The annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference is a pageant of literary celebrities, late-night dance parties, and, of course, swag. But if you look at all closely, AWP can also be a stew of neurosis and anxiety, full of name-dropping and self-doubt, a place where many young writers in poetry, fiction, and literary journalism are made acutely sensible of their precise status on the rungs of People Who Matter. Given how rickety the ladder is these days, they're not always pleased with what they see.
If you go to AWP hoping to sell your novel, or to buttonhole that editor who never responded to your manuscript submission, you'll probably be disappointed. As Tom Dibblee wrote during the 2014 AWP in Seattle: "AWP feels like a celebration of proximity to writing rather than a celebration of writing itself. All the panels. All the magazines that nobody reads. All the swag. It makes me want to go home, forget my lanyard, and actually write something." The antidote to this skeptical view is to show up not as a writer but as a reader, looking for new books and new writers to love—plus the chance to make friends.
At this year's conference in Tampa, Florida, I got to enjoy myself as Pacific Standard's ambassador, with the privilege to roam about handing copies of Pacific Standard to all sorts of friends whom I don't normally get to see. That meant lunching with Lyz Lenz and Stassa Edwards on the wharf, saying hello to the author (and PS contributor) Vanessa Hua, and giving thanks in person to several of the writers who contributed to our "Postcards From America" project, including Patrick Nathan, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Lisa Lucas. For a brief and glorious second I even got to meet Danez Smith, whom Hanif profiles in our 10th-anniversary issue. Along the way, I was lucky enough to plot collaborations with editors at rival publications, and to pinch their freelancers when they weren't looking.
That's the secret to enjoying AWP: Go there to delight in the talents and successes of other people. If you fixate on your own you'll be miserable.
This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of PSmag.com.