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Networking For The Disinclined

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
"I can't go to Dayton. I don't know anybody. I shouldn't have signed up. What was I thinking?"

That's what was going through my head, even as I packed the 4Runner with supplies for my dog, Moppet. He was to accompany me on the drive from Pine Mountain, California to the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. He would act as my buffer, someone I could talk to each day after workshop ended. I could tell him how humiliating it had been, that every writer there would know every other writer, except me, the Outsider.

I'd read about writers' conferences for years. One can hardly avoid it, since every writing magazine lists a huge selection in the back of each issue. Still, year after year, I invented a million excuses: I should stay home and meet that deadline (what, I don't have a laptop?); I don't like to meet new people (the whole literary world's against me?); I'm too old for a Workshop (how old is old?).

This year, I finally noticed the magic words: Erma Bombeck. If there ever was a trustworthy name, that's it.

Setting aside misgivings, I signed up for the 2004 Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop immediately, before I could come up with more anti-attendance excuses. It was the best decision I ever made since I began writing fulltime ten years ago.

Though I don't usually consult the stars or anybody else before making life-altering decisions, it came in handy that my astrological sign is Gemini, the Twins. I figured that with a Gemini personality, I wouldn't be lonely; I'd always have each other.

With that in mind, on the Workshop's first night with the everybodies who, in my head, would all know each other, one of me Velcroed to the wall of UDayton's Kennedy Union, less a wallflower than a wallweed. There the real me clung, watching writers watching other writers, the public me pretending to be unafraid. I decided to take the bull by the Bombecks, appear hip, slick, and cool, and project a comfortability I did not feel.

I would wither all with my Bombeckian Attitude of Confidence.

It was at this point that the Spirit of Erma took over completely. I found myself accidentally talking truth.

"I wish I had stayed at home, writing," I said to a stranger, adding how out of place I really felt. "You, too??" she replied, her face giving birth to a huge smile. "I'm much happier at home, too, just me and my computer."

This was a shock. Somebody else felt the same way?

We chatted on about the perils of being in a solitary profession and the difficulties (spelled p-a-i-n) of networking. Before long, we were struck by the sudden realization that there might be others in that very room like us. Ya think?

"Let's reconnoiter," my new best friend suggested, "and we'll each bring back two more writers to this same spot in 15 minutes." We peeled away from each other, drunk with a new sense of discovery.

Not yet armed with enough fake fearlessness to approach any of the Bombeck family in attendance, or Tim Bete who was pointed out to me as the man who put this entire event together, I did manage to meet several other writers that first night. Turned out they pretty much all felt the same way. Shy.

While the idea of bringing our prey back to the same spot in 15 minutes didn't quite work out as planned, we did run across each frequently over the course of the Workshop. We recognized each other easily -- we glowed. We had each accomplished the seemingly impossible -- we had networked!

One of the people I ultimately met was Suzette Martinez Standring, then Vice President of National Society of Newspaper Columnists, http://www.columnists.com (she is now President), and we struck up a friendship resulting in my joining that organization. After the completion of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, she invited me to be guest columnist on her website (http://www.readsuzette.com).

About a month later, we both were invited to audition for a Lifetime TV reality show pilot, shared some laughs and got column material out of that novel experience, and met again at NSNC Conference in New Orleans. Suzette will be a lifelong friend, as will be the many other writers I first met at the Bombeck workshop in March. Lifelong friends are what they promised when I signed up, and that's what I got.

Each night after Workshop ended, I returned to Moppet and shared with him the events of the day, even as he shared with me by word of tail his happiness with his sitter, a kind young woman who came to the hotel room from the local veterinarian's to be with him. She, too, has remained a friend.

Moral of the Story: Take the fear from in front of you where it inhibits, and place it behind you where it impels.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
Pubished July 12, 2004
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