Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Put Ninety Introverts in a Room and Watch Magic Happen

By Kim

Imagine a room filled with ninety writers, all but a handful of whom consider themselves introverts. A few have met in person before, but the rest are connected only through social media or, perhaps, through the comments on the Writer Unboxed blog. Some are successfully published, some have faced nothing but rejection, and some are so blocked and discouraged that it’s impossible to finish their manuscript, let alone submit it.

Now imagine these writers haunting Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel for five days; sharing meals, walking in tightly knit clumps down the narrow, historic streets between the hotel and the House of the Seven Gables, attending lectures on voice, micro-tension, and how good manuscripts go wrong.  Classes on how to snag an agent or whether to self-publish are conspicuously absent from the schedule. There are no pitch sessions or parties where writers jockey for position to pigeonhole agents at the hotel bar. No one makes smug declarations about the “right” path to publication.

A rock-star New York literary agent lives among these writers for several days, but they’d rather attempt to beat him at poker than beg him to read their pages.

Photo by Kim Bullock
The Writer Unboxed Un-Conference lived up to its name. It was an experiment, a risk, and it could have been an utter disaster. That it was the opposite is largely because Therese Walsh, who was insane enough to organize this event more or less on her own, has an uncanny ability to attract the type of people who check their egos at the door and open their arms (figuratively and literally) to everyone.

Magic occurred in Salem, Massachusetts last week, but it was not of the witchy variety.

I originally intended this post to be a simple recap of the conference, but there are several such posts out in the blogosphere by now and, as the wise Lisa Cron pointed out in her Wired for Story classes, there is no story in generalities.

I choose to tell you what this conference meant to me personally, and damned if I won’t have to go to an awfully deep place to do it.

I would never have said half these things a week ago.

The UnCon shined a light into all my dark corners so I could sweep out the cobwebs and reveal that the biggest thing holding me back is me. More specifically that I fear success as much as failure. I hadn't realized the crippling truth of that until I saw it written in my own handwriting during one of Donald Maass’ workshops. I hope publicly owning that fear will help me to overcome it. Perhaps a few of my new (or old) friends will remind me of this the next time I spend a week agonizing over the placement of a comma.

Let me talk a moment about fear, because it has ruled my life far longer than I like to admit. Here’s a little glimpse of what nonsense went on in my mind when I arrived in Salem:

How will my children survive without me for a whole week during Nutcracker insanity season?

I've only met two other conference attendees in real life, and both of them have other friends here. I’d rather starve than eat dinner alone.

Mingling at a cocktail party is my worst nightmare. I don’t know how to make small talk. I’ll be remembered as that person who smiles awkwardly, nods in random directions, and says nothing all night.

How will I handle being back in New England, so close to the place where I spent the majority of my childhood alienated and alone, feeling that I’d never have a friend who “got me?”

What if I need to escape, but can’t because I have three roommates?

Photo by Therese Walsh and Kim Bullock - (it's complicated)
What if people tell me that I’m “different” in person than I am on-line? Worse, what if this is said with a tone that implies they prefer my Facebook persona?

What if I bungle my introduction of Porter Anderson or (GULP) Donald Maass?

What if, what if, what if…this broken record of anxiety has sent me scurrying away from most social situations for years.

I suspect that anyone who met me at the UnConference would say this is not the Kim they remember, and they are absolutely right. I sent her packing.

They never met that raging ball of insecurity, that fragile soul who has never fully recovered from the sometimes vicious slights in her past, that quiet woman who puts up a shield to protect herself from subconsciously experiencing every mood of every person around her. It’s exhausting enough dealing with my own hormonal mood swings. The last thing I need is to get agitated simply because the bartender sets a glass down too hard or to blink back tears because the woman sitting at the corner table dabs at her eyes. I can’t help perceiving that every negative emotion around me is somehow my fault. I did something wrong, felt something wrong or, maybe, simply wore the wrong expression.

The moment I stepped inside the hotel, even flanked by my “tribe” of fellow WU Mod Squaders, people with whom I've connected daily for the past three years, uncertainty prickled my scalp.

Therese and me at The Witches Brew - photo by Valerie Chandler
Our group headed downstairs to the library for registration. Therese, whom I’d known online for even longer than the rest of the Mod Squad, stood behind the table handing out name tags. I swear the woman is lit from within and has a grin that goes on for miles. Photographs do her no justice.

Now, some people give hugs and some people give hugs. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of one of “Mama T’s” will attest she gives the latter. She’s called that for a good reason.

In the moments after she moved on to greet the line of people behind me, and I found myself gathered into the embrace of so many old friends I’d just met, I realized that the shield I’d hidden myself behind for years had vanished. Perhaps it was the warmth of Therese’s greeting or the niggling sense that I had just found a kindred spirit. Perhaps it was the enchanted ambiance of Salem itself. More likely it was the rush of being slammed from all sides by the joy and love emanating from all those stranger-friends, many of whom declared that they had wanted to meet me for ages.

That’s a mighty powerful drug and I became an instant addict.

