For those of you attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Con  – especially the newbies among us – it may be useful to give some thought to how to get the most out of your upcoming writers conference experience. For those of you not attending UnCon, it may be useful to store these tips in a cool, dry place, against the day when you next wander down the conference trail. And for those of you with long experience of writers conferences, it might be useful to ignore everything that follows – but chip in with your own tips at the end.
First and foremost, campers, SET THE RIGHT GOAL. If you head into UnCon (or any con) with the goal of hitting some prized target (like landing an agent or a book deal, or whatever your ticket to heaven might be), you risk disappointment if that doesn’t happen. Worse, you’ll put all this stress on yourself to make it happen. Instead try this: Have fun. That’s a goal you can easily achieve, just by showing up and hanging out. I’m not saying don’t make the most of your networking opportunities. I’m just saying don’t obsess about it. As they say in poker (whence, let’s face it, all wisdom springs), “Let the game come to you.” What this is really about is setting your expectations. High expectations = buzz kill. Low expectations = fun!
Next order of business, SITUATE YOUR EGO. Take a few minutes to think about yourself, your sense of self, and where your insecurities lie. Then take all that self-consciousness, box it up, wrap it neatly with a bow – and leave it at home. A con is supposed to be a place to relax, meet friends, make friends, learn shit, renew your passion, and soak up energy like a sponge. It’s not a place to fret about whether you’re shining in others’ eyes. That’ll just make you try too hard. News flash: you don’t have to be momentous; you just have to be you. And if you’re really worried that people are judging you in some sense or any sense, remember this sardonic observation that Dr. Phil takes credit for, but really it’s from Eleanor Roosevelt, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”[pullquote]It usually works to buy drinks.[/pullquote]
With that in mind, MEET EVERYONE (which you now can easily do, since you’ve A) lowered your expectations and 2) left your ego at home). If you have trouble breaking the ice, here’s time-tested wisdom handed down from Ascended Stairmasters of yore: “It usually works to buy drinks.” Alternatively, reference this column. Just say to anyone you meet, “You know, that wannabe Stairmaster John Vorhaus recommends meeting everyone I can at these things, so this is me meeting you now.” (Especially use that line if you and I meet; we will find it hilarious.) And here’s an inner-game tip for you whose memory is as bad as mine. If you collect a lot of business cards and then can’t remember who gave them to you, just have them hold it and take their picture. It’s a little mug-shotty, but a reliable way to put names to faces later, plus fun (see above: icebreaker.)
Also please remember that COMPARISONS ARE ODIOUS. In an issue informed by both our expectations and our fears, how easily we can break our hearts (and ruin our fun) by getting caught up in the pointless game of measuring our level of achievement against anyone else’s. You meet many writers at these things. Some are more advanced in their careers than you; some less. All this means is that we’re at different places on the same path. Not better or worse places, just different. As long as you’re advancing down your path, you’re all the further along you need to be – and exactly as far along as everyone else. While you’re at UnCon (plus, you know, everywhen else) celebrate your place on the path.
This may seem self-evident, but TAKE NOTES. You’re going to be getting a ton of new information, all at once. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and very easy to forget the good stuff later. So here’s what to do: listen attentively for what I call grabs – little pieces of information that really resonate with you and make you think, That’s so true. I really need to remember that. Yeah, well, you can if you write it down. That way you’ll still have it available to you long after the UnCon, or any con, has receded into a blissful blur.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to PACE YOURSELF. A good writers conference spends a lot of your energy. There’s a lot of information to absorb, a lot of socializing to do (a fair amount of lurking at the bar), and it can all be quite overwhelming. Relax. Take deep breaths. You don’t have to do everything at once – and you won’t get to do everything there is to do. Enjoy the moment you’re in. Don’t freak out about the moment you’re missing. On the other hand, sleep is overrated, so what the hell.
Finally, I would say this: KEEP YOUR HEART WHERE EVERYONE CAN SEE IT. The hothouse environment of a con offers you a choice. You can be yourself or you can sell yourself. You will be so much happier if you set aside your needs (need for advancement, need for approval; oh, that list is long) and just focus on sharing your passion for your work with your peers. Be open, honest, accessible, and genuine with everyone you meet. This will lead you past surface small talk and into the quality communication, and communion, that makes these things so worthwhile.
So, okay, you for whom writers conferences are not new: what’s your favorite strategy for rocking a writers conference? Share your tips. Remember, the more fun anybody has, the more fun everybody has.