The conference was wonderful. I learned a ton and met some great people along the way. Here's the thing: it is possible for me to break out of my shell a little and talk to strangers.
I'll wait while you collect yourself.
Basically I had a choice: allow myself to be swallowed by social anxiety and spend the weekend curled up in a ball in the corner OR jump into the pool and doggy paddle for a while. (I may have taken the metaphor too literally though because on the first night I decided to join a new friend in the hot tub. In my dress. Because why not.)
The most difficult part of meeting new people is that initial conversation where you break the ice with something witty enough to get another person to talk to you, and then the part where you keep the conversation going by being a good listener and not letting the dreaded awkward silence creep in, oh and the part where you don't say anything stupid or embarrassing. Okay, so basically everything about meeting new people scares the crap out of me. But I kept telling myself that there was a good chance that most of the other people at the conference were likely experiencing the same fears and anxieties. It was a conference full of writers. We lock ourselves in a room and spend hours typing away into a void FOR A REASON.
Here's an example: It's lunchtime. TACO BAR. I enthusiastically fill my plate with taco goodness and enter into the large meeting room. There are round tables full of happy, chatty people, and I don't recognize a single face. It's like that time in middle school when you walk out of the cafeteria line with your tray and decide you'd rather eat lunch in the hallway/bathroom/inside your locker than face the sea of strangers. So I see this guy who sat with us the night before at introductions, and he has the same eyes-scanning-the-crowd-for-someone-he-knows expression. I walk up to him and say, "This is way too much like middle school." He laughs. Doesn't run away with his plate full of tacos. So I follow with, "Let's sit over there," and head for an empty table. He agrees, and we have a great chat during the meal.
Imagine that. I CAN be a normal person.
I keep the energy up for most of the weekend. Introduce myself to people in line, ask them about their writing, their families, listen to their stories. It's as if the introvert in me got left behind at the security checkpoint. (Those body scan machines are weird, people. Weird.)
But then, I hit a wall. It's Saturday afternoon and I'm feeling a bit drained from a harsh (but helpful and necessary) manuscript critique from an agent. I sit through the final session at a table with some women I had chatted with before, but they aren't talking to me. Then it's happy hour. Happy hour is a great time for people who like to drink and socialize. But I just want to crawl into a comfy chair and be alone. I stand around for a few minutes with no one to talk to. Find my friend from home, but she's got a line of people waiting to pick her brain. Feel the panic start to set in.
You see, people can push themselves out of their comfort zone, and it may even feel good for a while, but we always come back to who we truly are. And I am truly an introvert. I'm not ashamed of it, and I have learned to pick up on the signs that it is time to get the hell out of dodge before my breath quickens and tears start to flow. It happened when I was at camp with the boys last week, and I was determined to get myself together before it happened in front of all the nice writerly types. So I take a walk. Calm myself down. Call CJ because he truly gets me and knows what I need to hear. Go back inside and find my hot tub friend and tell her to stay by my side. She understands.
It's tough to be shy in a world that expects you to network, to sell yourself, to be someone people want to follow on twitter. But I'm okay with that. I am me, and if you don't like it, oh well. Sometimes I say inappropriate things. Sometimes I create the world's most uncomfortable silence. Sometimes I want everyone to just leave me alone.
But sometimes I am witty and fun to be around. Sometimes I go hot tubbing in my dress and make jokes that cause the whole table to laugh. I guess the bottom line is that while wandering out of the comfort zone is important and healthy, it's okay to be who you are. Whatever that may be.