I once worked at an Industrial Psychology firm, where I administered hundreds of Myers-Briggs tests. My own test results showed the most extreme case of introversion that I encountered in my albeit brief career. I am an INFJ, a rare type. How many of you can say the same? I'd actually venture to bet plenty.
At writing conferences, I note that there seem to be more of "my people" than not; whereas in the world at large, not so much. And yet, there we are, a room full of introverts trying painfully to network.
I will be bold and say right now -- I HATE WRITING CONFERENCES! I like the results of having attended (sometimes), but the actual process is awkward and, frankly, often excruciating.
My first writing conference was the big one -- the annual SCBWI conference in L.A., 1992. (Were you there, April?) I was 21 years old, was completing an unpaid internship at DAYS OF OUR LIVES, and had no car to get me from Burbank to Marina del Rey. (If anyone here has ever contemplated living in L.A. without a car, you get how badly I wanted to attend this conference.) I believe I took three buses, and I know it took me four hours to get home. But wow, was it worth the effort. At the Golden Kite reception, one of the keynote speakers, Mary Downing Hahn, was seated at my table. She is from my hometown, and I am a big fan. (My husband teaches at least one of her books to his students, as well.) She also happens to be VERY funny. Mary Downing Hahn is the person who taught me that it is indeed possible for an introvert to make a room full of people burst into gales of laughter.
My manuscript consultation that year was with the late Craig Virden, who was then the head honcho at Bantam-Doubleday-Dell. He was extremely kind and enthusiastic enough about my manuscript to tell me to send it to his Executive Editor with his blessing. Can you imagine? Excitement! Then deflation, months later, when she rejected it outright. (As an aside, the same manuscript subsequently got buried on Stephanie Owens Lurie's desk. Over a year later, I received a rejection note: "I'm sure you've sold this by now..." Nope. Not yet! )
The following year, my manuscript consultation was with a writer whose work I did not know. She hated my manuscript -- she hated everything about it. She did not have one positive thing to say. I accept constructive criticism well. I am enthusiastic about rewriting when feedback resonates, makes sense, makes the work better. This was an unnecessarily miserable experience. Even my college students know that the first thing you do when giving feedback is find SOMETHING nice to say. What I took away from this experience (and I say this as the veteran of a workshop-based MFA program) is the understanding that when you enter into a critique with a stranger (or even a non-stranger with whom you are just not simpatico), you must guard your ego carefully. A mantra I always share with my students: Everything is subjective!
After being a shy attendee at several conferences and hearing dozens upon dozens of lectures at Vermont College, I finally promised myself a respite from writing conferences for awhile. But as my time and focus have waned with the births of my darling children, I realized last year that it was time to get reinspired by communing with like-minded folk.
Last summer I attended the alumni mini-residency at Vermont College, which included small workshop groups with well-known editors. For serious writers, mid-residency events for alums at Vermont College (and, I believe, Hamline) are open to the general public and are a terrific opportunity worth considering.
In short, this business is tough. If a little handshaking and smiling is what it takes to get your manuscript out of the slush pile -- by all means, do it! I have twice paid money and then backed out of attending our local SCBWI event because I know no one, and a weekend is a long commitment when one has small children. However, I am once again again aiming for my July debut. As JoAnn would say, wish me luck! And if you have any tips, please share. As the tightknit Chicago groups have shown me -- starting local seems a good way to go. --Jeanne Marie