Tomorrow I fly to Atlanta for the Romance Writers of America 2013 national conference. The last time I went to RWA was 2011. That was before I started attending my local chapter meetings, before I started hanging out on Twitter, back when I had exactly one romance-writing friend, whom I’d met before I started writing romance and before she’d ’fessed up that she did.
It was before I met my critique partners, before I “found my tribe,” as my friend Katy Cooper so wisely put it when I attended my first New England Chapter meeting. It was during that long dark time when I had a finished manuscript but wasn’t quite sure how to write a query letter, how to structure a pitch, or where to file all the agent rejection letters.
It was before my agent called me and wowed me with her faith in me, before I sold my first book (which was really my third book) and my second book (which was really my first book), before I learned how hard promo is, how overwhelming release week is, how tempting it is to crawl into a hole and hide.
I knew only one person at the 2011 conference and it was heaven. We clung to each other and attracted a few other newbies, one-by-one, until we’d made a little clump of like-minded peeps who to this day I hug fondly in my mind when I need a little conference TLC.
This conference will be as different from that conference as—
I used up all my similes in the first page of the holiday novella I just finished writing. I had to cut, like, fifty of them when I revised that baby.
Suffice it to say that this conference will be totally different. I have fifteen events in my calendar, not including a single, solitary workshop, keynote, conference meal or bathroom break. Publisher and agent lunches, dinners, meet-and-greets, cocktail parties, scheduled meetings with colleagues, you name it.
It causes some anxiety.
In general, I do not worry about shoes, nail polish, pantyhose, hair styles, makeup. It’s not in my genetic makeup. But I am worried. I am worried about whether I can walk in these ones, whether those ones are too 1998 (yes! That is when they are from! but I can’t care! I swear to you, I cannot care!), and whether I should run out right this second and buy red strappy sandals and chunky matching red beads and earrings in case I need to do something really different with that little black dress. Should I? SHOULD I? *shakes reader*
I have agreed to do karaoke. I don’t sing! I don’t stand up in public! I don’t know what I was thinking!
It is possible that the 2011 RWA conference, with my single, well-known roommate and the vast spans of time spent simple observing, was exactly in my comfort zone and that I am about to step out of that comfort zone in an epic way.
If you have the remotest idea of what I am talking about, you will love—as I did—Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I highlighted so many passages and made so many notes that when I was done and exported my clippings, I had 28 pages.
Cain’s main point is that we live in an extrovert’s world, a world best equipped more or less since the dawn of assembly-line capitalism for the perkiest, more social, and least-solitary human beings. She notes several times that introversion is not synonymous with shyness or anxiety, defining it mainly as the need for downtime to recharge, or sometimes a preference for one-on-one or small group interactions—though she does say that many introverts are “high reactive”—meaning prone to overstimulation.
Introverts have tremendous strengths, she tells us. Here are few that you might recognize, a few that come in handy if you are going to put your butt in the chair day after day despite the vagaries and whims of the publishing world.
Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.
On the downside, introverts have trouble with many tasks that are expected of nearly everyone these days (and expected in spades at a conference like RWA):
To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly. …
The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up. …
…people here don’t even want to meet with you if you don’t have a PowerPoint and a ‘pitch’ for them. Even if you’re just making a recommendation to your colleague, you can’t sit down in someone’s office and tell them what you think. You have to make a presentation, with pros and cons and a ‘takeaway box.’ …
Cain wrote Quiet in part to encourage introverts to play to their strengths rather than always trying to be more extroverted. Because the same traits that make it challenging to maneuver your way through a conference of several thousand people make it possible to engage in the acts that won you the right to be there. Cain discusses a study that found that musicians who practiced alone, rather than in groups, were able to attain the highest mastery. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you’re familiar with the idea that mastery occurs at around 10,000 practice hours. I’m not sure how many words that translates to for most writers, but “serious study alone” as Cain calls it is the strongest predictor of skill in any skill-based field.
“It’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice,” Cain writes:
…You identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly…
Yes. Yes. We do.
But of course we’re introverts, not hermits, and sometimes we like to, you know, say, Tweet.
Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.
Yeah. We do that, too.
And we do have to come out of the cave sometimes, and let other people read. That’s just fine, Cain says, as long as we keep the creative functions separate from the critical ones. It turns out that—contrary to some long-held views—in public brainstorming sessions, people came up with fewer good ideas then when they were allowed to come up with ideas on their own and share them in safe environment afterwards:
Personal space is vital to creativity… so is freedom from ‘peer pressure.’ … The fear of judgment runs much deeper and has more far-reaching implications than we ever imagined.
In effect, she’s saying what we all suspect, that you should write for yourself and not for the market, that genius is a solo endeavor.
RWA, however, is most definitely not a solo endeavor. It is all that is big, loud, overwhelming. It is all that is peer pressure and groupthink and mass exoduses from ballrooms with too few exits. And shoes. (I didn’t mean to lump all those things together. Shoes are an objective good and groupthink is an objective bad. The shoes just jumped in there because I can’t stop thinking about them.)
But RWA is also a celebration. It’s a party, from beginning to end, a party not just for those of us who might appear to have “arrived” but for every romance writer who has dared to imagine getting “the call.” The uber-confident are invited, as are those of us, like me, who talk a good game but spend some time mustering up courage in dark and private places, too.
The party is for all of us, even if it is perhaps more obvious to the extroverts how to engage it. (For more excellent thoughts and advice on this subject, check out Del’s wonko-post about how she learned to love conferences.)
If you an introvert, and if it is not immediately obvious to you how to be at the party, think of it this way: Wrapped inside the party is a reminder. It is the reminder that we are not alone, a reminder that we are a tribe engaged in this weird, solitary, hyper-public pursuit, that there are flesh and blood people behind the wild success stories, behind the teeny tiny avis, behind the ill-advised act of online self-defense, behind the golden names on the book covers.
A wise woman told me to worry not about how I might appear or be received at the party by the tribe, but about what there is to like and even love in every other member I encounter.
In other words, the invitation to RWA, to all of its many events, is an invitation not to perform but to connect.
And that, Susan Cain says, is something introverts excel at. Most love one-on-one and small group conversations. They like to ask questions, often personal questions, sometimes questions that are off-putting to extroverts, who—on balance—like to skim the surface more. They enjoy conversation that digs past the basics. They want to know other people.
So: It is possible that I suck at shoes. And I have this pair of dress pants with so many buttons and ties that I often forget to do the fly. My singing voice is out-dorked only by my attempts to imitate a pop performance.
But I am going to try to forget all of that. I have done something I am good at, and I have been rewarded for it by this overwhelming bounty of people in small groups and big groups, at parties, at formally set tables, in lobbies and hotel rooms and bathrooms. And I am going to consider them—you—exactly that. My reward.
Stand back, RWA. I’m coming to find out who you are.