This was my first time attending the AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and despite the apprehension that it was going to be cancelled and then the diminished attendance, I’m still glad I went. It was something I’ve always heard that “you must do at least once.” But… what did I learn? A lot! Here are three things I didn’t expect to come away with, but did.
The importance of a book cover
The book fair at AWP, while somewhat gutted due to cancellations and coronavirus precautions, was a heavenly place. So many tables selling books! A book junkie’s dream. But since most of these were college and small presses that don’t have the huge marketing budgets behind them I didn’t recognize many of the authors or the the titles. How did I end up with a suitcase of books? The covers.
What happened: I saw an intriguing cover, read the back cover, then bought or not. But to even get to the back cover text phase, it had to pass the cover test. The covers I was drawn to were without fail colorful, abstract, and artistic. Photos tend not to age well, in my opinion. Anything too real looks dated in a year. The exception to that rule is street scenes—those are always interesting. But overall, colorful drawings and loud, splashy art drew me in.
Preparation is paramount
To be fair, some of the panelists were last minute replacements because, again, coronavirus. BUT the one panel I really regret going to was still in its original form which made my experience during that hour & 20 minutes all the more shocking to me.
I’m by nature a preparer. I’ll learn everything I can about whatever it is before I even think about opening my mouth about it. I’ll practice. It’s the former competitive swimmer in me. 5 years of 5 am / 5 hours a day training sessions to be one second faster? Ok. Sold. I’ll do it!
90% of the authors I saw speak were standing-ovation wonderful. The 10% who dropped the f-word every other sentence between the 100+ “likes” I counted during a five-minute period shocked me. I was so distracted by how unprofessionally this subgroup spoke I couldn’t digest what they were saying. That I dragged my boyfriend to this particular panel mortified me. I wanted him to learn more about this “literary world I’m trying to live in” and all I felt was embarrassment that I’d made him sit through that.
We’re writers. Communication is key. But I also get that we’re writers so perhaps we’re inherently better on the page? I don’t know, but I learned that if I’m ever to present myself, my work, and my thoughts on a panel, I’m going to be prepared. I’m going to practice speaking publicly. I’m going to read up on the topic I’ve been asked to speak about. I’m going to monitor how many times I throw “like” into a sentence and I’m not going to cuss. Save that shit (said ironically) for twitter.
Not networking is not the end of the world
I made a few authentic connections, and I believe it was easier done this time than it would have been at any other AWP because it was less crowded (take that with a grain of salt because this was my first AWP). The people sitting behind literary magazine tables were friendly and willing to talk (likely because I was the only person standing there, but still, that was pretty cool of them). I learned a lot about publications I hadn’t heard of before and have a new list of places to submit my work to, so that’s a big plus.
Networking between panels… not so much because you’re busy hoofing it across the massive conference center to make your next one. (Fun fact: my iphone health app let me know that on the Friday of the conference I walked 9 miles! Granted, three of those were probably from bar-hopping along San Antonio’s River Walk but still—the conference center was huge).
Outside of the book fair most networking seemed to be happening at off-site events. Readings and bar gatherings and the like. I decided to attend one of these hosted by a few of my favorite literary magazines. I RSVP’d on Facebook, Google-mapped my way from the hotel, found the bar beneath a defunct bowling alley, descended the gum-stained stairwell, and emerged into a dank, humid, stagnant, dimly-lit subterranean room full of people standing in little clusters… networking. I took one look and I left.
“But this is what I’m supposed to do! This is what all the articles said! I need to NETWORK!” I kept telling myself.
And yet, I was back up the gum stairs in less than 20 seconds. It wasn’t any fear of social interaction—I live and work in a hotel; I introduce myself to strangers all the time. But this just wasn’t my scene. That’s it. And being comfortable enough with who you are to know what works for you and what doesn’t is important. Really important. Because after that I ended up on a boat tour of the River Walk and it was amazing and full of people wearing AWP lanyards, networking.