This Writer's Life

Getting the Most Out of AWP

Attending an AWP Conference is exhilarating and exhausting. Watching thousands of introverted writers awkwardly networking is, of course, part of the fun; being too overwhelmed to even nod at someone you know is not. At the most recent AWP (Portland 2019) I admit to moments of complete and utter bewilderment, whether I was trying to decide between two panels scheduled for the same time slot or whether I should pay $12 for a tiny dish of white rice and vegetables at the food concession.

Making AWP worth it, at least for me, requires evaluating the conference through more than one set of criteria. First of all, I don’t go very often. The last AWP I attended was Chicago 2012. I left that conference with a gig as a column writer for Connotation Press and a whole new artistic practice: video poetry. Those two things made the conference worth it for me.

AWP Portland made sense too. It was close to my home in Eugene, so no airplane tickets. My husband went with me, so I had someone to share the experience and hang out with. On the very first day, I had the amazing good luck to sit right next to Tim Barnes, who edits the Friends of William Stafford Journal. We began talking through our mutual acquaintance, Ingrid Wendt, and I offered to write an article for the journal. Tim accepted, so I already scored a possible publication.

Next, I managed to attend some excellent panels. This is not always the case – I can hardly remember any of the panels I attended at past AWPs. However, this time my husband and I spent some quality time with the conference program and selected panels that appealed to both of us. Not an easy task by any means – there were hundreds to choose from. 

I know some people go to AWP to network, to roam the Book Fair, to attend off-sites and book-signings, and to hear the keynote speakers. These are important reasons, and I’ve done my share. However, my main reason for spending the time and money that AWP requires is to get ideas for writing and/or teaching. To that end, I have a process I’ll share with you.

As soon as I get home, I get out my notebook and the conference program. For each panel I attended, I locate the panel description in the program, and then I write down the title, the date, and the names of the people who gave the panel. Then I write. After I fill up a page or two, I highlight anything that stands out. Then I look for connections, circling that which seems related.

For example, I attended a panel titled “Mind-Meld: Re-imagining Creative Writing and Science.” As I wrote, I remembered that panelist Adam Dickinson stated that he’d used himself as a science experiment. He talked about the psychological stress of testing himself daily to see what chemicals and bacteria lurked within his body. He also mentioned that serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for well-being, is made in the gut. As you can see from the page in my notebook, I connected this idea to others I’d remembered from the panel:

As I repeat this exercise for each of the nine panels I attended, I become aware of similar ideas arising from various presentations. For example, in the panel “The Strength of Complexity and the Power of Limitations: Writers on Disabilities,” three writers with physical and mental disabilities described their lives, including psychological stress and depression, a topic I also encountered in “Mind-Meld.” I wonder if something in Adam Dickinson’s self-research was relevant to the topics raised in “The Strength of Complexity.”

From these ideas, I know I’ll be able to create new writing or add to what I’m currently writing.

Categories: This Writer's Life

3 replies »

  1. I love this article, thank you for sharing your strategy. My AWP Tampa (2018) experience was really fun because I did A LOT of planning — combing through the panels as soon as they were finalized. Funny, the only panel I remember was of Florida poets. . . I packed energy bars and a one page book summary (that I never gave anyone). Collected books, magazines and swag of course, but tried to be thoughtful about it. I also took my sweet husband 🙂 We enjoyed two offsite events and I broke the bookfair into two days. But your point of following up is really wise, wish I’d done it.

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