BOSTON — In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell cites a scientific study that sought to determine if consumers equate more with better. They set up displays of various jams in a supermarket that customers could sample. When there were only six selections, a lot of people stopped. When there were two dozen, nearly everyone kept walking. More was not better.
I thought of that experiment Friday as I twice braved and then fled the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Bookfair. I tell anyone who asks that the Bookfair is the heart and soul of this conference. Book and journal editors are sitting at tables, waiting to talk to you about your work! Holy cow! But I have found that when there are more than six hundred such tables, I feel the urge to keep walking.
I even scouted out the tables I would go to beforehand, to make it more manageable. Raspberry? Sure, one of my favorite jams. Fig marmalade? Sounds interesting. Prune? I’ll pass. But even having a customized map to guide me was not enough. Stimulus overload brought out my latent agoraphobia (fear of confinement) and out of the hall I went.
The second time I ventured into the Bookfair on Friday I did so because I was locked out of a panel discussion featuring my Vermont College of Fine Arts mentor Sue William Silverman. Why? The room had reached capacity. A VCFA alum and a VCFA faculty member stood outside with me in frustration. This has happened with regularity to attendees here. I just managed to get into one session Thursday that maxed out, and sat on the center aisle floor with us three wide in the gap. This despite their being about fifteen to twenty sessions per time block, far more than one could possibly choose from.
AWP likes to brag about being the largest literary conference in North America. Maybe that doesn’t make it the best. The highlight of my day on Friday? A stimulating conversation with a first-time attendee and fiction writer I met. How did we meet? After fleeing the Bookfair floor for the first time, I went to the Sheraton Hotel bar and ordered a martini. She sat down a couple of seats away, also fleeing the chaos. Our badges proclaimed what we were fleeing from, and gave us a way to start the conversation. I suspect that every single one of the 12,000 attendees would be someone I would enjoy meeting. But the only way she and I could meet was to actually leave the conference.
I will attend next year in Seattle, and I’m inviting my readers to join me there. It will be my sixth in a row. I always learn a lot, and I have this year as well. But I find myself longing for something a bit more intimate. I’ve attended in the last year or so a couple of one-day conferences sponsored by Poynter and Johns Hopkins, but they were too small to compare. I’d like a two-to-three day conference that perhaps offered three to four panels per time period, and perhaps fifty exhibitors instead of six hundred. I’m sure that conference exists. I need to find it.
After last year’s AWP I wrote a post of things I learned that will help you survive AWP. I would now add another one to the list; if you find yourself craving gin in the middle of the day, you clearly need to take a break.
Does anyone have any suggestions on conferences geared to writing or creativity that you find both manageable and rewarding?