I attended my first writer's conference in 2001. I didn't really know what to expect but I was excited to meet other writers and I assumed that we would have a lot in common. After all, we shared an obsession with writing and we were all trying to get published for the first time. One thing I was sure of was that I would find new friends with lots of shared interests.
That first morning, I put on a new dress and stuffed my manuscript in a shoulder bag which I quickly decided was far too heavy to carry around all day. I took it with me anyway and stood in line to purchase tickets for one-on-one consultations with agents and publishers. The tickets were expensive and the consultations were to last only 10 minutes, but we shelled out the money anyway. As I surveyed the crowd, I was sure I would find kindred spirits here.
Next we entered the hotel ballroom that had been converted into a large waiting area and I was hit with a wall of desperation, the barely controlled energy of a thousand people frantically hoping to be discovered. Some prayed silently for a chance to be in print. One woman fingered a rosary. Others talked nervously to anyone who happened to be nearby. I took it all in, wondering how long I could tolerate this frenzied energy before I passed out.
To keep myself conscious, I asked people standing around me about their writing projects. One nervous man confided that he was writing about a love affair with goats. "Do you think that's too much?" he asked me.
I wracked my brain to think of something positive to say. "It all depends on the writing," I said finally.
He was satisfied with that and left me to find someone else with a different opinion.
An elderly woman with a soft voice tapped my arm, "And what are you writing about, dear?" she asked me.
"My 12 years living in Tokyo." I answered. "How about you?"
She looked at me with sudden disapproval. "I don't like foreign books. I'm only interested in my family history. I can't imagine wasting time on anything else. But I can't talk about the details of my manuscript," she whispered. "Someone might steal my ideas."
"Well, I'm sure no one knows your family history as well as you do," I said.
She nodded curtly and narrowed her eyes in suspicion before drifting away to speak to someone else.
I can't remember the topic the next person was writing about, but I do remember thinking to myself that it was the last subject in the world I would ever write about.
That's when I noticed that the woman in front of me had a small cockroach crawling in and out of her dreadlocks. I contemplated how to handle this situation without making a scene.
Finally I touched her on the shoulder and said, "There's a little bug in your hair, let me remove it for you."
I brushed the cockroach onto the floor, certain that no one had seen it. Suddenly the woman's companion, a pale, nearly hysterical man began screaming, "That's a cockroach. Oh my God. There was a cockroach in your hair!
The woman shook out her dreadlocks and thanked me. "Well, now I feel right at home," she joked.
I laughed and nodded. No one else laughed.
I wanted to talk to her further but it was time for her to enter the consultation room where bells sounded every 10 minutes, reminding the writers inside that their consultations were over. She hurried inside, abandoning me beside her anxious companion who was suddenly embarrassed and refused to speak to me.
Later that day, I met a large, muscular man who resembled a drill sergeant. He was writing about his experiences as a recovering psychotic. By recovering, he meant that he still heard voices and saw visions but he managed to cope with them. I was leery at first, but soon discovered that he was the sanest person I had ever met. "I know exactly where my insanity lies," he told me. "Not many people can say that."
Next I met a gray-haired man who flirted with me and tried to steal the credit card out of my purse while pumping me for writing ideas. He laughed apologetically when I confronted him. "Writer's conferences are the best places to steal ideas," he told me, as if I should have figured that out already.
That's when I took refuge with the poets. We sat in one corner of the lobby, segregating ourselves from the crowd of writers who were talking loudly on dozens of different topics. A few historical fiction writers sat down with us, basking in the calm of our relatively quiet group.
Since then I've managed to find several good friends who are writers and I've come to the realization that what writers share doesn't have much to do with writing at all. What we have in common is the fact that we are all storytellers at heart. We all have an important story to tell. We have an intense desire to be heard. And each one of us has the right to our own unique, creative voice, no matter what topic we write about.
I take my hat off to all published and aspiring writers. We share a unique journey in which we create, inform, entertain and inspire. Like the storytellers of old who traveled from village to village delighting people with their words, we are an extremely valuable segment of society and just maybe, we have more in common than we think we do.