You would think it would be easier, not harder, to write a column after a weekend spent at a writers’ conference. I was trying to extract a larger point to write about from my weekend, but I’m a storyteller. I do much better making points with my actual story than by trying to step outside it and generalize to the world. I think readers prefer a personal story too. I know I do.
I’ve had trouble with big events recently and I finally had one go well, or at least not disastrously. It can be as useful to analyze what went right as what went wrong. Maybe you’ll pick up some tips for managing your own big events.
I went to the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland (Willamette rhymes with damn it, for non-locals), a regional gathering of about 500 writers. There are groups closer to home for me, but I used to go to this conference when I lived in Portland, I have friends on the faculty, and it was where I wanted to be.
The one big thing I did wrong was to book my travel too late, which I did because I was still trying to schedule visits with friends before and after the conference. The train was sold out and the Bolt Bus couldn’t guarantee space for my bike, which I always bring to the cycling utopia of Portland. By the time I decided to leave the bike home, the Bolt was sold out too and I had to drive the 325-mile trek. At least I could take Silver on the car’s bike rack that way.
I got an early start driving down Friday, but that didn’t cut much ice with traffic from Everett all the way to the south side of Olympia. It was the last day of the Seafair festival in Seattle and the major routes across Lake Washington were closed as a safety measure for the air show finale by the Blue Angels. When I left at 9 AM, my GPS estimated my total drive time at 5 hours and 3 minutes. Five hours and 3 minutes later, I was just getting to Centralia, the halfway point.
I avoid driving long distances; I won’t even do the 2-hour drive to Seattle if I can avoid it. My concentration is not what it was before I had the head injury, and tracking all that high-speed action for hours on end is really more than my brain can do. I think sheer luck has gotten me home alive more than once. The other problem with driving a long way is, that’s my brain’s whole energy budget. If I’m expected to do something on the other end of the drive, I generally fall short. Forget about concentrating in a meeting or doing anything useful.
Northbound traffic out of Portland was stopped. I had a relatively easy time heading into town. I stopped at New Seasons Market to get some high-quality vegan food to supplement the conference’s vegan meal plan. I brought my stash to the hotel—the first big thing I did right. Back in the 90s, I used to stay with my friend Jill downtown and either drive or ride the bus to the Airport Sheraton. This meant I missed the casual evening activities, but I made it to all the workshops. I was a young, new wannabe back then and that met my needs. I’m in a different body now, and my status has changed too. I’m a “real” writer with a book out and a blog, and most of my friends were faculty, not registered participants. The workshops were secondary to the evening events. The open mic reading hosted by young-adult author Debby Dodds was the most important part of the conference for me—a chance to hear my friends’ work and to practice reading my own in a constructive environment. Debby’s event started at 8:30 PM and went until 11:00. The only way I was going to be able to attend that was if I were staying in the same hotel.
Conferences also involve sitting in workshops, usually in the same kind of chair all day, and standing in lines for various reasons. I needed a refuge to go lie down and take a nap if I needed to. I used to think staying at a conference venue was decadent behavior for the very rich. Now it’s just a necessity if I want to attend. The hotel had a pool and mini gym on site too, and I needed a swim and soak after that long drive.
On Saturday afternoon I was struggling not to nod off while my idol, thriller writer Chelsea Cain, gave a truly fascinating talk. My body just couldn’t sustain the conference energy all day. When her workshop was done, I looked at the next hour’s activities. Nothing “called” to me. I decided to sneak up to my room for a nap before the banquet. That gave me the recharge I needed to make it through the evening activities. There was a line at the signing party for certain authors; I reluctantly gave up my chance to chat with a graphic novelist that a friend told me I should meet because I couldn’t stand in the line. My pain was skating into the 7 range where I couldn’t keep it from showing on my face.
Another conference amenity I used with gratitude was the chair massage booth. I got more relief from my 10-minute sessions than I did from my pain pills. For most people her presence was an optional luxury; for me she was on-site medical care. I sat in the back of the room during workshops so I could duck out often to stretch and shake out my legs.
Driving home was another ordeal. From now on, that’s a deal breaker. I will plan my travel in advance and not get caught without a ride.
Still, I returned home with nothing more than deep exhaustion. No fresh injuries, no recovery setbacks. No feeling that I had to sacrifice weeks of my life in order to attend this one thing. My concept of what I’m able to do grew because I did this. That, my friends, is progress. I hope you’re able to take some of my experience and use it to make your next big challenge easier.