I’ve been going to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences nearly every year for the past several years. And every time I go I tell myself, and my husband, that I’m not going back.
With over 12,000 writers in attendance, the AWP conference is not exactly an intimate gathering. And since it’s all about an industry that’s as competitive as the movie, music, and sports industries, it’s easy to feel small, unsuccessful, and wholly overwhelmed. I stopped trying to be a golfer many years ago when I realized it was a guaranteed bad mood, and likewise the AWP conference is a guaranteed depression trigger for me.
But I do keep going back, a junkie for my literary fix.
And now I just got home from #AWP15, and I’m already thinking about next year. Here are 11 reasons why I go to these conferences. And why other writers should consider going, too.
1. It’s affordable. If you’re already an AWP member, registration fees are less than $150 for the entire event. If you’re a senior, a student, or a presenter, it might be less. While this doesn’t cover lodging or food costs, there is no requirement that you stay on site. You can sleep in your minivan and eat celery if you want to. This is by far one of the least expensive professional conferences I’ve ever seen.
2. The AWP conference is held in a different cool city every year. I’ve been to the conference in Denver, Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. I missed Boston, but next year it’ll be in LA, and after that it’ll be DC. What better excuse to visit these dynamic metropolises?
3. Given that it’s held in different cities every year, it gives you a chance to connect with long lost friends and relatives. When I went to Denver, I got to see my ex-mother-in-law. She’d been a dear friend once upon a time, but once I got remarried, and got a new mother-in-law, it didn’t seem kosher to travel to see my former one. AWP10 gave me that chance. And the next year it was held in my hometown, Chicago, which was of course a no-brainer when I decided to go. Chances are you know someone in the city where the event is presented, someone you might not otherwise get to see.
4. It’s the premier writing conference for all you literary types. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of fabulous writing conferences around the country, and even around the world, but this is one of the biggest and, in some ways, the best. According to AWP’s site, the “Conference & Bookfair is an essential annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. Each year more than 12,000 attendees join our community for four days of insightful dialogue, networking, and unrivaled access to the organizations and opinion-makers that matter most in contemporary literature.” Keynote speakers over the past several years have included Karen Russell, Annie Proulx, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Michael Chabon. In other words, it’s the place to see and be seen.
5. It’s a perfect place to connect with your writing friends. Sort of. When I went to the conference in Chicago, it was an intentionally planned rendezvous among several of my writing friends from across the country, and we hung together like wet stockings on a laundry line. Unfortunately, this year none of my closer writing friends attended–or if they did I wasn’t able to meet up with them. Although I did make some new friends (see #6 below), I spent much of my time feeling like a bookish middle school wallflower, standing on the sidelines and watching all the clusters of writing buddies having the times of their lives. What I mean to say is that it can be the perfect place to meet up. If you work it right.
6. You could be on a panel. I never dreamed I’d be on an AWP panel. But then I was invited by the fabulous Autumn Stephens to participate on one this year. Words for the Wounded: Helping Special Populations Heal Through Writing turned out to be the highlight of the conference for me, especially since I was able to meet Karin Miller of The Cancer Poetry Project, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, and the most awesome Jen Cross. The proposal process is arduous, and not everyone gets accepted, but if you’ve got a good idea for one, I’d say go for it.
7. There are a gazillion great panel discussions and readings at which you can learn how to polish your craft or gain much-needed inspiration. This year I learned about adapting your novel to the screen, violence as America’s love, the masculinity of our American culture, and how successful authors like Roxanne Gay deal with failure. Okay, maybe that last one was a bit patronizing, because using the word failure in the same sentence you use Roxanne Gay’s name feels highly oxymoronic. But the fact is that you will never be at a loss for learning opportunities at the AWP conference.
8. You can connect with the lit mags that have published you and give them a face to attach to your words. Once you get past the feeling that this conference is attended by more than 12,000 pandering robots, you begin to see some of the real people that are there. Most of the lit mags are run by real people, as it turns out, and when I stopped by SLAB’s table at the Bookfair, they were practically ecstatic to meet me as one of the contributors to their just-released Volume 10. Talk about an ego boost. Which I needed, after two full days of listening to people recount their many awards, nominations, and other successes in the traditionally published world.
9. You can buy a shitload of awesome books. And you might be able to sell one or two of your own. AROHO was kind enough to give me an hour at their booth to sign books, and I did sell a couple. I learned long ago, when I went to my first casino, how important it is to set limits for yourself, and I told myself I wouldn’t buy any new books until I unloaded the ones I’d brought to peddle. Otherwise I’d be breaking my suitcase’s zipper trying to stuff the purchases into my luggage or standing in a mile-long line at the conference center’s UPS store, like hundreds of other writers had to do. One poet dude, Ed Skoog, told me he’d come up with a cool way to solve this problem. He always packs the clothes he is totally done with, and then he leaves them behind at the conference, replacing them with as many books as he can possible fit into his luggage. Smart guy.
10. Speaking of AROHO, AWP can in fact give you a sense of community. At least that’s what I found through AROHO.
I was fortunate enough to get on their list of readers on Wednesday night at the Bryant Lake Bowl. (Yes! A reading in a bowling alley.) It was standing room only, and I was in the company of award-winning writers like Susan Straight, Joy Castro, Aimee Liu, Sue William Silverman, and Jill Bialosky. My knees shook as I awaited my turn at the podium, but what I found was that the audience was just as supportive of my little reading as that of the big names. And then, when working at the AROHO booth on Saturday, I met dozens of other women writers searching for a community. This organization, inspired by Virginia Woolf and with the mission of inspiring, funding, and championing works of art and literature by women, is one I can definitely get behind.
11. You never know who you might meet on your way home. The truth of the matter is that when #AWP15 was over, I was done. I wanted to take off my cheerful networking beret and crawl back into my little monk cave. I had every intention of sleeping, or critiquing a friend’s work, or otherwise reading on the three-hour flight from MSP to SEA and not speaking to a soul. But as luck would have it, the gentleman in the window seat of my row started up a conversation, wondering if we’d be lucky enough for the seat between the two of us to remain open. Sure enough, no one claimed that seat–which was probably the only empty seat on the plane. And while it would have been easy enough for both of us to turn our noses into our books, given that we were both writers, we kept on talking for the entire flight. Michael McGregor, a professor in the Portland State University MFA program, proved to be one of the nicest and must humble writers I’ve ever met, even though he’s got an incredibly lengthy list of publications, and that three-hour tour of the friendly skies was the perfect ending to an otherwise draining conference. It was the sort of experience that left me feeling uplifted, and hopeful.
And once again open to the idea of attending next year’s conference. There is a part of me that is still standing by that stake in the ground, exclaiming that I will NOT attend AWP again, but I’ve already noticed the stake feels a little bit wobbly.
Especially since #AWP16 will be in Los Angeles next year. Where my middle son lives.