Out of the Comfort Zone

I got back home from Lawrence, Kansas, last night, badly hungover from a raucous evening of a group reading of “The Eye of Argon” (Thank you Andrea.) This included drinking whenever we heard the word “wench,” which turned out to be way too often. It was one of the most “writer’s group” moments of the two weeks and a great note to end on. We were just getting to know each other, so I suppose the next step would have been disagreeing and forming cliques and we simply didn’t have the time for that. “Leave the party while you’re still having fun,” my grandmother said, and she was absolutely right!

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Two workshops were held during the two weeks, one for short speculative fiction and one for novel writing, so we all got to hang out which was great

The workshop well-run, well-thought-out, and exactly what I needed right now to get my writing to the next level–and it was physically and emotionally tiring in ways I didn’t expect.

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Critique with guest instructor Andy Duncan

I’ve not spent two weeks surrounded by strangers since…I don’t even know when. I suppose when I did study abroad right after college. The effort of being congenial 16+ hours day wore on all of us, I imagine. More than a few participants admitted being introverts (though I’d not have known it). I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do need a good amount time alone in places where I can recharge–such as my house or the SomaFM office, or on long walks.

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My home for the workshop was a stripped-down, linoleum-floored, twin-bedded dorm room (and this was the nice dorm I later learned). Not a place to relax. The air conditioner startled me awake at night when it kicked on–though apparently I was lucky as in some rooms it didn’t run at all. The bathroom was down the hall and the shower a claustrophobic plastic coffin that was home to a giant, friendly cockroach.

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The town of Lawrence is really cute (aside from some run-down student housing). I love to walk and use that time to mentally unwind, but long walks were more pore-cleansing than soul-cleansing in Kansas in the summer. I’d get out in the morning and walk to the library to read (we critiqued five people a day and though I’d read everything in advance I needed to refresh my memory). By noon the temperatures would be in the 90’s with high humidity and the walk back to the dorm was hell. I returned to my room soaked through and had to actually change clothes before our critiques started at 1pm.

The only real recharge time I got was when I rented a bike and rattled my way up and down the brick streets of Lawrence last Saturday. I got to be a pure tourist for a few hours.

The critique sessions wouldn’t have been so exhausting if I hadn’t been trying so hard pay attention and take notes. This was my first ever workshop and I invested a lot into it–both time and money and lost wages–and I was determined to get everything from it I could.

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Jim Gunn giving a critique – possibly calling a story “crudely charming”

The toughest thing was splitting myself into many different personas so that I could give critiques, get critiques, empathize with others, respect others, take things personally, not take things personally, intellectually agree or disagree, emotionally agree or disagree. Sometimes all at once. All while keeping calm and remaining open. Everyone in the group was so polite and even-keel, it made me suspect they were dealing with the same issues. Or maybe they are just better at it. It was my first time after all.

Midway through week one I thought I’d mastered it. I was upbeat. I’d been through a critique of one of my stories and pretty much agreed with people. I was inspired.

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Andy Duncan & Jim Gunn (and us workshoppers) at lunch at the Student Union

I hit a snag with my next story. We like to think we have thick skins but innocuous words can slip through and hit us where it hurts. Not only that, but even if a story is 90% there (none of mine were), the point of a critique group is to zero in on the bits that need improvement. It is disheartening to hear person after person not “get it,” and to realize the fault is mine, not theirs.

Chris, the workshop leader, had a top 10 list for every one of our mistakes. “Here,” he’d say, pointing to the printout, “Why I hate your main character. Number seven.”

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Chris posted the answers to our writing problems

The point being, fledgling writers all make common mistakes. We need to recognize them and learn the “rules” that will help us avoid making them again. All the writers we admire know these rules by heart–and so do the editors reading our submissions. Opens with a dream? No. Passive voice? No.

The rules are to a game, and the game is getting published professionally. We’d best respect them if we want to play. This simple fact was finally made perfectly clear to me, but only after I dropped my ego and stopped arguing. The workshop served me well in that it stripped away all my conceits. My creative work fell short of the mark. Am I going to go away crying (only for a short time) or pick myself up and fix this?

I will fix it. I like to think that’s why Chris picked us for the workshop, even if it was subconsciously. We don’t give up. We will succeed. In his day job he actually does pick winners – for the Campbell awards.

