Conference Graces

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Mount Hermon ushers in the busiest writers conference season from now through autumn, and many of you will be making your way there today. Be sure to introduce yourself to Janet and Wendy when you see them. Writers conferences are great venues for writers to spend time together focusing on their shared passion for writing. But don’t overlook opportunities to get acquainted with new friends.

A writer friend and i recently conversed about the overall conference experience. Conferees are busy each day taking in workshops, general sessions, and meetings with agents and editors. The experience is especially enjoyable when you are there with other writers you know. Critique partners often attend the same conference so they can learn and encourage each other and spend time together during free times and meals. Some conferences attract repeat attendees and faculty, who enjoy the chance to reconnect. These shared times are added blessings in the conference experience.


Then my friend told me about a time she attended a conference by herself. She decided to start a new table at lunch and let God choose her table mates at the table for ten. Nine people who belonged to the same writers group took the remaining seats. She commented that she couldn’t break into their conversation no matter how she tried. The one time someone initiated conversation with her was to ask her to take their picture. She understood it wasn’t personal; they were just enjoying being together with their group. She also felt God had a lesson in it for her. Having experienced this herself, my friend now looks for a person already sitting at a table, alone, and asks if she can join her. She said it works well unless the person rushes to say, “Sorry, all these seats are saved,” without a second glance or even a smile.

Surely these oversights were innocent and unintentional. Minds are racing to get where we need to go and make the most out of our conference experience. We don’t realize that when we look at people near us and quickly dismiss them visually when we don’t recognize them, it could be a deflating experience for them, especially when a writer is hoping to gain friendships in the Christian writing community.

I cringed as she relayed these experiences because I recall observing instances like these myself at conferences. And I’m quite sure I have unwittingly been guilty of not recognizing and reaching out to an introverted conferee who is alone or perhaps a person who is attending a conference for the first time and doesn’t know anyone. Agents and editors usually host tables at lunch and dinner as part of our faculty role. It’s our opportunity and privilege to talk with each person who chooses to sit at our table and to give our full attention as they describe their WIP. Together as faculty and conferees, let’s be watchful at the next conference to balance our time with friends and moments when we can reach out to new friends with conference graces. 

Have you observed someone at a conference who appeared to be alone or shy about entering into the activity? Share a story about when you reached out to someone new and what happened.


A reminder to take time at your next writers conference to extend conference graces. Click to Tweet.

Amid the many benefits you take in at a writers conference, give back by extending conference graces. Click to Tweet.

106 Responses

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  1. Before I became an academic, I was in a profession that required me to be the gray man, to be able to blend into any crowd without being remembered even by those with whom I came in direct contact.

    For the fun of it, I went the other way when I started going to engineering conferences – talking big, talking loud, and making it a point to be attentively social. (Note the word ‘attentively’, and see below.)

    During the ‘big evening social’ at the last conference I attended, in Chicago (my favorite place!)in 2010, I crossed path with a group of students who’d been largely abandoned by the faculty advisor with whom they’d come, so I took them in tow. They were looking to go to grad school, so I started introducing them to people I knew from different universities, dropping them off one by one when they found a congenial match for further discussion.

    It was satisfying and fun, and several of the kids stayed in touch with me.

    It was an adventure against type, because I’m not Mr. Social. I’m probably the most reserved person you’ll ever meet. The gray man fitted me beautifully.

    I do have some suggestions for getting the most out of the social side of a conference –

    – Smile. A natural smile is attractive and inviting. A trick when you ‘broaden’ your smile is to put the tip of your tongue against your upper teeth. That way, when you part your lips, only the upper teeth will show, and you’ll look more like Julia Roberts than like a piano keyboard.

    – Watch your posture. Slumped shoulders pull in and give you ‘closed off’ body language. Practice walking around the house with a book on your head. Oh. It’s the digital age…no books. Well, put your Kindle on your head. Don’t need to do this at the conference, though.

    – Enunciate. Some ol’ Greek practiced talking with pebbles in his mouth. Wash them first, though. Practice speaking clearly, and projecting your voice. Remember, the settings you’ll be in may have a lot of ambient noise – don’t force people to lean in at the beginning of a conversation. It’s unsettling. (So is talking with rocks in your mouth, so you can leave them at home.)

    – Make eye contact. It’s important for people to be seen, and as long as you’re not channeling Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”, it’s flattering. And guys – eyes UP when talking to a lady.

    – Use and remember names. Our names are the most personal things about us, so when you’re introduced USE the person’s name, and find some hook to remember it. Like Ms. Strong, whose handshake left you permanently left-handed…and after each ‘event’, write down the names of the new people you met, with something that you remember of your conversation, however brief, to spark your memory at a possible future meeting.

