An introvert’s toolkit for AWP

Shy about large conferences such as AWP? These navigational strategies can help.
By Minal Hajratwala, Guest Blogger | Published: February 23, 2014


By Minal Hajratwala
The Writer Guest Blogger

Twas the night before AWP, when all through the land,
The writers were fretting, “This is so out of hand!
The schedule is packed, but my suitcase is not;
My elevator pitch is postmodern and fraught;
My couchsurf is booked, but I’m ready to balk—
For what will I wear, and to whom will I talk?”

Having made it through the Denver and Boston AWP conferences as an introvert who’d really rather be home with my journal and chai than meeting 10,000 strangers, I developed the following strategies for navigating large events. You may want to check out other writers’ AWP survival guides like this and this, too.

1. Drop the pressure.

As introverts, we find it stressful enough to be around thousands of new people. Conventional networking advice is all about setting goals and getting it done: Collect 200 business cards! Have coffee with 12 new people! Speak to at least three editors and/or agents!

But honestly, we don’t need that stress.  Let go of your ideas of a what a “successful” convention would look like, and resolve to enjoy yourself. Go to sessions that deeply excite you, not ones you think you “should” attend. Give yourself permission to browse the Book Fair without making eye contact.

When you let yourself be who you are and relax, you’ll  be more approachable and have a much better time. You’ll gravitate toward the spaces where other people are interested in the same topics as you.  Then, when opportunities do arise to interact comfortably, you’ll be ready to seize them rather than completely depleted from all that effort.

2. Feel free to be a weirdo.

You realize that pretty much everyone else is wandering around feeling awkward and overwhelmed too, right? As introverts, we might want to interact but find it hard to start a conversation. It’s easier if we have a clear purpose to interact, or create a situation in which people want to interact with us. Here’s what I’ve done or seen people do to break the ice at AWP:

  • Wear a sassy accessory. (My tiara does the talking.)MINAL
  • Pass out Girl Scout cookies while waiting in the registration line.
  • Pretend you’re playing an extrovert on TV and act “as if.”
  • Hang out at the Book Fair and ask people who look bored or shy if you can read them a poem from your book or chapbook.

It’s all about finding consensual, non-aggressive ways to start a little chat. “Interesting panel, wasn’t it?” is also just fine.

3. Stay away Saturday.

It may feel counterintuitive to “miss” the biggest day, but the weekend always draws the most crowds. This year, the Book Fair will be open to the general public for free on Saturday, too — which means even greater hordes.

To opt out and recharge with some alone time, you could explore Seattle’s amazing farmers market, the Olympic Sculpture Park, or Open Books, one of the world’s only poetry bookshops.  Check out this lovely list from the Tahoma Literary Review of sites to see near the convention.

4. Mix it up on your panel.

If you’re a speaker, especially on Day 3 and beyond, your audience – most of whom are introverts like you – will feel a vast sensation of relief when you give them something other than talking at them. Some ideas:

  • Show pictures of babies, dachshunds, sentence diagrams of your poems.
  • Invite the audience to do something relaxing, meditative or fun.
  • Compare your writing process to the birth of a mythical creature.
  • Make room for silence as you’re speaking.
  • Compose a found poem of your co-panelists’ words to recite at the end of the session.

5. Freewrite.

A few days packed with talking-about-writing and no actual-writing can create an icky dissonance. That’s why I carry around my little notebook and find moments to jot down words, feelings, colors, bodily sensations.

You’re in a surreal, high-stimulus environment, and one of your coping strategies in life is clearly to write stuff down. So why not take notes on the characters and settings around you?  You’re a writer; you’ll use it later.

6. Retreat.

Don’t feel bad that you’ll miss something; you will. Do the stuff that makes you feel as healthy and sane as you can be.  Take naps. Carry around a book when you don’t feel like talking to people. Focus on the presentations without worrying about connecting.  Tweet instead of chatting.  It’s allowed.  You’re a great person, and you’re doing it right.

So, those are some strategies that help me make my way through a big convention. What’s in your toolkit as an introvert, especially if you’re going it alone this year?

Then the panels were over; the speed-readings, too;
They’d survived all the schmoozing and the book zoo;
And I heard them exclaim, ere they flew out of sight—
“My suitcase is heavy, but my heart, it is light!”

Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author, editor of an anthology of queer stories and co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective press. She is a regular contributor to The Writer.