The books, the readings, the stimulating and informative seminars and panel sessions — sci-fi and fantasy conventions are pretty awesome places to be. But it’s also way too easy to overextend yourself at cons and get burnt out. I’m lucky enough that this hasn’t happened to me yet, but that’s partly because I knew beforehand that such burnout was possible. (Thanks, Mur Lafferty! Her I Should Be Writing podcast is awesome.)
So I want to talk about what you need to know to take care of yourself when you attend a convention. It’s not that they’re dangerous, just that they can present a few challenges if you’re unwary or new to attending them.
Establish and maintain your boundaries
Let’s face it: Sexual harassment, microaggressions, and other forms of discrimination have been well documented at conventions. However, more and more conventions have been vocal about adopting and adhering to anti-harassment policies because of the demand for better treatment from the speculative fiction community.
For example, take a look at John Scalzi’s pledge to attend only those conventions with clear and well-publicized anti-harassment policies. Within less than a week of making that announcement, over 700 others adopted the same policy.
One of the best things you can do is check a convention’s anti-harassment policy — do your research not only to make sure such a policy exists, but also to make sure that the convention in question actually enforces it.
More importantly, if you’re finding that a convention you were considering going to has revealed itself to be non-inclusive and antagonistic to others — especially if this happens despite the presence of an anti-harassment policy — boycott that mofo. I’ve seen this sort of crappy behavior happen in conventions near where I live, and I’ve seen the response that happens when people stand up to it and hold onto their principles.
(By the way, if you’re one of those people who knows that a problem exists, but doesn’t make it common knowledge? Don’t do that. That just contains it to people already in the know, and doesn’t help those new to the community.)
One last note: If you’re at a con and feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable, Twitter user Lynne Ann Morse mentioned that this script has worked very successfully for her: “I'm sorry, but I need ____, so I have to ask for some space.”
Get enough food, water, exercise, and sleep
This is where concerns about “con crud” (developing a cold during or immediately after attending a convention) arise. Conventions tend to last at least a full weekend, and over that time you’ll probably be in a crowded hotel or convention center talking to others, attending panels, and buying items from the dealers’ room.
The temptation to go all-out is high — there’s an awesome reading/jam session happening at 11 tonight in the con suite! Let’s check it out once the book launch is over — but you really do need to stay well-hydrated, eat nourishing food, and get enough sleep, or else con crud will bite you in the ass once you’re home.
But don’t take just my word for it: When I asked for advice about self-care at SF/F conventions on Twitter, many con-goers backed this up. Here are a few responses in particular:
Sarah Pinsker: “I make sure I have time to eat. Bring healthy snacks like nuts. Also a big fan of gym con, to balance all the sitting & eating . . . Gym con is when you take the time to go to the gym at a con & discover there are others doing the same.”
Charlie Stross: “I follow the daily 4:2:1 rule at cons; 4 hours sleep, 2 meals, 1 shower. That works for intense 2 to 5 day events.”
Geoffrey Hart: “Mostly it comes down to being in touch with your mind and body, and periodically stopping for a reality check.”
Others referred to blog posts written by Matthew Moore, Geoffrey Hart, and Gareth L. Powell. Check them out if you want further advice — I particularly like Geoff Hart’s discussion of self-care, and the various recommendations to bring along medication and hand sanitizer just in case.
(Note: I’m writing this article while both my husband and I are sick, but we haven’t been to a con since last year. Irony, your timing is exquisite.)
Prep coping mechanisms in advance
However, self-care can be particularly important if you’ve got specific physical or mental concerns to account for. For example, Megan Kerr, a writer in the U.K., discussed the measures she must take as a person that is highly sensitive to external stimuli to keep from becoming overwhelmed.
Megan discusses her sensitivity and her coping mechanisms in depth on her blog, but she sent me a detailed email about how she steps up her self-care at conventions. Her thoughts on the subject are practical but full of detailed advice, including:
- Finding accommodations that suit your needs — Kerr emphasizes that a room with a window and a view of nature are helpful for her.
- Scheduling breaks for yourself in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
- Using essential oils to replace unpleasant smells with ones that are familiar to you.
- Taking things from “real life” with you to conventions, such as books, familiar tea and coffee, etc.
Kerr has mentioned that she’ll be writing a full post on her own blog about her experiences, and I look forward to checking it out when it’s published. However, her parting words on the subject contain some pretty good advice to follow, no matter the situation:
“All this makes me sound like a little antisocial mouse, but helps to keep me calm throughout the convention, so that I can go to lots of panels, and chat to lots of people, and end up spontaneously drinking into the small hours with a fabulous crowd of people I've only just met, and all those other fun convention things, without going spare or needing a week to recover.”
This, really, is the essence of self-care: You do you. Do what you need to so you can have a good experience — you know what your needs are better than anyone else does, and paying attention to them is extremely important.
Author’s note: Many thanks to all the people who reached out to offer advice on Twitter, especially Megan Kerr. Thanks also to Michael Matheson for writing his post about Sasquan and SFContario, which I’ve linked to.