So, you’re going to attend a writers’ conference, eager to dive into some serious study of craft. Well, believe me, you will find plenty of that packed between inspiring keynote speeches and faculty panels. For example, I recently attended the Oregon SCBWI conference. Saturday’s breakout sessions found me facing a rapid-fire succession of strategic questions during a Character Boot Camp with agent Molly O’Neill, discovering ways to switch off a reader’s “default mode of traits” in editor Tiffany Liao’s Fundamentals of Writing Cross-Culturally, tracking the Secrets of a Great Synopsis with author Martha Brockenbrough, and quivering with nerves as I read and then waited for feedback during a First Page session with agents Natascha Morris and Molly O’Neill.
Sunday’s breakout sessions started with only slightly less quivering nerves as eight of us met with Natascha to read and critique up to 500 words of one of our picture book manuscripts. With that over and my nerves off the hook, I checked my schedule. And that’s when it struck me. My writer’s brain was tired, close to overloading. I really didn’t think I could keep focused through one, let alone three more breakout sessions if I kept doing what I had been doing. It was time to give myself permission to take a break and go off schedule. It was time to remember that an important aspect of attending a conference was enjoying the experience.
I stuffed my notebook (dutifully full of scribbled notes) back in my bag and headed to one of my favorite off schedule retreats: an illustrator focused workshop. Picture books are a collaboration between writer and illustrator, so I’ve always found seeing how the other half works to be both entertaining and inspiring. I’ve even learned more about the interplay of text and pictures from these sessions. I entered, fully prepared to sit back and observe. Wrong! It turned out that the presenter, Vanessa Brantley Newton, considered everyone in the room a participant. Our goal? Musical Creation. (Think musical chairs, but each time the music stops, everyone moves to a new table and either builds on something someone else started or starts a new something.) Tamping down the impulse to run like a scalded cat, I took a seat. And played. And found it both relaxing and re-energizing to stretch my creative muscles in a different direction.
Then I did something even more revolutionary. I sat out the next session. Granted, there wasn’t a topic I was particularly drawn to that session, but that didn’t mean that little voice in the back of my mind grumbling about wasted opportunities was easy to ignore. But I did. Torn between a short nap back in my room or finding a quiet spot to just veg, I compromised. First I visited the art portfolio displays, something I hadn’t taken time to do yet. Then I found a quiet spot and read back over my session notes, slipping added bits of clarity into mystifying scribbles while things were still fairly fresh in my mind. That part may not sound like resting my brain, but there really is a big difference between frantically jotting down notes during a fast paced session and going back over those notes at your own pace.
By then it was time for the last breakout session of the day (and conference). Relaxed and refreshed, I was able to focus on and enjoy Natascha Morris and one of the writers she represents offering their insights on Working with an Agent. I even managed to ask an intelligent question or two. Yet the best part of taking those off schedule breaks? I avoided those washed-out and tired-out doldrums that can hit just as the final keynote speech is about to begin. I heard every inspiring story and quote that SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver delivered. And missing any part of that would have truly been a wasted opportunity.
So, attend those writers’ conferences and soak up your craft. Just don’t forget to enjoy it. Let keynote speeches be a vicarious journey, more about listening than note-taking. Use mealtimes and breaks (even those long bathroom lines) to chat with other attendees and possibly strike up new friendships. Most importantly, don’t forget to give your brain a break. Take that nap, attend a session you might not normally consider, visit the bookstore or art portfolio displays, or even, gasp, just find a quiet spot and veg. You might just be surprised at how much more you get out of your overall experience if you do.