Today I'm headed home from an 8-day writers conference.
At a conference, unlike a retreat, it's not about taking time away from your day-to-day life to write as much as you can or to hone in on a particular creative project.
Instead, it's about taking in information and meeting other writers. Participants usually attend lectures and panel discussions led by experts.
At the one I just finished, we attended talks or presentations from 11-1, 3-6, and 8-9:30. Five out of 8 days included 2-hour lunches at tables of 8 or 9 people led by one of the panelists. Each night there were free form late night discussions.
Three things to remember to get the most out of a busy conference (and leave without getting sick or losing your mind):
(1) Know yourself
(2) Set your goals
(3) Get outside
Faced with a conference full of experts as well as tons of other people with whom you share a love of writing, it's tempting to spend every waking hour learning or interacting with others.
This is why you need to know yourself.
If you're a high energy person who likes to be in motion from the instant you wake up until the second your head hits the pillow, you will likely be fine attending each event and chatting with people on every break. You may want to arrange more times to interact during unscheduled hours or to visit local stores or attractions.
On the other hand, if you're someone who prefers to spend some time alone each day or needs quiet to recharge and take in what you've learned, pick a few sessions or events you wouldn't be too disappointed to miss if you find you need to step away.
No matter where you fall on that spectrum, leave some downtime. Otherwise, you'll have trouble focusing during the day or sleeping at night.
It's also good to pick up snacks (or groceries if where you're staying has a kitchenette). That way if you need some quiet but don't want to miss any formal sessions, you can eat a meal or two in your room.
At this conference, I attended every talk or panel and each lunch.
But I am not a night person, which was exaggerated by being in a different time zone. So I skipped the late night discussions, though I did meet once for breakfast with other attendees.
Learning every fact and figure, trying every recommended strategy, and shaking every hand is rarely effective. Too much information can be overwhelming. Also, after you've met the tenth or twelfth person, it's hard to remember who was whom.
Instead, before the conference, pick 2-5 people you'd really like to meet and have a conversation with. That's often more valuable than coming home with a long list of names.
(The photo above is not my favorite of me, but Joanna Penn is one of the people I really wanted to chat with. I love her podcast The Creative Penn, and I also love her fiction under J.F. Penn, especially her London Crime Thrillers, which include a hint of the supernatural.)
Similarly, while I take notes on each session, I figure out in advance what I'm most hoping to learn. It's not that I don't pay attention to the rest, but the 2 or 3 main areas help me organize my thoughts and my notes.
This time I wanted to figure out my 2-3 major goals for next year. I got started on that. I also realized I need a solid 5-year plan.
Sitting in a conference room, lecture hall, or classroom all day makes you tired no matter how much sleep you get or what your natural energy level is.
Getting outside, ideally for a walk, gets your heart pumping and makes you more alert and happier.
Checking out new surroundings is also good for your brain. So no matter how engaging the materials or how many people you want to meet, spend a little time outdoors.
What are your tips for getting the most out of a conference or other educational opportunity?
Let me know in the comments.