The only time I spent alone during the conference was when I walked to the waterfront and symbolically threw that shield into the Atlantic. I didn't want or need it anymore, and I decided a new coping strategy was in order, one that would allow me to live as my authentic self. What better place to start than at the UnConference, where reassurance was only a hug away, and you couldn't walk ten feet without receiving one of those?

Valerie and Heather - photo by Kim Bullock
Standing there, the sea air filling my lungs, the scenery and buildings so reminiscent of the home I’d tried for decades to disown, I admitted to myself that I was homesick for the landscape of my childhood. That perhaps my perceptions of scorn had been tainted by my empathic nature. That despising a region so deeply rooted in my blood had caused me to despise a piece of myself.

Ironically, that very same night I met an old friend from Maine (currently living in Boston) for coffee.

Two memories from the conference will remain among my most cherished. The first was when Therese’s husband, Sean, made us all laugh until we cried while we raised a glass to “WriterBob” Stewart, a much-admired elderly gentleman who wanted to attend the conference more than anything and tragically passed away there – on Sean’s birthday of all days. This birthday celebration turned memorial cemented an already tight-knit group into a family, and I’m sure that WriterBob would be delighted by this.

The second memory was a magical afternoon when Valerie Chandler, Heather Reid, Therese and I played hooky from class and wandered through two of Salem’s cemeteries. Therese, as promised, introduced me to her favorite tree and when we compared photos later we discovered we had some eerily similar shots of the same limbs at different angles. Valerie took photographs of me sitting in another tree and read her favorite epitaphs aloud. Heather looked happy and at peace despite the recent loss of her mother.

It was 1:00 AM - don't judge
The trip to Salem would have been worth it even if all I got were those couple of stolen hours with three women I dearly love.

Yes, that’s right, I said love. If I learned anything from WriterBob’s passing, it is that no one knows how long we have or what we may miss by holding back. Why not tell people those things that we feel but neglect to say? If the impulse strikes, why not walk down the street with your arm wrapped around a friend? Take it from someone who kept her arm wrenched down to her side for forty-one years, you’ll both feel better for it.   

The UnCon was not just a writer’s conference. Even now, days after we have all returned to our respective lives, the group Facebook page is flooded with pictures, videos, conversation, and lamentations that no one from home can grasp the magnitude of what we have all just experienced. It’s clear that I’m only one of many people who have all broken free of their own cages and connected with others in a way they never have before. All the heart emoticons would be laughable if they weren't so purely felt.

No one wants to say good-bye, and so we don’t. 

* Note: On the cemetery photo credited to both Therese and I, here's the scoop: Therese took the photo (of me) on my camera. I doctored it. Adding to the confusion, I then sent it to my mother, Deborah Downes, to clone out an annoying red sign in the background.


  1. I've long considered you and the other Mod Squad members to be family, so this was like an extended family gathering. I'm so glad to hear how the experience broke down walls for you Kim. It did for me, too. Fear is a big part of my writerly world. I'm pretty proud of how I faced it. Knowing your heart, how full of life and nurture and passion and love it is, I'm happy to see you've discovered the benefit of sharing it. You were already such a talented writer. I've seen the shine of that talent. This will only make you burn the brighter. And I can't wait until the world can see your rising star, blazing across the literary sky. I'm proud of you!

    1. In hindsight, I think what made this conference so powerful for me was that I not only broke free from my own cage, but I could sense the same thing happening to so many others at the same time. We (almost) all professed to be introverts, but I never saw anyone go off on their own. Ever. The ten minutes I was alone only happened because the method writing lunch went over the expected time and there was no where in the restaurant for me to sit. While I needed that time, I could not wait to get back to the group.

      Now that we are back and the message board is exploding with photos and videos and people speaking from the heart, I see how much EVERYONE was changed by this experience. My heart is full to bursting.

      Yes, family. The Mod Squad is certainly that for me. This only child now has a brother and three sisters as far as I'm concerned.

      Next time we need to get a photo that includes ALL of us!

  2. "All the heart emoticons would be laughable if they weren't so purely felt."


    Ah, Kim, I didn't realize that you felt such anxiety over the event, but you shed your fear beautifully. (And I love that you did it symbolically, too.) Thank you for bringing YOU to Salem. I'm so grateful for the time we were able to spend together.

    And now you have the key for how to finish your novel. Shed the fear (check); and imagine, my empathic friend, the gladness your readers (myself included) will feel once they've read your story. It will happen. It will.

    Love you back.

    1. Damn it, Therese, you just made me cry AGAIN. You have such an uncanny ability to say just what I need to hear. Sending you a great, big virtual hug.

  3. This was so powerful for me to read. I've been to a lot of writer cons and have even been on panels, but I've always felt that terror of being the odd woman out, not really belonging, not good enough. Fear is an ever present companion.

    But not at the UnCon. From the moment I registered, I felt like I'd come home. I joined a group for breakfast and wasn't a ball of insecurity. I sat with folks at the bar and enjoyed myself without the endless second guessing.

    I got permission to be myself and that was enough. {{{Hugs}}}

    1. Ah, the magic of the UnCon, Lisa! If only we could bottle it all up and open it up at home when we need it!

      Hugs right back at you!

