25 Tips for AWP Success
Paulette Perhach | February 2020
Like the life of being a writer itself, AWP is fun, fulfilling, and terrifying. What brings me there every year is that it’s the largest gathering of writers in the country, which is the exact thing that also makes me want to run for my life every time I first open the door.
For someone who sits alone in a room most days, the sheer magnitude of AWP and its humanity can cause, let’s say, feelings. The opportunity costs! The doubt! The decision fatigue!
Every night during the conference, I pass out like I’ve climbed Anxiety Mountain.
I’ve learned to calm my terrors and magnify the fun and fulfillment by using my pre-conference, non-freaked-out self to take care of the Me who will be at the conference, breathing deeply and evenly like they told me to do on the YouTube meditations for panic attacks.
Preparation is important because when you’re feeling fear or stress, you go from your higher frontal cortex, the cerebral land of creativity, memory, and imagination, down into the depths of your primal fight-or-flight brain. This is called an amygdala hijack, something like what happened to my friend who got so freaked out during AWP that she fled early, drove home crying, and quit writing for five years.
I didn’t grow up with words like “planning,” and “setting yourself up for success,” and “how convenient, my clean and folded clothes are right here where I expected them to put on with plenty of time to arrive at my scheduled event.” I had to learn this stuff.
So here’s to cluster-f*ck prevention and having a blast instead:
As Soon as Possible
1. Review the schedule. Last year my friend arrived and said, “I haven’t even looked at the events.” I had to find a paper bag to breathe into. As soon as you get there, they hand you a 10-pound holy book of all that’s happening, not the kind of thing you want to try to parse while fumbling with your name tag and dropping your water bottle to roll between the feet of everyone you’re holding up in line. Take an hour, get the app on your phone, and mark the events you want to go. If you have competing events, put the top two on your calendar and decide in the AWP moment what you’re feeling. You might even be feeling a nap.
2. Make a budget and start saving money. I get to AWP and I’m like, “Wheeeee, coffee dates, lunches, dinners, drinks, NSF charges! It’s business expenses, that’s fine.” I try to save money on breakfast by packing something simple and making my own coffee. I bring a lunch if I’m being extra good, but usually I eat and drink out for the rest of the time. There’s also buying the many, many books. Maybe you’ll make a plan for how many books you’re allowed to buy and stick to it, or maybe you’re more like me. Better pad that budget.
3. Make your transportation plans. Poet Pablo Miguel Martínez helped as a generous local guide to this list of tips, and he says, “San Antonio is a sprawling, trafficky city that exemplifies some of the worst of car culture. Public transportation outside the most narrow confines of the urban core is spotty; long waits for VIA buses are not uncommon.” Make sure you know how you’ll get to where you want to be, how long it will take you, and how much each trip might cost, especially if you have to take it twice a day.
4. Start to figure out who you know that’s going, if anyone. I prep safety blanket friends, whom I can text at any point to see where they are and just go hang out with them. You can also share you location with your crew using apps to see if you’re in the same spot without having to text nonstop. If you don’t know anyone there, you can hang out in the First Timer’s Lounge and you should definitely come the meetup I’m hosting to meet people. You can sign up to get information.
At Least One Week Out
5. Decide on a theme for the year. This is something less serious than a mission, slightly less woo than an intention. If this is your first time, you might say: seeing what it’s all about, with no pressure. If you want to start to get published, it might be: understanding the literary magazine landscape, which would have you meeting editors, visiting booths, and picking up lots of copies of lit mags. Mine is: finish your damn novel already. So you’ll find me at fiction events. What I love about creating a theme for the year is that it helps me when I’m on the fence about which event to attend. You’ll have to kill some event darlings.
6. Get to know San Antonio. Familiarize yourself with my unofficial the map of locations and recommendations, created with the help of Pablo Miguel Martínez, and bookmark it on your phone. San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the US and more spread out than previous locations, so you’ll have to walk or take transportation farther to get to restaurants or go to offsite readings. Pablo also recommends reading Stephen Harrigan's The Gates of the Alamo if you want to learn a little about the history.
7. Get to know the local scene: San Antonio is a city that’s 64% Hispanic or Latino, our nation is about 20%, but the publishing industry is only 3% (cough American Dirt fiasco cough). Check out Latinx authors at events such as El Niño as the“Man of the House": Latinx Poets Who Immigrated as Boys,Cinco: A Multigenre Reading, and Macondo and Gemini Ink: A Celebration of the Alebrijes of San Antonio. “All attendees should lend their support by attending a Chicanx-focused panel,” Pablo Miguel Martínez has written. “We should make a concerted effort to buy books by Chicana authors. And to every out-of-town participant: Please consider this a personal invitation to attend an off-site event that features gente.”
8. Set your large rocks in place. What are your Do Not Miss events? This year I’m most excited to see Jennine Capó Crucet and Kristen Arnett talking about writing funny, the McSweeney’s event, the Graywolf poetry reading,Best Practices for Plot-Making,Resisting the Exotic, and Joy Is an Act of Resistance. Prioritize, and you can let other details and events settle in around those boulders. If you really want to see an event you know will be popular, plan to get there more than half an hour early to get a seat.
