Every year 12,000 book nerds, introverts and agoraphobes with vulnerable egos pack a big city convention center to see writer-friends, sell books, get drunk, attend AA meetings, consider the state of literature and give local lunch restaurant waitrons a collective stress-induced heart attack.
If this sounds like your idea of fun, there is probably something wrong with you. Then again, literary writers are people who choose to devote thousands of hours to a pursuit whose most reliable product is an abiding feeling of failure. So in fact, there plenty wrong with you already, AWP or not.
I actually happen to love the AWP Conference, because a) high book-nerd factor, b) low agoraphobe factor and c) brilliant AWP survival strategy (see below). In the past, however, I narrowly escaped hating AWP/having a weekend-long anxiety attack, rescued only by my brilliant survival strategy (see below). Since it’s brilliant and all, I thought I’d share it with you.
(Nota bene: if you are in any way book-nerd famous or even moderately successful, I apologize for all the people trying to tear your clothes off/have sex with you/season you with envy, then kill and eat you. I also apologize for being one of those people. My only advice is to crouch down behind someone more famous/moderately successful than you for the duration of the conference.)
YOUR AWP 2016 SURVIVAL GUIDE
a completely biased listsicle for getting the most out your annual nerdfest
- Know why you’re going.
There are a lot of reasons to submit yourself to the shitshow described above: You run a lit mag and want to connect with writers and readers. You just published your book and want people to know about it. You have no clue how the literary industry works and want to learn. To meet the nice editors who keep rejecting your epic prose poems and maybe find out why. To see your writer friends. To hear about new teaching strategies. To find presses that would be perfect for your work. Etc. These are legitimate reasons. Reasons that will allow you to respect yourself. There are also plenty of other reasons, though, and you should be honest with yourself about if yours include the following:
- to renew your dislike of other writers
- to kindle the fires of jealousy
- to reunite with a residency “friend” who used to be more successful than you but is now much less successful and feel the happy brain chemicals flow
- to prove to yourself that you can put on clothes and leave the house for three consecutive days
- to give out your business cards, because it’s your only chance all year and you have a really sharp design
- to have unrewarding sexual encounters with strangers
- to have unrewarding sexual encounters with old friends
- to have unrewarding sexual encounters with your literary heroes
- to find out which of your literary heros are currently having unrewarding sexual encounters with one another
- to get far drunker than responsibilities of partner/job/children will allow you to do at home
- to foster the self-loathing that tbh is your primary motivation to keep writing
- to meet the nice editors who keep rejecting your epic prose poem so you can disapprove of their taste and intelligence with greater accuracy
- because everyone else is doing it and you’d rather be a lemming than a lone wolf with FOMO
Whatever your reasons for attending, determine how realistic your goals are and if they can reasonably be achieved.
- Be realistic about how many off-site events you can attend.
Base this on your real life habits. If you go out twice a week in real life, you should easily manage 1-2 events a night. If you live in cave with your dog and a 90s-era booklight for companionship, you should attend a panel Thursday morning and then fly home.
- Have a quiet place to decompress.
If you’re sharing a hotel room or airbnb, agree on quiet hours and whether you will be bringing friends/literary heroes/frenemies back to party and/or have unrewarding sexual encounters.
Ideal AWP hotel room quiet hours would be “from the time I arrive in LA until the time your plane leaves the tarmac”. Make a yes-no-maybe list, in each column including the disruptive activities you are both comfortable with happening in the hotel room. For instance, “tiptoeing in well-padded socks” should be on your yes list. On your no list, “coughing multiple times in an hour or after 7pm.”
An inflexible roommate, or one with a head cold, may refuse to adhere to even these simple rules. Fortunately, convention centers have many out-of-the-way, carpeted nooks. (If you’re making your living off either writing or teaching, the convention center’s carpeted nooks will be much nicer than your hotel room anyway. You may even opt to sleep here.) Use these comfy spaces to write, tweet, organize your notes or curl into the fetal position. Because your fellow writers are observant (if nothing else), expect others to follow your lead. When this happens, be friendly. Make some amiable small talk! You will soon have your cozy nook all to yourself.
- If you don’t like the panel you’re at, leave.
Some people go to a panel, grab a seat in the front and stay there, no matter if the panel is called, say, “How To Teach A Riveting Composition Class”, and the first presenter whispers his entire presentation into the carpet, then cries himself to sleep at the podium. Actually, that would be interesting. What is much more likely is that either the panel turns out to be on a completely different topic than it claimed, the panel called itself a “probing discussion” but is actually a guerrilla reading of conceptual poetry, or the participants will obviously have thrown together a completely arbitrary panel only to get discounted registration [no I have never tried to do this, I’m offended you would even ask] and are monotoning their way through a badly organized presentation whose subtext screams WE WOULD LIKE TO RETURN TO THE HOTEL BAR NOW PLEASE.
This is one of those times when you really should do what everyone else is doing. See them? They sat right by the door and are now slipping quietly out the side doors and heading to Hip-Hop As Poetic Form or 5,000 Reasons We Rejected Your Manuscript. Some of you feel guilty just reading about imaginary conference attendees walking out of an imaginary panel. You feel terrible for that imaginary panelist who cried himself to sleep. That’s wonderful! You have lots of empathy–which is great for your writing. You know what else is great for your writing? Going to a panel that doesn’t suck.
- The book fair I: make friends.
Take advantage of your first dud panel experience to visit the book fair. Ideally, this will happen Thursday at 9:15am, when the book fair tablers are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and have not yet remembered how much they would rather be at home collating something. Book fair people–editors, journal readers, faculty–are really, really nice. Astonishingly nice. THIS IS THE ONLY TIME DURING THE WHOLE YEAR WHEN PUBLISHERS WILL BE NICE TO YOU. Take advantage of this friendly environment to learn about presses that might be a good match for your work. Apply any dating advice you’d give to a hetero teenage boy to your own behavior: express a genuine interest in the girl, ask thoughtful questions, give more than you take and no matter how much you want to get laid, do not assume she owes it to you or that your horny attention is necessarily a compliment. (Analogy legend: girl=small press; take an interest= buy something or at least consider buying something; laid = published; horny = what your impersonal desperation to be published looks like to an unpaid editor.) As in teenage dating, the bar is pretty low, so be a gent and vault it.
- The book fair II: shop early and shop wisely.
Before you arrive at AWP, consider your budget, setting an amount you can afford to spend on books (versus food, drinks, entertainment and cab/lyft rides). Quadruple that number. That is the amount you will spend.
Prioritize what books you want to purchase in roughly this order:
- books by your friends and/or teachers
- books you know you will buy anyway (and this way your $$ doesn’t go to paypal or Visa or amazon or other form of unspeakable evil you subscribe to)
- books and magazines from presses you think might be right for your work
- books by a panelist you liked or someone you heard read at an event
- books you like the cover design of
- books that include a free tote bag or at least some candy
- books that are near someone cute and/or book-nerd famous who you are hoping will be impressed by your purchase
- books you are gripping so tightly you have broken the spine because there are 3,000,000 people crammed into this book fair and it’s got to be against fire code and if there is a fire you will get trampled and die of a combination of shattered bones AND suffocation which have to be the two most painful ways to die
It’s smart to buy books you want by Friday, as they do tend to sell out.