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AWP Madness Ensues: Tips and Tricks for Success

[Photo credit: Jamie Brown, 2011]

With over 12,000 attendees, the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is the largest literary conference in North America. In total, there are over 2,000 presenters (one of which, this year, is me!) offering more than 550 panels, readings, and presentations. It can all be a bit overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you out:

Before You Travel—

  1. Vet the Schedule: My big “discovery” this year is the AWP app. You can search the schedule by type of event, person, or day which is extremely useful once you see how thick the conference schedule book is. The app works offline in airplane mode (if you pre-load before disconnecting) so if you’re short on time, you can schedule browse on your flight. If it’s your first AWP, choose your events based on areas of interest—themes, genres, concerns you have about writing. This way, you’ll be drawn to people who are writing similarly to you. Once you start building a broader knowledge, considering choosing events based on people you’re interested in learning more about or meeting.
  1. Reach Out to Your Writing Communities: Think back to all the writers you’ve interacted with over the years. Any one of these people could be at AWP! As a quick story, last year, I stared at a man at the Jacqueline Woodson reading that looked too familiar, even from behind. Afterward, I walked up and realized it was a writing friend, Aatif, whom I met in LA and hadn’t seen in over a year. Reach out to undergrad writing professors, previous classes you’ve taken, listservs you subscribe to, or organizations you’ve worked for to let them know you’ll be in town. If you’re speaking on a panel (like me), share your information with them (listed below!).
  1. Transition Outfits: Don’t be stressed about your clothing choices unless that stress brings you a little bit of pleasure. Here’s what I didn’t know when I was packing last year— More than likely, you won’t have time to go back to your lodging to change so pick outfits that transition well from day to evening dinners. Since you’ll be moving about all day, carefully consider your shoe choice. On any given day, you may end up walking a mile to attend a reading or grab a drink. Overall, people were less dressy than I imagined they would be. Think dressy casual with artistic flair. The one caveat to these rules was Saturday night. The conference hosts a dance party and people were more excited about dressing up then.

While You’re There—

  1. Making New Friends: Don’t be freaked out by the dreaded word: “Networking.” Think of it as an opportunity to make new writing friends. These people will be your peers and champions moving forward, because they care about words as much as you do! I suggest keeping a page in your notebook to ask for people’s email addresses. This is great because it gives you the power to follow up with the contacts after the conference. If you’re really jiving with someone though, consider asking directly to connect with them via cell or Facebook. If that makes you uncomfortable, offer them your contact information so that the choice is up to them to reach out to you. Generally, people are there to meet other writers so don’t let yourself get too anxious about trying to stay in touch. If you’re speaking on a panel, make a flyer to hand out to people that seem like they’d be interested.
  1. Carry a Drawstring Day Bag: Since you’ll be gone all day, carry all the vitals with you: notebook, pens, any books you need (I’m hoping for Danticat’s signature on my copy of Create Dangerously), wallet, scarf (protects in rain, warms in a cold conference rooms, doubles as a pillow if you need a nap), a packed lunch if you’re on a budget, meds, and anything you need for the whole day.
  1. Food: Last year, I was definitely on a tight budget. Hit up a grocery store in your hometown and pack food in your bag before you go (but don’t make my mistakes, no peanut butter on the airplane). The editor of Indiana Review, Tessa Yang, taught me that microwavable mac-n-cheese bowls make a great late-night snack. Staying in an AirBnB will let you make breakfast before you go. If that’s not an option, ask if your hotel room has a communal microwave. Dinner is the one meal you’ll probably have to buy while you’re out, but take your leftovers to reheat for breakfast the next day.
  1. Wind Down if Needed: AWP can be an overwhelming experience, especially for people who don’t enjoy large crowds. Take your rest when you need it. For me, that meant finding an empty corner and napping on the floor for thirty minutes with a scarf under my head. Choose the events that are right for you and remember that it’s ok to call it a day to rest.

Well, those are all my hard-earned tips from my last AWP trip. Check back in late March for a blog about organizing a panel and applying for funding to attend next year in Portland, Oregon!

Safe travels and I hope to meet you at my event (details listed below).


MFA vs POC: A Discussion on Surviving and Thriving in Predominantly White Institutions

Saturday, March 10 from 10:45 – 11:45 am in Florida Salon 5, Marriott Waterside, Second Floor

Panelists: Elizabeth Upshur, Anudradha Bhowmik, Cameron Moreno, William Palomo, Gionni Ponce

A diverse panel of current MFA students will focus on the experience of entering a creative writing program at a predominantly white institute as a person of color. Panelists will discuss both the challenges and the opportunities they have faced in their programs including confronting stereotypes in workshop, finding and working with mentors, and maintaining cultural identity. This is an opportunity for students and faculty to get honest feedback and discuss solutions.


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