Reflecting on AWP
If you have been on Twitter or Facebook during the month of April, you have heard about AWP15, the mother of all writing conferences. This year, more than 11,000 writers, editors, publishers, agents, writing teachers, and creative writing students converged in Minneapolis for an intense weekend of panel discussions, readings, events, parties, and schmoozing. Include a book fair with over 700 vendors, and you have a monstrous event all about the writing life, craft, and business.
After attending five AWP conferences, I consider myself a veteran. My first AWP, I was a new MFA graduate, still eager to soak up more knowledge on the craft. I bounced from panel discussion to panel discussion, sometimes standing at the back of the room because I arrived late. Meals were haphazardly arranged with a few friends from my MFA program, but I spoke to almost no one else. It wasn't until the final day of the conference that I even ventured to the book fair, and by then, many of the vendors were already packing up. Dismayed that I had missed out on such an important aspect of the conference, I vowed to make the book fair a priority next time.
By my second AWP, I had grown in confidence as a writer. My post-MFA slump, during which I wrote almost nothing for six months, had ended. I had published a couple of short stories. I now had a finished novel and was on the hunt for an agent. My focus shifted from panel discussions to talks by literary magazine editors, publishers, and agents. My second AWP also made me aware of serendipitous moments: the dinner where I chatted casually with one of my favorite authors; the reading I gave from my novel-in-progress that brought gasps from my audience; the pause in the conference bustle to watch the Presidential motorcade pass down the street; the visit with a literary magazine editor who had just accepted one of my short stories. I didn't ignore the book fair this time but made repeated visits, where I picked up copies of literary magazines new to me, purchased books by friends and colleagues, and explored the offerings from unknown (to me) publishers. My suitcase bulged with treasure when I returned home.
My third AWP marked an important turning point in my writing career. Not only was I still shopping my first novel, but I was almost finished with a second book. I had received a fellowship to a prestigious arts residency, published a lot more short pieces, and was teaching in a community college. I no longer felt like an imposter but a working writer, one with discipline and clear goals. My conference experience reflected those professional changes. I attended panels about creative writing pedagogy, grants and fellowships, and small presses. I was more relaxed, eager to reach out to old friends and make new ones.
My fourth AWP was my most difficult conference. No longer teaching, I had poured all of my energy into revising my novel and finding an agent. In fact, I received a rejection from my last-hope agent while at AWP. A debut author and friend buoyed my spirits by regaling me with her own tales of rejection over drinks in the hotel bar. There I realized the true value of AWP: communing with fellow writers who understand the lifestyle.
Every AWP conference offers a vast array of experiences, but it is the friends you find there that matter. They will be with you after the conference, even if only online, to cheer you on, to celebrate your success, and to commiserate over the rejections. At my fifth AWP, with my own debut novel in hand, I was reminded again and again of the wonderful generosity and kindness of the writing community. A Facebook friend invited me to her house for lunch; several of my mentors congratulated me on my book; another dear friend, who has been seriously ill, brought her audience to their feet with her powerful reading from her memoir.
The sheer size of AWP can intimidate the first-timer, so I will leave you with this advice:
- Go with a plan. Study the program in advance and look for panels that meet your needs, but add at least one that has nothing to do with what you write.
- Find a buddy but also identify a cone of silence you can retreat to when it is all too much.
- Visit the book fair.
- Be open to serendipity and embrace it.
See you at AWP16 in Los Angeles next year!