Advice for the AWP Newbie from an AWP Oldie

February 24, 2020 § 10 Comments

suzane robers badgeBy Suzanne Roberts 

  1. Pace Yourself. Put together a schedule of things you want to attend, but don’t try to go to a panel in every time slot. Shoot for no more than two panels a day, and try to hit the keynote readings. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got to see people like W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Dereck Walcott read now that they are gone.  Seeing these luminaries was more memorable than those times I went to a 26-person marathon reading in a crowded bar with bad free beer.
  2. Break up your visits to the book fair. If you spend too much time in the din of the flickering lights in the windowless book fair, you will, more than likely, lose your mind. I recommend visits to the book fair on the first day when everyone is fresh and giddy with jetlag, and they all want to talk to you and foist their free things on you (like candy and pencils). And go on the last day, when everyone has been glued to her table for three days and has turned into a zombie. These people will be staring into their phones to keep themselves from eating your brains. But it’s Saturday, and your voice is gone, and you won’t have to talk to them. And the cheap books and journals that no one wants to cart home will make up for braving the zombie apocalypse.
  3. Hydrate and bring your own food. Bring a bottle to fill with water and have it with you at all times. Also pack some energy bars, nuts, and other healthy snacks. Otherwise, you will live off book fair chocolate, hotel coffee, and cheap well drinks, and by Saturday, you will be a shaking sallow version of yourself, and won’t be able to remember your own name. You might have even joined the zombie apocalypse. Three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but in AWP-time, it might as well be forever, plus a few years. And if you can, schedule a recovery day. I am writing this the Monday after the Portland AWP. I slept 12 hours last night. It is now 4:30 PM, and I am still in my pajamas. I might take a shower and put on clean pajamas. Then again, I might not.
  4. Be like Cinderella. This one took me about 15 years of AWP to learn. If you go to the lobby bar after midnight, you are likely to say or do something you will later regret, although arguably, the person you say this in front of will be too busy worrying about her own post-midnight transgressions the next day to think about you. When you get home from dinner or that off-site event, repeat this mantra as you walk to the elevators: Nothing good comes of going to the lobby bar after midnight. I repeat this mantra to myself (it mostly doesn’t work for me, but it might work for you). And if you do end up at the lobby bar after midnight (or the VIP Party, which you would have to sneak into), here’s some advice: How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP. (Though be forewarned, in Portland, the VIP party was switched to a one-time event, so by the time you find out when and where it is, it will be over. It’s a secret now. Like Fight Club. This might be because of me.)picture63
  5. A word about FOMO. You are going to miss about 99% of what is going on at AWP. That’s okay. Be present where you are. Enjoy the people you are with. Look at the people you are talking to in the eye, rather than scanning the room for someone else to talk to. If you keep looking around for someone more important to talk to, the people you are in conversation with will correctly assume you are an asshole, and never want to talk to you ever again. This is not the way to make new friends.
  6. Think twice before taking on an AWP boyfriend or girlfriend. I am too old and too married to know if hooking up is still a thing at AWP, but I’m going to assume it’s still very much A THING. But remember, you and that funny way you scream during orgasm may very well end up in a poem or essay, or worse yet, a best-selling memoir. And this can prove to be problematic if you are married or otherwise committed. Remember where you are. And with whom. These are people who believe, like you probably do, that the story is more important than you are. And just so you know, sleeping with a famous poet will not magically help your verse, nor will it help you become a famous poet. You have never heard of me? See. It didn’t work.
  7. Think of network as a noun and not a verb. There are people who always complain about AWP. They say they hate AWP. This might be because they use the word network as a verb. Instead, think of network as a noun. You are part of a huge 15,000-person network of writers. AWP is a place where you can connect with your friends and hopefully make new ones. It’s not a place to meet someone who will want to publish your book. I have seen too many graduate students wandering around the book fair, desperately gripping onto their master’s thesis, hoping that the editor of Penguin/Random House will see them, rip said manuscript from their hands, and declare it a masterpiece. This is not how things work (you know that already, right?).  The people at the book fair tables are likely graduate students themselves, and in the 15 years I have been to AWP, I have never seen a bona fide representative from Penguin/Random House there looking for the next great American novel. Yet, I have met many of my dearest friends at AWP, for which I will be forever grateful. These friendships have sustained me and have made my writerly life less lonely and way more fun; these connections have enriched my life in ways a book deal never would. So, if you see me at AWP, please say hello.
    Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) and the travel essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Her work has appeared recently in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University, serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate, and lives in South Lake Tahoe. For more information, check out her website: or follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.


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