In this case, I'm happy to support that my husband was right--the Segullah Writer's conference was much less daunting than I'd anticipated. I had a few moments in the morning where I looked around the room at all these attractive, well-dressed women and wondered if I'd really come to the right place. (Aren't writers supposed to be, well, above sordid worldly concerns?)
The truth, I suppose, is that, like most things in life, the conference was not what I expected--in some ways (like the social inadequacy), much better; in other ways, not quite what I'd hoped. I think it's all my sister's fault--see, she's been going to these week-long YA writing conferences at BYU the last couple of years, and every year she comes away raving about how much she learned and (more to the point) the great friends she's made. (I'm not sure why I thought I'd have the same bonding experience in 10 hours that she had over the course of five days, when I was surrounded by 50 or 60 women, and she was in a group of 15 or so--you see what I mean about unrealistic expectations). I guess I had this rosy vision that I would come away with a handful of new friends that would fill in the social gap I've felt since leaving graduate school.
It wasn't quite like that.
But, I did meet some pretty cool people (and made at least one new friend!) and I learned some great tips on how to be not only a better writer but a better teacher (I came away with some great ideas for teaching this fall--for praising my students more and for better strategies to teach personal narratives. For one thing, I finally get the distinction between memoir and personal essay!)
My favorite tips on writing personal essays: build your essay around scenes, not summaries, and you'll be less tempted to pontificate. Also, start with a story and let the meaning emerge. (This was particularly helpful for me, since I tend to approach personal essays as I do academic essays, which is, you start with a point or a question you're exploring--in other words, you start with meaning and then amass the evidence.) And I got some great advice from one of the editors on what they look for in a personal essay, so when and if I get the time to flesh out the essay that's been percolating in my brain for the last month, I might actually have a shot at getting it published!
On the downside, I was also reminded that I can sometimes be less charitable than I'd like! I get annoyed with people sometimes. (Okay, frequently). And sometimes it's easier to get annoyed with strangers, because you know fewer facts to their benefit. By now you're probably wondering what I'm talking about, so I'll cut to the chase. I'm talking about audience members--I think there should be an etiquette of audiences that should be strictly enforced at conferences.
Among my biggest pet-peeves? Derailing the speaker's point with your own personal story or agenda. (I see that frequently in questions at academic conferences, where the question is basically: how does your research relate to my project? I.e., let me use your presentation as a platform for me to showcase my own work). But I hadn't expected to see it so much here. Don't get me wrong, there's a place for stories, but when the presenter is obviously pressed for time, don't make such a long comment!
Another, but lesser, pet-peeve: people who talk too much. I think comments can add a lot to any discussion, but when any one commenter begins to dominate the discussion, it's too much. (I think this is why I have such a fierce internal editor that tells me to shut up after I've made more than one or two comments in a discussion. Although why it then follows that others should have the same internal editor, I have no idea.)
At any rate, these were minor flies in the ointment--and if they were flaws, they were really my own. I really need to learn how to be more generous with others. (Of course, even as I write this, I can't help but wonder if it is so wrong to think some commenting behaviors are a form of rudeness?)