A Writing Conference Will Not Make or Break Your Career
[image description: A row of people seated in a line of chairs, all writing in the notebooks they’re holding in their laps.]
Three letters. A whole lot of emotion.
So, AWP (or the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is an annual conference that’s kind of a big deal. Or at least people make it out to be.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been.
The reason for that is multifold. It’s expensive to fly across the country (this year’s conference was in Portland), pay a conference admission fee, put myself up in a hotel for a couple of days, pay for Lyfts around a city that’s pretty big and has a lot of traffic. By the time it’s all said and done, you’re looking at close to $1,000 to attend, so unless you’re planning on selling a lot of books or you’re getting paid to present, the ROI isn’t great.
Another reason I haven’t been is because I follow a lot of writers on Twitter who go to AWP and many don’t exactly make it sound fun. I’ve seen some very valid criticisms of the accessibility of the conference from disabled writers. I’ve seen other extremely valid criticisms from womxn who were understandably displeased to see problematic men in the literary world leading panel discussions at the conference.
More colloquially, there was a Twitter thread where folks who were planning on attending were asked to respond how they feel about going in a gif. I’ve seldom seen so many mixed emotions.
And even with the issues with AWP that writers on Twitter are keeping me abreast of, it’s hard to feel like I’m not missing out. At least a little.
It’s hard to criticize something you haven’t personally experienced, so I’m not going to go deep there. No conference is perfect and they’re all expensive to get to and they probably all do at least one problematic thing or all have at least one barrier to accessibility. There’s always room for improvement.
I can also see it being useful to go if you don’t normally have a community of writers around you and you want to commune with your people. Or if you have writer friends all over the country and a conference is the only time you can get together.
That being said, here’s the thing. It’s not so much AWP I take issue with, it’s the culture around it.
There seems to be this prevailing sentiment that you’re not a serious writer if you don’t go to AWP. If you’re not there, you’re nobody.
For months leading up to the conference it seems like every writer in the US is trying to find out who’s going and if you tell them you’re not, they’ll often try to convince you to go by saying what a great opportunity it is and how you’ll get to network with other writers, etc.
But the truth is that there are a million reasons not to go real and all of them are valid. And no one wants to feel pressured, whether directly or indirectly, to go to an event, especially when it may be beyond their capabilities to do so. And no one wants to feel like they’re subpar or don’t take their craft seriously because they can’t or don’t want to go to a conference.
I firmly believe that no writing conference will make or break your career. There are NYT bestselling authors the continent over who have never stepped foot in AWP. If people would judge a writer by their presence or lack thereof at a conference, rather than the actual quality of their work, it’s hard to argue that such a person truly cares about writing. Anybody with enough time and money and willingness can go to AWP. And presence at a conference does not a writer make.
I’m not saying I’ll never go to AWP or any other writing conference. I might. Who knows. But when and if I do go, I want to go with eyes wide open. I want to go because I actually want to be there, not because I’ve been pressured to be there. I don’t want myself (or anyone) to feel like they’re not a “real” writer or a “serious” writer if they don’t go. That doesn’t serve anyone.
AWP 2019 is wrapping up as I’m writing this and I’m sitting on my couch, staring down a whole weekend ahead of me in which I plan to do little else but read and write. And I feel good about that because what I need most in my writing life right now are things AWP can’t give me––namely, more time.
I’m not judging anyone who did go to AWP this year, or who has gone in the past, or who would like to go in the future. What I’m saying is if you’re like me and you’re sitting on your couch wondering if you’ve missed out on anything or wondering if your career would be magically catapulted if you’d been there or thinking you’re not as dedicated of a writer as you thought you were, shut those thoughts down right now.
A conference won’t make or break your writing career. But you will. Just keep writing.