It’s one of the largest annual gatherings of creative writers, publishers, and educators in the United States–usually well in excess of 10,000 attendees–and the largest such event for literary writers. Once again I’ll be attending the AWP Conference & Bookfair, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual extravaganza. This year the hordes will be descending on Minneapolis, Minnesota. This will be my sixth trip to this rodeo, so I’m offering this tip for first-time attendees (or anyone planning to attend):
DECIDE IN ADVANCE EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF AWP.
Sounds simple, right? But this is essential. AWP is really multiple conferences in one. There are hundreds of panel discussions spread over three days, and hundreds of exhibitors on the bookfair floor. If you don’t have a general sense of what you want to see and hear, you’ll likely miss out on maximizing your value. Here are some possible motivations for attending AWP:
- You want to improve your craft. The “craft” tag on the online AWP agenda pulls up hundreds of options for poets, fiction writers, CNFers, and anything else you can imagine.
- You want to explore the possibility of formal instruction. You’re in luck. AWP’s membership consists of university creative writing programs. I found Vermont College of Fine Arts, the college I attended for my MFA in Writing, at an AWP conference.
- You want to be published. There are plenty of panels hosted by book and journal editors who will offer helpful tips. But your best strategy would be to explore the Bookfair, where the editors are sitting there waiting to answer your questions. How better to learn where to pitch your work than by asking an editor what she is looking for?
- You want to explore the possibility of teaching creative writing. That’s my primary objective this year. I like teaching through literary centers like The Loft Literary Center (based in Minneapolis, as it happens), but given that I have an MFA and a published literary memoir, I’m interested to learn more about other teaching options.
- You want to attend some creative-writing readings. The formal conference agenda includes a few readings, but you’ll find dozens all over town, usually sponsored by literary journals or MFA programs (I’m reading from Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road at one hosted by VCFA on the afternoon of April 8th).
- You want to hear from some literary giants. The annual Thursday night keynote is fantastic. My favorite was a 2010 keynote by Michael Chabon, which I still reflect on today. The 2012 keynote by Margaret Atwood was inspiring. And I was fortunate to hear poet Seamus Heaney (in a conversation with Derek Walcott) in 2013 shortly before Heaney’s passing. This year’s keynote is by Vampires in the Lemon Grove author Karen Russell. But there are many other amazing writers appearing throughout the conference, some of them destined for a future keynote. For example, in 2012 I covered an AWP panel for Dinty Moore’s Brevity blog that featured Cheryl Strayed, who was just on the verge of becoming a supernova (but wasn’t quite there yet).
You want to meet up with old friends. I knew almost no attendees my first few go-arounds, but now AWP is a way for me to meet up with former VCFA classmates and get to know other alums. I’ll be attending three AWP events. And I’m also going to get to meet in person some of the fine folks I work with at The Loft Literary Center as an online teaching artist. For some this is the primary–almost only–reason they keep attending AWP.
- You want to make new friends. Like many writers, I’m an introvert. And a conference of 10,000+ people shoving their way to sessions and bookfair tables does not invite quiet moments to meet others. But the fact is that you’ll be surrounded by people like you, and they are likely eager to meet others. A great place to strike up a conversation is before a panel or a reading, as you’re sitting there waiting for it to begin. Or keep an eye out at the nearby bars; nearly everyone in there will be AWP attendees, and it’s socially acceptable to talk to strangers in such an environment.
Whatever you hope to get out of AWP, let me also make these suggestions:
- Wear comfortable shoes. If you’re on the trade show floor, you’ll be walking a lot.
- Stay hydrated. You may not be near a water fountain; carry a refillable bottle.
- Carry snacks. You may be hard-pressed to find time or a location for lunch. (But don’t put a banana in your backpack, forget it’s there, and then pile a bunch of books and journals you’ve just purchased on top of it and wonder later why the bottom of your backpack is moist and smelly; I speak from experience.)
Finally, if you’re going to be attending AWP, hit me up on Twitter! And share any advice you have below.