There’s just over a month left of the first year of my MFA and this is the busiest time of the semester. I’ve just returned from a relaxing spring break vacation to Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and tomorrow I leave for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Los Angeles. This will be my third year attending. When I started my MA in 2013, I didn’t know much about networking as a writer (hey there, still don’t). Luckily, some of the PhD students in my program told me all about AWP, insisting that it’s best and biggest event for writers to attend.
“A trip sounds nice,” I told my friend, Claire, as I prepared for my first AWP conference in 2014. “It will be nice to get away and relax.”
“I don’t know if it’s that kind of trip,” she said. And Claire was right. AWP certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s expensive, it’s chaotic, and it’s over in a blink of an eye. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a current or prospective MFA student. Many of you will have to decide whether you want to attend AWP and if it’s feasible. This post will share some advice on how to make the most of your time at AWP.
DO: Milk Your Department for Money (if you can). Many of us on this site have devoted a substantial amount of time to discussing funding in relation to MFA programs. I know that this MFA notification season is still not over yet, and one question to consider asking programs is whether there are travel funding opportunities. With department funds, you could defray some of the cost of attending an expensive event like AWP. At both my MFA and MA institutions, I’ve received helpful travel funding in exchange for working at a book fair table. Your school may also provide funding if you present on a panel at the conference or give a reading (either on or off-site). The key here is to talk to your department head well in advance, not only to see how much money is available, but also to make sure that you’re following department protocol in terms of booking your travel and documenting expenses. If you attend a school that allots travel funds, take advantage of the opportunity–and remember to say thank you.
Don’t: Try to Attend Everything. A list of events for every hour of the conference is listed on the AWP website. After you’ve registered, you’re able to create a personalized schedule by cherry-picking panels and readings from the larger list. Definitely read the descriptions of all of the events, including those that don’t feature “big” names. However, don’t feel like you have to have every hour accounted for. In fact, I’d strongly caution against this. If you try to attend a panel or reading at every hour, you’re likely to hit at least one stinker of an event (more on that later). You’re also more likely to feel burned out sooner (more on that later, too). Plan to attend the events that sound the most interesting and relevant to you. You should leave gaps in your schedule for perusing the book fair, seeing the city, and making time for yourself.
Do: Leave room in your suitcase when you pack. You’re likely to come back with tons of books, lit mags, and other miscellaneous swag. Last year, I was cheap and crammed my clothes into a small carry-on bag. I didn’t have room to bring much back with me. Lesson learned. I paid my 25 bucks to check a true suitcase.
Do: Make the Most of the Book Fair. The book fair is kind of the crown jewel of AWP. There are rows and rows and rows of tables. Sure, you can buy books. Who doesn’t love books? But the Book Fair is so much more than just books. There are tables for fellowships, residencies, MFA programs, presses, publications, etc. A lot of these tables are selling and/or giving away very cool things (hence, the need for a big suitcase).
People approach the book fair differently; I don’t have specific advice other than to say do what feels right for you. One of my friends enjoys wandering each row, talking to someone at every table. On the other hand, I’m one of those people who identifies as an introverted extrovert in big social gatherings like AWP. As a result, I greatly prefer to be stationary at the Book Fair, representing one table and then hunting down a select few other tables that I know by name and reputation. If you’ll be in LA, come visit me at the Cheat River Review table this year!
Whatever you do, I think it’s best to have a plan in place beforehand. No matter your approach, plan to visit tables for journals that have published your work. Same thing with MFA programs. Last year, I made a point of visiting a table for a school where I was accepted, and I think we both appreciated putting faces to names and have a real conversation.
Don’t: Attend the Featured On-Site Night Events. I know you might think it sounds nuts to attend a conference and skip the keynote speakers, but I’d advise it, unless your absolute favorite writer is giving the address or reading. Instead, I think nights at AWP are best spent at off-site events. These are most often held at bars, hotels, coffee shops, and other businesses near the conference center. Off-site events are a good opportunity to meet other writers, drink some free booze, and see more of the city beyond the conference center’s walls. I find out about the off-site events by word of mouth; most events are open to the public and can be found on Facebook.
Don’t: Be Afraid to Leave a Panel That Is a Snooze-fest. When someone gave me this advice before my first AWP, I was horrified. I kept imagining what my mother would think about my getting up and leaving in the middle of a presentation. But AWP is only 3 days long and luckily my mother wasn’t chaperoning me. As I mentioned, you can’t do and see it all so your time is valuable. If you walk into a panel that’s either dull or otherwise not what you expected/wanted, it’s okay if you leave. Before an event begins, find a seat near one of the exits. If you decide to leave early, just do so quietly and discreetly. Bad panels sometimes happen. You don’t have to suffer through them.
Do: Get Away from the Conference Center. Conference centers are huge, cold, sterile, and reflect very little about the actual place where AWP is located. That’s why I’d encourage you to make time to explore the city you’re visiting. Maybe that means taking in some sights. In Seattle, at the 2014 AWP conference, several friends went to the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. When I travel, I care most about experiencing a new place’s food offerings. In Seattle 2014, I took an afternoon away from the conference, went to an oyster bar, treated myself to a dozen of the finest west coast oysters, and had a glass of white wine. It was probably my favorite memory of the trip and it had little to do with the actual conference.
Full disclosure: On Day 3 of both past AWP conferences, I have had to go back to the hotel and cry. Nothing bad happened; AWP is often overwhelming because of its size, and it falls during what is also usually a very busy time in the semester. This is the burn out effect I mentioned earlier. I fully endorse a designated cry time. There’s no shame in it.
Don’t: Let Impostor Syndrome Get the Best of You. Last year, I was still in post-application purgatory when AWP came. When you’re at AWP, sitting at panels and readings led by distinguished writers, it can be easy to feel like you don’t belong there. I felt like that during my first conference. Then I got over it. At one of the off-site readings last year, my friends and my MA thesis adviser struggled to help me eat ramen (I’m miserable with chopsticks). With broth running down my chin and likely staining my dress, I realized that being at AWP is ultimately a celebration–of being a writer, of being with other writers. And for me, despite the cost and tumult, that’s why I keep coming back.
When I come back, I’ll give a day-by-day account of this LA conference. We’ll see how well I followed my own advice.