What Works For You: How to Attend a Conference Without Ending Up Crying

I just got home from a conference I’ve been attending off and on for the last decade. It was the first professional conference I’d ever attended, the place I first learned how to network and navigate a conference experience. The conference itself hasn’t changed much in the last ten years – it continues to have a banquet, a late-night game, scholarships and awards and a commitment to emerging professionals. But in the last ten years I’ve attended my share of networking events, workshops, and conferences in a variety of non-profit, humanities, and advocacy sectors. The truth is, they’re not that different; what you get out of a conference (no surprise!) is determined by what you put into it. And that means conferences can be extremely enriching, but also pretty overwhelming unless you know how to make them work for you.

Here are eight tips gleaned from a decade of non-profit conferences:

  1. Bring your business cards, then actually share your business cards. Ask lunchtime tablemates for their cards. Follow up with these new colleagues soon after the conference with a friendly note. These could really turn into handy colleagues.
  2. Set an intention or two before the conference. Maybe your goal is to hand out 15 business cards, or to meet one or two specific people in your field who you know will be attending.
  3. Live-tweet the conference if possible! Amplifying the reach of individual speakers and the conference in general is a great way to be a good citizen of whatever professional community you’re in—plus it can help position your Twitter as a source of information and yourself as an expert. Live-tweeting is also a great way to forge connections with other people at the conference. I find that live-tweeting is also a great way to take notes.
  4. Take notes however works for you. Review those notes soon after you get home and identify 1-2 actionable takeaways from the event. Even one new skill or shift in perspective can make a huge difference in your work, thought, or practice, and can make the conference itself worth it.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make small talk with the person sitting next to you in a session or at lunch. Ask them about other sessions they’ve attended, about their highlights from the conference so far, what they hope to put into practice when they get home, whether they’ve attended this event before and how this experience might be different from the past.
  6. Wear comfortable shoes.
  7. Say no. Know your own limits. Maybe you need to skip a session to take a walk or grab some more coffee.
  8. Say yes. Stay out a little later than you normally would. Attend a session that’s totally new territory for you. Propose to lead a session yourself.

Far From Home: 2018 book list

“There are moments when history and memory seem like mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.” – Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that many people have opinions about books, even (especially?) people who have strong negative opinions about those books. I, for one, always believed that there was a canon of literature I should have read earlier in my life and, given those previous failures, the best I could do now was to get cracking on that canon. So in 2017 I read books I “should have” read—that “should” sort of loosely defined to allow me to read outside Western lit, to read more women and more people of color. It was a good exercise, tackling those Should books, but by year’s end I was surprised at how much fantasy I’d managed to read—me, who loved Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood and lots of Very Serious Literary Writers.

When 2018 began, I was reading for the most part because I needed to fill time. To kill time, really, while I was enduring a commute often seemed tempted to kill me. The endless hours on the train were a good excuse to fill up my brain with books, whether I enjoyed those books or not. But then my life changed and I got a new job with a much shorter commute. Voilà—no more time to kill.

Still, I’m a writer and it’s my job to read carefully for craft. Faced with fewer hours for reading (what did I think I was going to do with all this free time no longer spent commuting?), I hunkered down with the classics. And I hated them. Me, who loved discovering Emma last year—I hated Persuasion. I found Wuthering Heights preposterous and immaterial. While I rediscovered Jacob’s Room and fell in love all over again with Virginia Woolf, I also discovered N. K. Jemisin (this could be a whole post about how much I love her work now) and devoured Louise Erdrich’s new book, a decidedly sci-fi departure from her usual fare. I still relished literary fiction like Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but I let go of the pretense, the Shoulds. I read for joy. I still read for craft (read N. K. Jemisin!), but the more I read for pleasure (not fun—I was still, and am always, reading for craft), the more I found myself trying to carve out time—not to kill it, but to fill it with more life. In reading this way my heart was broken open by surprises, by the possibilities of fiction. Yes, I read essays and memoir and (exactly one book of) poetry this year, but the novels taught me about the perils of history, the foibles of memory, and the freedom afforded by slipping into someone else’s narrative. As Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote:

“And I don’t want to be a stranger,
And I don’t want to be alone.
But sometimes I just want to be somewhere else
Untethered and known
When I am far from home.”

You get a different perspective on the Shoulds and Can Never Bes when you get out of your comfort zone and find the place you were meant to be.

  1. All Men Are Liars, Alberto Manguel
  2. The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman *
  3. White Houses, Amy Bloom
  4. The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett *
  5. Commonwealth, Ann Patchett *
  6. Keep Smiling Through, Ann Rinaldi
  7. A Small Fortune, Audrey Braun
  8. Fences, August Wilson
  9. High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver *
  10. Here We Go Again, Betty White
  11. In Good Company, Carol Burnett
  12. Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon
  13. The Underground Railroad, Coleson Whitehead
  14. The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness
  15. The Days When Birds Come Back, Deborah Reed
  16. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg
  17. Starvation Mode, Elissa Washuta
  18. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
  19. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  20. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
  21. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie *
  22. The Promise of Failure, John McNally *
  23. The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee *
  24. Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, Junji Ito
  25. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler *
  26. Radium Girls, Kate Moore *
  27. A People’s History of Chicago, Kevin Coval
  28. A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  29. Nat Turner, Kyle Baker
  30. Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
  31. Anne of Avonlea, L. M. Montgomery
  32. Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich
  33. A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle
  34. A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle
  35. Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
  36. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
  37. Upstream, Mary Oliver
  38. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey
  39. Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou *
  40. The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
  41. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
  42. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  43. Ghost Wife, Michelle Dicinowski
  44. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin *
  45. The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin *
  46. A Lab of One’s Own, Patricia Fara
  47. An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
  48. Motherhood, Sheila Heti
  49. America Again, Stephen Colbert
  50. Eats of Eden, Tabitha Blankenbiller *
  51. The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui *
  52. Assignment: Rescue, Varian Fry
  53. Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf *
  54. Pie and Whiskey

* books I loved

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