Next month (March 4-8, to be exact), I’ll be heading to San Antonio for the annual AWP conference: that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for anyone who doesn’t recognize the acronym. It’s three days of writerly bliss, overstimulation, anxiety, and information overload, when 10-15,000 writers descend on a city. After many years of going to AWP as a writer and program director, sometimes as a panelist, I’ve developed my own survival strategies. For those who’ve never been, I highly recommend reading about it and trying to get a sense of what you’re about to experience. AWP has an article by Paulette Perhach with 25 Tips that all make very good sense. I like that she links to a local poet, Pablo Miguel Martinez, who has advice on getting around San Antonio, and she mentions the First Timer’s Lounge. I plan to check out the transportation scene (esp. the best ways to get in from the airport), for instance. You can also get lots of advice from attendees who tweet with the conference hashtag #AWP20. Follow it throughout the conference to see what others are saying.
But the AWP is different for nearly everyone who goes. The best advice is probably to check out the schedule before you arrive and mark down some of the panels you really, really want to attend, then try to arrive early and hope you get a seat (some are in very large ballrooms and others are in smaller conference rooms, but some panels always end up with standing room only). Don’t plan to do everything, though. That would be impossible. And do have a plan B, so you can duck into a very interesting less well attended session if your first choice is super crowded.
I tend to spend a lot of my time in the Book Fair, so don’t forget to check out which tables and booths you want to see there. Many magazines and book publishers will be there, and it’s a great place to make connections or just to learn more about places you’d like your work to appear. Since we have a table for our low-residency MFA program and our two literary magazines Ponder Review and Poetry South, I hope you’ll stop by T2042 and pay us a visit! I’ll also be signing books at Texas Review Press on Thursday 4/5 at 3-4pm in their sponsor booth 1662.
To keep track of everything you want to do, download the AWP Events mobile app for your phone or tablet (or use the online event schedule on a laptop — unfortunately, they don’t talk to one another, so you should decide where you want your schedule to reside). Some folks do it the old-fashioned way and carry around the printed program. That’s great, but heavy, so I prefer the app.
Bring food! Yes, there’s plenty of food available for purchase in the convention center and surrounding restaurants, but lines can be long and you may not have time to stop for lunch, so having granola bars or other snacks to tide you through until you’re able to grab a bite can be a life saver. And if you’re desparate, cruise the book fair. There’s often someone with some form of calories to give away — candy, snacks, wine, etc.
You could keep going all day and much of the night — and you probably will — but you may also need a break from the crowds. Go to some of the off-site events or slip away to a bookstore, coffee shop, or restaurant. Be sure to see some of San Antonio while you’re in town and don’t feel guilty when you do. It’s part of your survival plan!
Come prepared with business cards and with a short spiel about who you are as a writer. You may not need them, but it’s a whole lot easier to give out a card with your contact info than to write it down every time you meet someone, and it’s a lot easier to talk about yourself to an editor or a writer you admire if you’ve thought about what you’ll say in adavance. If you have a manuscript, it doesn’t hurt to have it ready to submit in case you make a good contact. And come prepared to bring back loads of information, too. You might pick up flyers from magazines and book publishers (etc.) or get information on other writing programs. You might collect sample copies of magazines or buy books (often at a discount, esp. on Saturday). Be ready to schlep all these things home with you, so save room in your suitcase!
But the main thing to remember is that AWP is a learning experience. It happens every year, and you can always go again, so don’t feel like you’re not successful if you don’t do everything you planned to do (that’s normal!), and don’t be afraid to do something completely different than you planned if a good opportunity arises (like a group going to an off-site event or a panel that just looks interesting and is nearby with empty chairs that you can sit in to rest your weary feet — you might learn something completely unanticipated). AWP is really only overwhelming if you think you have to do it all, and it’s only intimidating if you think you have to act like the ‘famous writers’ who probably don’t feel that famous after all. AWP is such a big, sprawling conference that it’s almost impossible to go and not get something good out of it. So relax, enjoy, and don’t take it too seriously! Connect with friends, meet new friends, explore San Antonio, get too little sleep, and then go home exhausted, a little overwhelmed, and inspired.