(This was going to be a breakdown of my experience of AWP and then it turned into a primer for new attendees. Maybe it will be useful to people google searching AWP.)
If you haven’t been to AWP, it’s probably for a few reasons.
1) You’re a regular person who doesn’t concern themselves with strange hyper-cultures.
2) You’re not a Creative Writing Grad Student, English Professor, Lit Journal Editor, Small Press Owner/Manager, Poet, Novelist, Memoirist, Satirist, Essayist, Slam Poet, Genre Junkie, Agent, Publisher, etc.
3) You exist in the real world where famous people are movie stars and rock stars not authors and poets.
So if you’re not any of these, then you don’t know what AWP (The Association of Writers and Writers Programs) is all about, where it is taking place every year, and why you would be interested in this meeting of 11,000 lit nerds. Your life may be less. Or it may be better.
It’s a scene. For a writer, it is simultaneously inspiring and depressing. To be in a place where Fiction and Poetry and Essay is the center of the universe is amazing and makes you feel at home. That you can talk to anyone, to thousands of You, just waiting to gush over the absolute cultural importance of books is something. That everyone understands why you’d rather be lost in a fake world than found in the real world is refreshing and worth exploring.
But to be a writer among thousands of other writers sometimes diminishes your uniqueness. It makes you feel like one of the pack, all fighting for a little sliver of immortality. It’s easy to lose your sense of camaraderie. A usual AWP conference is a bipolar rollercoaster of importance and obscurity.
The panels range from stuff as broad as “How to Land an Agent” to crazy specific stuff like “Gender Studies of Uzbekistani Poetry Written By Survivors of the Frog Plague of 1936”. One of those panels was real and one of them you wish was real.
I have to recommend balance. You can’t go to every panel. You have to ditch. You have to eat lunch and hang out in the bookfair and get a sense of the city and just not let yourself get sucked in completely. Because if you don’t detach here and there, it’s dangerous. Your ego is at stake. Either it will swell with the headiness of writerly importance or it will deflate rapidly and leave you charging your iPhone in a corner, tweeting about how these hacks will one day fall at your feet and worship the meager words you let them sup on.
Eat an expensive meal while you’re there. Get jazzed about something else for an hour at least.
Lastly, there’s the Bookfair. This is a whole different animal. It’s giant rooms filled with tables of journals and MFA programs and small presses and sometimes some weirdo just hawking his own book. Stay away from that weirdo. Everyone else is normal.
The MFA programs are interesting because as a graduate of an MFA program, it’s like driving by a bunch of car dealerships after you bought your car. So they must be for a younger crowd. I barely even knew about AWP before grad school so it seems weird that undergrad students are so up on it that they know to go to it and scout schools.
The journal and small press tables are where you should spend most of your time. They’re friendly and most of them are students that were given a free pass to AWP if they sat at the table and hawked some books. The students look bored and are frequently dying to speak to someone to pass the time.
The presses are interesting but it’s a like a mobile bookstore where you’re looking at the owner of the bookstore and trying to figure out how to escape. You may buy something sometime but you’re not a high roller and you can’t just shell out for any random book no matter how much the publisher or the author put their whole soul into it.
Here’s the deal. AWP is great. If you’re the right person. If you can immerse yourself, cool. If you have friends to go with, friends to meet, even better. The excitement of the world revolving around your craft for three days is good for the soul. You should leave thinking: I can’t wait to get home and write! If you go home and never write again, well, that’s one less person for them to compete with. Success either way.