Networking. Networking. Networking. I begin somewhat offhandedly, but I mean this. You want to go to AWP (the annual conference attended by most of the creative writing programs across America) because you are someone who writes, cares about writing and needs to meet people of like mind. At AWP, you will meet your peers (i.e., other undergraduates from other programs who also care about their writing). Many of these peers will go on to MFA programs and will likely end up editing some of the many literary magazines to which you submit your writing. Regardless of whether or not you intend to pursue the MFA, having a beer or getting some face time with these peers will allow them to put your mug to a name when your piece comes in, and in the land of one to five percent acceptance rates, this works in your favor.
At AWP, you will also meet those who are a little further down the line (i.e. MFA students). These are the people already editing many of those literary magazines you want to get into, so meeting them leads to the same end described above, only in the now rather than down the road. Also, these are the people who also have recently completed or are about to complete manuscripts they’ll send to contests, indie presses and literary publishers. They have good advice for you, and many of them are friends with the publishers you’ll want to familiarize yourself with.
At AWP, you’ll also meet people who have books out. These people know publishers, and if these people get to know you and your work, they may recommend you to those publishers. Thus, a conversation and an exchange of email addresses can lead to someone who has a publisher’s attention taking a look at your work and recommending you.
Once you’re out of your MFA (if you go for one), you may well find yourself at AWP for a job interview. Though its dates shift a bit annually, the conference often marks the big round of interviews for universities and colleges. You want to know the landscape and be comfortable with the scene before you end up going there for an interview.
However, AWP isn’t just a schmooze fest or a job finding machine. At its heart, this monster is about the writing. As I mentioned, the conference marks a time when nearly all the creative writing programs in America descend upon a city to network, talk shop and celebrate. In a world where the vast majority of people could care less about something all of us love passionately, it’s a very positive thing to see thousands of writers come together to celebrate their craft.
The things I mention above are those things that orbit AWP. The conference itself is also filled with wonderful panels on all manner of topics from publishing tips and creative writing pedagogy to the analysis of various literary trends and stylistic approaches toward specific genres of writing. There are many, many readings with many wonderful writers that range from the indie world all the way up to the big names all of you know. On top of this, there is the Book Fair to end all Book Fairs—literally hundreds of tables filled with gorgeous books and literary journals. It’s the kid in the candy store scene. All told, AWP is a few days spent in an alternate reality where creative writing has somehow become the center of the world. And that’s something special.
As for my personal experience at AWP, the last few years have been eventful. At the 2009 AWP, I interviewed for my position here at Ball State and had lunch with the fiction editor of the literary journal Pleiades, who asked me to send him a story, which he then published. The following year, I had the pleasure of being part of the hiring committee involved in the interviews that led to our hiring Cathy Day. I was also able to wander the book fair and meet the editors of the journals who’d taken my work over the previous year. This year I was able to meet the editor behind Atticus Books and have him tell me in person that he wants to publish my collection of short stories. We spent a good amount of time talking, and I think he came away understanding that I’m serious about my writing, an attitude he values as he’s about to make an investment in my work. All of these positive experiences have, in some way, helped me get my writing out there, and I wouldn’t have had any of them if I hadn’t gone to AWP.
Next year AWP is in Chicago. CHICAGO. It’s a three hour drive from here. It’s the city of big shoulders. One of the most kick ass towns in America. Thousands of writers will descend upon it for a long weekend. And if you’re a writer who cares about writing and the publishing world, you’ll try to go. I hope to see you there.