Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Ambivert Walks Into A Writing Conference...

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
Fifteen thousand people at one writing conference are enough to bring out my inner introvert. That’s what I learned at my second springtime leap into the swarms of the annual AWP Conference, this time in Los Angeles. (AWP stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs, so can anyone tell me why it’s not AWWP?) People often talk about creative writing and introversion as if they’re inseparable, but thanks to writing’s dual requirements of solitude and communication, I believe it attracts a spectrum of introverts and extroverts.

I’m an ambivert: exhibiting qualities of extroversion and introversion in almost equal measure. In Myers-Briggs personality tests, I typically score 51% extrovert/49% introvert. I’ll bet if the tests were not designed for bilateral results, I’d test 50-50.

Non-writers often seem surprised to meet an extroverted writer. Meanwhile, writers who know me seem surprised to learn I’m half-introvert. “But you’re so social!” That’s what an author friend told me when I attended her reading at one of the pop-up events that are my favorite part of any conference.

With that, we both fell into mutual confession, admitting that, although we enjoy such events—typical for extroverts—we feel drained afterward—typical for introverts. She said something like, “I enjoy readings, but I spend most of the time leading up to them dreading it, and most of the time afterward going over every dumb thing I said.”

Without prompting, she volunteered that on Myers-Briggs, she scores 51% introvert/49% extrovert. We laughed over our identical but flipped numbers. I drew an imaginary bubble around us with my hands and said, “We’re both safe here.”

She and I don’t know each other intimately, but I like to believe that for a few minutes after that we both relaxed, eager to get better acquainted with each other, without the pressure of meeting strangers. Then a third author, a stranger, joined us. She was smart, funny, and apparently extroverted. The tension rose, but I enjoyed the conversation. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. Still, I missed the one-on-one.

I expected to join a close friend—an introvert—at that event, but she never saw my text confirming our plans. She later texted that she feared being alone so went to another event in hope of finding friends, which is how she ended up alone. It struck me as the classic approach-avoidance conundrum writers face at conferences, the simultaneous desire and fear surrounding social contact.

To write well, we don’t shy from sharing ideas that scare us. How can we ask less of ourselves in a roomful of writers? Yet how will we broach such frank talk with strangers?

I’m convinced that extroverts and introverts are often equally overwhelmed by writing conferences, though perhaps for different reasons. Something like:

Introvert: Why is this person talking to me? Why is she so excitable? Why does she keep talking about herself? Why is she asking me so many questions?

Extrovert: Why won’t this person talk to me? Why is she so disengaged? Why won’t she tell me about herself? Why is she making me do all the talking?

Exhausting. Still, I crave intimate dialogue. That’s one reason I write: the intimate relationship between writer and reader.

In that vein, I prefer events where the halls don’t feel like a pedestrian freeway at rush hour; where presentations are not one-sided, with an invisible boundary between presenter and audience; where I don’t feel lost in a crowd.

At AWP, many fellow-writers and I exchanged the same confession: “This is overwhelming.” A few of us shared ways we deal with that. Here are mine:

1) I only attend two or three classes a day.

2) I spend mornings or afternoons writing in my room.

3) I often choose to eat in solitude.

4) I emphasize offsite events and don’t struggle to meet people. If I do, great. If I don’t, I watch and listen.

5) I don’t feel compelled to go to that thing where “everyone is going,” unless I’m dying to go.

6) I typically attend smaller conferences, seminars, workshops, and retreats, especially where I can spend time with a single group of maybe a dozen.

Those approaches still challenge both my inner introvert and outer extrovert, but I find it worthwhile: reaching within for questions and answers, reaching out to share questions and answers, and synthesizing it all into an improved ability to create and communicate. Introverts or extroverts, we’re writers, and until we share our words we have not completed our purpose.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

15 comments :

  1. Temperament traits are on a spectrum from balanced to extreme and a person can change with time and experience. You could take the test at 20 and again at 50 and have totally different results. Introverted doesn't have to mean socially backward. Besides, I've always found when you get a group of writers or book lovers in a room together it's hard to shut them up. It's a great feeling to be amongst our "tribe" at conferences and writing events.

