Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us

One is tempted to quote Shakespeare or at least develop complex chess-like strategies when preparing for the annual AWP conference. With an attendance that rivals the population of Brainerd and a two hundred and thirty page program of official events—not including any of the offsite parties, receptions, readings, and launches—this behemoth can easily overwhelm most writers. We don’t tend to be outgoing types, and AWP represents the polar opposite of our quiet, shadowed rooms.

The first time I attended AWP was in Chicago in 2009. I collected stacks of handouts and freebies, spoke to almost no one at the book fair or panels, and tried to absorb as much information as humanly possible in a three day period, resulting in several near-comas in my hotel room. I was finishing my capstone project in the Hamline MFA program and my husband and I were planning vacations and thinking about buying our first house. Five years later at AWP Seattle in 2014, my point of view had taken a decided shift. That capstone project had become a published novel, we had two kids that already pushed us into a second, suburban “family” house, and our major trips were to Trader Joe’s and Target. I was the student at the back of the room in Chicago. In Seattle I was a bona fide author, scheduled for a book signing at my publisher’s booth and presenting on one of the panels. Did that POV shift remove the feeling of intimidation and sensory overload when I walked into the Washington Convention Center on the first morning of AWP? No, not really. Angels and ministers of grace…

After a few hours, though, I assimilated to the chaos and focused on the three big ‘-tions’ the conference offers to everyone—education, socialization, and inspiration—and managed to pick up some useful strategies along the way. As every writer in Minnesota knows, AWP lands in Minneapolis in less than three weeks, so after scouting Seattle I’ve compiled a list of do’s and dont’s to make tackling the conference a less daunting task.

Do advance research on which events you want to attend. The AWP website offers a great search engine to look up events by topic, genre, and speaker. Dozens of simultaneous panels at any given time of day promote the “What-if-there’s-another-panel-that’s-so-much-better-than-this-panel?” anxiety that you are guaranteed to feel at some point during the conference. Don’t worry. Just do your homework to find what will best benefit you for wherever you are in your writing career.

Despite all your research, you may still find yourself in a lackluster panel or an event that doesn’t live up to how it was advertised. In these cases, unless you’re a much better person than I am, develop an exit strategy. Sit at the back of the room or even stand near the door. Give the event a fair chance to know if it’s going to be helpful for you. If you’re not feeling it after 5-10 minutes, fake an urgent text on your phone or hold your stomach like your ratatouille lunch is staging a rebellion and gracefully slip out of the room. Then pop into whatever session is nearby. You may find inspiration in random, unlikely places. On the flip side, if you’re planning to attend an event that you know will be packed, make sure to get there at least twenty minutes before it starts to guarantee a seat.

Don’t ask overly personal or insistent follow up questions at the end of the panels. I attended at least five wonderful panels that ended in terrible Q&As. The speakers represent an incredible range of experience and wisdom, but they cannot fix your hybrid genre novel that no one wants to buy. Please don’t ask this of them.

Do develop a game plan for how you want to tackle the book fair. It’s easy to take it too slow—stopping at every booth and listening to pitch after pitch until your cerebral cortex shuts down—or speed through everything too fast—Hey, there’s the book fair! Free bookmarks? Check. Let’s go grab some lunch. 

Understand what interests you right now. Are you looking to compare MFA programs or find a writer’s retreat? Do you need to research literary magazines? In Seattle, I knew I wanted to check out the indie publishers and see what their front lists looked like, so I immediately filtered out 75% of the exhibitors and spent quality time chatting and perusing books at the booths I liked.

Don’t bring your credit cards to the book fair. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as book buyer’s remorse, but it’s easy to get carried away with row upon row of amazing stacks of literature. I tucked away a $100 bill from Christmas and that was the money I got to spend: no more and no less. Also, if you’re looking to stretch your book fair budget, wait until the last day when most booths mark down their inventory. Some lit mags even give away their back list for free!

Do schedule down time to go see the city. Even if AWP is visiting your hometown, take a walk and play tourist for a few hours. My husband and I took the Underground Tour of Seattle, where we strolled underneath the Pioneer Square sidewalks on the original 1860’s streets. The tour guide told us about murders, ghosts, speakeasies, brothels, floods, earthquakes, and how the city grew up—one story up. Then she apologized for the cold temperatures in the unheated labyrinths. (It was in the 40’s down there. Haha! She was so cute.) We also visited the Seattle Pinball Museum, where for $13.00 you could play as much pinball as you wanted on machines from the 1960’s to the present day. Oh, pinball geek heaven! Both detours were, hands down, some of the coolest experiences of the whole trip and helped me blow off steam to avoid AWP meltdown (see Chicago, above.)

Don’t skip all the offsite events, because that’s really where the fun happens. Peter Mountford advised in his AWP guide in Seattle’s The Stranger, “At their best, off-site events are fucked-up, inspiring, and brilliant…At their worst, you walk out with only minor injuries to your opinion of the human animal. Either way, they’re free.” He also offers advice to the general public on how to bag a writer, by genre.

Do talk to people. I used to be ridiculously shy and I still loathe the word “networking,” but that’s not what the conference is about. Writers from all over the country make the AWP pilgrimage and although everyone attends for different reasons, a love of literature unites us all. If you’re a story junkie like me, this is the ideal place to strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. My husband, however, had a different theory about what unites AWP folk as we walked through the book fair on the last day. “It’s definitely a certain group of people,” he commented. “They’re all frumpy.”

No matter what your strategy or lack thereof, you are guaranteed to leave AWP with a bizarre array of impressions and an overflowing bag of literary goodies. I became inspired to resurrect my blog, learned some basics on how to approach YA, met my fabulous first publisher, listened to an (overly?) medicated Sherman Alexie spout outlandish sound bites, and got a preview of Venus DeMars’s memoir-in-progress. In one session, I enjoyed an awkwardly polite point-counterpoint between Jon Fine of Amazon and Ira Silverberg, former director of literature for the NEA, on the changing publishing marketplace, and by the end of the panel it seemed like all they needed to get along was exactly two drinks a piece. Three drinks and there would have been a brawl.

So look out, Minneapolis. The writers are coming.