What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Conferences

The first time I attended a conference of a professional organization, it wasn’t exactly in my field. It was SIGGRAPH 2003–a convention on computer graphics and “interactive techniques” (which doesn’t mean what you might think–no social skills required). At the time, I was an aspiring novelist with a day job at Sony Computer Entertainment. I was the office administrator for the research and development group, which consisted of about 40 male and 3 female software engineers who were applying their vast brainpower to figuring out how to do more awesome shit with video games. Meanwhile, I was stocking the Post-It notes, booking travel, and devising innovative ways to monitor when the last pot of coffee had been brewed. They sent me to SIGGRAPH to help man an exhibition booth where my chief responsibility was showing people how to play games with the recently released EyeToy controller. Literally a five year old could do this, but this is an industry in which many of the exhibitors hire actual Booth Babes–you know, attractive yet approachable women just to stand around as nerd bait. (Remember this is also an industry which employs balding bachelors with stringy ponytails at a rate well above the national average.) It seems I confused people at the expo. One guy asked me a technical question that I couldn’t answer, so he followed up by asking condescendingly if I had ever been to college. I was apparently not knowledgeable enough to pass for an engineer and not hot enough to be a credible Booth Babe. I made myself feel better by reciting my CV to him. Then I decided to quit my job and apply to MFA programs.

fancy diagram
This is the sort of thing engineers talk about at their conferences. (credit: Nathaniel Matter)

The next conference I attended (i.e. crashed) was the annual meeting of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in 2006. My husband was giving a talk on the work he had done towards his PhD in electrical engineering, building a novel kind of MRI machine. I borrowed a badge from one of his colleagues so I could get in and see him standing on a stage in his suit, saying intelligent-sounding things that were not quite intelligible to me. All I can tell you is, his PowerPoint slides contained attractive graphs and tastefully arranged bullet points. This kind of conference is about a transfer of highly specialized knowledge. The people in that room (except me) were literally the only people in the world capable of understanding him, and they had an important stake in doing so, because his work could have a direct impact on their own. They all had a creditable reason for deciding to get together in Seattle for a week, beyond just drinking and visiting that market where they chuck the fish.

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, would he fancy a trip to AWP?

Contrast with AWP. I’ve attended the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs twice. The first time, in 2008, I was mostly there to shill for Blue Mesa Review, the literary magazine of the University of New Mexico, for which I served as fiction editor at the time. When I wasn’t at our table handing out back issues and importuning passersby to submit, I went to readings and panels and parties and the like. I was struck by the fact that, well, transfer of knowledge isn’t really a thing at AWP. Among the aspiring writers who make up the bulk of the attendance, there’s a little bit of hero worship and a lot of shameless self promotion, all of which mostly serves as a prelude to other shenanigans, both colorful and banal. It seemed that everyone was hoping to capture someone else’s attention, not expecting to learn anything useful. Or they were simply going wild, having been released from the solitude of their writing desk for a few days. I wasn’t inclined to return the following year. But then I was invited to be on a panel, and I succumbed to flattery. The feeling I got from the other side of the panelist table was pretty much the same, though. Enough, I thought. I don’t need to fly to Denver to self-promote and swill beer with poets. (Don’t get me wrong, poets. I love you guys. But you’ve thrown up in the back seat of my car right here in Albuquerque. We don’t need AWP.)

In 2014, I attended the national convention of the American Guild of Organists for reasons related to writing, though it is blessedly not a writers’ conference. It was held in Boston, old stomping grounds of organ builder Charles Fisk, about whom I am now writing a biography. In addition to hearing performances on landmark instruments that Fisk built, I was able to stalk/network with some people who knew him. The experience was also revelatory for me in other ways. (Before the concert at which I saw a man in a purple velvet jacket greet a friend with a cheek kiss, I had somehow been oblivious to the fact that gay men occur in the population of organists at a rate even higher than balding ponytailed men occur in the population of software engineers.) The convention seemed to serve a purpose unlike either the ISMRM meeting or AWP. I suppose knowledge transfer and self-promotion both occurred, to a degree, but appreciation of live music was the focus. Especially with an instrument like the organ, where a live performance is a significantly different sensory experience than a recording, this makes sense. It’s a wonderful pretext for like-minded individuals to assemble.

I thought I would be done with writers’ conferences until, say, I have a book out that I am obliged to promote. Until then, I didn’t think I’d gain anything by going.  But then I heard about the conference of the Biographer’s International Organization, to be held in Washington DC next month. I perused the schedule, which consisted of diverse and interesting sessions–some of which  sounded genuinely practical and informative. I speculated that it could be downright useful for someone like me, who is trying to figure out how to frame and market a biography about a guy who is not exactly a household name, but who’s got an amazing story nonetheless. I’m sure there will still be plenty of self-promotion at the BIO conference; it’s a regrettable necessity for writers in this day and age. But there will also be an entire day of sessions devoted to library research–one of the nerdiest pleasures of the biographer’s job. I am optimistic that it will be time well spent.

I hope I will not be disabused of my impression that biographers are a breed apart from other kinds of writers. I know its silly to assume that just because one has chosen to apply his writing skills to telling other people’s stories, and has committed to doing some research rather than making stuff up or simply gazing into his own soul for inspiration, that this writer might posses worldliness or moral virtue that is lacking in, say, his memoirist cousin. It would therefore be naive to expect that the biographers’ conference will be a less solipsistic affair than AWP. But then again, we are talking about a gathering of people who cite external sources in their work. It sure as hell will be different, somehow.

Poets, I want to reiterate that I love you for who you are and for what you’ve given the world. I just tend to like you better on the page, or one-on-one, rather than amassed in a convention center. But to prove there are no hard feelings, the next round is on me when you’re in ABQ. I’m just not driving you home in my car.

Biographers, I’m looking forward to seeing some of you in D.C. next month. Don’t be outclassed by the poets, please.


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