4 Ways Treating AWP as a Conference and a Travel Experience Can Save Your Sanity

4 Ways Treating AWP as a Conference and a Travel Experience Can Save Your Sanity

Two weeks ago I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP) in Minneapolis, MN. It was my first time attending this conference and before I left, every writer I knew prepared me to be completely, utterly overwhelmed, probably stressed, and definitely exhausted by the experience. During the conference, I found myself using the words overwhelmed and exhausted when people asked me how I was doing. Exhausted was true, but my Crohn’s is flaring up so there are days when making breakfast is exhausting. The word overwhelmed came in the form of: “not as overwhelmed as I expected.”

By the second full day I was asking myself: “Am I doing this conference right? If I’m not overwhelmed am I doing something wrong? There are 15,000 writers here and the vast majority of them seem at least a little overloaded, what gives?”

 

After completing the conference and letting a week of reflection go by, I don’t think I did anything wrong, in fact, I think I did it right. I went to the conference and I got a feel for Minneapolis beyond the conference center and hotel. It would have been so easy to never leave those two places, and I have friends who didn’t save for a meal or two, because the conference schedule is incredible. It is jam-packed with amazing writers, editors, and publishers on instructional panels, giving readings, and manning tables at the massive bookfair. There are activities each day from 8 am to midnight with no built-in lunch or dinner breaks beyond the fifteen minutes between each panel, which were easily filled by bathroom breaks and walking between panels. Even getting coffee or concessions in the conference center took longer than fifteen minutes because of the long lines. At the evening receptions, it was common to hear “wine and cheese, thank God, I haven’t had anything to eat all day except a banana in my hotel room this morning.”

Hello, stress.

Hello, thing that stands in the way of enjoying this amazing conference. Most of the panels I went to were awesome, full of solid information that will help me move forward as a writer. The readings I heard were all spectacular. And the bookfair introduced me to some great new journals and let me catch up with some writing friends. Writers should absolutely attend this conference, but to enjoy it best and get the most out of it, you’ve got to find time to do things that stop overwhelm in it’s tracks. For me, that’s travel.

So here are four things I did to avoid the overwhelm and stress of AWP (and then also avoided the post-conference cold virus 95% of my friends went home with – and I catch everything). They’re easy so you can do them, too. And they’re relevant to many other big conferences I’ve attended.

1. Mentally prepare

The conference schedule is published well in advance of the conference on their website. Use it. I made a mini-schedule of all the things I was most interested in by copy and pasting from the website into a Word document the week before the conference. I set a limit that I could only put 3 things in the same time slot. This allowed me the freedom to choose once I arrived at AWP, but was far less daunting than the inch-thick conference catalog I was handed at registration.

Use this schedule creation time to help you accept that you won’t see everything and while it is an incredible conference, it is okay to miss things. Once you’ve accepted this you can put breaks in your schedule. Lunch is probably the most important break to list on your schedule. Most of the evening readings will have something to snack on.

2. Hangout with people who aren’t attending the conference

My husband accompanied me to Minneapolis for a bit of vacation so I was lucky enough to have a built-in travel buddy when I needed a conference break. I also met up with one of my oldest friends because she happens to live in Minneapolis. Plus, instead of staying at the conference hotel we stayed at an AirBnb where we rented a room in an apartment with three roommates.

Breaks with non-conference attendees are excellent for resting your writer-brain and getting a break from seeing what I’ll call “overwhelmed AWP face” at every corner. An overwhelmed AWP face is  little pale, a lot hungry, and equal parts delight and stress. People with this face say things like: “did you see that Example literary journal has Kit-Kats? That was my lunch.”

Headed for coffee with the husband.

I credit my breaks with my ability to retain information from the many panels I did attend. And, since I was in town for a writing conference, I inevitably ended up talking writing with my non-conference friends. One of our roommates is a musician struggling to write lyrics so we talked disciplined schedules and how much crap you have to write to get to the good stuff. My friend we met for dinner asked about the fiction I used to write, but don’t anymore and nearly convinced me to break out an old story she loves and actually finish it. And, best of all, my husband understands my career better than he ever has in our entire relationship because every time I saw him I was overflowing with writing ideas and new skills that I wanted to tell him about.

If you haven’t got a non-AWP friend, go on some solo walks.

3. Eat a big breakfast

 

Each morning, my husband got up early to have breakfast with me and we sampled restaurants near our apartment. We were staying in Uptown, which is overflowing with options for each meal of the day. Each morning I ate a big hot breakfast with eggs and bacon or pancakes or a bagel with lox, anything that would keep me full if I skipped lunch in favor of attending a panel. Despite including “lunch break” on each day of my schedule, I skipped lunch twice in favor of going to the bookfair. I didn’t miss it much, though, since I’d had my enormous breakfast. If I’d just had a banana in my hotel room I would have been doomed before the day even began.

4. Do a little sightseeing

Most likely, when you attend AWP you’ll be traveling a long distance to attend. So you’ve got to see what it’s all about. Just by arriving early, staying a day after the conference ended, and honoring one of my lunch breaks in full, I was able to explore some of the best sights in Minneapolis, including the obligatory Mall of America, Lake Calhoun, and Loring Park.

 

On my long lunch break day, my husband Kevin and I walked from downtown to Nicollet Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. While it wasn’t the most exciting excursion, I enjoyed the sunshine and practiced reading an essay that I would be reading at a reception that night. While I was reading, a goose wandered over and stood next to Kevin, and stared up at me while I read. No kidding. That goose is my favorite goose ever. And that never would have happened if I’d skipped lunch.

If you’ve attended AWP or other similar enormous conferences before, do you find them overwhelming? What are your tips for enjoying learning at these conferences without driving yourself bonkers?

 

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