Getting together to be alone
Last week I travelled to Chicago to attend a writers’ conference, AWP. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. They have a yearly conference in late February where all of the people who belong to AWP, or programs that are associated with AWP, can get together. We attend panels about writing, go to off-site poetry readings, meet online friends face to face, gather information about grad schools, and escape from our real lives for four glorious days.
This year brought home about 10 pounds of journals, two fancy bags, and a head cold that I’m still getting over. I was supposed to bring home new contacts and a connection to an agent. But I panicked.
Last year the conference was in Washington, DC. I went to interesting panels and talked with people in elevators and at the book fair. I even asked a couple questions at the panels. I tweeted and laughed and bonded with complete strangers over the experience of spending four days in a new city discussing writing and literature. Not so in Chicago.
I rode the train to the Windy City and in the Amtrak station other people were talking about what they would do at the conference. I thought about saying I was going too, but these people were talking to friends and I was a creepy eavesdropper. I stayed mute.
The muteness followed me to Chicago. I wanted to talk to people at the panels. In the more crowded ones we were pretty much on top of each other, with people sitting on the floors at a couple. But all I could think was that the person next to me was taking hardly any notes. This particular panel was about how the panelists, editors at various journals, had changed their writing style after gaining experience editing other people’s work. I took copious notes. The lady to my left wrote down the panelists’ names and then nothing. I wanted to tell her to give her chair to a floor person who would benefit from a comfortable position in which to take notes.
Then the floor people started asking stupid questions and I gave up hope of helping them. They kept asking the speakers to stand up when they were talking so they could be seen. None of the panelists wanted to, you could see it in their eyes. I’m pretty sure one panelist — I’ll omit names in case I’m reading into things — rolled her eyes at the people in the front row. Standing was awkward and they had to pass around one mic instead of using the convenient tabletop mics the hotel had provided. I was irritated and I knew I was being a bit irrational but that rarely stops me.
In DC I made arrangements to have lunch with fellow Idler Jill Kolongowski a few days before I left. We knew each other from college and I wanted to see her again to kind of cement our quasi-friendship. We met, hugged, and ate Italian food. Her gnocchi looked amazing but I didn’t know her well enough to ask for a bite. This year, after growing closer online, I didn’t set up a time to meet with her at all. We happened to run into each other at the book fair after I spent days thinking I should have tried to find her but not doing anything about it. I was broken.
And I was hating people. There was the lady sitting next to me at a very not crowded panel who kept looking over my shoulder and writing down something every time I wrote down something. There were multiple panels where there weren’t enough handouts to go around. Generally, I’m an excellent note taker and prefer to write down what I’m interested in as opposed to having someone tell me what’s most important. But when there were handouts and they ran out, suddenly I wanted one. I needed one! Now there would be hard to spell author last names and bullet points and a bevy of information I wouldn’t be able to access just because someone miscalculated the popularity of learning the best ways to introduce the element of surprise in short stories. I had seen a gentleman in my “Beyond Pulp – The Futuristic and Fantastic as Literary Fiction” get up and chase down the handout he wanted. I was not going to be that guy. Heaven forbid I embarrass myself in front of a room of people I’d never see again.
At one panel the two women in front of me struck up a conversation and ended up sharing email addresses and Twitter names before the panel even started. I wondered what they were talking about. I think I heard mention of Sherlock and wanted to join in, but didn’t. How do you just turn to a stranger and find out something you have in common? I texted this question to my friend back home because obviously the best way to make contacts at a conference is to have your nose in your cell phone.
One lady was knitting during the panel I was excited about the most. Knitting. She was already there when I found my seat; I got in as soon as the room cleared. I assumed she had attended the previous panel and was just killing time before the next one started. But she didn’t stop knitting when they started talking. She was all “knit, purl, knit, purl” oblivious to her surroundings. The five young women on the panel had put time and effort into research about how to make money while writing and this person was crafting during their talk. Halfway through she seemed to remember where she was and packed up her needles. Instead of politely listening she got up and walked out.
By the end of the week I was exhausted. I wandered aimlessly through the book fair, tried to talk to the people manning the booths but my sentences weren’t coming out as planned. I left early due to overstimulation and hid in my hotel room.
Why was my Chicago experience so different from DC? I know not everyone judges me as harshly as I judge them. I know I can talk to strangers and come out the other end unscathed. And I know I’m not the only one with these worries. I definitely wasn’t the only one glaring at the knitting lady or laughing silently at the guy chasing down a silly handout. Many of the attendees are like me, quiet in large groups, expressing themselves through blogging instead of talking, planning out exactly what to say in any situation that could possibly arise at a 10,000 person conference.
Many of the attendees pushed through these worries and got stuff done anyway. They tweeted that they were wearing purple zebra print tights and to say hello if you saw them at the book fair. They bonded over walking twelve blocks through wind and snow. Most of us let go of our fears and said hello to an author whose books are well worn on our shelves back home. A writing conference may seem a little ironic since we are often loners, but we love each other. We get each other. And even if one of us is broken and walking alone down the street, another writer will strike up a conversation and give a girl like me great advice on how to write a short story.