I should note one thing right from the start: I’ve never been to any version of the AWP Conference. Not because I avoided it. I just didn’t know much about it. It wasn’t on my radar when I was in my M.A. writing program, and if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have considered going, because I was in graduate school and never had any money. Then, when I became a technical writer and could have budgeted the money to attend, I was no longer in a writing program, and I assumed that I wasn’t supposed to go. It was right there in the organization’s name: Associated Writing Programs.
Later, its name was changed to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (Kate McDevitt discusses the inclusion of that ampersand in “Giving Thanks to the Ampersand”). The new name was more expansive and welcoming of writers in general, but it took some time for the news to filter to me. When it did, I thought that I needed to wait for a good reason to go, such as marketing a book. Anyway, when you work full time and you’re also writing, revising, researching literary magazines, reading new and old books, and just generally dealing with modern life, but you still want to see family and friends, you get stingy with vacation time. Then you get an email about how you should burn through a chunk of it at the end of the year to avoid losing it to the void where untaken vacation hours go. So you do, but you haven’t planned for the time off. Instead of going someplace like a conference, you spend your spontaneous vacation organizing your office, re-seasoning your cast iron, or learning to make tortillas. All. Important. Things.
But this year I’m going. It was a bit of an accident. I kept reading advice about attending writers’ conferences to find publishers and agents, and I thought, “I wonder if any of those conference things are online this year,” and I Googled “virtual writers’ conferences,” and boom: Virtual AWP Conference, March 3-7, 2021.
Here’s the lowdown. It still costs money to attend, but a lot less, mainly because you don’t have to pay for travel and accommodations. It also seems that the conference fees were reduced this year. In her March 2020 article “The Problem of Money and Access at AWP,” Alison Stine mentions that the conference costs $250 for nonmembers to attend, but this year’s rates don’t list a nonmember option. Instead, you can get a membership-and-attendance-fee bundle for $160—or $140 for anyone who was aware enough to know about the early-bird rates. That’s not zero, but it’s extremely economical when you factor in skipping the travel costs, not to mention that it includes a one-year AWP membership.
Stine details issues with the AWP Conference that involve inaccessibility for the differently abled and a possible lack of concern about economic inequity. She also notes the flak the organization received after organizers decided to continue with its physical conference in San Antonio last spring, despite the coronavirus-induced state of emergency declared by the city. However, Stine acknowledges that there are huge benefits to attending the conference, notably those involving possible connections with publishers, agents, and other writers.
Here’s a story about that. Until I signed up for the conference, I didn’t know that applying to participate in the Writer to Agent program was free with registration. The program provides an opportunity to get your manuscript query to several agents at once and possibly discuss it with them at the conference. Similarly, I didn’t know about the existence of the AWP Writer to Writer mentorship program, which pairs new and emerging writers with published writers for a three-month series of advice and guidance sessions. (To be clear, it’s free to apply to these programs, but applying does not ensure that you will be selected to participate. Also, the current application deadlines have passed. There should be a new set of Writer to Writer sessions in the fall, and the next Writer to Agent application period will be for next year’s conference.)
My hope is that AWP’s move to a virtual format this year will address at least some of Stine’s concerns. Virtual presentation software typically provides tools to address accessibility issues. However, the virtual format still presents some complications involving economic inequity. After all, Internet access is not universal. Consider the students who had to sit in places like the McDonald’s parking lot to grab a wi-fi signal for classes and homework this past year, a disparity that led some school districts to generate lateral solutions, such as turning their buses into mobile wi-fi hubs.
Still, obtaining Internet access probably presents fewer difficulties than making the journey for a five-day conference in a distant city. At any rate, the 2021 Conference and Bookfair may provide a test case for AWP on how to extend their resources to writers who would otherwise be unable to attend in a given year. For me, the cost of registering this year was definitely worth the risk.