In Conference (by Cecilia Peartree)

I have a love-hate relationship with conferences, of which I've been to quite a few over the years for my day job and a couple to do with writing. For a start, I almost always welcome the break with routine that they provide. One of my colleagues recently remarked that I have the patience of a saint, which is probably how it seems to many people who don't know me all that well. The people I share an office with see a rather different side of me, however. They have met the evil twin who alternates between having the attention span of a gnat and getting so engrossed in some tiny detail of a computer problem that she isn't aware of her surroundings. She breaks into rants about difficult colleagues just after speaking to them quite politely on the phone, and she takes advantage of any excuse to avoid being present at in-house meetings.
In the depths of the Field Museum

Going to a conference means getting away from the office grind for a while. There is always something going on -- at the larger conferences there are often several things going on at once -- and in the case of the more interesting sessions they can even seem too short. The best ones leave you with lots to think about afterwards, as in the case of one of the writing conferences I attended, when my mind was still churning out ideas in the middle of the night and I had to get out of bed and write some of them down before my head exploded.
At museum conferences you often get the chance to poke about in other museums' stores as well, which is always fun.
Helsinki conference centre

The other thing I really like about conferences is that I sometimes get the chance to give a presentation. Again this would come as a surprise to people who only see the extreme introvert side of me. Even I find it fairly surprising. I really don't like hearing the sound of my own voice, and yet I will happily stand up in front of a lecture theatre full of people and speak about something I feel enthusiastic about, and I usually find I can make them laugh too, although not in the stand-up comic kind of way. I take no personal credit for this -- my late brother could do the same, and I think we must have inherited this ability from our parents, who were both teachers.

What I don't like about conferences, and I realised this again only last week during a museum event, is what I can only describe as the physical side of them. This of course looms larger as I get older and more decrepit, but I think it has always been the case to some extent. So about ten years ago when I arrived off the train at a writers' conference in a place I didn't know (Winchester, since you ask) and found my accommodation for the weekend was at the top of a hill and up two flights of steps, I almost gave up on the spot and decided I would rather sleep on a bench at the train station.

I arrived at last week's conference clutching a walking stick to stop me falling over, a large handbag and a small rucksack with my overnight things -- although the conference wasn't far from home I had decided to stay in a hotel rather than travel to and fro on each of the two days. When I checked into the venue I received another bag with conference stuff inside. I couldn't find anywhere safe to leave the rucksack, so I carried it around with me. Fortunately on this occasion there were chairs and tables for lunch. At many previous conferences and meetings I've found people are expected to balance coffee cups, plates of sandwiches, glasses and so on, along with their personal possessions. I have difficulty even standing still for long enough to eat my lunch, never mind juggling plates and cups and glasses.

To end on a positive note, that brings me to another thing I like about conferences, which is the food. I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time cooking for other people or at least making sure there is enough food for them (and the cat), and clearing up after them, so having food provided and not even having to think about it is always a treat! In this context I must say how much I approved of the museum conference I once attended in Chicago. The cake and ice-cream breaks that were announced every so often always came as a welcome surprise. I think conference organizers here in the UK could learn a lot!


Rosalie Warren said…
Cecilia, thanks for your post, which made me smile and brought back many memories, some happy and some not, of conferences I attended for my day job. I fully identify with the 'juggling belongings' problem and the hill and step climbing involved in getting to one's accommodation, which bothered me even when much younger. I also remember arriving on my own in the dark in some fairly out-of-the-way places and having some scary moments which are more enjoyable to look back on than they were at the time. But yes, the food! Happy days :-) (I also identfy with being an introvert who can quite happily address a big audience, as long as I'm well prepared.) Great post - thanks again.
Umberto Tosi said…
I know the feeling. I'm terrible at public gatherings and gala events, particularly with conferences, where I have invisibility fantasies and stick close to the buffet table. Sounds like you've done quite nicely with them despite reservations. Thanks for an interesting post.

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