Home » 7 Ways to Feel Less Awkward at a Writers’ Conference
by Jeanette Hanscome
I confess; I’ve become a master of deception—people think I’m outgoing when I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling awkward and shy. Being visually impaired makes working a crowd difficult because I can’t read name tags or see every friend who waves at me. When I’m tired, the first thing to go is my ability to compose a decent sentence. If I’m also overwhelmed or navigating a new place, well, you can just imagine. I’m surprised anyone allows me to be on faculty anywhere.
My secret? Thanks to mobility training and numerous drama and public speaking classes, I learned to be a good faker, improvise, and cover my blunders.
I’ve also learned to be honest about my challenges and anxieties. By doing that I’ve discovered that most of my writer friends have their own set. Like me, they found strategies for combatting them.
Whether you’re new to the conference or have been coming for years, here are some tips:
- Start connecting before the conference. Join the conference attendees Facebook group, if you haven’t already. Pay attention to where people are from, who you have something in common with, and who is new. If you’ve attended before and know the answer to someone’s question, jump in. Feeling smart is a great confidence booster.
- Remember you aren’t the only one. The Conference Connections Coordinator just admitted feeling awkward in group settings. Most writers are shy and introverted. Several of us will spend at least one pre-conference hour with our therapists, making an action plan for managing our delicate feelings and need for space. If you are trembling, chances are, the person beside you is too. You can go into every conversation, workshop, meal, and appointment assured that you are not about to be shooed away from the cool table. We are all equally as cool, but none of us think we are, so you’ll fit right in.
- When in doubt, ask questions. Writers and faculty members love questions, because we get to answer them, which is especially helpful in moments when we feel like posers who don’t belong at the conference, let alone on the faculty. It gets us out of coming up with something clever to break the tense silence. The wonderful thing about writers’ conferences is they come with built-in conversation starters: “What do you write?” “Which workshop are you going to next?” “Has an agent made you cry yet?” Try one out when you don’t know what to say during dinner. (Before blurting out question three, I recommend making sure an agent isn’t sitting at the table.) If you can’t find a building, ask someone who looks like she knows where she’s going. Maybe you’re heading to the same place, or she’s lost too, and you can help each other. Ask an agent or editor what they enjoy doing for fun; they appreciate being seen as real people instead of gatekeepers or dream-crushers.
- Dress for confidence. The right outfit can cover a multitude of nerves. When I say “right,” I mean something you feel good in that is also appropriate for public wear. Mount Hermon has a casual dress code, so jeans are fine and comfortable shoes are a must. If you have an agent appointment on your schedule, choose something that makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Bring a favorite sweater, your new boots (as long as they are rain-proof and don’t have high heels), or that bracelet with your word for the year on it.
- Know that it’s okay to be quiet. If you can’t think of anything to say, listen. (Unless an agent or editor is meeting with someone—only eavesdrop on those conversations if your goal for Mount Hermon 2019 is to be used as an example of poor conference etiquette.) It’s fun to hear other writers talk about their stories and how they get ideas. Maybe a faculty member’s advice to a conferee at the lunch table will help you too. Sit outside and listen to the birds. Go to the chapel to pray and feel God’s presence. At a long conference that’s jam-packed with activity, moments of silence are a gift.
- Try something new. One year, I broke tradition on a Sunday afternoon and left campus. A friend and I took a conferee to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I felt like I was cutting class. It’s one of my favorite conference memories. We were only gone for an hour, but after that time in the sea air, witnessing one woman’s wonder over what she’d always wished to see, I returned refreshed. Sometimes our brains need a break from workshops, appointments, and talking about our works-in-progress. If all you’ve ever done at this conference is learn and meet with agents, sign up for zip lining or a nature walk. Take advantage of the Sunday afternoon free time, so you can experience something to chat about later and write about when you get home.
- Make an appointment with someone besides an agent or editor. Not that those appointments aren’t great, but they come with pressure and can cause anxiety no matter how long we’ve been attending conferences. We benefit just as much from catching up with a friend over ice cream or getting to know someone new. Those are the relationships we hang onto, enjoy between conferences, and return to Mount Hermon for. Leave room in your schedule for meetings that don’t require rehearsing a pitch. If you run into an old friend, plan a time to have coffee before your calendars fill up. If a rich conversation carries over into a workshop hour, it’s okay to skip the class, buy a recording, and enjoy your time together. Maybe God brought you to the conference to connect with that specific person.
Writers may be an introverted crowd, but we are a welcoming, smart, and funny crowd. We are quirky in ways that non-writers don’t always appreciate. At Mount Hermon, we get to spend five days with friends who get us. They understand that when we say, “My characters aren’t cooperating,” we don’t need to be evaluated, and that submitting a proposal is not a rather unromantic approach to becoming engaged. So in those moments when you feel awkward or overwhelmed, remember you are with your people.
As Conference Connections Coordinator, Jeanette arranges the First-Timers Orientation on Friday afternoon. She will also be presenting a workshop entitled Making the Most of Your First Writers’ Conference on Friday afternoon.
You may also be interested in the conference First Time Preparation Packet available online.
Jeanette Hanscome is the author of five books, including Suddenly Single Mom: 52 Message of Hope, Grace, and Promise (Worthy Inspired), as well as a speaker, freelance editor, and workshop leader. Most of her writing flows from her life as a single mom who has had low vision since birth, and how God reveals His love through everyday experiences. She pours her leftover creative energy into singing, knitting, crocheting, and making homemade gifts. Jeanette and her younger son, Nathan, enjoy living in the same East Bay Area city where she grew up. (Her oldest, Christian, is an adult, successfully launched into the world.) Visit her website and blog at jeanettehanscome.com