Last week I met memoirists, essayists, cross-genre writers, poets, first-time novelists, third-time novelists, LGBTQ writers, erotic literature writers, professors, publishers, publicists, children’s book authors, award winners, editors and a chicken-farmer-turned-memoirist.
I met them all at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, better known as AWP, the largest writer’s conference in America.
When I went to AWP for the first time, I thought I knew what to expect: I had re-packed my suitcase six times. I had pored over the conference itinerary. I had obsessively read Yelp reviews of every single Minneapolis restaurant in a 2-mile radius. But in truth, I had no idea what AWP had in store for me.
I don’t know if anyone can ever really know what to expect as a first-time attendee. But I do know what I learned, and those tips will help me be much more prepared for my next writers’ conference or festival. With any luck, they’ll help you, too.
What I learned at AWP15
Identify what’s most important to you as a writer.
Before you get on the plane, before you register for the conference, ask yourself what you aim to get out of the event. Are you working on a novel? Having an internal to-MFA-or-not-to-MFA debate? Do you struggle with revision? Make a list of your perceived weaknesses and future goals as a writer before even looking at the schedule.
Build your own schedule.
Do not wait until the event to look at the schedule of events. Go through the itinerary and pick out events that appeal to your personal goals and weaknesses. Identify key events that will have the largest impact on you as a writer and build your day around those events. Try to limit yourself to two key events per day. That doesn’t mean you won’t go to more than just those two, but having flexibility is key to not running yourself ragged by the final day. You now have two ironclad dates in your day’s schedule: The rest of your time can be arranged as you like.
I know you want to make the most of your time at the conference. We all do. I spent a lot of time talking to past attendees, and every single one had the same advice: Pace yourself. Make time for naps, runs, yoga, writing time, whatever you need to get through all three days. Don’t try to hit every single panel. Taking breathers will allow you to more fully experience the conference without getting burned out.
Share what you learn…
Every night, The Writer staff members gathered for dinner and shared what we’d learned that day with each other, so we’d all benefit from the panels we attended. Throughout the conference, we also tweeted tips and advice we were hearing to share the wealth with our readers.
…But give credit where credit is due.
As you’re tweeting or filing notes away for future blog posts or articles, it’s important to remember who said what so you can give proper credit. I used initials while I was taking notes to remember where each tip came from, and I numbered all the panelists’ names in the order they were sitting on the dais so I could easily identify them. Be sure to save your conference program so you have a handy list of all the panelists’ biographies.
Don’t “network.” Meet people.
Much of my time was spent manning The Writer‘s table at the book fair, where I got to meet an astonishing number of fellow writers. I met a few over-the-top self-promotionists, sure, but mostly, I met people who were just as excited about writing and publishing as I am. I got advice, I gave advice, but mostly I asked the same question: What do you like to write? The answers I received — children’s nonfiction, novels, sonnets — gave way to further conversations about selling books, further education, finding agents, and more. I came home with a stack of business cards thicker than a deck of playing cards. My main goal was to meet fellow members of the tribe and find out what excites them, motivates them, or terrifies them; it wasn’t to push an agenda or to have an agenda pushed upon me. Happily, along the way, I met potential mentors, mentees, contributors and friends.
Open to having craft conversations in elevators. Open to going to offsite events solo. Open to approaching strangers. Open to buying books from small presses and journals. Open to learning something new at each panel. Writing conferences are your one chance to be surrounded by thousands of people who get excited by the same things you do. Enjoy it while it lasts. Come Monday, you’ll be stuck back in a world where people won’t geek out over Karen Russell, rage over the serial comma or share poetry with you on the plane. This is your chance to recharge and refuel your creative stores. Don’t let that chance go to waste by hiding behind tweeted snark or negativity. Come ready to learn and to grow, to inspire and be inspired, and your writing will benefit tenfold.