The annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) is no joke. It’s the largest writers conference in the US, welcoming 12,000 or so attendees each year. If you have the good fortune to attend, you will find yourself in a sea of literary types–writers, publishers, editors, and more. Does that sound exciting, but also so overwhelming your stomach hurts and oh my God maybe you should cancel?
Here are some guidelines for making the most of this experience:
One: Set a Budget
You live in a vibrant metro area you can’t really afford. The good news is, you’re already used to budgeting for meals and skipping entertainment. You keep the thermostat at 55 degrees if you live somewhere cold, and 85 if you live somewhere hot. You got this.
AWP will be hosted in a vibrant metro area you can’t really afford. Consider staying in a hostel, on a top bunk you will probably roll off of, with five other people mouth-breathing in the same room. AirBnB is a great way to tour swanky apartments you’d never be able to rent full-time. Or, try a 2-star “boutique” hotel where a blinking light from the hallway creeps through your blinds at all hours and also, somehow, so does someone’s cigarette smoke.
Two: Support Indie Presses and Read Diverse Voices
Tear up your budget.
You loved that author’s blog post and you are telling them this in person! Yup, you are looking straight at them while they stand next to a stack of their own books they are here to sell. You are not made of stone–buy one! Get it signed! Support the voices you love!
You’ll just be very, very hungry next week. It’s cool.
Three: Stop Being Shy! Network!
You refuse to participate in the weird writer shame-cycle of envy and competition with others. You will not tear other writers down because you know how hard it is to break into the literary world, to make it here at all.
So, what do you have to lose? Ask questions. Raise your hand. If someone wrote something you reacted to, share that with them. It’s why we write words down in the first place, right? Share your recommendations, and get them from others, too. Share your enthusiasm.
Four: You Are Talking Too Much. Shut up and Listen!
This is a special opportunity for you, so don’t waste it by talking so much you shut the world out! Absorb, take it in, you are definitely talking too much!
It’s just that being here is terribly exiting. Maybe you never earned an MFA and maybe you never will, so you always feel like you’re at a loss for perspective and technique, but especially for a writer community. Maybe for the rest of the year the only way you’ll communicate with working writers or publishers is through e-mail, or by reading their Tumblrs. THIS IS A YEAR’S WORTH OF WORDS TRYING TO GET OUT!
Take a few minutes and breathe into a paper bag I guess? Do some yoga or switch to decaf after 2 p.m.? Whatever you do, be sure to: Chill. Out.
Five: You Don’t Belong Here
Go to panels, maybe five a day, maybe six in a row? Dive deeply into sub-genres you’d expected existed, but now you get to hear definitive, provocative theses by people who have studied this for 10 years, for 20 years, people who literally wrote the book on the subject. (No they wrote three books on this topic. No, they wrote eight.)
Hey, do you read poetry-comics? Did you know there are 20 branches of eco-lit?! How many books do fit into a JanSport backpack, if you maybe throw out all your clothes and pack them really, really tight? YOU DON’T “NEED” CLOTHES YOU JUST NEED BOOKS.
Take notes until your hand cramps. There is so much to read and interrogate. You can’t even formulate questions for readers or panelists because they’re so far ahead of you, so deep in their subject. Would your baby nonsense question even register as language to anyone else in the room?
You need to read more and also you don’t belong here.
Six: You Belong Here
You are dazed at the conference center foyer, bumping into others and spilling your coffee. Maybe your shoelaces get caught in the escalator but you have vertigo so you don’t even notice. The buzz and electricity of the Book Fair gives you a migraine.
Still, people are kind to you. They look you in the eye and ask if you’re OK. They tell you they can’t operate the elevators correctly, either. They recognize you from last night’s reading, or this morning in line for coffee, or from your byline on that piece they rejected but they know has real potential.
You find your people. They’re just who you thought you were looking for. Or, they’re not, they couldn’t be more different, but they really look at you and ask about your writing and when they do what they’re saying is: You belong here.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She’s the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.