The short days of workshopping were long. After five hours instruction and giving and getting critiques, my brain was totally fried. With less than a ten-minute break most nights, we gathered and walked to dinner together, usually seeing some fireflies along the way (YAY!!). I struck up a conversation with whoever was by my side, often someone from the novelist workshop that was taking place at the same time.

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Kij and Chris leading us to dinner

Once I got some food and drink in me I was ready to go again but that mile walk to the restaurant in the heat each night was tough.

After dinner we’d chat, write, or watch a movie together. Sharing space during the day sometimes overwhelmed me, but communal living at night was a treat. I could drift from room to room, floor to floor (the dorm was three stories) and settle in on the periphery of an interesting conversation, catch the tail end of a movie, play a quick game of Russian roulette with a nerf gun…we relaxed at night and I got to know and like my peers.

My peers. It’s a big step for me to say that but I’m going to go ahead because fuck it, I was accepted into the workshop like everyone else. People who’ve been to Clarion and Odyssey and have more pubs than I have fingers. When will this feeling that I’m faking it end? I was paid for a story. It’s in a print magazine. I’m a writer. Not a great writer yet but working towards it.

Thanks to everyone who spent two weeks giving me sharp pokes in the right direction.

Leaving on a jet plane…

…to Kansas City

I’m in terminal 3 at SFO waiting to take off. I applied for a two-week speculative fiction writer’s workshop about a month and a half ago. I never thought I’d get accepted. They only take 10 people max and it was the last day to apply. What the hell, I figured. No harm in trying.

When I got the acceptance email a week or so later, I almost couldn’t decipher it. Chris, the workshop leader, wrote a long, newsy letter with comments on the story I’d submitted as part of my application, gave me some tips on how to improve it, and somewhere in the midst of that said if I was still interested, I was in.

I’ve gotten so used to rejection letters I almost missed that sentence, especially since it was buried under the story critique. When I finally spotted it and believed it, I whooped! I jumped up and down. I ran around the house.

I’ve never done anything like this. I felt like Lena Dunham in Girls when she went off to the Iowa workshop. This is the right time for this for me. I’ve been in the Alabama Street writers group for almost two years now and I’m getting the hang of giving and getting critiques. I’m freelancing so I can get away. I have a couple stories ready to go. It worked out perfectly.

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Now I’m at the airport feeling a bit melancholy about leaving home and maybe a bit nervous as well, which is a surprise, because I am so stoked for this. I’ll be corny and honest and say I’ll miss my husband. I love crawling into bed with him every night. I’ll miss my yard. It is spring and everything is in crazy bloom and hanging out there reading and writing is heaven. I’ll miss my friends & family. I’m also bummed that I’m missing most of the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. I got tickets to a bunch of talks before I knew I was going away.

I got up early today and managed to see one talk, “Subversive Speculative Fiction” with panelists Jewelle Gomez, Ayize Jama-Everett, Carter Scholz, and Johanna Sinisalo, and moderated by Charlie Jane Anders. It was a great panel and I said hi to Carter Scholz–an author I’d met before at SF in SF.

A member of my writer’s group, Jennifer Ng, rented a booth space in “Literary Lane” to promote her book Ice Cream Travel Guide. I stopped by and bought a copy. Another friend was volunteering at The Center for the Book booth – where they had two small presses set up so people could print a small notebook.

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I hated to leave. The festival was just gearing up and it seemed like everything was geared towards me. Information about writing and editing classes, conferences, editing and coaching services. I had tickets to six other talks, including one by Jonathen Lethem, that I had to give away.

I walked back to the BART station, accompanied, literally, by sad violin music.

Now I’m in terminal three. I’ve got time to kill because there was no line at security. No line at all. I’ve never seen anything like it! The man scanning tickets was almost asleep he was so bored. I walked to the far end of the terminal to a secluded area with a great view north. I couldn’t quite see Bernal Hill–but almost. I stress ate a chocolate chip cookie and began to write.

Then the flight attendants arrived. I’d stumbled upon their secret hangout. A group of eight men and women sat down to my right and began to gossip as if I wasn’t there. “They aren’t going to put me on disability due to mental issues.” “I said you want to evict me? Go ahead!” “They put everyone in first class but me, and she said it was based on seniority and I said I KNOW that girl started after me and she said I’ve worked here for twenty years and I said girl you old. Super old.”

I forgot to be sad as I listened to tales of layovers and lipstick that matched nail polish and being raised in Kingstown, Jamaica.

We are all made of stories. I’m going to learn to write mine better!