So You’re Attending the AWP Conference for the First Time

Yes, this is another blog post offering advice on how to get the most out of your AWP Conference experience. No, I don’t consider myself an expert. In fact, the 2020 edition will only be my fourth, but since I’m always anxious to maximize my time and money investments (and since I really enjoy reading AWP advice blogs myself), I thought I’d go ahead and add my thoughts to the discussion.

Be Prepared

Before you go:

Practice due diligence. Read the blogs. Ask anyone who’s attended even once. Read and reread the schedule, and consider downloading the app instead of relying on the printed version. I’m the kind of writer who still loves hard copies of almost anything, but the app has proven to be a big help for me for the previous two conferences I attended.  Feel free to double book hours, then enjoy the exquisite pain when you have to decide between them, or ditch both to go to lunch with friends or for another visit to the book fair.

Take some time to honestly assess your needs, at this time, as a writer. My book was published just before my second AWP conference, and aside from planned events like an author signing, I wanted to attend panels on book promotion and marketing, and anything else related to the business aspects of writing. I also looked into agent panels with my eye to future manuscripts. At the book fair, I focused on gracious networking and finding ways to bridge between my book and publisher and other presses. I took the time before I traveled, to brainstorm and commit to my then current needs.  I assess my current needs as honestly as I can ever since, and I find that I’m rewarded with a successful conference, although there are inevitable audibles called.

When You’re There

Trust your planning, but be open to the changing flow of the conference. If you hit 75% of your goals (and so much of what comes from that after is out of your control), then you’ve done well. Make sure you have everything you need for the intense days of business, then set all of that aside and enjoy the off-site events or parties or both at night. Blow off steam, rest, then get ready for another wave the next day.

I’m an introvert, but I love the energy of the conference, and finding the energy deep inside is rewarding. Remember that you’re surrounded by people who totally understand your struggles, concerns, successes, and goals. It’s such a rare thing, really, so take the time to enjoy it. When you feel overwhelmed, find some space to reset. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you have to go back to your room for a couple of hours.

Talk to the writer. Chances are, they’ll be more than happy to give you a little of their time. Don’t take too much of it, though. If they turn out to be not so gracious, well, remember they’re human, too. Walk away and don’t let it get to you.

Remember that, although an event like this speaks of privilege in certain ways, it doesn’t mean that you don’t belong there. You do. Trust your talents. If you see a lack of space for certain populations of writers, find a way to help expand your presence. Find the caucus that speaks to your lived experience and help out.

What to Take

  • comfortable shoes
  • a backpack (your body will thank you!)
  • a notebook
  • business cards*
  • some cash (generally useful in an emergency, even in the days of Uber)
  • a sense of adventure (go out and learn about San Antonio and its lit scene!)
  • room for your book and swag haul in your luggage

*Consider whether you’re ready for the sort of networking that requires a business card. And, let me tell you, you’re probably underestimating yourself here. If you’re working with a lit mag, a press, an organization, or if you’re serious about placing your work or yourself somewhere, even if you’re currently a first-year MFA student, then you need  business cards.

Final Suggestions

  • Register on Wednesday, if you can. Avoid the crush and rush of Thursday morning registration.
  • Schedule in some self-care. You’re going to feel overwhelmed. Plan carefully.
  • Consider buying a book at a featured author signing event. They’ll be very appreciative, and you’ll experience one of the things that makes the book fair so special.
  • For that matter, consider buying a book from an author whose background is different from yours and from those of the authors you typically read. The goodwill of the conference is a good chance to expand your worldview.
  • And don’t avoid the book fair! It’s the biggest of its kind you’re probably ever going to experience.
  • Learn about programs that AWP offers, such as the Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program and the Writer-to-Agent Program. I’ll be serving my third season as a mentor with the former, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
  • Meet a few new people every day of the conference. I’m not used to pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but I’ve found it rewarding to talk to people I’ve never met before at the conference. Remember, there are about 12,000 people who have a good idea what it’s like to be a writer these days.
  • When the conference is winding down on Saturday night, start figuring out what you might like to do for KC in 2021. That deadline for panel submissions is coming up faster than you think.

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