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From the Front Lines: Tips for making the the most of a virtual writing conference

How to best take advantage of this new method of learning and networking.

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As I write, we’re a year into pandemic measures in California, where I live, and we’re pretty close to a year around most of the United States as well. Some of you may remember that it was right around this time that leadership of one of the bigger writers’ conferences on my calendar, AWP, was debating whether or not it should go forward. Spoiler alert – it did go forward, although I personally didn’t attend, and I posted on Twitter that I’d always remember the sensation of missing out on seeing people I cared about and only got to see those few days out of the year.

I’m not sure what I thought that meant for me. Was I making a pledge to go to every conference I could once “all this” was over? Was I talking about making a concerted effort to stay in touch with people throughout the rest of the year, so as not to worry so much if I missed out on one conference or another?

Instead of either of those things, what I think I’ve processed the most thoroughly is that virtual conferences may be the wave of the future for me and for many other writers, who find their wallets and their calendars now less constrained by things like travel budgets and travel time away from home and work. And here’s something I also won’t forget about this year – although I do experience the same post-conference fatigue after each virtual conference, it takes a lot less time for me to get over it than if I’ve attended conferences in person.

Some of that is for obvious reasons: You’re not schlepping to and from conference hall; you don’t have a smile pasted on your face every waking minute; you’re not trolling the displays of magazines and intaking a billion different visual cues. But some of it is for not-so-obvious reasons. When you’re at a virtual conference, you can pretty much take a break whenever you like. You can get up and stretch. You can listen to a panel in a position other than bang-upright in a flimsy conference chair. Your kitchen is right there, so you remember to hydrate and nourish yourself better.

Well. It’s obvious I’m a fan of the virtual conference and event. There’s a lot to admire, on top of basic things like accessibility to people who might not have the money to travel or the time to take off of their jobs for three whole days. In the past year, I’ve attended a handful of conferences and spoken at another handful of conferences and events, and I believe I’ve amassed enough virtual experience now to give you a set of tips to navigate our bright new reality in comfort. Here we go.

Ask if the conference sessions will be recorded.

The organizers should tell you right off the bat, but if you look for a conference at which the sessions will be recorded, and you know they’ll be available for viewing even after the conference, you can better plan your attendance at certain sessions. So much of my conference life was wasted on worrying about which session I’d choose over another; with a conference whose sessions are on file, you can go back and view them later. It’s a happy little probability that didn’t always exist in the age of the in-person conference.

Be sure to take breaks.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to get wrapped up in exploring things like Discord rooms for conference attendees, or reading up on the panelists for one session or another, or exploring a conference’s virtual bookstore. It was just as easy for me to stay glued to the conference even when I wasn’t actually at a conference. I wanted to stay chatting with people, stay connected, and then before I knew it, we were at the end of another long day, and I hadn’t done anything but stare at the screen and take notes. Without the fabricated reminders of a traditional conference – say, constantly moving from one room to another, one session to the next – you need to make a concerted effort to get up between sessions and go for a short walk or step outside and stare at something other than your screen. And, actually, you can even do these things while you’re in-session, can’t you, simply by utilizing that handy feature of most video conferencing platforms:

Turn off your camera.

This is a really easy way to retain your sanity. Turning off your camera allows you a little more freedom. You can listen to a panel while you’re exercising, say, which is a technique I’ve used a few times to make sure I get my workout in during long conference days. (One year, my team and I were up at 6 each morning to make sure we got out for a run before the conference day began.) Or you can have a meal or a snack, which is convenient if you’re in a different time zone than the conference planners and sessions are going on during mealtimes. You can yawn mightily if you need to, which is a sure sign that you need to get up and stretch – something you can also do more easily if your camera is turned off. Using this feature allows more flexibility.

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Try sessions – and conferences – that might not exactly be in your wheelhouse.

Another advantage of virtual conferences is that leaving a session isn’t as obvious. You can just pop out by leaving the virtual room quietly and visiting another session, depending on the way the conference is set up. And although attending conferences is still an expensive hobby, even without all the traveling, I’ll suggest the lower cost of virtual conferences makes them a great way to sample genres and topics you might not have tried before because you were so hung up on how much you had spent to get to the conference in the first place. This year, I finally bit the bullet on a few sessions about mystery writing, which I’ve always been curious about but never could justify when there were so many other sessions I just had to go to.

There are a few things that still stay the same for me, even though we’re in virtual-conference land: I still try and review my notes each evening to better cement what I learned that day. And I still make an effort to gather with people at the end of the day or at the end of the conference or both. I use a Zoom room for that, or maybe just meeting up on Google hangouts, so we can hash out the sessions we went to and chatter away some of the buzz that inevitably comes with what we’ve seen and heard.

It is a little harder to meet new people at these virtual conferences, but organizers are getting better and better at finding ways to make sure attendees meet each other and stay connected. One conference I was at used Discord to set up before-and-after meeting spaces, and another set up a simple Facebook group, where we could all talk about what we were anticipating at the conference beforehand and stay in touch afterward. (That conference was in August, and the Facebook page is still going.) Still another used a newish platform that allowed for “corridor chats” – if someone said something you were interested in during a panel or Q&A, say, you could search for them in the conference attendees and strike up a conversation with them, just as you would at any event.

People are resilient. And we’ve heard so many people talk about their “new normal.” It’s my hope that some of these conferences and classes that have had to make an abrupt pivot to virtual will have seen the immense benefit of doing so, both to their bottom lines and for their attendees, and continue to host online activities. Maybe this new normal will allow us to see the ever-evolving ways we can foster connection and learning, even if we’ve had to adjust a little bit.

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—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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