Deciding Whether to Attend Conventions and Conferences
The other morning I read a post from a woman who deliberately stayed home from LDS Storymakers conference because she has discovered that writer’s conferences are a negative experience for her. The post got me thinking about my experiences at conferences and conventions. They are always a mixed bag for me. I usually come home very glad that I went and exhausted. Yet there is almost always a time during the event when I wonder why I’m even there. Suddenly all the differences between me and the other attendees loom large, I feel outside, like I don’t belong. One of my least favorite manifestations of this is when I go home in the evening and spend the next several hours stewing over how everything I said was dumb and convincing myself that everyone was offended and/or thought I was an idiot. None of those things are true, at least not from an outward perspective, but they feel true to me in those moments and those moments are definitely part of every convention or conference experience.
I think there are those who experience these conferences and conventions differently. Perhaps in their regular lives they are constantly misunderstood or disregarded, then they arrive at the conference to discover it full of people who are passionate about the same things. For them convention attendance has a profound feeling of coming home to a safe place. Over time a few events have developed that feel for me, LTUE is like home, CONduit used to be, but isn’t anymore, Storymakers began to feel like home just this year. An event feels like home when people there are glad to see me and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. All the other conventions and conferences in my life have me feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I spend lots of time observing and thinking.
I was at a convention last summer where Lois McMaster Bujold was also in attendance. She is one of my writing heroes and so I watched her for things I could emulate. I saw many things, one of which was that she went to panels and presentations as an audience member. I almost never do that anymore, in part because many of the panels cover topics that I’ve already heard a dozen times. Yet I admire that teachable quality and I do try to seek out those people from whom I can learn. There are some teachers who pour out good information even if the stated topic is not something I particularly need. Most of my best convention moments come from quiet conversations that happen in the green room or the hotel lobby. Then the chaos of an entire convention narrows down to a conversation between a few. These are the moments when connections are made, hearts are healed, and the beginnings of new opportunities are begun. Those moments would not happen if I did not come to the chaotic show. These days my primary defense against feeling out of place is to find someone to talk to and ask a hundred questions about their life.
Even having acquired a suite of emotional management techniques for conventions, there are times when I decide to stay home. This past year I stayed home a lot. It was what I needed to do. I’ll be staying home again in September when Howard goes to Worldcon. The primary reason for this is bad timing, Worldcon lands the week after my kids start school. They need me at home to provide stability. There is a lesser, but still significant reason as well; Worldcon has been really rough for me the last two times I went. I’ve spent a couple of years stepping back and figuring out which emotional strings to disconnect so that the event will no longer turn me into knots. The process is not complete, but I think it will be by 2014, so perhaps I’ll attend Worldcon then. There are other shows I’ve skipped and been glad that I did. Sometimes staying home is the right answer.
The thing I have to remember is that my presence at a conference changes that conference. I add something to it by being there. This is hard to realize because the conventions and conferences are big and it is very obvious that I am irrelevant to most of the people there. All that accumulated irrelevance is what sends me into spirals of self doubt. Yet I never know when a comment or class from me will be the piece that another person desperately needs. Sometimes I never find out that I helped another person, other times I get to see it happen. I love when I get to see it, but I have to remember that these effects are often invisible. I can’t help others if I don’t show up.
In the next year I’ll be venturing forth more, at least I think I will. I have to consider each event individually to decide whether going is right for me.
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