Some Thoughts on AWP by Sandy Ebner

AWP 2016, Los Angeles (Photo: Sandy Ebner)
AWP 2016, Los Angeles (Photo: Sandy Ebner)

Two weeks ago I spent three days in Los Angeles, at AWP, the yearly convention held by the Association of Writers & Writer’s Programs. Held in a different city each year, AWP is an opportunity for writers to step away from our laptops, if only for a short while, and to bond with other writers, hopefully learning a few things in the process. It also provides us an excuse to consume large amounts of alcohol, something that many writers, but certainly not all, have a tendency to do with only the slightest degree of provocation. Trust me, this is not a criticism.

This was my first foray into the whirlwind, i.e. bacchanalia, that is AWP. During my three days in Southern California I saw no beaches, no museums, and no celebrities, not that I was looking for any. What I did see was, among other things, many hundreds of writers suffering from varying degrees of angst, stress, ennui, and, in some cases, utter terror. But I also saw, finally, in person, a sizable portion of my writer’s tribe from Facebook. That alone was worth every penny that I spent at the conference.

Other writers have written about their experiences at AWP, which I’ve always enjoyed, so I thought I’d do the same. Rather than give you a timeline of events, or narrative arc, of my time in L.A., I’ll list a few observations in no particular order of importance, which might prove helpful should you decide to give AWP a try.

Certain things about AWP are a given:

It’s expensive. Airfare, hotel room, registration, events, and dinners out, can all add up quickly, particularly in cities like Los Angeles and New York, where the cost of living requires what we like to call in the Bay Area, “stupid money” (I went to one event where I was charged $21 for a glass of Cabernet—the wine, plus a required $4 tip). There are things you can do to offset cost: using public transportation, for example, or carefully watching your food (and alcohol) budget. You might consider staying with friends or relatives who live in the area, if you’re lucky enough to have any, or waiting until the conference is held in a city close to where you live. No matter what you do, however, it will still cost you a sizable chunk of change.

It’s exhausting. Unless you spend the entire conference in your hotel room, binge-watching House of Cards (Not a joke. We’re writers. A certain percentage of us would absolutely be doing that. No judging!), you will, for most of the time, be completely spent, regardless of the amount of sleep you get. You’ll be both physically and mentally exhausted. The near-constant meet and greet, the endless attempt to pay attention to things you are either very interested in or not at all (strangely, both seem to require the same amount of mental energy), and navigating various events in a city with which you are unfamiliar, all this while battling jet lag. Case in point: I flew in from the Bay Area, less than an hour’s flight from the conference, and after three days I felt as if I’d been hit broadside by a UPS truck. To put things in perspective, most people I met flew in from back east, or from other countries. (I stand in awe.) All these things taken together, along with panels, readings, and the book fair itself can zap brain cells at an amazingly rapid rate.

Certain things about AWP are subjective: Disclaimer! The opinions stated below are entirely my own. Agree to disagree if you must.

Panels: panels are wonderful, usually, but you must always choose sleep over panels. Sleep as often and as long as you can. I cannot stress this enough. It matters not that you might miss a panel. I know this because, over the years, at this or that conference, I have chosen panel over sleep too many times to count and have lived to regret it. An ill-chosen panel is not fun. It is time you will never get back, time that stretches on ad infinitum, and sleep is, well, sleep. Note: there are two schools of thought on this, but walking out mid-panel, which sounds good on paper, is simply bad form, unless the room is dimly lit and you’re in the back row, or you’re in the middle of a coffee break.

On the first day of the conference, I attended an early morning panel for the express purpose of meeting a writer whom I admire tremendously, and who I’d looked forward to meeting in person, having known him from Facebook (the best writer’s community slash writing avoidance tool yet to be devised), and from publishing his work during my brief stint at a now defunct literary magazine. I did in fact get to meet him, but not before suffering through an hour of monotonous drudgery that can’t be adequately described except to say that a moderator can make or break a panel. Thankfully, in this particular case the experience was punctuated by readings from four gifted writers, exquisite interludes that almost made up for the soul-destroying exercise that preceded them. This is in no way meant to cast aspersions on the moderator in question. It just is what it is.

