It feels like I’m in middle school. It’s the first day of 7th grade all over again and I’m the new kid. The only difference? I’m about three decades older and I’ve walked into the mid-Atlantic conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (Heretofore known as SCBWI, which I learn everyone pronounces as a word and not as letters. This takes longer than it should for me to figure out.)
I stand up straight and push through the doors of the meeting room. Faced with a large group of smiling people, I take a sharp turn to the left only to find I’m in front of a blank wall. It feels a little too literal at the moment. It feels something like this:
(And since I don’t typically capture my most embarrassing moments in pictures, cartoons that best express how I’m feeling will serve as my visual cues for this blog.)
I spin around feeling like everyone is staring at the idiot that didn’t realize she was walking into a wall. They all must be thinking how could she possibly write a book when she can’t even walk? Except they don’t notice me at all and that’s somehow worse. I want to sink into the floor.
I connect with a few kind eyes. I smile and look away. I am almost 40 years old and I still don’t know how to do this, walk up to strangers and just start a conversation. But I am determined. My new motto is that if it scares me I have to do it. But as the saying goes, that’s easier said than done.
I stumble around looking for another face that looks as uncomfortable as mine. There are many. I approach someone near the coffee and make a joke about how without it I walk into walls. The woman chuckles politely but I can tell she doesn’t find it funny. She didn’t see my earlier blunder. I should be happy about that. Right now, I’m just happy I open my mouth and coherent sentences come out.
I decide that’s enough facing my fears for the moment. I wander around trying to find a seat without looking like I have no idea where I am going. I am sure I fail at that miserably.
I see a woman in the distance. She’s one of the few people I know at the conference. Although “know” might even be too strong a word to describe our relationship. I’ve just met her the night before at a critique group. I notice another woman from the critique group sit down next to her.
Pulled like a magnet to the familiar, I weave through the aisles toward them. I feel the anxiety rising up out of my gut and into my head. It whirls with thoughts like, should I sit behind her and pretend to notice her and then say, “Oh, hi, what a coincidence we sat near each other.” No, I need to be straightforward. “Hi, I am a total spaz and am terrified around strangers, is it ok that I sit with you?” I’ve known them both for a total of two hours and now I am forcing my neurotic self on them. They’re going to love me.
In reality, I go for “Oh hey.” I think. My blurred brain, hopped up on anxiety adrenaline, doesn’t really have control of what is coming out of my mouth anymore. I just know it comes out fast like word vomit.
This is the problem with introverts who try to be like extroverts, we just don’t have the social skill set. I need to think before I speak. In the quick motion of real-life conversation, I just blurt out my half-formed thoughts and wait for the embarrassment to flush my cheeks.
I am pretty sure my new acquaintances heard more about my childhood than they needed to know, like the fact that I totally understood that manuscript about sisters who hate each other because my sister and I wished each other dead so many times we were lucky there were only a limited amount of sharp objects in our home. The two women must think I’m insane and want to move to another row. Or just leave the conference to get away from me.
In the quick motion of real life conversation I just blurt out my half-formed thoughts and wait for the embarrassment to flush my cheeks.
Likely to the relief of my companions the presentations start. The first presentation discusses finding your voice. My first thought, “Find my voice? I can barely find my glasses in the morning.” In fact, I usually blindly bump around for a while, knocking things off the nightstand and crawling around on the floor until I can find the coke bottles that help me see. This is all I can think about during the first part of the talk because it feels like an apt metaphor.
Eventually, as the talk continues, I start pouring over all the things I’ve done wrong in my books and how I still struggle to find the right voice in many of them. This is what I like, this self-exploration. Thinking. Pondering my books, myself, how I can make both better. It’s so much better than trying to talk to people.
My first thought, “Find my voice? I can barely find my glasses in the morning.”
The next speaker tackles the topic of editing. It’s an informative talk with good insight and tips. But my mind can’t stop thinking about reworking my books. I send myself 20 emails during the talk because she keeps saying things that trigger something I need to fix.
Two talks and I am exhausted. And now it’s lunch…
And again I am thrust back to middle school. People congregate ripping open their boxed lunches. Many of them are strangers who just sat down at a table and started talking to each other. I took too long to gather my things. There are no spaces to sit where I can squeeze in at an edge unnoticed and listen or try to weave myself into a conversation. I’m not sure I would even if there were.
I envy these people who can just show up to a social situation and feel not just comfortable, but excited and in control. They’re like soldiers dropped into enemy territory, fearless in their resolve to network. These are people who might say “networking is my middle name.” If it’s possible to have an anti-middle name, “networking” would be mine. When I drop in, I immediately look for an exit or want to beg the helicopter to lift me back up to safety.
If it’s possible to have an anti-middle name, “networking” would be mine.
My middle names are more “hard work,” or “hyper-focused” or “doesn’t need sleep.” Although maybe if I had more sleep I’d be better at this social thing.
But I have plenty of time right now to think about this because although I forced myself not to go sit in my car for an hour and read, I opted instead for sitting in the conference room alone, writing this blog.
I know I need to get up. I can’t let this social fear control me. I need to walk around again. What I really need is for those networking middle namers to lend me just a little of their courage or some tips. How do they do it? (Or maybe that’s what they make Xanax for. I need to get my hands on some of that.)
I force myself to stand up. Here it goes…wish me luck…
(Post script: After this, I again walked around, circling the conference like superman trying to spin the world backward, and then I sat down again, feeling deflated. Then a lovely woman sat next to me and I smiled at her. That was all it took! Crazy! We introduced ourselves and spoke for a while. We even exchanged cards. I think that’s progress! Also, despite my social blunders, the conference was fantastic. I learned so much and bubbled with the excitement of coming home to working on my manuscripts. In fact, I stayed up until 2am working on them. But, then again, remember one of my middle names is “doesn’t need sleep.” And when I woke up this morning I didn’t even get out of bed before grabbing my laptop. That was of course after knocking a book off my nightstand while looking for my glasses. 🙂 )