    – Be Royal in handshakes. Don’t cling; a handshake is one pump, up and down, followed by a gentle outward pressure and release. It’s professional and courteous; you don’t know how ‘touchy’ a person is, nor how many hands they’ve already shaken.

    – Don’t abandon. If you’re talking to a conference newbie and the agent you’ve been longing for walks by, don’t leave the poor lass hanging, talking to thin air. God will orchestrate another chance to meet the agent of your dreams. Be cool. God’s in control. You ain’t.

    – Learn when to say goodbye. It’s said that the English leave without saying goodbye, while the Boers say goodbye without leaving. Neither is good at a conference. When a conversation is winding down, accept it, say a gracious goodbye, and leave without an “oh, I was just thinking…”.

    And so, adieu.

  2. Several summers ago, I had the opportunity to go to Highlights Foundation’s writers conference in Chautauqua, NY. My non-writer husband decided to come along for the ride. Not only did he end up being bored to death, I missed a lot of networking opportunities because I spent all my time outside of workshops with him. By the end of the week, everyone else knew each other, and I still felt as if they were all strangers. To this day, I’m frustrated with myself for not making the most of that conference.

  3. Mary,

    This is a lovely post on conference graces. The ideas are sweet reminders for all large group gatherings (church dinners, staff meetings, wedding receptions, even large family reunions). “Love is kind…”

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Good point, Carol. This is good advice for lots of situations. I think conferences are unique because we come to them with a checklist of certain goals–to meet this agent or that editor or improve our skills or erect the scaffolding around our platform. Sometimes I find myself charging through the lobby like a squirrel after a nut, looking neither right nor left. Yet so often God works in the between-times: standing in the coffee line, waiting for a session to start, in the elevator. So many opportunities to extend grace if we just look around.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      So true, Carol. People who are new to our church, new families moving in to our schools…anywhere. We can always find opportunities to reflect Christ’s love if we remember to be watchful for them.

  4. Believe it, or not, I am actually REALLY shy. Like, “hurl in a planter and kill the plastic cactus” shy. I cannot remember the times I’ve walked into a room or crowd and thought, “I can’t feel my legs, again”.
    I get over it by pretending I’m not shy and the crowds are lined up, just for moi. Seriously. It actually helps.
    So let’s review, yes, I AM SHY.
    But, what I think what helped me the most was when my Bolivia mission team director looked at us all and said “For you, this is a village full of people you don’t know and will never see again. For these Quechua people, this will be the most exciting day of their lives. Their grandchildren will hear stories about the day the Canadians came to bring radios. Carry yourselves worthy of those grandchildren. Carry yourselves worthy of a family story.”
    So we did. Lots of smiles, and very intricate traditional greetings. Which is…shake hand, pat shoulder, shake hand, pat shoulder again, then for the women, kiss each cheek, shake hand again. Now, do that several hundred times. A day. 🙂

    What I loved about ACFW last year, my first conference that wasn’t my husband’s gig, was that I sort of knew a few people from online friendships. I’d met Lindsay Harrel in 2012 on cool July day in Phoenix (115F?), so at least I had an anchor. I knew I’d be meeting old friends for the first time, but wow, when I saw Beth Vogt? I was speechless.

    Read that again.

    >>>**I**<<< was speechless.

    And I cried like a super model at a buffet.

    But there were still a few hundred people I didn't know. And I know another part of what calmed me down was that I 'knew' several agents already, so my didn't kill very many plastic plants.
    Until Sunday, when I think I perhaps could have been arrested for the willful destruction of hotel property.

    I TRIED to at least say hello to people, because that feeling of 'we don't have room for (the likes of) you' is awful.

    I did my best to smile, it wasn't that hard, and I really tried to make eye contact. I met some really awesome people, and I'm pretty sure Frank Peretti won't ever forget me. 😉

  5. I’ve never been to a writer’s conference. I can’t wait for the chance to go! But I know I am that introvert … I’m the one no one sits by, until there are no seats remaining, and people finally have to come sit by the person no one knows.

    I’m shy. When I spoke recently, I had to hold a microphone, instead of the hands-free one. I just knew my hands would be shaking, and it would be evident to all. Instead, my right hip muscle decided to go into a frenzy. It was so hilarious that I wanted to tell everyone, and would have, had I not been cautioned to “never tell people that you are nervous.” Ha! “They’ll never know if you don’t tell them.” Hee hee! Okay. So I told a few afterwards!!

