Oregon author and essayist Tom Titus knows that getting out into the world and interacting with people is beneficial to his writing career. But as an introvert, he finds it’s the last thing he wants to do.
“It requires a lot of energy to be an introvert in an extroverted world,” Titus explains, describing the daunting crush of 15,000 people in hallways and in workshops during the AWP Conference in Portland last spring. Fortunately, he met a woman in the registration line who knew his writing from a nature anthology. She became his conference “buddy,” someone he could check in with periodically by text or in person to ground himself in the crowd.
“She was a great conversationalist, anxious to ask me questions about myself, and I was happy to talk about myself,” he says. “At one point during the conference, she texted, ‘I need caffeine, food, and sunlight.’ I needed to be out of the crush of people, so I ditched my schedule, and we got together for coffee and a pastry. It was a really beautiful break.”
It’s common knowledge that extroverts derive energy from being around people, while introverts renew their energy from spending time alone. It’s equally common knowledge that writers need to network – we need to meet colleagues, literary agents, editors, filmmakers, readers – and a writing conference allows us to find each other while attending valuable workshops and panels about craft and publication.
But what if the over-stimulation of a writing conference makes you want to – as Titus quips – “hide under your hotel room bed curled into a fetal position and sucking your thumb?” He and other authors have developed techniques to help even the most introverted author navigate chaotic professional gatherings with success. Some deflect their anxiety by finding a conference buddy or volunteering at the event. Others painstakingly pre-plan their schedule, building in numerous breaks for alone time.
Practice talking to strangers
Chicago writer and accessibility specialist Courtney Craven attends numerous gaming events, but they but found themselves overwhelmed at their first writing conference. “The imposter feeling that I think a lot of introverts deal with was a big issue for me,” they say. “Put me at a gaming conference, and I can go on for days, and all signs of introversion vanish. But in writing, there’s still that big ‘you don’t belong!’ wall I see because I’m still a student, I’m not published, and it’s hard for me to envision myself as belonging among people who have been successful as writers.”
As a queer, trans, introverted writer, Craven wishes conference staff would adopt some of the big gaming conventions’ practices – in particular, they recall an event at which attendees received different-colored ribbons on badges that indicated participants’ preferred pronouns.
“This was awesome because I could let go of that ‘I’m going to have to explain what I am to people’ fear,’” Craven says. Ribbons also indicated how each participant felt about physical contact, ranging from “no hugs please” and “fist bumps only” to “please don’t approach me.” “Nobody was left even further outside of their comfort zone by having to explain these various parts of their personalities and identities,” Craven notes.
Craven suggests that writers challenge themselves to talk with strangers in preparation for professional networking at writing conferences. “These events are for talking and asking questions and making professional connections, which was something I desperately needed to do, but there was that little voice in my head reminding me that I don’t actually know how to do any of that, at least not successfully,” Craven says. Craven practiced talking to strangers on public transportation on the way to a conference, which resulted in an invitation to come to a man’s house to buy his parrot.
“I did not go get the parrot,” Craven says, “but I do suggest that method of practice. It did help, being able to engage random people on the train in conversation without being the human repellant I always fear I am.”
Listen to your body and take breaks
New Jersey author Steph Auteri describes herself as a “socially anxious introvert who likes to go to one writing conference a year.”
She had a wonderful time at her first conference, sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors and held in New York City, in part because she’d been invited to speak as a panelist. Having a specific job to do – whether it’s appearing on a panel or working a table or volunteering in a workshop – is a lifesaver for many introverted writers.
Auteri found that when she attended the same event the next year as a participant without a specific task and surrounded by throngs of people, she had a very different experience.
“I felt myself wandering the halls with this bone-deep exhaustion and overwhelm, and I was thinking, ‘You paid all this money to be here; you can’t just leave this conference,’” she explains. But in the end, she left early and took the bus back home to New Jersey.
Auteri prefers smaller conferences, such as HippoCamp, a conference for writers of creative nonfiction based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It feels really intimate, with writers’ backgrounds and abilities all over the map,” she says. “Everyone’s so nice; you feel you’re among your writing family, which is a nice feeling when you’re spending the rest of the year alone.”
She prepares for any conference ahead of time, studying the schedule and deciding which events she wants to attend. “I have some goals I set ahead of time, and I focus on that and play everything else by ear so I don’t feel so much pressure,” she says.
