Attending my first AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in Minneapolis last weekend, I realized I might have saved a shipload of time and money if, instead of enrolling in an MFA, I’d opted to go to a AWP conference instead. If Hannah Horvath had figured this out, she might still be writing.
1. Both connect you to book nerds
One reason to get an MFA is to find a community that will sustain and support you in ways that civilians–spouses, friends, offspring who aren’t in the “business”– can’t. AWP provides you with proximity to thousands of people who will happily talk novel structure and oxford commas and the politics of poetics long past the breaking point of normal humans. The New Yorker said that 14,000 AWPers were at the Minneapolis Convention Center last weekend. The Minneapolis Star Trib claimed a more modest11,800. Whichever, AWP provides a sizeable community from which to pick writing BFFs.
2. Both give you exposure to names in the lit world
You can pay $80K for an MFA that lets you rub shoulders with the likes of TC Boyle, Anne Carson, Carolyn Forche, Francine Prose, Marie Howe, Kevin Young, Joshua Ferris and other masters of the lit universe, or you could pay $200 for early bird registration to AWP, where you can belly up to a bar with them after a reading. Arguably, AWP gives you better access because, not being on their home turf, they’re less likely to know where to hide.
3. Both are designed to help ramp up your chances for a job in academia.
AWP was originally a trade conference for academics, formed in 1967 by 15 teachers in creative writing programs. The first conference, in 1973, was at the Library of Congress and featured 6 events and 16 presenters, including Wallace Stegner and Ralph Ellison. If teaching still holds allure for you (even after reading articles like this one) know that of its 550 events and 2000 presenters, AWP still has a huge percentage concerned with pedagogy. There are job boards for teachers and panels to help you not only find jobs, but how to get them and keep them. Networking galore went on at the Minneapolis Hilton Bar, three deep with academics on break, until wee hours each night.
4. Both privilege you with connections to the current lit scene.
While MFA programs connect you with email addresses for editors at the best small presses and litmags, AWP puts you in actual IRL contact with them. It’s a giant 18-row trade show featuring the best journals and presses publishing today, where editors lean over booths trying to lure subscribers and contributors with creative swag and spectacular displays. (i.e. LBR’s tweeting typewriter and Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Book Art’s laptop letterpress.) Grove Atlantic gave away sturdy totes featuring an iconic photo of Joan Didion. (“We got her before Celine did,” said an editor.) The London Review of Books gave away gold-stamped pencils, Blue Flower Arts handed out Lindt chocolates, Fairy Tale Review offered paper unicorns and “magic” seed packets. At the Sarabande Books booth, every purchase was accompanied by a shot of Jim Beam. OK, slipping your unpublished manuscript to an editor as he hands you a shot glass is NOT a good idea, but establishing eye contact and conversation with that editor is, and a follow up note might possibly get your manuscript past the interns when you send it his way.
Fascinated by ancient translations of Song Dynasty poetry? Curious about sonic techniques found in diasporic literature? Working the border between flash fiction and prose poetry? Yes, you can make it an MFA thesis, but there’s probably already an AWP panel of people as avid about the subject as you are. Engage.
6. The difference? Two years and as much as $78,800.
The priciest MFA’s are now $40K a year. Early registration for AWP is about $200. Give a panel and registration is even more reduced. (But hurry. The deadline for AWP panel proposals is May 1.)
I figure reading this has saved you tens of thousands of dollars. You’re welcome! You can thank me by being a good literary citizen and pre-ordering my book.