    But … at a Beth Moore gathering once, I sat down on the front row (got there early) by someone sitting alone. The seat wasn’t taken! Glory! God orchestrated our meeting. We said our verses together and bonded immediately. She is a published author today with Bible studies and represented by Rachelle. “She” is how I found this blog. I’ll always be grateful to her for wanting to know me and making that weekend so sweet.

    • Shelli, are you attending ACFW this year? If you are, they usually offer a newcomer’s introductory session that I highly recommend attending. It will put you at ease right off the bat, and you’ll make new friendships at the outset.

      And I, for one, look forward to hugging your neck. (I’ll probably be wearing red. It’s my favorite color. 😉 )

      • Cynthia, I don’t think I’ll be able to come this year. Oh, how I want to though. I’d love to have that hug!

        And I was just thinking how if this blog was like a table … the first time I sat down, I was amazed at the people who came to sit beside me and welcome me. I’ll never forget it.

    • Shelli,

      Like you, at large gatherings I have at times felt as if I was the only person at the last table to fill up. But at ACFW last fall when I found myself entering the large meeting room alone, I sought out someone who was also alone, and met several people that I connected with right away–one of them even an editor. Conferences are a time when we introverts have to push ourselves a bit, but all can work out for the best … with a prayer or two!

    • You are so warm and inviting. I’m sure when you do go to a conference, 1) you’ll probably already know people from online and 2) you’ll make friends because of your personality. 🙂 I look forward to meeting you one day. 🙂

    • I love and concur with your description of this blog Shelli.

  6. Jenny Leo says:

    Thanks for this post, Mary. I’m on the introverted side, and one thing I like about conferences is the challenge to be outgoing and practice my sparkling skills. Usually it pays off wonderfully! So it can be a bit discouraging if I screw up my courage to sparkle at someone and they make it clear they’re only interested in the friends they came with or in people who are Somebody. I think there’s a middle ground…if you’re shy, try to overcome a tendency to shrink back. If you’re feeling comfortable amid your circle of friends, be willing to expand that circle, too. Everybody into the pool!

  7. Off topic, but prayers for one of our guys on his way to the Rainbow Bridge.

    Elvis died during the night; he was a good friend. We’ll miss him.


  8. Sarah Sundin says:

    I love this post, Mary! I’m an introvert, and when I was growing up I was always on the outside. Over time, I trained myself to play an extrovert in social situations – but I have a heart for those who are left out and try to include them.

    So if you come to Mount Hermon this week – PLEASE come to the table I’m hosting with Jeanette Hanscome. EVERYONE is welcome 🙂

  9. Mary, my heart ached for the writer friend you referred to in your post.

    My conference experiences have been positive–if I don’t know someone, I’ll introduce myself. If I see someone who looks uncomfortable, I’ll try to initiate conversation.

    I adore people and I’m blessed when I make those “God connections” that I know will last a lifetime.

    • You and I had a lovely dinner, remember? I got to talk, and you blinked as I used up all the oxygen in the room.
      I’m not sure how much Diet Coke I consumed, but I recall you smiled. A lot.

      • Jennifer … Diet Coke! It took this surgery and too much stomach acid caused by my antibiotics to break me from it! Nothing carbonated at home tastes good … but McDonald’s Diet Coke still tastes wonderful! Isn’t that odd?!!

      • I’ve since given up the poison that is Diet Coke, and only have it if I have a migraine. I can barely tolerate it any more! And the fact that aspartame is a complex neuro-toxin also kills the buzz.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Cynthia, you are such a warm, caring people person. I’ve no doubt you have blessed more conferees than you know.

  10. Jim Lupis says:

    Beautiful post, Mary. Especially as Christians, we should never make everything “all about us.” We need to remember it is Christianity, not ChristianiME. When we take care of what God wants us to, He will take care of us. Conferences are great opportunities to be an Ambassador for Christ.

  11. Jenny Leo says:

    The conference banquet room should not in any way resemble the high school cafeteria.

  12. I resonated with what you shared Mary. It’s easy to be focused on that next class, that next agent/editor appointment and miss meeting someone. Miss making a connection with a person who may be feeling very shy. I’m learning to live more in this moment and less in the “I’ve got to get/do/be ___________” moments.

    When I’ve reached out to someone who sitting alone, it’s always been a great experience. And, when someone does that for me? I’m ever so grateful. 🙂

  13. Reprieve says:

    Andrew thanks for disclosing your memories..

