If you aren’t familiar, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) hosts an enormous (12,000+ attendee) conference each year. It can leave a writer feeling energized and inspired, but can also be quite overwhelming if unprepared.
There are plenty of AWP survival articles out there, but none of them seemed to really prepare me for the experience when I went last year. The 2019 conference will be held in Portland, OR, and folks, I have some tips for you, grouped below in three categories: general advice for travel, AWP specific advice I wish I’d known before attending, and Portland specific advice to help make the most of your experience in the city.
- If traveling from out of state, make sure your form of identification complies with the new Real ID standards. In some states, you might need a passport or an enhanced ID to board the plane even on domestic flights (See “When will I need to change how I travel domestically?“). Washingtonians holding out on updating their ID need not worry; the AWP conference is in Portland this year and it’s a clear shot down the highway.
- I realized too late for AWP 2018 in Tampa that I should have packed melatonin to get to bed on time on the east coast. For everyone else in the country heading to Portland, you’ll have the opposite problem. If you’re having trouble staying awake, walk out of your hotel room in any direction and you’ll bump into any number of coffee shops to keep you going throughout the day.
- The registration line into the actual conference is quick, especially if you have your “unique code” ready. If you don’t have one, pay attention to where the shouting people are directing you.
- Bring snacks (or pack a full lunch) for inside the conference, especially if you’re manning a table. There is no guarantee food will be easily available, or you may find yourself rushing to a panel with no time to go find some. Portland has tons of great food options, but not much within close walking distance near the convention center itself. If you’re manning a table, provide snacks for people when they stop by. Fresh fruit becomes popular by day three when everyone realizes how depleted they are.
- Everything in moderation. There are more panels and people than anyone can keep track of. Go to what interests you and keep an open mind when it comes to the people you interact with. As you proceed through the conference, know that endurance is the name of the game. If you try to pack too much in, you’ll be exhausted. You’re likely to feel exhausted regardless, so pace yourself.
- Be honest with people at tables if you aren’t interested in what they are pushing but thank them for their enthusiasm and time. I have a difficult time saying no in these circumstances, and I wish I would have had a strategy for turning people down when it came to buying books, signing up for newsletters, or just meeting people in general. Some people might be offended but take a note from the PNW and avoid the small talk by being deliberate and genuine with your interactions. It’s better for everyone’s mental health.
- Ask people about their projects and about themselves. Be sincere in your interest. Be patient with people who only talk about themselves. We’re all human, learning how to be visible.
- In the same vein, try not to waste anybody’s time either. If you ask a question of a panel, be concise and to the point. This is not the time to market yourself unless your strategy is to make everyone hate you. Practice it in your head first so you’re prepared. Remember to slow your breathing if you are likely to get an adrenaline dump at the thought of even raising your hand in front of so many people.
- On the last day of the conference, as it gets closer to teardown, people start discounting items or giving them away for free because they don’t want to have to ship or carry everything back home. Though nobody is supposed to teardown until 5:05 PM, many tables start packing up around 4:00 PM. If you aren’t at the bookfair at this time, you might miss out!
- Keep an eye and ear out for after-hours activities and readings. Some of the best parts of AWP exist on the fringe of the event and shouldn’t be missed.
- The more people manning a table, the better. Two at a minimum to trade off with (so you can go to the bathroom, get food, or explore the convention), but rotating between three to four people would be ideal.
- Make sure to allow for extra space in your suitcase to accommodate the books, lit journals, buttons, and flyers you’ll be bringing back. Be mindful of carry-on size, and suitcase weight (airlines often have different fees if you surpass a certain weight limit).
- Don’t try to make friends with everybody unless that’s your jam. Most of the conversation is surface-level networking anyway. Spend time on one or two people and get to know them and their work. Take a genuine interest in the people who you feel a connection with and ask them to send you what they’re working on!
- Portland is all about walkability and public transportation. Save money on Uber/Lyft and parking by using one of many transit apps to navigate the bus, streetcar, or MAX lines. (You’ll likely want to take the red MAX line to get from the airport). There are also bike rental options to get around town with. If you can get an affordable hotel close enough to the convention, great! But know that parking near the convention center is almost non-existent.
- We can have a reputation for being coffee snobs in the PNW, but if you let them know you’re new and need help, most baristas are more than happy to guide you. The point is not to just stand in the way looking clueless. Take control of your future!
- If you think the PNW is picky about coffee, wait until somebody brings up beer. Don’t be afraid to try new things (safely!) or to ask for a recommendation from the bartender.
- Maybe don’t try certain now-legal herbal “activities” while in the conference. If you partake, do so in moderation. This ain’t your grandfather’s hobby-crop from out back.
- Be confident when crossing streets in Portland but pay attention too. Portland drivers can be very polite and will stop even if they have the right-of-way. This may be a kind gesture, but it does not keep you safe from other vehicles who may keep driving and not see you. Be especially careful of one-way streets and trains.
- Visit the downtown Powell’s, the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore.
- Voodoo Doughnut is fun for the experience, but they’re still just donuts. Try Blue Star, Coco Donuts, or literally anywhere other than Voodoo for an all-around better experience.
- Pay attention to your trash. There are different bins for a reason (garbage/landfill, recycling, and compost), but if you’re confused, ask somebody!
- If you stop by the store, don’t expect to have a plastic bag to carry your stuff out with. Most places will have paper alternatives, but your AWP tote makes for a great reusable shopping bag.
- It’s unfortunate, but Portland, along with much of the PNW has a serious problem with addiction and homelessness. Please try to treat everyone with the patience and compassion they deserve as fellow human beings, but as with any major city, be mindful of your movement late at night. I feel safe enough in most public areas at any time of the day. That said, there are some areas where you might encounter needles, including on the footbridges over the river. Pay attention to your footwear and where you’re stepping in areas that aren’t main paths.
- Bring multiple, thin layers. The PNW is known for its rain, but at the end of March, it’s just as likely to be beautiful, sunny, and warm. Even if it is rainy, you don’t often need an umbrella unless you want extra things to carry, or to advertise that you’re a visitor.
- Please keep your isms and phobias at home!