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One of the things that makes a small school like Arcadia so special is that you are truly able to carve out a professional identity. This past summer, I was given the chance by Arcadia’s English Department to attend the Philadelphia Writers Conference. I was elated and honored to be selected, but those feelings quickly soured to nagging apprehension. I didn’t want to squander the opportunity presented to me, and I definitely didn’t want to represent my school poorly.
- Jess Derr
Most of my anxiety stemmed from the fact that I had never been to a conference before. I had no clue what to expect or how to act. However, fear of the unknown is no reason to avoid something that could enrich your career down the line. No one ever advanced themselves, personally or professionally, by staying in their own little bubble and denying opportunities for growth.
What we sometimes fail to recognize is that discomfort can be good. It is a sign of progress, showing us that we are breaking out of our comfort zones and working against our limited perspective on any given thing. But if you are still not convinced, don’t worry, I’m here to give you a few tips to make your first off-campus academic endeavor as painless as possible. Your own event may not be in a creative industry like mine was, but ideally this advice transcends disciplines.
Trust me when I say I have the natural social prowess of shower mold. I’d rather gargle glass and do math problems than be dropped into a room full of strangers. Still, one of the big reasons for attending conferences is networking. In today’s professional environment, it’s imperative. There’s a reason why people say “it’s not the grades you make, it’s the hands you shake.” You never know what the connections you forge will lead to down the road.
Conversation starters shouldn’t be too difficult because you already know that you have something in common: your shared discipline! When this fails, revert to the old maxim of “fake it ’til you make it.” Even if you feel the urge to hide in the bathroom and never speak to a human being again, slap a smile on your face, pretend to be otherwise, and most people will never be the wiser.
Conferences may give you the chance to sit in on panels or attend lectures. Often, you get to cater your schedule to your tastes. When creating my agenda for the Philadelphia Writers Conference, I was amused by a session titled “Size Does Matter- Writing Romance Fiction Across the Lengths and Intensities.” I don’t really write romance, and I barely read it. I chose it more for the novelty. But when I attended sessions with best-selling romance author Terri Brisbain, I was immediately charmed by the romance-writing community and enthralled by the intricacies of the romance fiction market. I ended up learning ways to enhance my character's relationships in my own work and picked up some romance titles to read this summer that I really enjoyed.
If your conference is anything like mine, I’d advise you to bring a notebook and a writing utensil. It is crucial to bring back the knowledge at your disposal to your personal projects.
But learning can happen outside the designated lectures and panels. I personally felt a bit like a fish out of water among those at Philadelphia Writers Conference, as I was probably one of the younger, more inexperienced attendees. However, it was enlightening to hear perspectives and experiences from writers much different than those in my Arcadia circles.
My conference provided numerous opportunities for me to present my work, from contests to open mics to sharing ideas in seminars. I, unfortunately, was a bit of a chicken and did not feel ready to present of my actual work to an audience. I wish I had taken more initiative to put my writing out there while I had numerous sets of eyes from all walks of life at my disposal. The few times that I did voice my ideas, I was met with helpful advice and affirmation, showing that it pays to be an active agent in your self-betterment.
Honestly? Conferences are exhausting! Beyond long, content-filled days, it can really drain your batteries to be a diligent student of the craft and to be consistently “on” while interacting with people you do not know.
Do not feel bad if you need to take time for yourself. Missing a planned event is not going to ruin your experience. Step outside. Grab a snack. And remember to breathe!