  14. Cathy West says:

    Ah, conference! My favorite time of the year! Like Jennifer, I am very introverted and shy around new people. I know, you believe that more about me than her, right? Seriously. I forced myself to go to my first ACFW conference because I knew it was an important step if I wanted to go further in my writing journey. Since then, oh seven or so years later, I have missed maybe one conference. For me now, it is like class reunion. I have made so many lasting friendships over the years it’s not even funny. People who have and continue to enrich my life. Every day. It’s also a great opportunity to meet face to face with my agent and the Bookies, and catch up with what’s up in the publishing biz. Your post is a great reminder though, to keep an eye out for those loners who may just need someone to talk to. Sometimes we’re so busy enjoying each other that we forget what that first conference was like. And sometimes, believe it or not, I still feel intimidated – especially at ACFW where the crowd seems to double each year. Not my cup of tea, which is why I need my buddies to hang on to when I go into the dining room! I’d love to go to Mt. Hermon. Maybe next year. 🙂

    • I remember seeing you at the other “foreigners” table at the zone breakfast. I can’t remember if I knew who you were or not, but people had mention edyou several times. “Ohh, that blond? SHE’S Cathy West!”

      And now? Well, let’s just say I’m thankful for ACFW so I got to at least SEE you. I was too chicken to say hello.

  15. I find mingling at conferences difficult, too. I try my best to sit at a table with writers I don’t know, and luckily it’s always worked out.

  16. Mary, I really appreciate this reminder since I’m leaving for Mount Hermon tomorrow. I’m thrilled to meet many people in person who I’ve only interacted with online until now, some from this blog community. I feel a little extroversion seeping through my veins even as I think about it. But I still want to be inclusive and aware of those on the outskirts because I’ve been there myself.
    Jeanette Hanscome has set up a wonderful buddy system at Mount Hermon that I benefited from during my first year of attendance. Now, I look forward to partnering up with multiple first time attendees.
    At conference last year, there was a faculty member who sat alone at her table and although we’d never met before, and she was soft spoken, I asked many questions and learned some interesting tidbits about her.
    In previous years, I’ve intentionally not roomed with someone I know because it’s neat to see the way the Lord creatively pairs me up with people I may not have come in contact with otherwise.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Buddy systems like the one Jeanette organized at Mount Hermon are a great help for first-time conferees. Thanks for mentioning this, Jenni. And now you are giving the blessing to others. Choosing to trust God to pair you with your roommate–now that’s a generous, friendly outreach idea.

  17. Angela Mills says:

    I am going to be that introverted, alone person tomorrow, so I really appreciate this. I always tell my girls to look for people that are alone, at their theater group, church, classes, etc. They have both made close friends because they will be the only one that reaches out to the quiet kid. I try to do this, too, but sometimes it’s hard to step out of my shell. I’ll be on the lookout at MH for anyone else that might be in my boat 🙂

  18. Shauna says:

    I’m attending my first Christian conference in May…ALONE! I’m excited for a few days devoted to thinking and learning about writing. I’m also a little terrified of the aforementioned high-school-lunch-table scenarios. I love the “start a new table” idea! However, I did sign up to room with two strangers! So, at the very least, I’m counting on an adventure.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I hope you have a wonderful conference experience, Shauna. The learning, introductions to agents and editors, and the social. Who knows, your roommates and others you meet may become lifelong writing friends. Let us know about it.

  19. Henry Harris says:

    Grace and peace.
    First time posting here, and Mt Hermon this weekend will be my first conference. And all alone for this one, so hopefully I will make some new friends.
    Also, can someone tell me how to upload my picture so it will appear by my post?

  20. Thanks to all for your sympathy on Elvis’ passing.

    He was God’s Wedding Present for our remarriage – Barbara and I were remarried (after a divorce) in las Vegas in June 2004. She lived in Indiana, I in Texas, and after meeting for the marriage we flew to our respective homes.

    On the day after I returned, a scrawny little dog ran out into the road, forcing me to swerve into a ditch. He then ran to the driver’s door – which window was open – and jumped into my lap. I told him that if he wanted to ride with me, he had to sit in the back seat, like all good children. So he did.

    Barbara had forbade me to have our remarriage performed by an Elvis impersonator (though I did wear blue suede shoes!), but I figured that, being in Indiana, she couldn’t say much if I named our new family member Elvis.

    He grew into a sleek and powerful boxer/pit mix, and died in his sleep, with a smile on his face.

    See you ’round, buddy. Wait for me.

    Thanks for allowing this digression, guys.

  21. My advice: Look for a table with a writer who brought their dog. If the person won’t talk to you, then talk to their dog.

