My personal experience with Sci-Fi Conventions

(Warning: This gets a little dark and personal. I won’t blame you if you back out right now)

J. Daniel Sawyer wrote a blog post today about conventions. You should probably read if you’re into creative stuff. (It’s here). In it, he talks about con fatigue, the feeling that you just aren’t “into it”, and no amount of cool on the part of the con can make up for it. I only mention that because it totally mirrored my first con experience.

This was around 2008, I think. I had gained some small notoriety for a YouTube puppet show I’d produced called “Calls For Cthulhu”, and some of the fans said that I should go to “the cons”.

At the time, I lived a little north of Baltimore, in Towson, Maryland. It’s only about 20 minutes away from Hunt Valley, which is where cons are often held. Even though I’d lived there for years, I’d never been to a convention, because it always seemed like something foreign and strange. There were badges and maps, schedules and a dozen different talks all at the same time. The whole idea seemed exciting, but made me nervous, and I didn’t want to go alone. However, my wife at the time was not really into sci-fi, and definitely not interested in paying money just to watch people talk about sci-fi. So, I let it go, and just went about my life without worrying about it.

Well, as it turns out, Sci-Fi wasn’t the only thing we disagreed on. My wife and I had a lot of problems, small things that built up, and culminated with her dating a co-worker. We went to counseling, we had shouting matches, we worked hard at fixing it (at least, I know I ran myself ragged with it). In the end, though, it didn’t work. After four months of counseling, she couldn’t agree to stop seeing her boyfriend, and I forced a decision. I was sick from months of worry and I couldn’t take that anymore. I forced her to choose, and she chose to leave me.

The next day, she was gone. She went back out to live with him, and I was sitting alone in a house that felt empty and seemed ten sizes too big. I tried to watch TV. I read news on the computer. I played the same level of a game dozens of times without realizing it.

I felt dead. Not angry, not sorrowful, not bitter. Just empty. Empty, and alone. I felt hollow. I felt so empty that I was lighter than normal. I would stagger as I stood up because I felt like I weighed so little that every movement was more pronounced.

I decided to go to work. It was a Saturday, but I didn’t care. If I was going to be mindless and dead inside, I might as well get some work done, right?

I worked at a video game company called Firaxis. The company shared a parking lot with the Hunt Valley Inn, where the Farpoint con was being held. As I parked, I saw the mass of cars and busses that swamped the hotel lot. Standing there, feeling unhooked and adrift, I realized that I wasn’t nervous about going to a con anymore. I certainly didn’t have anybody who would go with me. I was still feeling dead inside, and sleepwalking through that made just as much sense as sleepwalking through work.

So I walked in, paid the door price, and started wandering around. I had a little plastic bag full of paperwork and maps that I didn’t bother to read. I just walked around the hotel, looking at stuff.

There were lots of people there, obviously. They pushed past me and argued good-naturedly with each other. I saw the stands full of amazing art and decorations, ancient books, miniature catapults, walls full of card games, and melee weapons. While I knew it was all cool stuff, it didn’t touch me. Any other day, it would have amazed and fascinated me. But right then, it was just stuff.

As I was walking around, I saw a table promoting Farpoint Media, and a skinny woman sitting behind it. My YouTube show was attached to FarPoint Media at the time, so I stopped to say “Hi”. She was friendly and engaging, and at one point, she asked me who I was. I said I was Brand Gamblin, and that I did C4C. I held up my hand and wiggled the fingers like I do to work the puppet.

The young woman squealed and jumped up, running around the table to tackle me in a hug. I was, frankly, stunned. Let me tell you something about that dead, hollow feeling that you only get after terrible heartbreak. . . It does not prepare you for strangers being wildly friendly and personal.

And that’s just what happened. The woman who tackled me was Heather Welliver, and she immediately started looking for others that she could introduce me to. They all gushed like I was a superstar, and I was totally unprepared for it. Soon, there was a group of people introducing themselves, shaking my hand, getting pictures with me, and chatting like we were old friends. I think I must have seemed terribly rude, because I just wasn’t able to reciprocate the kind of excitement that they showed. I nodded and smiled, but my brain just couldn’t fit what was happening in with the rest of my life.

Tee Morris has said several times that he thinks they scared me, because I was so laconic and spent most of the time blinking stupidly at them. But I wasn’t scared. I was amazed.

I didn’t feel alone. In less than a day, I had gone from losing the only important person in my life to gaining a whole circle of friends who accepted me instantly, and treated me like family.

That day, I met podcasters, doctors, authors, artists, rocket scientists, and we all went out to have dinner. The next day, I came back with the puppet to show everyone. When it was over, and everyone went home, the house still felt empty and too big, but I didn’t feel alone.

And I haven’t felt alone since.

So, yeah. My story isn’t typical. And yeah, there’s some bad stuff about cons, too. But I attend every one I can. I’ve hosted events at cons, and sat on numerous panels. I’ll always go to cons if I can make it, because to me, it’s a homecoming. It’s a special time where I get to go see my family again.

(all pics herein were taken by Thomas “CommandLine” Gideon)

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  1. I had a similar experience with Heather at Balticon this year. She’s a fabulous person for making one feel welcome and at home in a strange land 🙂

    Thanks for the post, Brand. A most enjoyable read!

  2. I expected to spend my first con ever, Balticon in 2009, sitting in corners and the backs of rooms quietly watching others talk and laugh, because I couldn’t couldn’t get anyone to go with me after months of trying and that’s what usually happens to me when I’m alone. Instead I had people tweeting me to meet up because they knew me from the Internet, and hugs, and fascinating late night conversations, and rides home so I could stay for those conversations long after the Light Rail stopped running for the night. It’s a pretty incredible thing.

  3. Wow. That sounds like quite a shock. Having the person who was the most important person in your life tell you that you’re essentially worthless is pretty tough to take. To have that happen and then stumble into a group of strangers who recognize your name and think that you’re great because of what you do… that’s a big shock. But a good one in many ways. I imagine it helped you quite a bit in recovering from your wife leaving.

    Sounds like someone was looking out for you.


  4. Wow. I have a creepily similar tale myself, just a couple years earlier by your time line. Kudos in airing it out and embracing the opportunity. After all, isn’t camaraderie the reason why all of us go to these conventions?

  5. “He was born again, but not like the evangelists talk about.”

  6. I’ve always described you on that day as being shell-shocked, but in a good way. I see now that may not have been so far from the truth. You seemed so completely surprised that other creative people not only knew you, and respected your work, but that we were interested in getting to know you better. I was surprised that you lived in the area. I wanted to talk to you more then, but frankly the lines were too long 😉

    I will never forget the look on your face the first time, in a panel or reading (I can’t remember which), that everyone shouted out “Squee!” in unison. I thought you were going to bolt for the door. You might have, but I think we had you hemmed in 😉

    I’m glad you stuck it out. Our little creative community is far better for having you in it.

  7. I remember that Con! Here I thought you were just overwhelmed at everything. I had know idea you were so shell-shocked.

    I’m glad you went.

  8. Although the reason for the story (and you attending your first con) was not so good… the story and the experience was great! Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading it, I like how you string words together. Makes me want to have a peek at your novel.

    • Thank you very much! And if you’d like to have a peek at it, Google has a huge preview available here. Hope you like it!

  9. I’m glad you aren’t lonely anymore!