Why You Should Go to a Writer's Conference & Never Really Go to the Conference
AWP isn't a magic fairy that grants writing careers. And you've got to stop expecting it to be.
It's a tradition now: you and your friends from your MFA program (most now alumni) spend five days stumbling around a new city, trying to remember what road the hotel is on, running up bar tabs at the local dives, and attending a panel or two at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, the largest writer's conference. It's the thing you look forward to the most every year, for the last five years running.
Despite all of your eagerness, you still have a love/hate relationship with AWP. You've realized by your third attendance that your biggest disappointment in the conference is actually going to the conference: you get so hyped for the offsite events, the panels that you've meticulously chosen, the #AWP tweets you've retweeted, the sweet publishing contacts you're going to make. You quickly realize, after day one, that you only half-listened to the three panels you dragged yourself to, only found 20 minutes to actually make it to the book fair, and your phone has long ago died. If you're being honest with yourself, all you want is to sit in a nice corner and not talk to anyone and chug water.
But alas, you can't. You have a dinner thing to get to. And then its drinks downtown, then an uber to the diner at 2am to sober up because you are determined to make it to a 9am panel the next day (you, of course, don't).
By your fifth conference, you've come to see AWP for what it really is. You can't make every event. Most off-sites are way too far away, anyway. Some panels will be boring. Some readings will be boring. Writers you admire are less intriguing than you thought.
Of course, you're still going to be awe-struck when you see Cheryl Strayed looking fabulous at the hotel bar, or when a publisher tells you that not only did they read your latest book review, but they loved it and gave you another ARC to review. But these moments are the exception and not to be expected as the norm. AWP isn't a magic fairy that grants writing careers. Well, maybe it is. It's probably happened to other people, sure, but in five years, that's never happened to you, and you've got to stop expecting it to be.
So, then why travel across the country, put yourself through the exhaustion (and twice, terrible sickness) just for a conference that is barely a meh?
Because no matter what, after every AWP, you go back home feeling more confident, capable, and sure in yourself, of who you are, and who you want to be. Being around only other writers for five days is a fantastic reminder that you're not alone. Those hours freelancing in isolation? Hundreds of other writers across the country are doing the exact same thing, and oh look, they have faces. How nice. You also have five jobs just to pay the bills and never write fiction anymore? Join the club! The solidarity is comforting.
Also, there is nothing like drinking with your writerly friends in a new city, flirting with cute hipster publishers from Brooklyn, having a hangover for five days straight and sleeping barely six hours like you're in your early twenties, and thriving off of it. Knowing you can ignore your work email and any real life responsibilities for five days (well, sort of).
AWP is definitely not a vacation in any sense of the word. It's something else, something better. Maybe it's a good thing that there's no word to describe the glorious pilgrimage known as AWP. To define it would take away its essence. The user assigns meaning. Your AWP is different than anyone else's AWP, every single time, year after year. You never know what sort of mischief you'll get yourself into, or who the one person will be that you talk to that fills you with a drive and inspiration to keep writing like a motherfucker.
And that's why you go.