Thursday, February 23, 2017

AWP Conference a networking-free zone

You know you had a good conference when it’s still on your mind two weeks later. And I did enjoy the AWP Conference, which took place Feb. 8-11 in Washington, D.C.

I was just out of graduate school when I went to my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Kansas City way back in 2000. I was also the managing editor of a literary journal, and I recall a handful of people asking for my business card, which shouldn’t have surprised me—that’s a thing people do at conferences. The next year, 2001, the conference was in Palm Springs, and I’d ordered a box of a thousand business cards, which seemed like plenty.

It was plenty. I gave away three cards, and I practically had to beg people to take them. I think I still have them in a drawer, and they’re super useful for those times when I need to pass myself off as the managing editor of Mid-American Review.

I’d been to professional conferences before AWP, and business cards are a legitimate thing—the kind of thing you want to be sure to pack. But AWP isn’t really a business card kind of venue. It’s actually kind of … huggy.

Someone who has never been to AWP may reasonably go and expect an ordinary conference, and ordinary conferences involve networking. But networking works a little differently among writers. We network best by reading each other’s work, and we build connections by reviewing and recommending writers, or by dozens of other instances of interaction based upon our art.

A person new to the culture may well go to this annual conference and expect the kinds of networking opportunities we would enjoy at a meeting of solar panel salespeople or shoe manufacturers or IT consultants. In the community of novice writers, there is a pervasive sense that writers get ahead through the virtue of their connections.

I won’t go so far as to claim that this isn’t true; I’ve had work solicited for journals or anthologies by friends, and it’s the people I know who tend to invite me for a reading. But I don’t think connections get us published; it’s the strength of the work that does that, perhaps in conjunction with a writer’s reputation. An editor may well recognize that a writer would add an element of diversity to the mix, or an editor may know that I fit into a demographic they seek. I’m not just Karen Craigo; I’m a middle-aged Midwestern woman who writes poems about motherhood. I was recently reviewed and interviewed by an acquaintance for Literary Mama because I fit the bill of a mom who writes. I would hope my name might come to mind if someone wanted to publish an anthology of Missouri or Ohio or Midwestern writers, or one for women over forty. These things happen.

But I’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. I can attest that the typical route to publication is through writing diligently, revising mercilessly, and submitting endlessly. Writers make connections along the way—the same editors reject us multiple times, or maybe ultimately publish us; we frequently find the same names alongside ours in tables of contents; we show up at the same festivals and readings and, yes, conferences. As in any field, we writers gradually get to know one another.

I went to my first AWP Conference with some flawed ideas about networking and making important connections. Seventeen years later, I found I had almost too many connections, to the extent that I hid out in my hotel room about half the time. But here are a few good ways to build relationships within a huge gathering of writers: Buy other people’s books. Have the writers sign them. Say hello to editors and pick up guidelines and sample issues. And get the most out of panels and readings.

After a short time, it becomes apparent how small the literary world really is. In seventeen years, you’ll have more hugs than you can handle—no business card required.