Packing for AWP always feels akin to packing for a tropical vacation. I put on my happiest jetset playlist, stuff my suitcase with pretty notebooks and pens, and agonize over what to read on the plane. I check in on Twitter and Instagram to find fellow attendees using the official conference hashtag. I pore over conference schedules, circling dozens upon dozens of events I just know I need to attend.
And then I show up to very few of them.
Writing conferences feed my soul. But they’re also exhausting. Like so many writers, my natural state is solitude: I feel most myself when I’m alone in my office, putting words on the page. Walking into a long conference hall packed with hundreds or even thousands of other people remains wildly overwhelming even now, with years’ worth of attendee badges tacked on my desk.
Truthfully, I look forward to spending time with fellow writers and editors all year. I love our craft conversations, hearing what we’re working on and what trends we’re all eyeing in the future. These are my colleagues and friends; these are the people who understand the agony of revision and submission, who revel in creation as much as I do.
But I’ve learned that I need to take serious care of myself in order to enjoy these moments. Which means: No 12-hour days, no nonstop panel attendance, no sacrificing writing time, and for heaven’s sake, no skipping breakfast.
If you’re a fellow introvert who struggles with the crowds that conferences often bring, here are a few tips I’ve learned that help me maintain sanity while nourishing my craft:
Repeat after me: It’s OK.
It’s OK to skip the group dinner and order room service. It’s OK if you can’t drag yourself back out in the world for an 8 p.m. keynote. It’s OK to miss that early-morning panel because you stayed up late talking with fellow writers. Maximize your time wisely – after all, you did pay those registration fees – but focusing on attending Every Little Thing is the quickest way to burn out before the first day’s over.
Set reasonable goals.
Expecting to leave an event with a publishing contract is setting yourself up for surefire disappointment. Instead, try to meet three industry professionals. Visit eight literary journals at the bookfair. Try to have conversations with at least two new writers each day. Ask yourself: What do I want to get out of this conference? Then make your smaller goals match your larger one. Remember, AWP is a massive conference, so you may find it harder to make personal connections than at a more intimate event – and that’s perfectly normal. It may feel more productive to focus on surveying the industry at large versus making individual contacts. (That said, we always find new contributors at the show, so professional relationships can and do happen on the bookfair floor.)
It’s normal to feel shy.
Most writers are shy! That’s why so many of us spent our childhood reading books on the playground instead of playing kickball! All we need is a window to open a conversation: A smile, a compliment, a simple question. (I love “What do you like to write?” or “What are you working on right now?”)
You won’t get it all right on your first try.
What makes you tick? What fills your creative stores the most? Which events make your heart sing and which bore you to tears? Well, how on earth will you know until you attend a few conferences and try out a few things? Focus on sampling a wide variety and see what speaks most to you.
Be kind, be open-minded, and never say “this is really more of a comment than a question…” at a Q&A session, and the writing world will welcome you with open arms.