In May of 1982, I was a twenty-three year old master’s student attending my first academic conference. Held at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, it was the annual convention of the International Communication Association and I was the fourth (maybe fifth? maybe sixth?) author on a paper about “the process of studying process in organizational communication.” In a move to “give the grad students some experience,” the lead author of the paper asked me to do a small portion of the presentation. I was notably nervous about that, but even more nervous about time spent in no-host cocktail parties, loitering in the ornate hotel lobby, and attending the receptions sponsored by communication departments from across the country. This was the career I had chosen to embark upon. These would be “my people” for the foreseeable future. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be cool and professional. I wanted to be liked.
Over the next thirty five year, I probably attended close to 100 academic conferences. Some were gargantuan events, held in conference centers or spread across multiple big city hotels. Some were mid-sized, regional conventions or conferences centered on specific subdisciplines. Some were intimate affairs, gatherings in mountain resorts or small boutique hotels where several dozen scholars talked through specific ways of doing work in the communication discipline. In the last decade of these conferences, I found myself turning into the type of “conference rat” I had disdained in my early years. I attended few (if any) panels. I eschewed workshops and administrative meetings. I went to the conference in order to eat, drink, and talk with colleagues who had – as I predicted back in 1982 – become my people.
Last weekend, I again found myself attending a conference at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. This time I presented nothing. This time I cared barely a whit about the other people in the lobby or sitting in conference rooms with me. This time I attended ten — count ’em, ten — sessions in a two and a half day conference. For this time, it was a writing conference — The Muse and The Marketplace — and I was attending as a 58-year-old starting on a new kind of writing career.
My daughter (a writer of middle grade fiction) and I were holed up in a small room with an even smaller bathroom — perhaps the least luxurious accommodations in this semi-luxury hotel. When I raised the shade and looked out over the adjacent roof I realized that it wasn’t just writing talent that separated me from Virginia Woolf. No room with a view for me. But, all in all, it was glorious. I learned about elements of craft. Ways to imbed context into my fiction without getting in the way of the narrative. Strategies for the deep revision of scenes and entire manuscripts. In one session, I spent two hours examining single paragraphs from luminaries such as John Cheever and Alice Munro then trying to imitate them as a way to jumpstart the creative process. I took copious notes and saved reams of handouts. Like I said, thoroughly glorious.
Maybe I felt this same exhilaration in my early years of attending academic conferences and I just got a bit jaded over the decades. I don’t think so, though, and I believe a lot of it comes down to how different a writing conference is for those attending. There were no “paper panels” of scholars presenting work that varied from vaguely interesting to mind-numbingly dull (so okay, maybe I am more than a bit jaded). Instead, sessions typically featured a single expert – a well-published author or experienced writing teacher – providing insight, advice, and often pens-on exercises for those attending. Some were better than others, but I always felt I was taking away something that could help me with my own work. I left each session, and the conference as a whole, energized about my current projects and thinking about the future.
The next time I go to an academic conference (and I will undoubtedly go – those folks are still my people!) I’ll remember this feeling. Perhaps I can suggest ways that those conference planners can take some ideas from the world of the writing conference and use them to enrich their own sessions. And I’ll also try to tamp down my cynicism. Those first-year graduate students might be feeling the same sense of possibility that I now feel about my writing, and that’s valuable whatever the endeavor.