    Dogs are better listeners than most people but just remember, they won’t loan you money or drive you to the airport.

  22. Jenny Leo says:

    Can we all agree that we all have carte blanche to strike up a conversation with people we’ve met on the Books & Such blog? We could have a code phrase, say, “I’m a friend of Janet.” lol!

  23. Terri Wangard says:

    I attended my first ACFW conference shortly after joining. I hadn’t made any connections yet and knew no one there. The last day during worship, I sat alone. The last song ended on an emotional high note and afterwards, the lady behind me took me by surprise and hugged me. Mary Ellis became a cherished friend and my biggest cheerleader as I wait for a breakthrough with my writing. I serve as an influencer for her. Being alone can allow God-Moments to happen.

  24. Selena Fulton says:

    The whole being the only one at the table that doesn’t know everyone feeling, that can go for when you go to church too. Imagine it’s your first time, and everyone knows everyone and nobody notices you.

    As a new kid all through school, I know how painful being new can be. I always try to be the Welcome Wagon wherever I go.

    You meet lots of interesting people that way!

  25. Michelle LIm says:

    I remember my very first large Conference in Minneapolis. I was very blessed to sit at a table with Cynthia Ruchti!

    She took time to get to know all of us at the table, listening to our stories and asking questions. Today Cynthia is still a great friend. To think it was all forged out of her willingness to share her time with me, a newbie.

    Now when I go to conferences I try to say hi to others who wore the same look I did at that first conference. Deer-In-The-Headlights. If you look around and see that face it is a sure sign of an opportunity to make a new friend!

  26. Nancy Moser says:

    A wonderful post, Mary. At my last conference I was determined to approach people I didn’t know–because I went alone. It worked very well and it gave me people to accost during the rest of the conference. However, there was one time … a few people sat alone at a table. I joined them, made introductions, and asked them about their writing, but… nothing clicked. Even after the table filled up, it was awkward and the conversation never flowed. The fact is, sometimes it just doesn’t work no matter how hard you try to be friendly. Don’t get discouraged. Try, try again.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, the reality is sometimes people may not be able to open up and respond to our efforts. But your friendly welcome may have encouraged them without their being able to respond. I’m glad that awkward experience hasn’t kept you from continuing to reach out, Nancy.

  27. I’ve only attended one writer’s conference, last year at Mount Hermon, and while I was so fortunate to room with my dear friend, author and speaker, B.J. Taylor, one day at lunch we couldn’t sit together so I decided to just pick a table and not worry about who else was there. As in strangers!
    I turned around and right in front of me was a table half full of women, including an African American with three empty seats beside her.
    I started towards the far side of her, and then thought, “How would I feel if I was her?” so I went back and asked if anyone was sitting beside her and she said, “No.”
    As we visited through the meal, we all talked about what we wrote and the lady said she loved Guideposts and wanted to write for them.
    Oh! I’m a writer for Guideposts! So I told her she had to take Rick’s class or B.J.’s, and a bit about doing stories for them.
    When we all finished eating and were getting ready to leave, she looked around the table and said, “I want to tell you all. I’ve felt so alone here that I decided I was going to leave after this meal.” Then she smiled this big smile and said, “Because you have been so wonderful to me today, I’ve decided to stay and finish the conference.”
    I about died. If I had chosen to avoid her and sit by another “white” lady, we would have never visited about her dreams, and desires to write for a magazine I could tell her about. To this day, I thank God for putting me there, and I hope she has kept on writing with great success.

  28. David Bazzett says:

    We had a similar experience at a wedding reception. Started a new table and it filled with a group of college students (we’re retired). It was a little difficult, at times, but turns out the young lady next to me was in engineering and I have a computer programming background, so we were soon chatting about The Big Bang Theory (TV show) and other nerdy things. Got me out of my shell and I had a good time.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      David, your experience brings out a good point. Warm welcomes and reaching out to others who are alone or shy shouldn’t be limited within generational bounds. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Jaime Wright says:

    My first conference experience, I was 6 months pregnant in a massive hotel, all alone. I spent the “free” night, where everyone got to enjoy each other’s company at parties and going out, in the hotel room eating honey dew melon. It was a lonely conference, even for an extrovert like myself. I’m not one to bully my way into a “circle”. So, I try to look for out of place loners, or people who sit off to the side. Sometimes those become the best friendships!

  30. Afton Rorvik says:

    Just got back from the Calvin College Festival of Faith and want to say thank you for your words of challenge. They prompted me to notice and talk to the solo participants I encountered, including a delightful young man from Australia who was feeling overwhelmed.