9. Pack comfortable shoes and clothes you like. I often wish I had brought clothes that say, “I’m a creative person!” rather than “I’m a freelancer who’s forgotten what it’s like to be seen by anyone other than my Roomba and my reflection in the microwave!” As @AWPFashionFeed tweeted “Gloriously, be you. Put yourself together in whatever way makes you the most comfortable, the most like yourself, and if you want to be extra for AWP, do you.”
10. Make sure you have business cards, with just your name, “writer,” your email, and your social accounts. No one knows you’re a writer; just have something to hand people in case you need it.
11. Block out the day or a few evenings after the conference to process. You’ll want to follow-up with people you met, read some of the work you brought home, and—most important—lock yourself in a room with no other people to recover.
12. Put your registration code in your phone notes so you can find it quickly when you arrive.
13. Prepare a day bag. Breath mints, gum, water bottle, a comb or brush, pens, and a small notepad. Since the programming runs through lunch, have some food in your bag, like Luna bars or a banana, to prevent a hangry situation. I’m always happier with a backpack than a purse.
Day of Arrival
14. As soon as you arrive at your hotel, ask for a late checkout. Put a reminder in your phone to ding at you then.
15. Pick a chill spot. I like to find one café or corner of somewhere that I know I can retreat to if I start to develop AWP-induced agoraphobia. AWP offers multiple quiet rooms, and this year they have a Non-Fluorescent Quiet Space.
During the Conference
16. If you’re prone to anxiety, give yourself a job. My brain is a border collie that will gnaw its own leg off if it doesn’t have anything to do. Perhaps tweet out all your favorite quotes, Instagram your favorite book covers, or give yourself writing assignments during downtime.
17. Put your phone down! You didn’t travel all this way to be around writers only in the digital sense. Once, sitting at a conference, I threw my phone in my purse, frustrated that I kept resorting to it. I smiled at the woman next to me, and she smiled back. A year later, I have billed that woman more work than any other client in the past 12 months. The people around you at AWP are the people who can shape your career. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to them.
18. Prep some chat points. “So, you like stuff?” works for Ralph Wiggum, but it’s not likely to make you feel like you know what networking is. Asking someone, “What are you working on?” will send them spinning right into the spiral of despair. Instead, try “What kind of writing do you like?” “What’s been your favorite event so far?” or “What are you reading right now?”
19. Track the people you meet. Ask for cards, connect on social media, or just jot down their name and what you talked about in the moment. You think you’ll remember later, but you won’t.
20. If you have time at night, look up people you’ve met on LinkedIn or other social media. You might find that you have more to talk about during the conference.
21. Have a plan when you meet a fancy writer. When I saw George Saunders on a plane, I just screamed “I love you!” and I really appreciated that he didn’t ding for security. Meeting someone whose work has deeply affected you is exciting, but also causes paralysis. We deal in words, like, full time, so why is it so difficult to make the right ones come out of our mouths? Here’s my formula: If the person seems busy or there’s people waiting, I like to go with a simple, “Thank you for your work. It’s [kind adjective].” You’re giving them something—appreciation—and they can respond with “You’re welcome,” leaving both parties with light warm fuzzies, and no need for alarm. If I have more time, I like to thank them for the specific way their work affected me. “Thank you for your work. [Title of work] really [taught me/showed me/helped me] ______.”
22. Sit toward the front. When I was failing out of 6th grade, my mom had all my teachers move me to the front row. I do the same for myself now, sitting in the first few rows, because if I don’t, I’m watching the Back of the Head Theater and making up stories. Toward the front, I pay more attention, I can’t bail into smartphone land without people seeing, and I just get a more present and valuable experience.
23. Go to local businesses and tip well. Around the conference center, you will find an IHOP, Denny’s, and Whataburger, and if I find you walking in there, I will tackle you. Pablo Miguel Martínez volunteered to help me build the map of restaurants you should go to. He’s also written about how the “affordability” we’re all so pleased about is a product of inequality. “If things here are more affordable than in other conference cities, it’s likely because of low wages earned by hospitality industry workers, a majority of whom are brown,” he says. So go local, tip, and tip like you’re not a writer.
After the Conference
24. Let people know how they can help you. Connect with the people you talked with on LinkedIn or social media. If you’re looking to find an agent, an editor, or more writing community, don’t be afraid to let them know and ask them to keep you in mind if they hear of any opportunities. This is how a career works, I promise.
25. Look ahead for next year. If you start saving a little bit at a time, it won’t be a financial bomb that detonates over a single month. Calculate how much you spent this year, estimate how much you think it will take to get to Kansas City, divide that by 12, and start saving that amount each month to make your life easier. A writer’s life is hard enough.
Paulette Perhach is an author and writing coach who offers AWP prep checklists and other resources you can get by signing up at MailChimp. Her work has been in the New York Times, Hobart, Elle, Vice, Marie Claire, Yoga Journal, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. She's the author of Welcome to the Writer's Life, selected as one of Poets & Writers' Best Books for Writers. Her work has been anthologized in The Future Is Feminist from Chronicle Books, along with work by Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Caitlin Moran, and Audre Lorde. She writes about all writers need to thrive—craft, business, personal finance, and joy—at WelcomeToTheWritersLife.com.