The Ultimate Guide to Not Letting the AWP Do You

April 2, 2015 § 6 Comments


awp2013By Alexis Paige

 (A note on this Blog Classic Repost: I wrote this tongue-in-cheek survival guide two years ago on the eve of AWP 2013 Boston, after my first AWP sent me into an agoraphobic tailspin. Here’s what I know going into this year’s AWP: leave some room in the suitcase for books and “Write Like a Motherfucker” mugs from The Rumpus, everyone feels awkward while networking-as-a-verb at the bookfair, and if you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not doing AWP correctly.)

I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.

I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.

I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.

With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)

On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.

It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.

First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.

Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.

The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.

If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.


Alexis Paige’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. She lives in Vermont, and you can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.

Come see Alexis at AWP 2015, at the Revising the Personal Essay panel with Penny Guisinger, Sarah Einstein, and Sven Birkerts, on Friday, April 10th, at 10:30 AM, in Room M100 D&E on the Mezzanine Level.

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§ 6 Responses to The Ultimate Guide to Not Letting the AWP Do You

  • SD Gates says:

    I always feel out of sorts at conferences, never feel like I really deserve to be there, because all the other attendees look so serious and seem to really belong. They look like writer types, I just look like I’m pretending.

  • kateflaherty says:

    I was in Minneapolis a couple months ago, and I stayed at the Hilton. I know you don’t want to go shopping again, but I highly recommend the wig shop across the street from the hotel! Not only is it fabulous, but if you bought a wig, you could go incognito if you change your mind and decide not to be serious at AWP. . .

  • M.I.L.K. says:

    My first AWP I went to a show the night before, met a boy, and proceeded to blow off the whole thing in favor of music, dancing, and hangovers. Don’t much regret it, either.

  • Mom says:

    Haha! Thanks for the giggle! I can relate to lots of what you say–I could have easily been in the room next to yours smoking in my undies and staring at the empty triangular box. Maybe AWP will swing thru Indy some time, and I can storm it on my own home turf🙂

  • ninagaby says:

    Ahh, Boston tagging along with Alexis, getting into a bit of trouble with the giggles in front of a thousand people and causing David Shields to stop reading and admonish us, I remember it fondly. Glad I didn’t succumb to smoking again after 40+ years. It was a tempting stress reducing consideration.

  • I love this! I made my living as a consultant, and always hated networking. I have a few conferences to go to this year and your post will be my manual.😉 Oh, and maybe I should do the wig thing Kate recommended. Now THAT sounds like fun.

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