(Photo courtesy of Carol Reid)

Also, you don’t need to be at a panel to receive advice on writing and/or the writing life, if that’s what you’re hoping to find. I wasn’t looking for writing advice on this trip, mostly because there are so many wise words to keep track of, and I could only fit so much into my brain. The second night in, I was at an offsite reading in which one of the readers opened up a Q & A. Someone asked a question regarding the difficulties of getting published, at which point a half-drunk guy in the back of the room yelled, “Wear the Bastards Down!” thereby proving that you often find little gems of advice where you least expect them.

Sandy Ebner reading at AWP 2016 (Photo: Sandy Ebner)
Sandy Ebner reading at AWP 2016 (Photo: Sandy Ebner)

Events and Readings: go to as many of these as you can manage, both offsite and on. For me, they were the heart and soul of my time at AWP. They range from off-off-Broadway types of readings to more elaborate gatherings celebrating various causes, and everything in-between. In other words, there is something for everyone if you look hard enough, and you should. The most informal are by far the most fun, the ones in which you are likely to forge long-term friendships, and the ones you will remember long after you return home. They are usually held in bars or hotel rooms, places from which you can easily escape if you want to, however unlikely that may be. Note: Some people hate the whole social thing, particularly if you’ve been dealing with it all day already. If you’re one of those people, there’s absolutely no shame in escaping the madness and enjoying your solitude (sleep).

The Book Fair: I chose the last day of the conference to do the Walk of Shame, the trudge through the hundreds of booths manned by authors, editors, MFA students, publishers, and various other individuals who are at least as exhausted and hung over as everyone else at the conference, if not more so. I did this for two reasons: first, there were several editors and writers with whom I had worked in various capacities, and I wanted to say hello and to put names to faces. Secondly, I wanted to visit the booths of publications to which I planned on submitting, not to introduce myself necessarily, but to pick up a copy of the publication in question in order to familiarize myself with what they publish.

For some reason, I invariably do these kinds of things with one eye open, unwashed hair, no makeup, mismatched clothing, and an inability to form complete sentences. In this case, halfway through, with roughly two hundred booths to go, I had spent over $100 on literary magazines, novels, and short story collections that I fully intended to read, but were, collectively, so heavy that I could barely put one foot in front of the other. It goes without saying that it was in the second half of my slog where I found the editors I most wanted to meet. God only knows what went through their minds as they turned to see my bedraggled visage, standing (barely), feebly holding up my nametag lanyard as a way to introduce myself. Lesson to be learned? Don’t do this. Have a plan. Space these things out.

Do not make eye contact with anyone at any booth on the convention floor unless you are fairly sure that he or she is someone who won’t suck the life out of you. How to be sure? There is no way to be sure sure, but you can hedge your bets by only approaching journals you have either been published in, hope to be published in, or have no prayer of being published in but believe in karma and would like to buy a copy of the publication in hopes that the writing gods will look kindly upon you, if not in this life, then the next. I made the mistake of catching the eye of two young men at the New York Times booth, both clearly trying to avoid doing a face plant, but also alert enough to spot an easy mark when they saw one. Consequently, I am now the proud owner of a cardboard box that apparently works in conjunction with my out-of-date iPhone, a virtual-reality thingamajig of some sort that will spend the next ten years in the closet of my guest bedroom. I am also a new subscriber to the online edition of the paper, which I was too tired to say no to. I blame eye contact.

While this may seem unkind, I can assure you that after three days manning a booth in a cavernous room filled with neurotic writers, it’s a safe bet that most people are thinking only one thing: Please don’t stop at my booth! Unlike the first day, when adrenalin is pumping and there are Books to sell! Editors to meet! Potential MFA candidates! By the third day it’s fairly certain they won’t notice you at all, or remember you even if you do stop. So feel free to walk on by. If you do choose to stop, however, three simple words should be stamped on your brain: Don’t. Be. Rude. The writing world is small, and no one ever forgets bad behavior. We are members of a tribe. Never forget that and you’ll be fine. Tired, but fine.

