Roundtable: Conventions Part III, Feeling Lost, Alone and Confused

James Patrick Kelly

My first con was Boskone in 1974.  I knew absolutely no one there, but since I had gone to Clarion that summer I thought it was time to find out what fandom was all about.  I had entered a story in the a con sponsored contest for new writers and had come in second (thus setting a precedent that has extended through much of my subsequent career) and thought that might be my ticket to meeting people.  Now Boskone, as New England skiffy folk all know, takes place in February and on Saturday when these awards were to be doled out there was an all too typical blizzard.  I forged onward, however, at great personal risk, parked at the con hotel, flung myself through registration and rushed to the meeting room – just in time to witness the first place winner accepting his award.  What was I to do?  Raise my hand and proclaim “I’m here.  It was snowing.  Sorry I’m late.  No really it’s me, that guy who came in second.” Couldn’t do it.  I sat in the back of the room and sulked, then went to some awful movie on the media track and sulked in the dark and then drove home in a snowstorm.  Sulking.

I didn’t go to another convention for three years.   Eileen Gunn got me to going to conventions again but what particularly sticks in my mind was the first con I went to that she wasn’t at, I was feeling very much as lost and sorry for myself for being a nobody in a hotel full of somebodies as at that first Boskone, when Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois invited me to join them in one of those huge dinners where everybody talks but it’s pretty much impossible to carry on a conversation.   It was an act of kindness I try to pay forward whenever I can.

You aren’t going to hear me running cons down.  Yes, they’re grayer and thus a bit more clubby and artistically conservative than they used to be but they still provide the big tent that brings all facets of our community together, even if we only pass each other in the halls.  And I met two of my oldest friends at cons, John Kessel and Connie Willis, and make new friends at each one I attend.    And I hardly ever sulk anymore.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

I have to be honest, I don’t do very well with large conventions –Worldcons, for example. I don’t have any particular purpose for being at them (no book to promote, no significant body of criticism people
can relate, no obvious job in sf, not a well-known name) and I find that without purpose it’s all too easy to become detached from convention life and very difficult to become reattached. I’m not a very good networker anyway and pathologically shy in large groups of strangers even now; I hate imposing myself on people when I am sure they probably have far better things to be doing. There came a point where it seemed to me I was spending more time either in my room reading or else just vaguely hanging around, waiting for something to happen, and I decided I’d had enough and needed a break from it. (Coincidentally, around this time I became a university student and could no longer afford to go anyway.)

When the opportunity arises these days I find it more pleasant to go to small conventions that are very clearly focused on my interests and make decent connections with people  that way (I’m dying to go to a
Readercon, when I am no longer a student and can afford to travel again). I’m a sucker for really good programming; I find that the bigger the convention the more diffuse the programming becomes, and
I’m just not inclined to sit through Fantasy 101 again.  I like academic conferences because they are very focused, on the whole (and it’s surprising how many people at even non-sf related conferences seem to read sf and to be able to talk about it in considerable depth).

I could tell you about the first convention I went to, where I knew no one when I arrived, and knew no one when I left, despite many attempts to talk to people. I didn’t know that it was a very cliquey convention which saw no reason to take any interest in new people. Bizarrely, I went back the following year and went through precisely the same experience all over again. Fortunately, after that, someone saved me from my own stupidity, took me to a much friendlier convention and things were a lot better.

I’ve had very good times at conventions – I still remember the early Mexicons with the greatest fondness; panels about literature, at a time when it seemed remarkably fashionable for fans to pretend  they didn’t read – and they were, at one point, a very necessary part of my life, just to maintain basic sanity when I seemed to be out of step with my quondam world. My conventions are, I think, like patchwork quilts; they have to be pieced together very painstakingly rather than emerging whole, and it’s not always a successful creative process. And actually, I’m sorry about that because I know I’m missing out on a lot, but making the connections is hard.

Karen Burnham

My early experience with cons is similar to Maureen’s: My husband Curtis and I went to several WorldCons (at least 2002, 2003, and 2005) without ever really feeling like we were part of the community. We’d go to panels and room parties and (especially) the dealer’s room, but usually ended up having dinner alone. It wasn’t until 2006 that we finally found our place. 2006 was in Anaheim, and we were living in Long Beach, CA at the time. At this point I’d been reading Locus for a few years, and had decided that being a reviewer was something that I wanted to pursue seriously. In an odd coincidence, it was also the first time I had tattoos at a con (the reading robot and dragon on my shoulders). All of these things combined to give me the courage to first stalk, and then introduce myself (at a kaffeeklatch) to Charles Brown and Gary Wolfe. They were extremely gracious with time and advice, and I’ve been repaying them with volunteer labor ever since. And luckily, out of all of it I’ve even gotten better at reviewing as well!

So now I consider cons like the rest of you: places I go to meet up with good friends and continue interesting conversations that started years ago. They’re also a bit more work now, especially since they’re a target-rich environment for recording podcasts and I often find myself helping out behind the Locus table in the dealer’s room as well. But it’s all ‘fun work,’ as it were. Still, it’s amazing what a different experience it was Before Locus and After Locus in terms of feeling part of the community at conventions. Absolutely night and day.

2 thoughts on “Roundtable: Conventions Part III, Feeling Lost, Alone and Confused

  • August 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Now I’m having an anxiety attack, but don’t we all. Y’all be nice to me at this year’s WFC, OK? …OK?

  • August 25, 2011 at 1:20 am

    I keep giving up on conventions, even though I’m fairly good at them; I can give good panel, I can meet strangers and draw them out, I don’t think I was ever lonely at a convention. I just find that after a few hours at a convention I’m strung out and irritable and want to go do something else. This feeling gets especially acute if I go to the bar, con suite, or SFWA suite; I prefer to either give a show and make an exit, or have small group conversations — not more than about 6 people — in a controlled environment, i.e. one where people don’t come and go so much and I don’t have to keep track of my surroundings constantly. My biggest regret about the con scene is that I didn’t fully grok how unnecessary it is, that many writers I like and admire, with far more commercial success than I’ve had, have never been to one. Too much of the discussion here seems to be dedicated to the position that writers really ought to be going to cons. Frankly, if you go and hate it, don’t go again. You’re missing nothing.


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