Performing an identity

The AWP conference started yesterday, and the last twenty-four hours have been a whirlwind. For those who don’t know, AWP is an annual writing conference, with panels and a huge bookfair (think hundreds of tables to visit). This year there are (I believe) seven thousand writers in town for the three days of the conference.

So far it’s been good. I’ve bought more books than I probably should have (and will most likely acquire a few more before the conference ends on Saturday), and I’ve met and reconnected with some truly awesome people.

It’s also been stressful. I’ve done one previous AWP conference (2010 in Denver), and in the two years since, I apparently forgot how crazy, busy, and overwhelming it is. More than all the people and booths, however, what exhausts me is the constant need to push my introverted qualities away and pretend like I have more extroverted ones than I do. It’s a performance for me, and when that needs to go on all day, it becomes more than a bit wearing.

The problem (or, perhaps, just one of them) is that I don’t find myself very interesting, and while I genuinely like many (most? all?) of the people I meet, I can’t get rid of this lingering self-doubt that tells me they find me horribly boring. I don’t worry that people actively dislike me, but rather that, once I walk away, they don’t think of me again.

I don’t know what to say in groups. I don’t follow group dynamics. I alternate between not knowing what to say and so saying nothing and not knowing what to say and so saying the first thing that comes to mind until I’m babbling. I smile a lot, and nod when I don’t necessarily understand. I ask questions, but often struggle with articulating them. I do this even with people I know fairly well.

Usually, I prefer sitting at home to going out. I prefer solitude to groups, even when I’m feeling lonely. The one real exception is my immediate family, and they don’t understand why I’m not as comfortable with others as I am with them.

Yesterday, I found myself in conversation with someone I’d been really looking forward to seeing, but it was a group conversation, and I mostly just stood there mute. The girls on either side of me talked freely, jumped into the conversation in a way that felt natural, unplanned. Close to interruption, but in an intimate rather than rude way. I walked away from this group feeling dejected. There wasn’t any reason I should have been given a one-on-one conversational moment, but I still felt cheated for not receiving one (because, you know, I didn’t ask for one).

In my hotel room hours later, I lay staring at the dark ceiling, and realized my disappointment stemmed from wanting to feel special, important, and from the fact that I have a hard time feeling special or important of my own right. Usually those feelings only come from external forces. I think this is why I often miss school so much—I received these types of confidence boosts without having to seek them out: a good workshop, a good grade on a paper, a verbal compliment during a thesis meeting. Now, I’m floundering. Except at twenty-seven, it’s not supposed to be like that, and so I perform—or try to.

Like in my writing, I excel when given a specific task. I do perfectly well sitting behind a booth talking about a literary journal, or in front of a classroom when following a lesson plan. I feel comfortable when someone points out the flaw in my writing that I should fix, but I still struggle with finding the flaw myself. I still struggle with knowing what to do in non-scripted encounters. On the whole, the issues with my writing are improving faster than those with my personality. I suppose I should consider that a good thing.

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