I don’t like crowds. This fact was brought home to me again recently, when I attended a writers’ conference in Boston last week. I’d heard bits and pieces about the conference over the years, when it was held in other cities: Denver, Philadelphia, and Chicago. When I heard the 2013 conference would be held in Boston, I felt I had to sign up; it might be good for my writing “career” –- a pursuit for which I put in many hours and receive little or no compensation, but which gives me something to focus on beyond my single status or lack of social life.
I have a small book, a low-tech one-man show, and a newspaper column. I generally feel pretty good about my writing life, while admitting that I cannot, and may never be able to quit my day job. Since I wouldn’t need to pay for lodging for the conference, which was held at the Hynes Convention Center, I could limit my expenses to the $220 registration fee. Surely, the chance to attend panels, to listen a stream of established, successful writers who have books published by major presses would be educational, informative, energizing –- or so I hoped.
The first day of the gathering was stimulating, at first. I walked through the exhibit halls, where a huge book fair was being held, taking it all in. Rows of tables laden with books of all shapes and sizes filled the rooms. I snaked my way up and down the aisles, ran into a few local writer friends who looked almost as dazed as I did, and made a mental note to pace myself, knowing how testy I get in confined spaces, when I feel hemmed in and tapped out.
The exhibit halls, the hallways, the escalators all buzzed with a stream of humanity –- in this case 12,000 writers –- esteemed writers, aspiring writers, graduate writing students, who all wanted what few had. Those chosen few, who faced the audiences jammed into the meeting rooms, had made names for themselves as novelists, or memoir-writers, and had their own agents, publicists, editors. The first panel I attended was about shaping the first five pages of a book, and how to snare an agent with a compelling hook or introduction.
The room, which offered seating for 100 people, was filled to capacity. Every seat, and most of the floor space was taken, but I was determined to hear what the experts had to say. Eventually I wedged myself into a corner at the far side of the room and pulled out my notepad. At one point, a young man asked about the worst thing a writer could do in an attempt to find an agent, “Something like waking up one morning in a bathtub, in a pool of water, minus a kidney.” The answer, from an editor at a major New York publisher: “Bringing out a self-published book. That shows you’re not serious about writing.” Hmm…I had done just that several years ago; after being told that my memoir was “not commercial,” I published it myself.
As I squirmed out of the room, I reminded myself that this was just one man’s opinion, and I didn’t have to be limited by his point of view. By 5 PM I was drained, but after a decent night’s sleep I was ready to come back the next day.
Unfortunately, the next day featured our most recent snowstorm. After shoveling off my car and making my way to Wellington station on the Orange Line, I stood in another crowd on the windy platform. The new electronic ride-board announced a train was due in four minutes. But T-time literally stood still as the wait remained the same: four minutes at 8:25, four minutes at 8:30. Finally, a train came, and we pressed our way into the cars, which, the conductor helpfully informed us, were already packed.
At North Station, I transferred to an E-line train, which was equally full. As we approached Arlington, I was trapped in the center of the car, equidistant from the exits. Knowing that I would need to transfer to another green line train (B, C, or D) to get to the convention center, I prepared for my escape. Usually, I bite my tongue when folks don’t move out of my way, but on this morning I bellowed, “Let us out,” as I forced my way out of the train. I was feeling pretty good about myself, until a blond-haired woman, who left the train after me, looked me in the eye and said, “I just thought you should know, you pushed over a pregnant woman.”
There is no rejoinder for that, or I haven’t found one. She marched on, after giving me a look usually reserved for various sorts of pond scum. Arriving at the conference, I dove back into the crowd, reminding myself that I was now both an unsuccessful writer and a pusher of pregnant women, and that my karma was about to get run over by my dogma, or maybe a Greyhound Bus.
Clearly, I’m not my best when I’m penned in with too many of my fellow humans. Perhaps it’s a function of getting older, of having less tolerance, or knowing that time is a precious resource.
One of the things on my ‘to do’ list is to take a mindfulness/stress management course in the spring. I took one ten years ago, but I’m clearly due for a tune-up, or an intervention.
Judah Leblang is the author of the memoir, Finding My Place. He will be performing his one-man show (open to all): “Finding My Place: One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages” at Arlington Street Church in Back Bay on Saturday April 20, 2013 at 7:30 PM. For tickets, go to www.judahleblang.com or call 617-466-9637.