Family time wins in the year of virtual conferences

I always feel a tug at my heart when I leave for a writers’ conference. The further I drive or fly, the stronger it grows. The tug is most powerful when I am trying to fall asleep in the dry air of a generic hotel room, the night before the conference begins. It weakens some if I have met a fellow writer or two in the lobby or at the bar, but it is still there.

I miss home.

I miss my husband. I miss my kids.

But once I am immersed in the conference, their hold falls away. I am in another world, attending workshops on craft, marketing and publishing; discussing careers and expectations over breakfast, lunch and dinner with fellow writers; swapping stories and experiences that grow more intense with each glass of wine at the hotel bar when the day is over.

My focus improves because I am there, in person.

With coronavirus in the air, writers’ conferences have gone virtual this year. Leaders of the non-profit groups that host them have become technological pros. They are more than event organizers. They are big-time producers, bringing the show live into our living rooms and coaching reluctant reality stars in the art of virtual delivery.

With no travel expenses and reduced registration fees, some of those conferences have drawn more participation than ever before. They have suddenly become accessible to people who cannot afford to travel, are hindered by disabilities or are nervous about mingling with strangers.

But I have attended none.

Why?

The tug of family is too powerful at home. I spend an awful lot of time on my laptop, working my part-time job or writing. While I am working or writing, I have to resist the desire to play a game with my twins, text or call the older kids at college or go for a walk on the property with my husband. It helps that they are all busy as well during the week, my husband with his job and the kids with school.

But on the weekends, they are free.

The amount of time kids spend in our midst is short, about one-fourth of our life expectancies. I cannot bring myself to spend an entire Saturday online while they are here, available to me. I need physical distance and the in-person interactions to resist that pull.

I have taken part in one-hour sessions here and there, and they have been worth every minute. I almost feel that I get more out of a webinar, with chat features that allow me to ask real-time questions and get to know other participants, than I would an in-person event.  I can see myself tuning into more online workshops and presentations even after the pandemic ends.

But weekend conferences will probably have to wait.

Some people will see that as a weakness, insisting I prioritize my career, but life is a constant balancing act and the scales tip differently for all of us. We are all at different stages in our lives. For me, family time outweigh the benefits of conference time in this virtual life, but I am not giving up on conferences altogether. I am registering for three already in 2021, optimistic that they will be held in-person.

I hope organizers continue to provide some level of online participation after the restrictions lift for those who have benefited from the virtual experiences, but I am looking forward to the comradery of other writers, to the in-person dynamics that take me fully from one reality into another. I am excited for the year ahead and looking forward to seeing you all there.

When two worlds collide: motherhood and writing

I told a fellow writer recently I would not be attending two appealing conferences this spring and summer because of conflicts with my children’s lives. One falls on the weekend of my son’s first-ever prom and the other clashes with summer camp drop-off.
She commended me on my “sacrifices,” but suggested I reconsider.
I need to put my writing first, she said.
I need to ensure that I am taken seriously if I want to succeed.
I was taken aback.
I just don’t see it that way.
I chose my career, but I also chose to have children.
I believe in balance, but when I am forced to tip those scales, they will always tip in favor of my four kids. My husband is no different in his approach to his career, though it’s less obvious because he doesn’t have as much flexibility.
Motherhood has made me a better writer, so if it slows me down a little, that’s okay.
My perspective is unpopular, at least that’s what I gather from forums, blogs and books on the subject. We female writers are supposed to protect our writing identities at all costs and forgive ourselves the selfishness required by our career choices.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am selfish sometimes.
Um, plenty of times.
Just this morning, I encouraged my sick ten-year-old son to watch YouTube videos so I could write in peace. The house could be a lot cleaner. I could put better meals on the table. I could be doing art and science projects with my kids during school breaks and on the weekends to keep them off their iPods and computers.
I could also take a regularly paying job and earn money for after-school activities, upcoming college costs and educational summer outings. I have sometimes worked part-time when our finances required it. Most recently, I was a taxonomy specialist for a media company.
But as soon as our finances allowed, I quit.
Why?
Because I’m selfish.
I want to write even if I can’t guarantee that my writing will sell.
But I have my limits.
No conference is worth missing my son’s first prom.
I want to see the flush in his face when I tell him how handsome he looks in a tuxedo. I want to see him give his date her corsage and wave as the two of them head off for a night of dinner and dancing with friends. I want to hear all about it when he gets back.
No networking opportunity is worth missing camp send-off.
I want to hug my twins before they disappear into their cabins for their first full week of overnight camp and squeeze my daughter before we let her go for two weeks, longer than we have ever been without her.
And no novel of mine is going to suffer because I didn’t go to that one workshop.
Look at all the real-life experience I am getting through my kids.
You can’t buy that.
We women have good reason to be protective and defensive when it comes to our identities as writers. Despite all the strides we have made as a gender, society as a whole still tends to see male writers as professionals and women as hobbyists.
But we don’t have to deny one identity in order to reinforce the other.
I completed four novels while my children were in the most physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding stages of their lives. They still need me now, but their needs have changed. These days, the conflicts with my writing are more about the schedule.
Achieving a balance is easier and it will only get better.
If I get published now, my youngest kids are old enough to understand that I will have to travel for signings, to teach workshops or to participate in conferences. They are old enough to be excited for me, to be proud of me and maybe even to sometimes travel with me.
And it goes both ways.
I am secure enough in my identity as a mother to do all that without guilt, to enjoy success as a writer.
I have not sacrificed.
I have compromised to get what I want, an entirely different concept.
We are not going to change society’s view of female writers by mimicking the success of stereotypical male writers. Why would we want to do that? We need to show the world something different. We need to show society that parenthood (fatherhood included) is a valuable asset for writers, not a complication or a burden.
I will go to a conference this year, but I won’t miss a child’s birthday, a school event, or a milestone to do it. Childhood lasts for only so long, but I intend to write forever.
Where’s the sacrifice in that?
(Margaret Atwood, you are my idol!)