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21 dos and don'ts for an AWP newbie

February 2, 2011 |  9:48 am

Awp_2007

The Association of Writing Programs annual conference, known as AWP, kicks off Wednesday in Washington for those who've been able to battle the storms and get there. It's a conference that welcomes professors and graduate students, and undergraduates too, to gather and talk about writing -- teaching writing, studying writing and, in the best of cases, publishing writing.

Like any conference, AWP can be anxiety-making. When I first went in 2007, I was an MFA student, the only one from my program to attend. The swarm of strangers was mediated by some Internet friends, who took me under their collective wing. I came to understand that the conference can be easily navigated, if only you know what you're doing.

Here are my dos and don'ts for AWP. Newbies, this is for you.

1. DO: Drink in the conference hotel bar. Despite the fact that hotel bars are notoriously overpriced, this is where you want to be. The conference hotel bar is where the cooler veterans will gather, the professors and published writers, people who've bumped into each other at this conference in other years and have maybe made a vague plan to do so again. Do you want to talk to them? Of course you do. AWP 2011 has two hotels, so this will be twice the "work."

2. DON'T: Be afraid to approach those writers. I'd met Dan Chaon ("Await Your Reply") only briefly when he'd come to speak at my program, but he was entirely nice when I sort of awkwardly said hi, and he let me stick around while talking to his friends. If a writer you recognize is in the hotel bar, odds are they're open to having a conversation -- otherwise, they'd be somewhere else.

3. DO: Pick out two to five panels you can't miss. This will give a shape to your attendance and your days.

4. DON'T: Worry if you miss some of those panels. Serendipity may put something in your path that is equally important.

5. DO: Talk to people who go to the same panels you do. You're interested in the same authors, wrestling with the same problems, asking the same questions. It may be that no one in your program shares your interest as much as people in other programs -- this is your chance to connect with them.

6. DON'T: Shirk away if one of those people is from Iowa. Yes, it's the Harvard of writing programs, the people who go there are usually totally amazing writers, and they get all kinds of agent attention. But they have their own, very real problems, and we all know that not everyone can go to Iowa.

7. DO: Go to any panel a friend appears on. Even if it's first thing in the morning, even if you are the only one there. Show your support -- you never know when your future panels may be scheduled.

8. DON'T: Let the prospect of an early-morning panel curb your social activities.

9. DO: Go to the opening-night festivities. There will probably be some excruciatingly embarrassing band or performance. It is worth witnessing.

10. DON'T: Stay to the end. I'm not a sadist.

11. DO: Let someone drag you to a panel you have no interest in attending. That serendipity thing: If someone you like says there's something they're interested in, it might well be (newly) interesting to you. For me, this was a panel on teaching undergraduates, which I wasn't doing that year. When I did wind up teaching the next year, I was glad I'd heard the brilliant Lan Samantha Chang -- from, yes, Iowa -- and her panel on teaching. 

12. DON'T: Forget that the conference is about more than panels.

13. DO: Give yourself plenty of time to walk around the conference exhibit floor. Take your time at the lit-journal booths: Pick them up, flip through them. If you are a student in an MFA program, chances are you want to be published in one of them. Take this opportunity to figure out which is a good fit. Plan to send them a submission when you get home.

14. DON'T: Ask the people at a lit-journal table about a submission you haven't heard back about yet. They probably have no idea if it's been accepted -- or it hasn't been, and then things will just be awkward. If there is good news about a story or poem you've submitted, the last way a journal is going to tell you that news is when you stop by its booth at AWP.

15. DO: Visit tables of programs other than your own. You're not going to enroll in them, of course, but you might want to teach there someday. Take the time to chat and see if you share a sense of humor, sensibility, taste in reading and writing.

16. DON'T: Be depressed if they're not hiring. Right now, pretty much nobody is.

17. DO: Attend some evening conference events: readings, parties, dinners, celebrations. These are better built for mingling -- or as more business-oriented types might say, networking -- than panels, really.

18. DON'T: Spend a ton of money running around a city you don't know. Share cabs with strangers. Take the subway.

19. DO: Get away at least once. Bring some friends and get away from the hotel bar, the conference sessions, the after-conference poetry readings and parties. Though it may feel like this is a betrayal of the conference, it's not. Here's why: In 2007, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant wanted to go check out an out-of-the-way large farmers market. Because their car (truck?) was full of boxes from Small Beer Press, we took my tiny Honda, which also fit a friend of theirs. Kelly and Gavin wandered off, and the friend and I grabbed lunch -- he turned out to be the Believer's Ed Park, who started writing for the L.A. Times before me and later published the novel "Personal Days." I was thrilled to meet Ed, a talented editor and writer, and I always think of him in connection with eating lunch in that cavernous warehouse. It's an experience with the shape of life, not just the bad lighting of the conference.

20. DON'T: Worry about losing sleep. You have lots to do and see and hear and discuss. It's only four days. You can sleep when you get home.

21: DO: Have fun.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Gwenda Bond (MFA Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2009) demonstrates a "do" at the AWP 2007 conference in Atlanta. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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