My First AWP Conference Experience

This past week I attended my first writing conference. The AWP Conference was held in San Antonio this year (AWP stands for Association of Writers & Writing Programs). There was a concern about travel and a confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in/near the city just before the conference was set to begin. This ended up causing a lot of people to withdraw from the conference. It was my first time, so I did not know quite what to expect. Many of the panels I wanted to attend ended up being canceled. There were plenty that weren’t and the cancellations actually allowed me to attend the book fair more often (which I am really glad I did). Before I vomit my entire experience onto the page, I’m going to give it a bit of structure.

I was hesitant to attend the conference. Not so much because of the virus though (which has become a large concern). I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if I really belonged with this particular group of people. But how could I not be sure I’d fit in with a bunch of writers? I am a writer. Well, even within the world of writing there are cliques and niche areas and different conferences for different types of writing. AWP consists, in my opinion, largely of academic writing, poetry, nonfiction, and reality based fiction, historical fiction, and pedagogy. I like to write a lot of speculative/science fiction and fantasy. Both of which still hold a stigma within the writing world despite becoming massively popular. So I wasn’t sure if I’d fit in with this particular crowd. I’m happy to say that I was wrong…mostly. There was very little at the conference specifically toward genre fiction, but I was surrounded by writers. Many of whom loved science fiction. Most did not write it themselves, but they appreciated it. I mainly wanted to know what it was like being in a building with thousands of other writers. I met many cool people and ran into a few former professors of mine. Admittedly, I did have a second reservation about going to this conference. Part of not knowing what to expect included not being sure if there would be a lot of academic snobbery or large egos. There were a few, but there were many more down-to-earth people who enjoyed all different areas of writing and entertainment. It’s really a great crowd of people.

Being my first time, I did over-prepare a bit. I built a schedule of events that had me in panels all day long. There were so many that it was hard to just pick one for each time slot. I really enjoyed most of the ones I did attend. There were a few that were canceled and I knew about ahead of time, which let me go to a second-choice panel, while others were canceled without notice. But again, this let me attend the book fair which I will talk about shortly. What I didn’t realize when making my schedule, was that most seasoned attendees only go to maybe three panels per day instead of a full five. It can be difficult and tiring attending so many but I wanted the full experience. The panel topics ranged from starting a project to teaching writing to what to do once publishing your book and everything in between.

The off-site events that happen in the evening are often sponsored/hosted by literary magazines or writing programs and often include a reading of some sort. These are really fun, relaxed events and great ways to meet new people. I highly recommend them even if you end up burning the midnight oil. The conference is three days and you need to make the most of the entire experience. My last day, Saturday, I attended an event described as simply “come have a drink and talk about books, no readings, etc.” and of course I was in. It was hosted by the Ashland MFA program and I met many of the current and prior students who are a fantastic group of people. This ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.

The book fair. The AWP book fair is an incredible experience. From talking with people there, I came to realize that this particular conference was about 2/3 of the previous year and many people talked about how it was much more relaxed and friendly. Apparently things can get a little overcrowded and everyone was enjoying not being packed in the aisles and actually having time to have actual conversations instead of passing comments with attendees. The book fair holds a ton of literary journals from all over the country, writing programs, publishers and writing services (such as editors), among many others. I bought a set of metaphor dice which I thought was a super cool idea and I look forward to using them. Most journals and books are discounted from normal prices and you can get great deals on subscriptions as well as books. I met Ted O’Connell at a publisher’s booth that was selling his debut novel K. I’m looking forward to diving into it. I also met an upcoming historical fiction novelist, AJ Wells, who is currently finishing his masters degree in Alabama (I can’t remember which university, sorry AJ). Keep a look out for his work in the future. In a nutshell, the book fair is probably the best part of the conference and you can spend all day in just that area. There is a day pass for the book fair on Saturday only, so if the conference is held in a city near you, definitely hit up the book fair to see all the cool stuff. The pass is usually $5 and it is definitely worth it.

There is so much to talk about but at the same time it’s difficult to describe such an experience. I am glad I attended. I will be attending next year since it will be in Kansas City, which is not far from where I live. Next year will also give me a better idea of what a full-fledged conference looks like (hopefully). It was definitely a silver lining that it was a smaller conference for my first time, but I’m interested to see it in full force. Even though it was a great time and I was surrounded by fellow writers, I still felt a little out of place. I did go by myself and I think going with a friend would greatly improve the experience. Overall, I believe it was a good step for my introverted self to go. I would recommend any writers who have not gone to see what it’s about at least one time. At the very least, I was inspired to keep working on my writing and I look forward to the day I get my first book published.

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