Lodging: here is where it pays to remember the old adage, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” BOOK EARLY. Choose hotels as close to the conference as possible, preferably the host hotel. Since traveling often presents unforeseen circumstances, consider booking more than one and canceling the ones you don’t need. (The same goes for restaurant reservations.) Be sure to read the fine print. Avoid hotels that charge a non-negotiable cancellation fee, unless it’s absolutely unavoidable (see graph below). For those hotels that do charge for canceling after a certain date, mark that date on your calendar as a reminder to actually cancel. If this seems excessive, I assure you that it’s not.

When I, and the writers I was traveling with made our original reservations, we were lucky enough to snag three rooms in a quirky hotel that seemed perfect, not only for sleeping but also for an offsite reading we would be hosting. Two blocks from the convention center, and decorated in what we quickly dubbed, “early Moroccan whorehouse,” it had a rooftop deck, with pool, cozy alcoves scattered throughout—perfect for all the very important creative discussions we were sure to be having, and numerous bars. One month before the conference I called to confirm our reservations and was told the hotel was about to undergo a major remodel and would be closed until further notice. Naturally, at this point every hotel within walking distance of the conference was either full, or only had available rooms in the $500 per night range.

My intrepid traveling companion, and the woman I would be rooming with, sprang into action and found rooms directly across the street from the convention center, in a so-called “apartel,” which is, as the name suggests, a combination apartment/hotel that, in a perfect world, provides the advantages of both. It would, I assumed, be either the best travel deal ever found in the history of the universe, or something resembling a Turkish prison. Ours was somewhere in between, thankfully, with the exception of the beds. After reading every review I could find, both positive and negative, it was clear that the beds were going to be a problem. Almost every reviewer commented on how bad they were. Worst sleep I’ve ever had! Like sleeping on a slab of marble! 

During my fifty-four minute flight south, I came up with a plan. After I checked in and discovered that, yes, the beds were hard as rocks I used my Uber app (a must) to call for a ride, and headed for the nearest Target, eight blocks away. I promptly spent a quarter of my AWP budget buying whatever I thought might allow me (and my roomie), to sleep comfortably in this bedroom from hell: a foam mattress pad, the thickest mattress cover I could find, a blanket—I was afraid to touch the ones already in the room—and a pillow to replace the one I’d left in the Uber on my way in from the airport (traveling with my own pillow might make me a super geek, but I’m now at the age where I no longer care). I also bought a navy-blue flat sheet to use as a blackout shade, and a box fan to compensate for the windows that were nailed shut. For this I was mocked relentlessly, perhaps rightly so, but I stand by my desire to sleep comfortably, in total darkness, whenever possible! Lesson to be learned? There is no such thing as too much planning.

Despite its pros and cons, at AWP I was reminded that writers, with very few exceptions, are unfailingly kind and generous to other writers, regardless of their level of success. The ones who aren’t are simply not worth your time. Life is too short to let these people get inside your head, because they will if you let them. AWP can be a fantastic experience if you try to remember that the conference won’t be, and shouldn’t be, the same for every writer.

Would I go again? Absolutely. Would I go every year? Absolutely not. I’m way too tired.

Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor
Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor

Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.

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  1. Enjoyed reading your wrap-up. I planned ahead, had a hotel within easy walking distance and paced myself with the panels. Nice to run into friends from previous conferences in a crowded venue. Glad I took a few notes and circled the stuff I went to because it simply all blurred together. Went to one off-site reading at the Last Bookstore, which is a hoot. My planning fiasco came when it was time to get on the airport shuttle. Several arrived at my hotel, but none had me on their rosters. I had the reservation both on my phone and held a hard copy. Getting nervous about being late for my flight and perplexed about the situation, I waited while one driver called in to find out what happened. Turns out I had made my pick-up reservation for the wrong month (March) and the wrong year (2017)! Very glad the driver checked and told me what I’d done out of earshot of the other passengers.


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