The 2014 AWP Conference is almost upon us, and somewhere upward of 11,000 writers, publishers, and editors are winnowing down schedule offerings, cramming wares into carry-on luggage, and printing up one last batch of business cards. It’s also the time of year when I and other repeat AWP attendees are looking back on our previous conference experiences and vowing that, this year, we’ll do an even better job of taking it all in.
Last year, in my AWP Survival Guide on my personal blog, I offered a few tips for staving off the bizarreness factor of the book fair, and this year, while I may not have any updates on my quest to present my dry-cleaning bill to the guy who ruined my dress in D.C., I have a few further tips (or, perhaps, unsolicited opinions) to offer:
It’s Okay if You Miss That Panel
When you’ve hustled your way through the corridors of the conference center to make it to That Panel–the one with the Very Famous writers–and you find that the room is already filled to capacity, you may be tempted to feel slighted by the universe. You may have traveled thousands of miles for that panel, after all! But instead of being in a huff, try peeking in on a more sparsely attended panel going on nearby. Some of the finest talks I’ve heard at AWP were ones I never planned to attend, but popped into when my other plans had gone awry. You may be surprised at what you come away with when you give another panel a shot.
If You’re Attending A Panel…
Try not to be that person who abuses the Q&A component of a session. We writers are all opinionated types, to be sure. We make a life of telling others what we think we know. However, it’s not a good idea to hold forth about our own opinions when other people have the stage. Let’s all agree that, if a panel opens up for questions and answers, we will limit our tenure at the mic to actual questions. No hijacking the mic to air personal grievances or sweeping philosophical statements, please.
If You’re On a Panel…
Please, your audience begs you: come with some prepared remarks. We don’t expect that you read from a laboriously rehearsed dissertation, but we do expect that, if you’ve agreed to speak on a panel, you have some insight ready to share for the common good. The world does not need another speaker who says of digital publishing, “we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” or who says of marketing, “I don’t really know what works.” We need people who are willing to share hard-won knowledge so that we can all learn and better ourselves and our literary community.
When it Comes to Off-Site Readings, It Pays to Be Choosy
Seattle is home to outstanding venues for readings, but there exists an inescapable truth: buildings can only hold so many people, and not every event organizer remembers to let the facility manager know that a mic and speaker would be helpful. Over the years, I’ve been to countless off-sites at which poets read work into the din of a bar packed body-to-body with other poets, and with a sporting event playing loudly to a confused group of locals. We all pretend that we can hear the reading over the game, and clap at moments when it seems like clapping is in order, but let’s face it: we couldn’t make out a word. If the offsite you’ve gone to appears to be turning out more like the premise of an absurdist flash fiction piece and less like a reading you want to hear, it’s okay to leave. Really.
The Bookfair is the Heartbeat of the Conference
The AWP bookfair is, I truly believe, the world’s greatest indie bookstore. It’s a bookstore so vast and various that, not unlike Cinderella’s coach that inevitably turns into a pumpkin at midnight, it can only exist for a brief moment each year. I like to spend the bulk of my time in the bookfair at every conference, largely because it gives me a chance to learn about new presses, meet writers and editors, and buy far more books than I have space for on my shelves. We go to panels to develop ourselves–our craft, our professional acumen–but we go to the bookfair to invest in our literary community.
A Bit of Friendliness Goes a Long Way
When you’re in the bookfair, people are going to talk to you. Truly, they aren’t going to harm you (except for the guy with the vomiting baby, or body-check guy. See the above link for context). You’re not obligated to stop and talk to every person at every bookfair table, much less buy a book from every vendor who’d be glad to bust your budget. But a smile or a friendly word costs you nothing, and stopping to talk with a publisher or magazine you’ve not interacted with before just could be the beginning of a professional relationship or a meeting of kindred artistic spirits. In the literary world, we run on the fuel of goodwill, so it’s advisable to treat others at the bookfair the way you’d want to be treated.
A Reality Check
You’re probably not going to come out of the conference with a publisher for your 200,000-word short story collection. You’re probably not going to convince a magazine to publish 37 new poems of yours without their having read them. In fact, you may not see quantifiable professional “results” from having attended AWP. That’s not a bad thing. This conference is a time for us to come together in an appreciation of literature and in a celebration of those who make and publish and fight for books in a culture that doesn’t always care. It’s a time to connect with others in a way that builds community. It’s not about any one of us as individuals; it’s about all of us, together, making an ecosystem where art can thrive.