AWP Advice from a Young Curmudgeon
Sadly, Emily Post died thirteen years before the first AWP conference, and thus did not offer advice on how best to conduct oneself at the largest literary gathering in North America. Luckily, you have me, someone who has never been compared to Emily Post once in his life. All the same, Electric Literature asked if I might answer some FAQs on how best to navigate AWP and I was more than happy to, because I love telling people what to do and believe everything would be right as rain if people would just do as I say. So, here we go:
Any packing tips for AWP?
Don’t forget your meds. If you’re attending AWP, you’re probably a writer, and if you’re a writer, you’re probably on medication. Sweeping generalization? Not especially. So whether you’re on a low dosage of Zoloft or an industrial-sized dose of Lithium, make sure you’ve called in your refills and packed your pills (in your carry-on!) before heading to Los Angeles. There are many, many situations one may find oneself in during AWP wherein one may desire the accompaniment and aid of one’s benzodiazepenes. And if you have them to spare, remember: sharing is caring. If you have foregone traditional Western medicine in favor of yoga, kale, and mindfulness, it still may be a good idea to invest in some Tylenol PM, which you can absolutely take in the AM for fun.
There are many, many situations one may find oneself in during AWP wherein one may desire the accompaniment and aid of one’s benzodiazepenes.
Do I need to wear a different outfit every day of the conference?
Absolutely not, sunshine. You will see, like I have, that even a titan like Anne Carson is an unapologetic outfit-repeater in a conference setting.
Any travel tips?
Whether you’re driving, flying, or arriving by some other form of transportation that I can’t think of right now: arrive alive if you can. AWP is a good time, all the more so when you’re in one piece.
Will I find an agent or sell my manuscript at AWP?
No. Desperation is accompanied by a foul odor, one that’s easily detectable from a distance. I’m sure your novel-in-progress is wonderful, and I’m sure you have Pushcart Prize nominations coming out of your ears, but remember: you’re surrounded by thousands of people who are trying to do the very same thing you are. Be buoyed, not discouraged, by that.
Should I try to become best friends with Maggie Nelson and suggest we get matching tattoos and/or friendship bracelets and maybe go on a vacation to Reykjavik?
Nope, that’s my thing. Sorry. I got there first, get your own.
What do I do if and when I run into a hero of mine?
Start reciting your favorite lines. Ask for pictures. Show your tattoos. Cry. It’s extremely exciting to meet your heroes, and you shouldn’t necessarily feel pressured to keep your light under a bushel in such scenarios. Just, you know, don’t follow the writer around after your encounter.
Are the people I interact with on Twitter going to be anything like I imagine them to be in person?
Probably not! Do not be surprised nor take it personally when, after finally meeting someone with whom you’ve had many fun interactions on the Internet, you find you run out of things to say rather quickly. We’re all shy weirdos; Twitter and Facebook just make it easier to seem like we aren’t. Treat it like speed dating and move on to the next booth at the book fair.
For whatever reason, most panels and readings end with time for questions from the audience. Why this has not yet been outlawed is beyond me.
I’m at a panel and I’m thinking of asking a question. Any advice?
Oh, for the love of Jesus my pearl, don’t. For whatever reason, most panels and readings end with time for questions from the audience. Why this has not yet been outlawed is beyond me, but I do plan on getting a petition up over at change.org the second I learn how to do that. Until that point, however, at such events one will inevitably be forced to sit in a conference room while someone in the audience asks a question — or, more often than not, uses up-speak to make an unsolicited comment — that is either asinine, pointless, already-been-covered, or upsetting. Sometimes all of the above. I’m not saying that nothing meaningful can come from a Q&A session — it can’t, but that’s not my point. Rather, I ask you — you whose palms are itching, you who can barely wait to raise your hand — to go through a few simple steps in your mind before doing so. First off, ask yourself: Is what I have to say even a question? Now ask yourself: is it something you must ask publicly? If you force your question through these machines and find it still intact and necessary to ask — well, you’re probably incorrect, but if you insist, a few more tips. Before raising your hand, phrase the question in your head. Rehearse it. Delete the preface, because it doesn’t need to be there. Get it condensed and concise. Cut it in half. And then? Don’t say anything at all. It’s good to have a lot unanswered in one’s life.
What is the most important rule of AWP?
Use protection! That novelist you jerked off at Breadloaf, that poet you got to third with at Sewanee, all of your exes and ex-flings from various MFA programs and magazines across the country — they’re all going to be there, there’s going to be a surplus of drugs and alcohol, and you’re probably going to sleep with them. This may or may not be a mistake; that will reveal itself the week after the conference if and when you’re drafting or fielding multiple emotional emails about the improbability of romance from a distance while listening to Tori Amos’s “Hey Jupiter” on a loop. (Friend of mine.)
In the words of my seventh grade sex-ed video, don’t have a party without balloons. (Or, you know, do have a balloon-free party. We pretty much all have HPV as I understand it and there’s a forty-foot wall of water headed our way that’s going to wipe out the country by 2050. Live a little. Get an STD. Just remember: what happens at AWP ends up in essay collections that anywhere from fifteen to twenty people will read.)
Just remember: what happens at AWP ends up in essay collections that anywhere from fifteen to twenty people will read.
So, now that the conference is over, should I bombard everyone with whom I networked with emails so that they don’t forget me/might publish me?
The first few days after AWP are not unlike the first few days after having one’s family in town: you’re watching a lot of Netflix, you’re tired, you’re cranky, and if you’re checking your email at all, you surely aren’t responding to it with haste. Give it a week, at least. Do not mention the possibility of sending a poem/story/essay their way. If they want you to, they’ll ask. Remember what I said about desperation’s foul odor? It can be sensed through the cloud. (I have not the faintest concept of what the cloud is. Just don’t be pushy.)
The first few days after AWP are not unlike the first few days after having one’s family in town: you’re watching a lot of Netflix, you’re tired, you’re cranky, and if you’re checking your email at all, you surely aren’t responding to it with haste.
I’m back home and no one in my office seems to care about my conference experience! What do I do?
No one at your office has heard of half any of the people you were ecstatic to meet, and that isn’t their fault. Treat your return to work and life like your return to high school after summer camp, where you were forced to recognize that it’s of little interest to most people what you did while you were away, or what you do at all.
One week after the conference, should I write Maggie Nelson a long-winded email saying how lovely it was to run into her, and doesn’t she feel a kind of kismet bond with me, and when next will our paths cross, we should get coffee?
Well? Do you?
Have I spoken immoderately or indelicately? Have I said something that is in diametrical opposition with your own experience of attending AWP? Well, they asked me to write this essay. So, leave it in the comments if it makes you feel better. I’m not even going.