The AWP 2020 Annual Conference
A review of one of the most important writer’s conferences in North America
Earlier this year I had the good fortune of attending my first major writing conference: the AWP writer’s conference. AWP stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. They host an annual conference which they charge for. They rotate the location of the conference every year. In 2020 it was in early March at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in sunny San Antonio, Texas.
This was my first year at AWP’s conference and I wasn’t prepared for how it went down. Since I hadn’t attended before, I didn’t have a reference to draw from. It was clear in talking to various attendees that the experience this year was unprecedented and unique. Due to fears (now confirmed) about COVID-19, many attendees, vendors, and presenters pulled out at the last minute. Some folks were very upset that the conference continued to be hosted in person. There were folks with immunosuppression who were very vocal on social media about their inability to attend.
At the time that this conference was held, I had mixed feelings about the virus and decided to proceed with traveling and attending in person. Luckily, I did not contract the virus, nor have I heard of other attendees contracting it.
But let’s get onto the review of this conference. And let’s check my privilege and perspective first. I am a biracial female who is middle-aged and new to creative writing. In my career, I am a published non-fiction technical author. I have attended and spoken at many technical conferences for over a decade, but none focused on writing and publishing. I have also planned and executed large technical conferences myself, so conferences are not something new to me. In addition, I am privileged to have a career that pays me a middle-class salary, which affords me opportunities that I understand many full-time writers do not have. Please keep all of this in mind during my review.
What did I enjoy about the conference?
- AWP has a mobile app that attendees can use to select sessions and keep themselves organized. This mobile app is not nearly as sophisticated as the ones I use in my industry, but it is convenient and communicates well, which is key for a conference mobile app.
- Although many will disagree with me here, I find the conference to be value-priced. I work in the technology field and conferences there cost $1000-$2500 per person. That high price tag includes meals and attendance to special events after hours. Paying the AWP early bird bundle rate of $230 for the conference registration + a 1-year membership to AWP out of pocket is very cost-effective for me.
- The conference took the coronavirus fears seriously (well, that is debatable for folks who believe the conference should have been canceled), and I think it was executed well in spite of everything else. There were signs and notices everywhere indicating that the conference was a “touch-free” zone, with hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes for extra measure. There were also extra protocols given to session presenters instructing them to avoid sharing microphones, etc.
- The last-minute speaker cancellations had both a positive and negative impact on the conference. The positive is that there was much experimentation for panel sessions where multiple speakers had canceled. This was hit and miss, but also innovative at times. I appreciated how the conference and speakers came together to make it work. I’ll address the negative impact in the next section.
- The smaller attendance actually allowed for a more intimate setting. Multiple veterans commented on how this felt like a throwback to the old days when the conference was much smaller.
- No one seemed sick. I didn’t hear any coughing, sneezing, nor did I see any feverish attendees. It’s quite possible that people were asymptomatic, but for the most part, it seemed like healthy people attended and did their best to abide by the “touch-free” guidance.
- I’ve been at multiple technical conferences at this San Antonio Convention Center, so I was already familiar with the space. I used that to my advantage and chose a hotel, not in the conference block that was cheaper and allowed me to valet my car for no additional charge.
- Everyone was super nice. I am an introvert by nature, so I didn’t make it a point to go out and meet people. I didn’t know anyone at the conference in advance, as this is a relatively new industry for me. Instead, I talked to a handful of people who happened to attend the events that I attended. They were all writers, and some were full-time writers. Everyone went above and beyond to answer my questions as a newbie creative writer, and they exchanged contact information with me in case I had questions after the conference.
- Some folks in the writing industry will disagree with me (based on the criticism on social media that I’ve already seen), but this is, by far, the most inclusive conference I’ve ever attended. I’ve never attended a conference in my industry where there are hundreds of breakouts for different minority groups, nor arrangements made for folks with special needs. I feel awful saying this — in my specific technical industry, I almost never see folks in wheelchairs because it’s too “costly” to make inclusive arrangements. And most of the diversity sessions in my field are focused only on women in technology. This has opened my eyes to what’s possible and the value this inclusivity brings.
