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BlogHer Surprise, or How I Misunderstood Almost Everything

I almost never write about blogging/writing because I know that most of my readers aren’t bloggers or writers, but I really wanted to tell you this story. If you are one of those non-blogging readers, a bit of background: BlogHer is a social media company that does all kinds of things (and maybe everything), including hosting several conferences. Their flagship event is a blogging conference every summer, and it is mammoth, one of the largest social media gatherings in the world. Last weekend I flew to Chicago and attended their 9th annual conference.

Triskele

My language for the past few months has gone something like this: Yes, I’m going to BlogHer, but it’s not quite the right conference for me. BlogHer is really for blogger bloggers, the ones who work with brands and write reviews and all that, and I’m not that kind of writer. I’m going to meet my friends and next year I’ll find a conference that suits me better.

Ahem.

I was wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, BlogHer conferences do connect bloggers with brands (I am in no way critical of that; it just isn’t my aim right now, and besides, I’m pretty sure I misunderstood exactly how that works, too), but there is so much more. I met people—hundreds and hundreds of them—who are brilliant, funny, creative, energetic, talented, and fierce. I talked with knock-you-out writers and change-the-world activists. I heard talks by Guy Kawasaki (Read his book Enchantment today.) and Sheryl Sandberg (Read her book Lean In the very instant you finish Kawasaki’s book.). I talked and talked and talked (and talked) and heard stories that had me alternately laughing until my guts ached and scrambling in my bag for tissues.

Of course, some of the emotionality is just about exhaustion (4-5 hours of sleep a night 3 nights in a row? I’m way too old for that shit.), but most of it is about the energy of the people and the being-togetherness. I am every bit as close and connected to some of my online friends as I am to my local friends, and to be together in the same place for the first time is a powerful thing.

Case in point:

Cab ride with Jen 7-25-2013

That’s Jen, also known as @TheNextMartha, but for me, she’ll always be my Internet Fairy Godmother. She came to the airport to meet me and share a cab to the airport, and it was so fitting, since she was my very first internet friend, way back when we both had fewer than 100 Twitter followers (You know, back in the day. 2009, I believe.).

Then there’s this one:

At Sheraton with Alex 7-28-2013

Can I just say, photography is kind of a big deal in the blogosphere, and we are probably a very rare pair of bloggers in that neither of us can take a photo to save our lives. But that’s Alex, my hero, my Wonder Woman, the Southeastern US version of Southwestern US me (It probably says bad things about me that I admire her so much since we’re so similar.). We roomed together, and the first night we decided to hit it early because we were both tired, and proceeded to flap our gums until after 1 am. I could have kept talking with her for days and never gotten bored.

I never took a picture with Katie, which was seriously stupid (see above about how I am photographically challenged; not only am I bad at taking pictures, but also bad at remembering even to try) because I love her like wildfire, but I squeezed her no less than 15 times, and maybe sometime I’ll edit a couple of photos of us to make it look like we’re together.

I spent some time with Abigail:

With Abigail at McCormick Place 7-27-2013

I have loved her like a younger sister for a long time, but did I recognize her when I met her? No, I did not (I plead exhaustion.). Did she hold it against me? Not a bit. She even let me play with her baby later in the day. (Cute? Oh, yes. Painfully cute.)

Lunch at McCormick Place 7-27-2013.png

We laughed and laughed at lunch. I was holding that baby over there on the right and I was laughing so hard I had to pass him back because I was afraid I would bonk his head on the table.

I met new people, so many new people, and thank goodness they were all passing out business cards because my head was swimming after the first hour. For a person whose work life is spent at a desk in a little office next to the kitchen, with music and occasionally (OK, maybe more than occasionally) MSNBC to keep her company, that was a whole lot of people. An avalanche of humanity. I met a tiny fraction of the people in attendance, and still, it was more faces and voices than I can possibly keep track of.

FC at BH 7-26-2013

These are not new people. These are people who’ve been blowing my mind with their words for years. If it seems like I was a little starstruck, it’s only because I was. From left to right, me, Varda, Michelle, Jean (Stimey), Jennifer, and Mir. If there is a brawl in an alley, these are probably the women who started it. Don’t let their beauty fool you; they are badass in the extreme.

The highlight of my weekend was Voices of the Year, which is the big event on Friday night every year at BlogHer. Nominations for blog posts open every spring, and the BlogHer team of readers chooses 100 posts to honor, and from among those, they choose 12 and invite those writers to read them onstage. When I got the email inviting me to read A Dislocation of Mind I was honored, but I had no idea what it really meant.

This is the space at the Chicago Sheraton where they had Voices of the Year, before the people came. It’s hard to tell because of my lousy photography skills, but I think the room had a capacity of something like a half a million people. (Perhaps a little less? Who can tell.)

VOTY pre-show 2013

We twelve readers, plus hosts, were tucked into a backstage space to await the beginning of the show. I peeked out around the curtain from the far side of the room and snapped this not too long before we started, in between two of my half dozen trips to the bathroom to stress-pee.

VOTY2013 audience

Whoa. No less amazing than the audience were the other writers. I took this backstage, when Lisa StoneElisa Camahort Page and Jory Des Jardins (BlogHer co-founders) were introducing the evening’s emcee.

Backstage at VOTY 2013

I wish I’d managed to get a picture with all the readers in it. In between trips to the bathroom, I kept thinking, “I could sit at a table with these women and we wouldn’t run out of things to talk about for months.” The intelligence, passion, and hilarity among them is epic.

Oh, and the emcee?

With Queen Latifah

Yes, that’s Queen Latifah, who liked my triskele tattoo and who is even more beautiful and gracious in person than she is on screen.

I managed to take the stage without falling down, and then there was magic. I’ve made the joke a thousand times: there are few things I like more than an audience. Ask my mom and she’ll tell you that from the instant I figured out how to use my mouth to form words, no one has been able to get me to shut up. But this? This was something different. Extraordinary. People told me that they really enjoyed it, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone was having a better time than I was. To have people hear my words, to understand my daughter’s story, gives me real hope. Many people don’t get what’s happening with mental health in our country, but here was a group of powerful, passionate people, many of whom have their own experience of mental illness and the mental health system, who care.

And then I went backstage and my phone exploded with encouraging, celebratory tweets, and I won’t lie. That was fun. When BlogHer posts the event on YouTube, I’ll link to it because if you weren’t there you’ll want to watch the whole thing. It will blow your mind, from laughing about intestinal worms to weeping over the injustice of poverty to raging because the Christian church is so often outrageously un-Christ-like, and so much more.

BlogHer had one of these boards made for each of the 100 winning Voices of the Year posts, and the reception room after the event was gorgeous, filled up with all those words. Alas, I couldn’t figure out how to get mine home on Southwest Airlines.

VOTY Reception 2013

On Saturday afternoon, I spoke on a panel with Alex Iwashyna and Cora Harrington called Blogging the Unbloggable: Writing About Hard Topics Without Being Hated. I hope the people who attended the session enjoyed it, and maybe even learned something, because for me it was important. In preparing for the panel I had to really examine myself and my blog, and I’m asking some questions, namely, why am I taking so few risks? I don’t know the answers, but I don’t think it’s a bell I’ll be able to un-ring.

I kind of hate uncomfortable, un-ringable bells.

But what the hell, right? A life without surprises and risks is hardly worth the effort. I came home with a new understanding of the power and limitations of this medium and I’m excited to find out what will happen next.

Next week, I mean. After I sleep. A lot.

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