Adventures in writing conferences: AWP 2018

Last week I went to Tampa for the 2018 AWP Conference. For those of you who aren’t familiar with AWP, it’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they hold a huge conference in a different city (next year is Portland!).

It’s an exhausting three days full of craft talks, discussion panels, many offsite readings and parties, and a huge book fair (almost as big as the exhibit hall at a Star Wars Celebration, if you take out the giant AT-AT and X-Wing models). Writers, publishers, and editors from all over the US and Canada convene to talk books and writing and collectively drink all the alcohol in whatever city we’re visiting.

A stack of books.

My book and literary journal haul from AWP.

In years past, especially when I was an MFA student and felt that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FIND A PUBLISHER FOR MY BOOK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW, I spent a lot of time wandering the book fair talking up publishers and trying to sell them on my manuscript. Let me just say that is not the best approach to enjoying AWP, not to mention ineffective. But it’s what all the writing advice articles say, so that’s what I did.

Here’s the thing, though: I write weird books, and even selling a normal book is hard. I believe in my work and I believe it will find the perfect home as long as I keep putting in the leg work. So this year I decided to take everything a lot less seriously.

And unsurprisingly, the conference was a lot more enjoyable without all that self-imposed pressure. I stayed with a friend from Chatham, and we may have drank an entire box of wine. Maybe. And we may have also dyed our hair purple (which has sadly mostly washed out already).

Because I stepped up as a coordinator for the VIDA Count, I worked directly with more of our team, and had the pleasure of meeting many of them in person for the first time. I also had a blast catching up with some of my professors and former classmates from Chatham at a private reception with an incredibly serious bartender who was probably wondering if all writers are over-excited alcoholics (we’re not).

I also spent more time in the book fair just talking to people. I discovered a few new journals that I’m excited to submit to, caught up with my friends at various presses and mags, and hopefully made some new friends! My favorite part was meeting the editorial staff at journals who’ve published my work. Plus I came away with a huge haul of journals and a few books that I’m incredibly excited about reading. Look for reviews of those in upcoming posts!

The downside to all this excitement at all is that I’ve had a migraine for the past five days (Pittsburgh weather isn’t helping). I’m starting to feel better today (and perhaps some coffee before work will help), but I haven’t even tried to work on my novel this week. Oh well! It’ll be there next week, and I’m excited to get back to it when my temples aren’t throbbing.

Relaxing and having fun is notoriously hard for me (just ask my partner, who complained to me last night that I always want to do productive things after dinner when he wants to relax and you know, spend time with me). I consider it quite an accomplishment that I had so much fun I triggered a week-long migraine cycle.

And hey—I even learned a few things, too.

Miss Migraine: How to travel in a group if you get frequent migraines

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. This post appeared first on my blog of the same name on August 8, 2012.

Travel is one of my passions, but before I go anywhere, I have to plan for myself and my migraines.

I’d been planning to write a travel tips post, but Diana Lee beat me to it with her excellent “Traveling with Migraine Disease: Top 5 Tips” article on, as well as with a post on her blog, Somebody Heal Me, so I decided to tackle group travel instead.

When you tour with a group, whether it’s with your school, church, for a medical missions trip, or a guided tour somewhere with people you don’t know, the rules are different. There’s often a set schedule of places you have to be and times you have to be there. Activities and sight-seeing are planned in advance, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Family ancestor temple in Ky La, Vietnam

Members of my Vietnam travel group enter a family ancestor temple in the village of Ky La, outside of Danang, Vietnam.

Group Travel Pros:

  • Unless you’re leading the group, the work of planning and scheduling has been done for you. All you have to do is show up! This equals less stress for you.
  • Your group leader will take care of you. Regardless of your age, the group leader is in charge of making the trip successful, and a good will ensure that her travelers are well taken care of and enjoy the sights. She might be working hard (and getting paid for it), but you’ll be having fun.
  • You’ll likely do things you wouldn’t have thought to do on your own, or do things that are slightly out of your comfort zone. This will help you bond with your group mates and make awesome new friends.

Group Travel Cons:

  • If you’re out in the middle of nowhere (or even just taking a bus tour of a city), it may be difficult or impossible for you to get back to the hotel if a nasty migraine strikes. A good group leader, however, should be prepared for emergencies like this.
  • If meals or restaurants are pre-planned, you may not have a choice in what you eat. This can be a con for anyone, especially if you’re in a foreign country and find you don’t like the cuisine! Talk to the leader about food requirements or allergies you may have BEFORE you go.
  • Someone on the trip is going to get on your nerves, under your skin, and make your head hurt worse. It’s going to happen. There’s no way around it. Deep breathing and polite avoidance are the best strategies.