- They don’t include food in the AWP conference registration price. At just about every other conference I attend in my industry, they do. This was an interesting change. This turned out to be positive. It ended up not bothering me and that was something that surprised me. There were many food options onsite and within walking distance, so the logistics of finding food required only a little bit of planning. I kept within my budget by being creative and planning in advance.
- I attended sessions that I would not have normally selected due to the consolidation and cancellation of many sessions, and I was glad that I attended them.
- The weather was perfect at this location. During the day it was sunny, with the highs in the 70–80 degree range. It was a little chilly at night.
- The Bookfair introduced me to small presses and university presses. I bought a number of books and literary magazines from them and got great deals.
- The writing advice received from this conference was hit and miss. But all in all, I’m glad I attended (and especially because I wasn’t seemingly infected with COVID-19). There were a few pieces of reaffirming advice that I took to heart, which will guide me on my journey as a new creative writer.
How could this conference be improved upon in the future?
- The conference attendance was down. And pretty badly, from what I hear. Although I would venture to say there were thousands (maybe 2,000?) of people in attendance, I was expecting 5,000–10,000. Since COVID-19 is a black swan event, I don’t expect to see this turnout in future years (assuming there is not another epidemic).
- The decision of many vendors and presenters to not attend did have a negative impact on some of the sessions I attended, as well as the Bookfair. The Bookfair was a ghost town most of the time. (Although, on a positive note, many absent vendors chose to participate in a last-minute virtual bookfair which seemed pretty successful.) I was worried about the smaller presses who make a good portion of their annual revenue from this one conference — hopefully, they fared well from the virtual Bookfair.
- Over half of the sessions were canceled. I faced a challenge when I first created my conference schedule — there were often 5 or 6 sessions in each time slot that I wanted to attend. It whittled down to 1 or 2 due to all of the cancellations. This was positive and negative. It made my decision-making process easier, but I wondered about some of the sessions that I missed out on and what value they would’ve brought to my experience.
- I was disappointed in the logistics of the conference when it came to parallel events. For instance, why is the Bookfair only open during session hours? Why not let it open an hour earlier or stay open an hour later for those folks who want to attend as many sessions as possible?
- In addition, the conference had a very challenging time keeping up with all of the cancellations on the first 2 days. Sessions were not always marked as canceled, so we’d be waiting in a session room for several minutes after the start time, realize it was canceled, then have to make our way to another room that might be a 10-minute walk away, inevitably being late to that session.
- I am not a fan of San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. It feels like a half-mile walk between session rooms sometimes because it’s a long and awkward floor plan. When the Bookfair is only open during sessions, there is no time to both attend sessions and make it all the way to the Bookfair.
- Twitter, which is my social media platform of choice (I’m middle-aged), is not widely used by conference attendees. It was a challenge to have meaningful conversations and interactions on that platform during the conference. This is most likely a generational platform gap.
What I Ultimately Learned
- ”Don’t quit your day job.” I heard this phrase many times from panel speakers, presenters, and people that I met along the way. It was disappointing, but advice that I needed to hear. I, like many others before me, was hoping that I could switch careers (somewhat) easily. I know that there are writers out there who are making a full-time living from writing, but many aren’t *just* writing.
- The jury is still out on the value of an MFA. I’ve heard strong opinions on both sides. I have no formal schooling in creative writing and am still wondering if I should invest the time and money into it.
- There are so many varied perspectives to consider in the writing industry. It’s invaluable to find a plethora of them in a single location, from people who are willing to share. This is the intangible benefit of any in-person conference, even in my industry.
Will I be attending next year’s AWP? We’ll have to see. I have targeted other writing conferences in North America to keep my mind open and my eyes sharp. Budget and time will tell.
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