Making the Most out of a Writer’s Conference

Last year was my first AWP. I read plenty of blog posts going into AWP on what to expect and “How to Have a Successful AWP,” but I discovered that the breadth of options available to conference goers was wider than I expected. Even though I had a great time, attended some fantastic panels, bought a lot of books, discovered a bunch of journals, and made some new friends, I ended up leaving AWP 2016 feeling like it was a trial run for AWP 2017.

My biggest regret for AWP 2016 was that I didn’t go to any of the PhD program booths. At the time, I was a first year MFA student toying with the idea of applying to programs, but I hadn’t even at the time had a real discussion with my wife about whether I would be applying. Sure, I stopped by a few booths and grabbed a few pamphlets and said the minimum amount of words to whomever was at the booth in order to scurry away without seeming crazy. Yet even if I would have stuck around and chatted a bit more, I didn’t even know the sorts of questions that I should be asking. Ultimately, I decided applying about a month after AWP, which meant that I now was left to slog through all the different programs via their own websites. If you are on the fence, even if you’re leaning towards not getting a PhD, here are some of the questions that I wished I would have asked.

  • What makes your program stand out?
  • Does your school have a literary magazine, and if so, are PhD students involved?
  • Is your program a strictly a creative writing program or an interdisciplinary program with a creative dissertation?
  • What are you looking for in an applicant?
  • How many years does your program typically take to complete?

These are not the only questions that I would ask now that I have gone through the process of applying. However, asking some of those basic questions would have saved me hours, perhaps even days, of research over the summer when I finally committed.

Plenty of people have written about how people should feel okay skipping panels in order to make friends, scope out the book fair, see the local sights, etc. Yet last year I went to panels. So many panels. I skipped meals to go to panels. There are two things that I wished I would have done. First, I wished I would have walked out of a few of them after a few minutes when it was clear that the panel wasn’t what I was expecting for whatever reason. Some panels weren’t what was advertised and others were unorganized and still others had panelists that used the opportunity to deliver an off-topic manifesto. I watched others around me walk out, but I didn’t want to be rude or miss the small nugget of information that drew me in. What I discovered after sitting through so many panels was that usually I knew in the first five minutes if I’d get anything out of the panel. Ultimately, there is just too much going on at the conference to sit through a lackluster panel in hopes that somehow it’ll magically get better. Sometimes I stuck around because the panel was sparsely attended, and with every other attendee that bailed, I felt like it made me feel increasingly obligated to stay. However, there wasn’t going to be a test on the information. The panelists weren’t memorizing my face. No one was going to track me down amongst the other 12,000 attendees to call me out for walking out. Sure panelists want to have a full room, but your time is too valuable to waste on information you already know or don’t care about. You’re better off heading to the book fair, attending a new panel, grabbing a bite to eat, meeting up with a friend, or even just heading to the hotel room for some down-time.

The other thing that I think is worth mentioning about panels is that even if it may seem boring, it is worth going to panels that pertain to your career goals. Despite having teaching experience, a Master’s in the Arts of Teaching, and having taken Teaching Creative Writing, I really wished I would have attended more panels on creative writing pedagogy. A panel on the use of rubrics in creative writing isn’t quite as exciting as something like “the politics of mixed media,” but ultimately making better rubrics will serve me better in both the short and long term. This is not to say to not go to those highly specialized panels that you’ll only get at a conference as big as AWP; however, I think it is worth really considering your personal career aspirations—whether it be education, publishing, or elsewhere—and attending some practical professional developmental panels instead of always being lured away.

Perhaps my biggest regret is that I wish I would have spent more time at the Florida Review table. My thought process was that I had paid money and flown across Florida to California, so I should spend most of my time wandering about instead of stuck at a table. I tried to occasionally stop by the table in order to keep company with whomever was signed up for the hour. However, what I ended up discovering was that I found it so much easier to meet new people when I was manning a table instead of dropping by other lit mags tables. I’m naturally introverted, so talking to a staffer (or even worse, an editor) for a lit mag that I admire keeps me up at night as I think about the response I should have said. Yet, when I have a role, I find it so much easier to interact. It’s why I’m a talkative teacher but a quiet student. It’s why I am confident performing on a stage but find it hard to talk to the cashier at Publix. At least for my personality type, having a task and people coming to me makes it easier to meet people. After answering a few questions about the Florida Review, it was easier for me to ask people where they are from and what genre they write in. It still feels counterintuitive, but I had more success networking while at the Florida Review table than all the time spent wandering to other tables, waiting for my “in.”

I don’t think that there is necessarily a wrong way to attend a large conference. However, my trial-run last year has me all the more excited for AWP in DC next month.

Brendan Stephens is a second year MFA fiction student. His work has been in Into the Void magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, the Little Patuxent Review, and elsewhere. Currently he teaches Introduction to Creative Writing and previously has taught at the secondary level. He made business cards for AWP 2017 and feels weird about the prospect of saying, “Here’s my card.”

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