I’ve been on plenty of group trips, many of them to foreign countries like Vietnam, Mexico, and New Zealand. Despite the inevitable annoying person or two, I think the pros far outweigh the cons. In Mexico, I helped a group of doctors and nurses fix cleft lips and palates by translating for them. That’s not something I would have done on my own. But as migraine patients, we do have to take precautions.

Here are my tips for group travel:

  1. Tell the group leader about your disease and give him/her a list of ALL your medications, even over-the-counter ones and herbal supplements. This allows your group leader to help you when you’re in pain, and help medical professionals help you if there’s an emergency. Do this well in advance of departure. While on the trip, Let your leader know when you feel a migraine coming so she can help you manage it.
  2. Make yourself a “migraine kit” and keep it with you AT ALL TIMES. This should include your medications and anything else you need to prevent or relieve pain. For example, I have a sachet of lavender that I keep with me to avoid triggering smells. Other items might include ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones and your MP3 player, an eye mask, or snacks.
  3. Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and too much caffeine. You may not be able to control everything on the trip, but you can control how much water you drink. Staying hydrated at least reduces one possible trigger. Avoiding excess caffeine and all alcohol also reduce the chances you’ll get an attack. It might be hard when everyone else is toasting and having fun at dinner, or when travel fatigue sets in, but the consequences of missing part of the trip because of blinding pain aren’t worth it.
  4. Get as much sleep as possible. When I went to Vietnam, some nights we were out late and then had to wake up early in the morning, and I had no control over this. The best I could do was take advantage of every opportunity for sleep that came along. Often this meant missing out on evening activities with my friends, but being well-rested and having less pain was a worthy trade off. If there’s a long plane or bus ride during a time you’d normally be sleeping, consider taking something to help you sleep, like Benadryl or an OTC sleep aid. You could even ask your doctor for a few sleeping pills like Lunesta. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you take anything to make sure there are no interactions.
  5. Be flexible! This is travel. You’re probably going somewhere you’ve never been before, and with a bunch of people you may not know. Something’s going to go wrong at some point: a museum will be closed unexpectedly, the bus will break down, someone will get lost or be late and put the whole group behind schedule. It’s important to remember that all of these are out of your control. Don’t stress yourself out about them or think they’ve ruined the whole trip. Expect to have fun, but be willing to let that fun come in whatever form it’s going to come in. You won’t get to do everything you want to do, but enjoy the things you do get to do.


Flight ritual

The Allegheny Mountains with a dusting of snow from 30,000 feet.

If I were a character in a Warren Zevon song, I’d be Suzie Lightning. I wrote a story about her, though that story has yet to find a home (it was a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest, though!). Every time I fly, I have to listen to that song.

“She only sleeps on planes / She’s tired of going nowhere …”

I listen during takeoff, because I like to watch the earth shrink below, especially if it’s still dark. And once the plane climbs to cruising altitude, I write.

“Suzie Lightning” is a song about a girl who only sleeps on airplanes, and I like to joke that I can only write on airplanes. It’s not true, really—I write mostly every day—but flights always seem to break my writer’s block or just force me to stay in my seat and write without distractions (I’m not paying for internet, guys).

As I write this, I’m on a flight from Pittsburgh to Tampa, where this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is being held. Before I wrote this blog post, I wrote an essay about waiting to read the last book in a series because you don’t want the series to be over. I had planned to work on my novel, but I neglected to grab a copy of my outline for off-line use, and I need past Kelly’s help on the next scene (I know, I know, it’s an excuse, but I’m going to have many hours before I can check into my hotel, so I’ll work on the novel then, I promise.)

This habit of writing on airplanes began nearly ten years ago, when I flew to San Francisco to visit a friend and attend National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously. It was mid-November, and my novel’s word count was seriously lacking. Instead of reading or sleeping on the plane, I decided to write. I made up my word count, and got ahead on the flight home.

Years later, while working on my master’s thesis and being stuck on one particular story that didn’t want to congeal, I flew down to Arkansas to visit my best friend Ele. Pittsburgh to Little Rock is a long flight with a few layovers and transfers. I wrote for several one-to-two-hour bursts, and got that story finished.

I’ve written countless other bits of novel, short stories, and journals while on flights here and there. While everyone around me listens to music or reads magazines, I am being So Productive, which allows me to feel vaguely superior (even though at times I am the magazine-reading, music-listening passenger).

Plane writing is also a pretty good discouragement to keep people from talking to me, especially if I’m drafting by hand. My seatmate right now is wearing a Cleveland Indians hat, complete with racist logo, so the only thing I have to say is “Your hat is fucking racist, dude.”

We’re beginning our descent, so I’ll leave it at that. TL;DR—I get a lot of writing done on airplanes.

Do you have any rituals or habits when you fly?