Guest post by Lori A. May
Every year, between 12-15,000 writers gather at the annual conference for AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs). That may seem like a daunting crowd even for extroverts. Yet, what I’ve learned over the years is that the AWP conference is exactly what you make of it. That may mean casually strolling the book fair and sitting in on panel discussions, or perhaps you’re a social butterfly and look forward to hitting as many evening events as possible with sleep on the backburner.
I’ve been an annual attendee for more than a decade. Each year, my experience varies between having a hectic packed schedule or a more laid-back clear calendar. No matter what my social dance card has in store, though, each year I like to set goals for what I hope to accomplish at this mass gathering. After all, this conference is a major opportunity full of miniature opportunities.
In the big picture, I view this conference as a reunion of sorts. Here is where I mingle with friends and colleagues from around the world, celebrate their new books, and attend their panels. On a more micro scale, I see opportunity for meeting new individuals, learning about new literary journals, and encouraging my own students who travel to immerse themselves in this sometimes life changing event. Life changing? Yes. Because if you’ve grown up in a small town or had little access to other writers, being surrounded by tens of thousands of them can be magical.
I remember my very first AWP book fair and being so overjoyed at the abundance of literature being published, the editors and representatives eager to chat about submissions, and how so many doors seemed to open in a heartbeat. Yet all of this can be dramatically overwhelming, too. So I like to set goals and, when I do so, I also loop in some of the basics of literary citizenship. To do this, I ask myself two questions: 1) what do I hope to get out of attending the conference? and 2) what can I give or offer of myself in attending?
My own personal goals may be to reunite with writers from across the country, take in a few must-see panels during the daily schedule, and connect with the book fair reps from publishers I work with. But on the literary citizenship side of things, in considering what I can offer with my presence at the conference, I must consider all there is to do in such a massive event. There may be book fair staff who need a restroom break or are aching for a few minutes relief to run and grab coffee. Or perhaps I know students attending for the first time who need a little courage boost in approaching book fair tables, in introducing themselves to staff of lit journals. I also know from experience how much work it is to load and unload the book fair set-up. When I know I’m arriving a day early, I try to lend a hand to those I know who could use the extra muscle. But when friends and students ask how to get involved, when such a conference can be so overwhelming, the first thing I suggest is volunteering with the organization itself. In exchange for a couple hours of your time helping at the registration desk or assisting attendees with directions, AWP offers complementary registration to its volunteers. That’s a win-win for everyone.
Beyond that, there’s so much joy in taking a moment to introduce people you know to others you’ve just met. Make connections for people. Guide writers to presses that are perfect for their stories. Hold the door open for others. Watch your step and be aware of those needing extra time or space to get where they’re going. Literary citizenship, in so many ways, can be explained as common courtesy. Yet in a packed event center with thousands of people, it’s all too easy to become wrapped up in own bubbles. So pause. Take your time. And if you notice anyone needing assistance, or looking overwhelmed at the sight of it all, stop and say hello. Be kind to one another. Make this the conference you’ll never forget, for all the right reasons.
Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Bloomsbury, 2011), Square Feet (2014), and The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (Bloomsbury, 2014). May’s creative and critical work has appeared in print and online with publications such as The Atlantic, Brevity, Colorado Review, Passages North, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. She teaches in the University of King’s College (Halifax) creative nonfiction MFA program and is a frequent guest speaker at writing conferences and residencies. Visit www.loriamay.com for more info.