Finding My Niche

Last week I attended the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. It was my fifth year at that event, where I always learn something new. This year, I finally realized I’m not the only one who feels awkward at those sorts of things. Oh I’ve done large events plenty of times, years ago when I was the organizer for festivals and conferences. Back then, I was too busy to feel out of place or geeky. Wearing that “staff” badge gave me the luxury of an enormous buffer and made people hesitant to approach me (unless it was to lodge a complaint).

Being an attendee is different. Scarier. There’s nothing between me and the rest of the conference-goers except the space I create around myself. The first few years at this event, I left immediately after the last breakout session of the day rather than stay back and get to know my fellow writers. Even the last two years, when I went for an hour or so to the Friday night social, I stood on the sidelines watching everyone else mingle and network. I know it sounds silly to someone who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed in large crowds. You’ll just have to take my word for it—the emotional and psychological drain for introverts in such a situation takes a toll.

This year, I took my Kindle with me and planned to find a quiet corner and read during the three hours that separated the Writer’s Boot Camp (an awesome new addition to the conference) from the regular Thursday evening session. But that isn’t what happened; several of my fellow Boot Campers hooked arms with me and dragged me off to the bar for $5 hors d’oeuvres. (Okay, I might be exaggerating on the whole dragging part.) Once there, we were joined by a few other conference-goers, and dinner turned out to be a delightful affair.

The next night, I managed to stay through the whole social and met some truly interesting fellow writers standing beside me on the sidelines. Instead of being my usual shy self and wandering off alone, I leaned over and commented to one of them that I always seemed to wind up at the edge of the room each year. She laughed and said she did too, and we struck up a conversation based on our common ground as writers and introverts. Soon we were joined by other sideliners until we had our own little party going on. It was fun, and it opened my eyes a little bit.

But my breakthrough didn’t stop with the social. I actually enjoyed a short while of Open Mic afterward, where I was treated to insightful readings by others from the conference. I even signed up to read a bit from my own short story, “Upshot”; but when they hadn’t called my name after an hour, I had to admit to saturation and head home. With yet another day of mingling ahead of me, I opted to conserve my remaining energies. I heard the next day that the Open Mic’s facilitator, Michael Khandelwal of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, had called my name five minutes after I left. Figures.

Every breakout session I attended taught me something new. No surprise there; this conference is always packed with great teachers, presenters, speakers and literary agents. I think my favorite regular session this year (it’s hard to pick just one!) would be the workshop on Diversity in Writing, led by Erin Beaty. I’d already been kicking around this issue in my head, so the timing was perfect. Close runners-up would include one on getting published in literary magazines, by Meg Eden Kuyatt, and best use of tenses, by Dr. Meriah Crawford. And of course the keynote speakers, John DeDakis and Austin Camacho, were fantastic. I didn’t win with my short story, but the contest judge for my category wrote outstanding feedback on my copy—so helpful!

In the end, though, I think my biggest takeaway was the confirmation that I need to surround myself more frequently with these like-minded souls. Writers are my Tribe. We share a common bond. No matter how we may differ, in this we are the same: we all struggle with the challenge of the blank page, the rewrite beast, and the search for fulfillment—however we define it—from this odyssey.

4 thoughts on “Finding My Niche”

  1. Teaching literature, as I did for thirty+ years in either independent secondary schools or in small private colleges, even my introverted self found a place with, as you put it, my “tribe.” I had the great good fortune to work in a situation and with groups of people who loved what they were doing and were dedicated to doing it better and better. We loved our subjects and we loved the students and we liked each other a great deal. Teaching is an odd occupation that really is a job that takes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Since no one can work those hours, we teachers are always scrambling to get our work done. It can be grueling labor. The reason we don’t buckle under the pressure or just quit is the presence of a community of like-minded people of which we are a part. When I started writing, several years after I retired from the classroom and almost by accident, I found myself loving the writing but desperately missing the community. It has taken me a while to begin to identify fellow writers and, I confess, I have done this mostly online rather than in person. I think it is harder to put forth that essential effort to make new connections at my age. The Internet with its writers’ groups has been a gift.

    So I don’t know exactly where I am with this. I am still an introvert and there are days when I turn off the phone and write all day. That feels comfortable to me, and I have to watch that I don’t overdo it.

    I miss my academic colleagues horribly, even after ten years. Writing is a different animal altogether because no matter how many other writers I know, no matter how much I can discuss writing with them, the writing itself involves no one but me. When I taught I might spend a free period talking with a colleague about how to teach Act IV of Hamlet more effectively, but I walked into that classroom–but there’s the difference. I walked into that classroom to find it full of fifteen or so students with whom I was about to share a play I love.

    Drema, I don’t have any idea what my point is here. I’m an introvert. I’m a teacher. It seems I am a writer. I think I would have a hard time surviving a conference like the one you describe. You inspire me.

    1. Dean, I know exactly what you mean. Remember — it took me 5 years to attend the whole social, not to mention even *thinking* about attending the Open Mic. I’ve grown familiar with many of the faces in that time, so it wasn’t like I was in a crowd of absolute strangers. Still, it’s a process.

      If you’re looking for smaller groups of “tribe,” Hampton Roads Writers offers “Show and Grow” readings on a monthly basis, if I’m not mistaken. You could always go to a few, listen to what others share and the comments thereon, and grow comfortable over a period of time. The Muse Writers Center also offers monthly and weekly events, like “Writer’s Happy Hour” at various locations around the area. Their classes are all small on purpose, so that we *can* make that connection in a learning environment.

      I know what you mean about preferring to do it from home via the Internet, though. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to walk out the door knowing you’re going out to meet a group of other folks. Hang in there!

  2. Congratulations on finding your bravery. I understand how very hard that can be in a crowd of strangers. I don’t think people know this about me, but I find it utterly overwhelming. Sometimes you gotta drag your fears behind you.

    1. Thanks, Laura! I think you and I probably both know people who are more at home in a crowd than alone in a room. Writing itself is a solitary activity, and I know plenty of other writers who avoid going out whenever possible. But if we want to be published, we have to not only mingle (to network, attend classes, etc.), but we also have to put our works before total strangers whose job it is to pick the work apart. It’s all for the benefit of the work of course, but it can be really hard to take that leap!

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