One of the pleasures of traveling for a conference, especially if you have children, is the luxury of 24-hour control over your time. I know more than one writer who has, guiltily or not, chosen to bail on sessions simply to be alone in a hotel room. And being away always refills my well of patience for my kids. (See our book’s chapter “Children and Deadlines: A Messy Rodeo.”) It’s a much-needed deep breath.
But what if you don’t have a conference coming up? Or, what if you don’t really feel like you need to schmooze or look for story ideas at an upcoming meeting, but you know you need to refill that well of patience—whether for your kids or something else? If this happens, you might consider planning a “non-conference.”
I did this year, and it was just the ticket. Here’s how mine came about:
I had a great time at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco in December–networked with many of my favorite writers and editors, found a great feature idea, and caught up with many friends in the Bay Area. That week I had exactly the personal and professional life I wanted… and it was possible because for that week my household and childcare responsibilities were precisely zero. I had complete control over all hours of the day and spent none of them on cooking, laundry, Chutes and Ladders or tea parties (except real ones at cafes with friends).
This was a perspective-changing week, also, because it showed me that having the ideal personal and professional life at this stage in my life is completely, totally, laughably impossible. Since that trip, I have been more forgiving of my inability to achieve all I’d like and more realistic about what I can manage. As lovely as the conference week was, I don’t actually want to swap my kids permanently for those extra hours a day or eat out every meal. My home responsibilities are not going anywhere. I’d better suck it up.
After AGU I had a full plate of work, especially after Discover accepted my feature pitch for the idea I found at the conference. So as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting—the biggest annual gathering of science writers, editors and researchers–approached in February, I realized that what I needed was not to go a-networking but to capture that side benefit of a conference trip: a few days fully at my disposal. And it occurred to me that if what I really wanted was a few days of full-time time, I didn’t need to fly to Boston where the meeting was held. So, I pitched the idea to my husband that I head down the road by myself for a few days and began to plan my personal conference.
I went away for three nights over a weekend to Red Wing, Minnesota. I had planned to stay at an artists’ center, but the staff member and I miscommunicated, so I ended up at a B&B with an attic workroom. During the days, I worked on an essay I’d been fiddling with for a while. I prepared for a reporting trip to Alaska, including practicing with a high-end camera since I would be the story’s photographer. I thought about some big-picture goals, and, above all, refilled that well of patience. I walked along the river where bald eagles aggregate in winter, watched a movie at night, caught up on sleep, and came home delighted to see my family.
I felt anxious about missing the party at AAAS, for sure, but this alternative was just what I needed.
What’s your favorite conference alternative?
Photo credits: Jessica Marshall