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.