Auteri advises introverts to listen to their bodies at writing conferences, and take breaks when they need them. As someone who feels like she always has to be “on” at these events, she’s trained herself to recognize signs indicating a need for time away. “It’s when I feel my eyes glazing over, and I’m not as engaged in conversation as I was earlier in the day, and I want to go to bed even though it’s 2 p.m.,” she explains.
It’s important to have an exit strategy for meals, workshops, panels, or any other event that feels energy-draining rather than essential.
Conference meals can be particularly grueling for introverts, she notes. Often, writers find themselves sharing a table with 11 other people in a banquet hall setting two and three times a day. “If, at that point, I’m just staring at my food, I don’t initiate conversation,” she says. “I just let myself eat and be separate in the midst of the chaos without feeling like a total weirdo.”
She also reminds herself that she can simply leave the meal. “I tell myself, ‘You can go hide somewhere, and get back to the conference when you have the energy,’” she says.
Titus tells writers it’s important to have an exit strategy for meals, workshops, panels, or any other event that feels energy-draining rather than essential. He chooses a seat that allows him to leave a location without climbing over people and reminds himself that people aren’t judging him for walking out. “Part of that is learning that if you think people are thinking about you, it’s probably not true. They don’t really care about you; they’re not thinking about you at all,” he says.
Whenever he found himself overwhelmed at AWP last spring, he wandered the vast book fair with hundreds of tables devoted to literary magazines, small presses, and author services and talked to the people staffing them.
“Exhaustion became my friend because it stripped off whatever social veneer I had plastered on to cover up my introverted tendencies,” he explains. “I just started walking up to people at tables and saying, ‘How are you holding up?’ You could see the tension drain out of their face, and we could have a real conversation for a minute, and then we could talk about writing, and then I could hand them my business card.”
Titus has learned to work with the tension of being an introvert at a writing conference. He understands that the anxiety fueling that tension also provides a certain amount of energy that he can use to turn on what he calls his “extrovert façade.” At AWP last spring, he found himself able to tap into that energy despite the crowds and make authentic connections with the people around him.
“Fifteen thousand people attend these events, and fourteen thousand of those are introverts. They don’t want to talk with you, you don’t want to talk with them,” he says. “You have this huge thing in common, and so you might as well talk to each other.”
Conference tips for fellow introverts
“The best way for me to network at conferences is to be a speaker. Speaking is such an abstract experience that it’s devoid of much of the anxiety-producing social baggage of meeting people and having to engage one-on-one. It allows for a complete and immersive introduction of yourself and your take on the subject at hand, which frames subsequent conversations and provides a comfortable context within which to engage. Moreover, people who want to meet you will approach and introduce themselves, and you’re spared having to tell your story over and over.” —Daedalus Howell, author and filmmaker (daedalushowell.com)
“Meetup groups [found on meetup.com] are usually smaller in size and less stressful for introverts. I go to the local writers Meetup group near me on a regular basis. This has enabled me to make friends with whom I can then attend the larger writer conferences in Dallas/Fort Worth. When you attend conferences with others as an introvert, the experience is less overwhelming.”—Becky Beach, writer and blogger (mombeach.com)
“Introverts are general avoiders of small talk and, as a result, [we] want to get to the juicy topics as quickly as possible. We crave genuine and authentic connection with people, so the quick and surface-level nature of conversations at conferences can be overwhelming. To avoid this, connecting with peers you’re interested in meeting ahead of time via social media or email could be a good solution. This way, that initial introduction is done, and at the event, you can simply establish your relationship and develop better connections.” —Gina Lucia, writer and coach (limitbreaker.co)
“No matter which you are (extrovert or introvert), start looking for those ‘angels’ who have something to teach you, without thinking about what they can do for you. That makes them the focus, and who doesn’t want to talk about themselves? This takes the pressure off the introvert, who now becomes the ‘interviewer.’” —Sue Anne Linde, author of A Fuller Life (sueannelinde.com)
“I spend some time in the quiet of my home reviewing the schedule and noting sessions I’m most interested in. Whenever I can, I attend with a buddy or find out in advance who, of the people I know I can decompress with, will be there. Sometimes I skip out on sessions. And then, for me, there’s always dark chocolate and red wine (in moderation, of course).”—Iris Graville, author of Hiking Naked (irisgraville.com)
—Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.