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Kim! I never would have guessed that you were afraid, and now I think you're even braver for it.

    One of the wonderful things about the un-con is the spillover effect... I met so many lovely, fascinating people, and didn't feel like there was long enough to spend with any of them. We needed another whole week just for socializing! But maybe now online we can all continue to get to know each other, and at the next un-con, the wonderful madness can continue.

    1. Erin, you probably didn't guess it because I kicked Anxiety Girl to the curb pretty quickly after arriving.

      I have the feeling that this group won't lose touch completely. 2016 isn't that far away!

  5. This was so lovely, it made me wish I was there to meet all these wonderful people!

    I just returned from my very first writer's conference (the kind that does have those self-publishing classes and nausea-inducing pitch sessions), and my social anxiety was at an all-time high. I was so wound up that I humiliated myself in epic fashion the first night (although I can laugh about it now--may even submit a story about it). Even so, I'm happy to report that I met some very nice people and learned a lot.

    I applaud your bravery. I chose the conference I attended because it was within commuting distance. The idea of staying overnight with roommates at a writer's retreat terrified me. You took the leap. For introverts like us, writing is a piece of cake compared to that. Very best of luck in your future endeavors.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I've been to that other kind of writing conference as well, and I'm not sure I could do that again unless I was on a panel for some reason. I'd always compare that experience to this one, and wallow in disappointment the whole time.

  6. Beautifully written from your heart and soul, my darling daughter. I'm most thankful and happy for all you and your "extended family" experienced at UnCon. You will finish your beloved novel and it will shine.

    1. Thank you, Mom, for both the comment AND helping with the "joint effort" photo. It's great to have "siblings" at last.

  7. Kim, you really captured the full experience. We all threw our shields into the water and found our true selves. WU is more than a blog; it is a family and we all experienced that in Salem. Thanks for rekindling the memories.

    1. Thank you, Chris! I am glad I got the chance to get to know you a bit in Salem. :-)

  8. Kim, I'm glad you didn't let your commitments here keep you from journeying to Salem. It sounds as though you were truly meant to be in that place, at that time and are better for it. So happy for you!

    1. Thank you, Pamela! I would not have missed this for anything, and now I know that the kids do just fine without me.If anything, it was good for the girls because Sasha was placed in a caretaker/substitute Mama role, and Ashlyn actually responded to it.

  9. Great post, Kim! I think the lack of pitching had a lot to do with the alchemy. We weren't reaching up to the high shelf where we keep our public masks; we were digging deep to find what we have to offer. We became Velveteen togethe and that's the very best kind of connection. Glad to have met you in person--inside and out.

    1. I'm so glad I got to meet you, too, Kathryn, and wish we could have had more time to chat. We absolutely did all become Velveteen together.

  10. Kim,

    Of course, none of that sounds like the Kim I met at the conference--cool, calm, and collected--but I certainly know the feelings, for I had them too.

    Other than being a group of awesome people, I think the the FB page also had a lot to do with letting our shields down. There, we were able to mix and mingle behind the safety of the internet and under the watchful, caring eyes of the moderators. So by the time Salem rolled around, it was like Old Home Week. I still remember walking around the corner as Jo was getting there ("You MUST be Jo Eberhardt") and hugging her at the curb. That example played over and over and over again with everybody. It was a meeting of long-lost family members, reuniting old souls for new adventures, and as for me, I'm forever changed.

    It was such a pleasure meeting you. :)

    M.L. Swift, Writer

    1. I certainly wouldn't have known you were nervous, Mike! Your energy and enthusiasm was infectious. Those of us on the ModSquad were calling you "the light of the conference" because I don't think we ever saw you without a smile, other than during the tributes to Lisa and Bob.

      I love that the Facebook page continues to be so active. Therese told me after we got back that she has no intention of taking it down, so it can continue to be a place for our big extended family to keep in touch.

      I'm so glad I met you, too, and thank you for my hat! When I'm not wearing it, it is worn by a big Grumpy Cat stuffed animal that sits on my writing desk.

      2016 can't come fast enough!

  11. What a beautiful post, Kim. I'm so glad I got to meet you in Salem, although I wish we'd had more time together.

    I know exactly what you mean about that first hug, the first smile, breaking anxiety girl out of her cage. I was actually terrified that I would retreat into my box and hide when I got there. I know it doesn't often look like it, but I'm actually incredibly shy around people I don't know. But when I arrived and stepped out of the car on to the sidewalk in front of the hotel, I heard someone yell: "Jo Eberhardt!' I turned around, and was engulfed in a hug by Mike Swift, and my inner anxiety girl ran away in terror. I haven't seen her since.

    <3 to you, my friend.

  12. Ah, Jo, I wish we had had more time, too, especially since we learned after the conference that we have so much in common. We need to get more pictures together in 2016 as well. We can surround you with Kim-sized people - Therese, Valerie, and Heather all fit the bill!

    I would never have imagined you as shy, especially since you gave me a bear hug when you first saw me. We did "know" each other on-line, though, and I think that made a lot of difference for everyone.

    Sending a big hug to Australia! <3 to you, too!


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