What is the AWP Conference and Why Are All the Hip Writers Tweeting About It?

Tonight through Saturday, 15,000 people are descending on the Twin Cities to talk about writing. Maybe you’ve already seen glamorous or pedestrian writers Tweeting or otherwise sharing information about their delayed flights to Minneapolis, their panel preparation, or their forthcoming readings, hash-tagging it with #AWP15.

For those attending, and for those who don’t understand and thought maybe a literary version of the illuminati was convening in the open at last, what follows is a brief explainer and evaluation of the AWP (which stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs) experience.

AWP, like most conferences, is made up of panels all day followed by readings and social events at night. The purpose of AWP — mostly sponsored by a variety of graduate-level writing programs —  is manifold. For many people who attended MFA programs, it’s essentially an excuse for an annual reunion, a chance to catch up with the friends made before life sent you in different directions.

This aspect is intense; when I attended AWP two years ago, I stayed with friends from my MFA, met up with a posse of feminist journalists, ran into college workshop classmates, bumped into my dad’s high school classmate, and reconnected with the people who ran my poetry workshop in Galway, Ireland, in 2003. They had flown to the States for the conference. Essentially, it can feel like “this is your life” for writers. This somewhat surreal experience is augmented because each afternoon through the night is dotted with “unofficial” and official readings, parties, shindigs, and private gatherings in hotel rooms and houses. Even the scene at the bar that pops up during the afternoon on site is notable and has drawn scrutiny for the hookup scene that’s fostered there. Oh yes: rumors of bad behavior follow AWP just as they dog MFA programs themselves and of course, artist’s residencies.

But the conference isn’t just a social scene. It’s also a professional development opportunity for teachers and writers alike. Many of the panels involve how to instruct writing and engage today’s students. The conference’s competitively selected panels can provide a chance to vent about literary inequalities. I’ve attended fascinating panels on race in the workshop, gender in the publishing world, and other identity issues. Many of the question and answer sessions at these panels feels like an introductory organizing meeting. Meanwhile, craft workshops about topics such as longform journalism and writing grief and trauma narratives can actually leave attendees inspired and ready to work on their own projects. This alone makes the steep tab worth it for many.

But we haven’t even mentioned the bookfair. Thousands and thousands of MFA programs, literary journals, workshops and literary organizations rent out space in a massive fair that makes your elementary school’s Scholastic bookfairs of yore look like a dollhouse. People take the opportunity to walk through the bookfair for hours, striking up conversations with literary magazine editors so that later, when they submit work, both sides can put a face to a name. Or maybe they received a kind rejection or an acceptance and want to thank the editor in person. The point is that at the book fair as at the parties and in the crush of people after the panels, the schmoozing never stops.

ElectricLit_AWPbingo_web

So: the conference is prohibitively expensive for some, the lines in the bathroom are agonizingly long, there’s often no space in the popular lectures and readings, and the social climbing and kissing-up — if you are the type to notice it— can be excruciating. But for many people who attend, AWP is also a real chance to feel like a writer, among peers, to reconnect with old friends, mentors, and students, talk about manuscripts and stalled stories, and discover what interesting new projects are afoot in the literary world.

Like Coachella, South by Southwest, and other festivals and conferences that have blown up and become major “scenes” and modern-day pilgrimages, all the flutter and noise obscures a kernel of integrity and shared artistic value. As Sasha Weiss wrote last year, “AWP feels like a giant reunion of English majors thrilled to be back at school. ”

But there’s something gently parody-worthy about the whole phenomenon, too: