top” leaves town… like the Para Olympics. Or a satellite conference held simultaneously. With the publishing world in such an amorphous state, “anything goes”.


    1. That would be great, although I won’t be able to spring for the free martinis. Know anyone at Hendrick’s I could approach for a sponsorship?

      If I were more tech-savvy I’d figure out some way to start by having a “virtual conference” where we interacted online, that would be followed with an in-person by those who could make it. I’ll be teaching online this summer, and the Loft Literary Center has provided me a silly amount of tools to help me do that, tools I’m only now beginning to focus on. So who knows what the future holds.


  3. If you want a smaller conference, Patrick, you should come down here to the Southern Hemisphere and try one of ours. The children’s lit. conferences happen every second year. Well, okay, there have been two so far! But, I went to both and they were amazing.

    As to the virtual conference, you may be onto something there, good idea, PJ.
    I have an online writing group, ‘Writing for Children’ over on WANAtribe.
    Kristen Lamb and cohorts just finished an online conference on WANA last month and I’m sure Kristen would be happy to discuss it with you. She’s a stellar chick, very generous and helpful to all writers.


  4. Pingback: AWP Nugget: What You Missed at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference | The Artist's Road

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