A reblog from last year–AWP advice for first timers

by Jeff Oaks

I’ve been seeing all sorts of reference to the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference on Facebook, and I decided to go back and look at the advice I gave last year. Most of it still seems solid to me. So I’m reblogging it, with a minimum of editing.

AWP: some advice

1. Get in and get settled. Breathe. Then register. 

2. The Bookfair is the greatest thing: a beehive of ambitious work, humane undertakings, and stern and open faces. It is the central engine. 

3. The panels? Meh. So many of them have been merely self-promotional or stunningly bland. A simple key is this: if the central question of the panel can be answered by yes or no, that’s going to be a boring panel. You know the answers going in. 

4. Interesting panels are almost universally the ones you decide not to go to. Your friends will be the source of the information in that case, fragmented from the original, but also thrilling with your friend’s new enthusiasm. 

5. Try to have at least five friends you can talk to once a day. They should want to attend different panels from you. Don’t discard your interests to go with them. Remember: your job is also to feed them your enthusiasm. 

6. The first hour of the Bookfair is ecstasy, the second hour torture. The initial excitement at seeing all the opportunities can suddenly tip toward being overwhelmed by and deeply depressed by those same opportunities, especially if your work isn’t regularly being published yet. 

7. Your hotel room is sacred. Retreat there as often as you need. Use the tv. Look out its windows for a bigger view. 

8. Go to readings as needed. Too many and the function of them disappears and they become mere obligation, the death of all love. 

9. Give yourself a budget. Stay close to it. Pack in such a way you’d have to really want a book to buy it. Be willing to throw away your clothes for a good book. 

10. You will never know the whole of literature, but it’s good to have a few places (presses, literary journals, and writers) you can use as check points. Ask those people who they’re reading or for any new discoveries. You can start conversations that way, if you’re stuck. 

11. Walk outside a few times a day. Breathe real air and see the sun or hear the rain. Break the seal that can develop around any convention. 

12. For me, breakfasts have so far been the best times to talk to friends. Everyone is a little more vulnerable and open. Not everyone else is up for breakfast, so it’s a good test of real friendship. Plus, it’s the most important meal of the day. I prefer hotel breakfasts where it’s all-you-can-eat. 

13. Dinners are so largely ceremonial and often crashed by others and expensive that I’m rethinking dinners, even though I like them. Have one dinner in your hotel room maybe. 

14. Are the caucuses doing any good? Is AWP changing itself at all? A number of writers with disabilities who’ve been asking for changes in accessibility make me think it’s not listening to them. Should caucuses be given a certain amount of choice in the decisions where AWP is held and some number of panels that might reflect specific interests? 

15. AWP is not for everybody. What is? You need however to go to a couple of them before you condemn it altogether. The more I’ve gone, the better it’s gotten. There have been bad ones and very good ones. 

16. Be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be without a book to your name. It’s hard to feel left out of conversations by people who look at your name and move on. It has nothing to do with your worth. They have their own issues. Make yourself talk or thank at least one person a day who makes the life of your imagination a more interesting place. They often have no idea that people are benefitting from their hard work. 

17. Grade your papers before or after AWP. Write poems during readings. Find a coffeehouse In the host city and just write for two hours. 

18. Watch how the famous writers behave. You might learn something. 

19. Don’t assume someone doesn’t have some influence just because you might not have read work by them. Don’t assume people with clear influence have to be coddled. Don’t assume editors will remember you; remind them with as much courtesy as you can. 

20. If you’re only listening to people with the intent to get published, you’re not listening. Be ready, however, to say yes if an opportunity suddenly appears. 

21. Hydrate. You’d be surprised at the effect quiet dehydration will do to your mood. Drink water more than anything else.