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  2. Excellent points, Diana. Actually, the more I embrace my introverted side, the less socially awkward I feel. It's the extrovert in me who tends to put her foot in her mouth - though I guess that's the risk we all take when we put ourselves out there, which has other rewards. Indeed, when I'm among fellow writers, I feel a sense of mutual understanding and connection no matter where we all fall on the spectrum.

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  3. Oh my gosh, 1500 people at one event? I would run out of the venue and never return. My introvert score on the Meyers test was more like 75%. LOL

    I agree that it is a good idea to make a plan before you attend, and only do as much as you are comfortable doing. I hope to go to Bauchercon in Dallas this year, and I know that is a huge con, so I am already making a plan.

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    1. Hahaha, Maryann, imagine the poor introverted author invited to give a keynote speech in front of such a crowd! Bet she would want to make a run for it too.

      I agree that planning ahead for ways to take care of ourselves at these events is an excellent idea.

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  4. Sorry about the duplicate comments. I have no idea why that happened.

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  5. I used to be an ambivert, and would speak at conferences and library programs, though it made me nervous. Now that I sell my ebooks on Amazon, I'm back to the more comfortable introvert status.

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    1. It's possible you were always an introvert, Morgan, even during those public speaking moments. All of us can find ourselves capable of and even excited by either solitary or group activities at various times, but apparently it is our overall orientation toward those things that determines whether we tend toward introversion or extroversion. I know several introverts who are much more accomplished public speakers than some of my extroverted friends. I believe public speaking is a strange and confronting thing for all of us.

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  6. I'm an E by a 3% lead over being I. For me it depends on the situation. I also minored in Drama in college. No wonder I didn't ever want to try out for plays, but enjoyed being a classroom teacher.

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    1. Ah, Merrily, you are my tribe. I get what you mean. 😊

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  7. You've really raised the, ahem, bar on this topic, Cara. I think I'm a bit egotistical: I would completely avoid going to such a conference and prefer to stay comfortably home, unless I were invited to be a speaker on a topic I know well - then I'd happily speak in front of hundreds. I'm far happier being the centre of attention than being one of the crowd. But, yes, as mentioned, I do find it draining and I would need to recover afterwards at home in blissful solitude. (My major extrovert friends find being "cooped up" at home very tiring, on the other hand, and they gain energy from going out.)

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    1. I hear you, Elle. I too love speaking in front of a crowd on a subject I know well, but feel drained after. For me, some of that is just the adrenaline, I suppose. But I do recharge best in solitude.

      It's not public speaking that freaks me out at such events, it's being swept up in the anonymous crowds.

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  8. Some years ago, I was invited to speak to a small group of writers. With some degree of trepidation, I agreed, then asked how long my presentation should be. The caller said 1-2 hours. The huge introvert living inside me did a back flip and ran for the hills (mountains in my case). After giving my word that I would speak, I didn't feel right about suddenly remembering that a previous engagement (staying home comfortably in front of my computer). After several spells of everything from overwhelm to outright panic, I decided to create a program that relied heavily on audience participation. It went well; everyone in the room (some were obvious introverts) contributed, and the kind program planners had me seated at a table facing the audience rather than standing in front of them. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one attendee was a reporter for the local paper, and a very positive article reviewing the event made the front page of the next issue. And I survived the experience. Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? I'm not sure, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I feared it would be.

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    1. Sounds like you gave my kind of talk, Linda. That's the style of seminar I prefer, whether I'm the speaker or a participant.

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  9. I don't go to many conferences. (Tomorrow my blog post about the latest.) I went to one RWA conference only because one of my books finaled in the Daphne, but I only went for the dinner, then the next morning, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I don't like speaking at meetings until I get into the speech, then I'm fine. It's the "looking forward" to things I hate. But I feel I'm an extrovert though I don't mind staying home day after day alone. So what does that make me. Never took any of the tests. Not sure I want to know who I am.

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    1. I believe the test of introvert vs. extrovert, while complex, relies largely on whether you tend to receive more energy from solitude or from social situations. Polly, I love that you don't want to know. I'm that way about my IQ. If you've avoided the label so far, stay out of the box, I say! πŸ˜‰

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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