I love the change of pace that comes with attending conferences. They gently jar us from everyday routines and remind us that no matter how old we are, there is always more to learn and we always have the ability to change.
My first conference was in Tokyo, Japan, a short distance from where I was teaching middle and high school on a U.S. Navy Base in the late 90s. Last year, I attended a conference to learn about websites, SEO optimization and other eye-glazing skills I had to severely twist my own arm to learn (via a ticket to San Francisco, where I played strategic hooky to see California Redwoods and feel the spray of San Francisco Bay from a boat underneath the Golden Gate Bridge).
While writing for a public leader, part of my job was to capture my boss’s voice in writing, which required shadowing her at the plum speaking engagements to which she was invited. My favorite was the Most Powerful Women Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, DC. I descended the escalator to extravagant spreads of shiny tea service with sandwiches and a crowd of aspiring and leading women sharing stories and mentoring each other. Women I admired were everywhere. Even the line in the pristine marble bathroom was electric with excited conversation. In the main room, soft lighting turned the vast conference room into an intimate, supportive space that encouraged candor and mentorship from panelists.
Anyone who has ever been inspired by such a gathering can understand why I wish the word “conference” had never been invented. Yes, technically, we confer. But really. Blah. The word falls short and cold of what’s happening when people come together with a shared passion for learning more about a topic they love. It has to do with the impact we want to have on the world, why we’re here and how much we need each other, especially people who “get” us. It is about finding our tribes on our way to becoming the best versions of ourselves that we’re shooting for.
It’s hard to say this with a robotic word like conference. I didn’t get that until this weekend.
Finding My Tribe…The Dallas Fort-Worth Writers’ Conference
When choosing my first writers' conference, I realized Dallas did not make sense.
First, I live near Manhattan, where there are writing conferences galore. Why spend the extra money to travel to a conference I didn’t know much about?
Second, the speakers and attendees didn’t seem to fit with me or what I write. The keynote speaker was a thriller writer, and many of the workshop leaders were romance genre writers. I rarely read thrillers and never read Harlequin-style romances, and I don’t intend to write either.
Third, it was in Dallas. I love that we have a diversity of beliefs and cultures in different pockets of the country, but I do not fit neatly into a world where FOX owns the airport news kiosks and the goals of ubiquitous campaign ads are to win the fight over who is more stringently conservative.
But last winter a feeling came from nowhere that I would be going to Dallas this year for work. I don't go to Dallas regularly (hadn't been there for 18 years), so logic was not involved. But when I saw the conference advertised on a Twitter-feed, I felt that ringing inside that you get when something just feels right.
Sitting on the floor of a packed room on Saturday, listening to bestselling novelist Jodi Thomas talk about writing, I knew I’d made the right decision.
“Writers are not normal,” Thomas said. “We don’t see the world in the same way others do. We ask a lot of questions, and many of them are strange.” At a funeral, she said, she just might be the one pulling the funeral director aside−to ask questions about the process of embalming.
Though I have never asked that particular strange question before, nearly everything she said resonated. I remembered times I'd been told I ask too many questions. She echoed many sentiments observed about me in the past--sometimes as criticism, sometimes as support. She spoke of the writer’s need to “walk the land,” stepping as fully as possible into others’ experiences and perspectives, because, she said, “If the writer doesn’t feel the reader doesn’t feel.” She urged us to live what we write, to experience it all. Writers, she said, have to describe not only what is there but what is not.
Nearly everyone in the room was nodding and laughing as they recognized themselves in her words.
“Yes, yes, that’s me!”
Where had these people been all my life? I had been in a writer’s group and read books about writing and the writing life. But I had never been surrounded by people who write them. It didn’t matter whether they wrote gothic horror, romance, crime fiction, literary fiction or one of the many other genres represented. Here they were, in a conference room in Dallas.
I had found my tribe!
Over lunch I met a banker who spends her mornings and evenings plugging away at her novel. One very striking woman confessed that she was painfully shy but had to learn the networking skills she knew were necessary to succeed.
Another writer showed her mettle while in line to pitch an agent for the first time. She had her pitch on paper and had intended to read the pages word for word. This had been strongly advised against, so I took her script and flipped it over, suggesting she practice without it. She insisted she couldn’t and tried to grab it back more than once, terrified at what she would do if she forgot. But her writing was good, she knew her story and she didn’t forget. By the end of the day an agent had asked to see her full manuscript.
It may sound strange that it was genuine when everyone congratulated her, as technically we were hundreds competing for a few invitations from agents to send more work. But I believe it was 100% authentic, and felt more like we were fully invested in each others’ success.
It didn’t even matter that the speakers’ genres didn’t match mine. In fact, it helped. Keynote speaker and bestselling thriller writer James Rollins, gave perspective when he described his path to finding an agent, including the time he almost gave up after one sadistic agent added on a form rejection letter, “This is unpublishable.” (The book later became a New York Times bestseller.)
I also learned valuable lessons from the romance writers about emotion and characterization, lessons that are sending me back to edit something I had been struggling with—this time with clarity on what the work is missing.
Writing requires a high level of comfort with solitude, but I often work in places dominated by extroverts. This has benefited me in many ways, but for the first time this weekend, I was surrounded by fellow introverts.
To avoid misrepresenting anyone, I’d like to remind everyone that introversion is not synonymous with shyness or insecurity (To read more on this, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking is a great place to start—a must read if you manage people). But at the end of the conference, many commented on the exhaustion they felt after being surrounded by people and chatter for so many hours at a time.
I also spoke with people who said they loathed the marketing side of the business, which, due to tight purse strings for publishers today, puts the onus on the writer to market his or her work and brand. Knowing how against the grain this process is for so many, what could be more inspiring than seeing people who want something so much that they are willing to propel themselves out of their comfort zones with the sheer force of their will?
There were writers in their twenties, writers in their seventies and writers everywhere in between. They talked about writing with a passion that is rare in many other fields. In every conversation, the people I met left traces of their buzzing energy in the space between us, their words and love for the craft clinging to my clothes and body and intentions for what I will write next.
Find your tribe.
Oh how I hope you will find your tribe. I am not suggesting a plunge into xenophobia, a clinging to sameness in politics or choices or values. I love the different shiny lenses through which we view the world, even if they include FOX News kiosks and surreal political attack ads.
No matter how old you are or what you do every day, may you still have at least one dream, something you want hard enough to propel you toward it, even if it means stepping straight into where you are least comfortable. Chase what you want with your butt on fire and your heart’s desire cast around you in hopeful nets. May you walk into a room surrounded by people who recognize your net as their own. May you find your tribe.
If you’re a writer thinking about attending a writers’ conference, below are a few others on the DFW Writers’ Conference: