Something happened to me last week that I’m finding strikingly difficult to write about.
In simple terms, I went to a writers’ conference.
In larger terms, I found my people. (Cue lump in throat.)
And in terms of my writing, I passed through a forge. I’m still processing all that I learned about myself and my community, but I know that I feel sharper, stronger, and less likely to break under pressure.
The workshop started out normally – a group of strangers assembled, packets were distributed, names were offered, misplaced, and found again. It helped that many of us weren’t strangers, thanks to Twitter, and to the efforts of the workshop staff, who had been checking in with us since June, and who were there for us throughout the workshop.
In a group like this, things move fast: friendships, opinions, stances on subtext and the Oxford comma. One minute you’re munching on a veggie burger cooked for you by a well-known author, and the next you’re sitting in a circle, trying to convince everyone you’re not an alien.
But the truth is, most of us at the workshop probably felt like an alien at some point or another. We’ve felt like aliens for a long time. For instance, when I try to explain my goals as a writer to a non-writer, I probably sprout antennae in their eyes. When that very kind note from the editor who doesn’t want to publish a story arrives, voila, seven tentacles – just like that. I try to keep the tentacles tucked in during meetings, but occasionally I’ll slip and refer to Zelazny or the laws of robotics and I get that look. If you’ve read this far, you know the look I mean.
Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t a woo-woo writer’s retreat. It was a gathering of people who intend to be professional writers. Playing The Thing (where players must find the aliens in their midst, before the aliens take over) was an icebreaker, and a way to remember names, at first. Then it became kind of an obsession. So did jam sessions, sunrise walks along the seawall at Martha’s Vineyard, and writing, writing, writing. The last is what we were there to do.
That first day became one long day with very little sleep. I remember thinking I should call home, and realizing a day later that I hadn’t done it because the next workshop had eaten my brain. Then the critique group had filled my skull with new ideas. And then the one-on-one conversation about my short story with a writer I admire so much it was hard for me to do more than wibble sent me spinning. I realized what was happening to me, and I wanted as much of it as I could possibly get.
You see, the first wonder of the workshop was realizing that, actually, being a Thing isn’t so bad.
The second wonder was working as hard as I could (and I got sick, which was frustrating) to meet as many other Things as possible, and to learn more about them and how they do their work. One day, over lunch, an editor asked me a question about community, and connecting, that melted all of my understanding about who I was, and who I’d been pretending to be. I’m still sorting that insight through, but it was a big one.
The third wonder happened on Thursday – four and a half days in. We’d been assigned to write a story for a group of anthologies, and given two days to do it. Two days in which we’d also need to continue reading, critiquing, attending lectures, and connecting with people. What happened was that I, and most people there, did some darn fine writing. We taped our stories up on the walls and spent an hour before supper reading each others work. People pulled one another aside to talk about theme and genre. Later, during evening activities, someone got up and started editing his story on the wall. We were immersed in writing, and it had become us. You should expect to see a number of those stories out there in the world, soon. They’re incredibly good, and not one of them resembles another.
Finally, the fourth wonder came when we all said goodbye. Farewell turned into something else entirely. It turned into plans to meet up again, to help each other along, and to connect online. In short, to keep our community of Things going for as long as it took.
I don’t feel like I’m the only one anymore. Even better, I feel like I can do this.
There are more stories to tell, like “When a Short Story Arrived, and Left A Novel,” and “My Journey to the Midgetland Labyrinth,” but they’ll have to wait for another post. I have a 2,000-word wordcount to make today, because I’m writing a book.
To my friends, to my teachers, and to the wonderful staff at Viable Paradise, thank you so very much. Let’s do it again, soon, ok?