My Secret to Creative Rejuvenation? Conferences.

On the soundless paisley carpeting, in dimly lit hotel hallways and at the circular tables in ballrooms, I temporarily leave behind my long to-do lists and fall under the spell of a good conference. I find space to reimagine my routine. A conference is obviously not the same as a vacation, though I do sometimes arrive a day early and visit a site or two, have lunch with an old friend or meet a sibling for dinner. But the change of scenery, the subtle reframing of who I am, where I’m from and what I do creates a meaningful shift. Vacations provide an escape; the best conferences give me momentum. For a little while, I forget about my aging parents, my daughter’s looming college search and my own midlife malaise. I think about possibilities instead of obligations.

My life at home is full of competing demands. I make doctor’s appointments, aim for enough protein and those mythic 10,000 steps, chauffeur my teenager around, cook and wash dishes and try to find time for my work. I alternate between overwhelm and numbness — checking off tasks in my planner by day and falling asleep to comfort shows at night. A conference has a singular focus, and it gives me permission to do the same. Away from all that needs to be maintained, I tend to the generative.

Each conference feels like a world unto itself — a cosmos of lanyards, printed schedules and elevator banter with other wearers of lanyards. My “gateway” conferences, years ago, began as an excuse to escape the boredom of my work cubicle. For the last decade, I’ve attended events related to my writing career. At a conference held at Princeton, Anne Lamott says of writing, “Stop not doing it.” In palm-tree-filled Pasadena, the artist Makoto Fujimura talks about art and beauty and then paints a giant canvas on the floor while a pianist improvises. I recall the poet Christian Wiman speaking in a church on the Upper West Side considering the space between belief and unbelief, and afterward signing my copy of his book: “Yours in faith and with great hope.”

Conferences offer just the right blend of social interaction and reflection for an introvert like me. You can listen to keynote speakers and attend a breakout workshop, then retreat to your room or disappear into a cozy, slightly hidden chair in the lobby. There’s cordiality and decorum at these events; anyone can be on their best behavior for a day or so. People are warm and friendly, even the somewhat frazzled organizers. I mill around the reception area, wineglass or soda in hand, like the best of them. I initiate conversations, awkwardly pointing down at my name and hometown at the end of my lanyard. These repeated introductions — your little bio or elevator pitch — start to sound new in the same way a word spoken over and over again becomes foreign. Out of context from your everyday life, these mini-narratives provide a chance to think about who you are, who you pretend to be and who you are becoming.

Time is measured differently for the two or three days I spend at a conference. It’s structured but expansive. I forget what day of the week it is, but I know that breakfast is from 7 to 8:30 a.m. I’m given stretch breaks, and the schedule even includes free time — something I would never write on my own planner, which makes it all the more valuable. The day is reduced to the basics: three meals (I don’t have to cook or clean up!), wind-down time in the evening and even an organized field trip. It makes me think of “toddler time” — a way of being in the moment that returns a sense of novelty to the lives of new parents. Adults take naps in their rooms in the afternoon, and talk on hotel terraces with views in the evening. In this space outside of time, I do small things I don’t do at home. I put cream in my coffee because there’s no milk. I go to sleep early without binge-watching a TV show. At the registration table, there are wintergreen Lifesavers and Jolly Ranchers; I surprise myself by taking a handful. After three days at one conference, my phone lets me know that my screen time was down 22 percent.

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