I've been attending the AWP Conference for the past several years. It's still a stressful experience, although nowhere as overwhelming as it once was. I've seen friends of mine walk through the bookfair for the first time, their eyes opaque, their jaw faintly trembling, and I realise this is how I must have looked back then, and probably, to a large extent, still look.
The stress involved in AWP comes, I think, from two sources. The first is that there are just so many people. Every writer wants to believe in his or her unique craft and vision. This attitude is harder to maintain, however, in a room of 14,000 other aspiring writers. During my first walk through the hundreds of booths of writing programs, small presses, literary magazines, and artist colonies, I remember thinking: either I'm mistaken, or all these other people are. Such a thought, of course, does not lead to a happy state of mind.
The second source of stress comes from the oddness of AWP itself. For a fiction writer, the world is divided into three groups: writers, readers, and agents / publishers. You want to impress a publisher and reach readers. But at AWP, it's just other writers. There are very few (non-writing) readers and also relatively few agents and New York editors (agents do visit AWP, but that's not the focus. There are lots of smaller conferences where meeting an agent is far easier to do). As a result, one can walk around feeling unsure what to do.
I'm supposed to network. How? To whom?
On the other hand, AWP is maybe the best place to learn about the world of literary magazines and small presses. You can talk to editors, leaf through their publications, get a chance of where to submit your work. I also love it for the chance to meet friends, buy books, learn about unusual publishing opportunities, listen to talks on the craft of fiction. I also love sitting on a table of my own, selling stuff to conference attendees. It brings out my demon salesman side.
For people new to the conference, I offer these five tips to have a fun, calm, and affirming AWP conference.
1. Tell yourself that everyone feels as nervous as you. The human mind has a tendency, when under stress, to protect itself with an abrasive, tough, spiked shell: the ego. (“In Hell,” says Blake, “all is self-righeousness”.) The thicker that shell becomes, the less happy you actually are, and the less fun to be around. At AWP, as everyone is protecting their self-esteem with as strong an ego as they can muster, interacting with people can become stressful. When a particular person seems dismissive, or distant, or snooty, it's worth reminding yourself that fear, fatigue, and self-doubt are probably at the cause of that behaviour.
2. Have something to offer people. If you want to talk to writers you admire, come prepared with something that benefits them. Tell a writer you're preparing a review of their latest novel and you have a quick question, or that you're creating a new magazine for which their work would be perfect.
I think that's much more appealing, if done politely, than simply walking up and talking about yourself, complaining about your difficulties getting published.
3. Get on a bookfair table. I find it very soothing to sell something other than myself. If you aren't already scheduled to work on a literary magazine or writing program's table, you could simply email them ahead of the conference and offer to sit on the table for an hour or two, helping out.
4. Arrive to panels early, and leave early, too. Last year, most panels were outrageously overcrowded. People sat on the floor, leaned against walls, listened from outside the door. By Friday, it was clear that you needed to arrive half an hour early to be sure of a seat: in other words, it's impossible to attend two panels in a row. Perhaps this year it will be less of a crush, but I wouldn't bet on it.
I would also recommend leaving as soon as the presenters open the panel up to questions. Many writers are excellent public speakers and lecturers, and I've learned a lot from panels at AWP. But very few writers seem good at thinking on their feet and answering questions in a way that really explains something new (Charles Baxter is an exception, but he may be proving the rule). Save yourself the 15 minutes at the end of the hour, and use the time to chill out, re-read the bookfair map, check facebook etc.
5. In the bookfair, when talking to literary magazines, ask the editors, “In the last issue, what's the piece you're most proud of?” One of my old frustrations with the AWP bookfair was that many lit mag editors seemed really bad at explaining the kind of work they're after. You ask, “What kind of fiction do you like?” and they gaze at you, blankly grinning, and reply, “Good fiction.” Or you ask about the magazine's aesthetic, and they say, “We like everything. Just submit.”
I've since discovered that editors love talking about their own processes and challenges, and so I ask the above question all the time. It gets interesting conversations going.
A few more suggestions:
1. read Roxane Gay's piece on this same subject.
2. Explore the city: I can recommend the wonderful bar Rumba (a short walk from the convention centre), with incredible happy hour vegetarian tacos ($2 each) and pours of the exquisite Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Caña.
3. Say hello to me. I'm friendly! I'll be sitting for part of each day on Burlesque Press's table, at bookfair table I1. I'll also be reading on Friday night, at possibly the most exciting reading/party of the conference, “Bootleg Lit.” Kwame Dawes, Jennifer F. Steil, Ira Sukrungruang and several other great writers will read, and then the drinks will be free (until the money runs out). It starts at 6pm in the Pine Box bar.