Me at the Lambda Literary Reading, August 8, at Antioch University. Photo by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta.
…or, “They don’t call it ‘writers’ boot camp’ for nothing.”
You would think that I’d be used to writing workshops after two years of graduate school, but this past week really wiped me out. I was one of twelve fiction writers in a workshop led by Lucy Jane Bledsoe at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices. (I know, it’s kind of weird to think of myself at age 44 as an emerging voice, but it’s also true. Hey, late bloomer and all.) We came from all over the U.S. and Canada and, in one instance, Australia (if you’re reading this: hi, Ed!). Our writing styles and forms ranged from contemporary literary fiction to otherworldly, gender-fluid speculative fiction, but we all had at least one thing in common: we thought we had something to say, and we wanted to learn how to say it better.
It’s funny, watching how a group’s social dynamic coalesces when you’re only going to be together for a short, defined period of time. There are the initial introductions and everyone’s still a little… not exactly on their guard, but still feeling each other out, seeing “is this the sort of group where I can say this but not that? What’s the best way to make this point so that they’ll hear it and not misunderstand? How does all of our respective baggage match up?”
Because, you know, we’re talking about writers. We’ve all got baggage.
Then there’s a point, about midway through the week, when suddenly you can’t imagine a time when you never knew these people. They get you, and they get what you’re trying to do, or they’re really putting themselves out there with their work and it’s really vulnerable, or something you wrote hits a chord in them that was so unexpected that they just burst into tears.
That bursting into tears part? Happened a lot.
(As an aside, I think I was really lucky in choosing the MFA program that I attended. With rare exception, I found an environment that welcomed writers from a range of backgrounds and identities, and a constructive and encouraging atmosphere. I know, that’s a lot of descriptors and modifiers, but what I’m trying to say is that the people in the program were generally not snobby, didn’t look down on other writers, and were queer friendly. I don’t think a lot of other people at the retreat who’d been in MFA programs had a similar experience. So, I just want to say to the people at UBC, keep that up. You’re doing it right.)
At the same time, the experience at this retreat was different from the welcoming atmosphere in grad school or any sort of place where you might be welcomed but still don’t feel 100% like you fit in. Here they got that you were a writer and they got that you were a queer writer. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but they were also able to bring to bear a perspective on the work that sometimes slips by other readers. It also means they can call you on things that might slip past a straight reader.
But within that commonality there was so much diversity too, as I mentioned above. There were people with lots of publishing credits, people with one or two, people with none. MFA, no MFA, just finished undergrad, never even went. It didn’t matter. Everyone was there to write and be better. And boy, did we work hard. Basically, we had a three-hour workshop every day for six days straight. (In grad school, I had two a week, three at most, and they were two hours long.) That took up the mornings, and after lunch there was usually a guest lecture on topics ranging from DIY marketing to cisgender individuals writing trans* characters. Then after dinner, there was usually a reading, another lecture, or some other function. By the time that ended, it was time to prepare for the next day’s workshop. So, even though I was in sunny L.A., there wasn’t time for anything else.
Now that I’m back at home, watching all of the retreat-related posts scroll through my Facebook feed, knowing they’ll trickle out and things will go back to normal, I’m missing the people I met and sad that the experience is over. But I also know that I’ll be seeing these friends again, especially on bookshelves. I’m also looking through my notes and thinking about the next revision of the story I workshopped, and thinking about other places to send the backlog of finished stories I’m just sitting on (word to the wise: send that stuff out), and I’m looking at my calendar of deadlines for other writing workshops, residencies, and fellowships. I met people last week who were later on their way to Bread Loaf, to Vermont Studio Center, and other destinations. Who’d been to Ragdale, or Tin House, or a residency at the bottom of the world (twice). And I’m thinking, I’ve got to keep moving.
I owe a huge thank you to poet Leah Horlick, who was a Lambda Literary fellow in 2012 and encouraged me to apply for the retreat. Andmassive thanks to everyone who donated and made it possible for me to attend. And stupendous thanks to Tony Valenzuela and Kyle Sawyer, who basically worked 12-plus hours a day for seven days straight to make the retreat happen. I can only imagine how tired they still must be. If you know them, do something nice for them. They deserve it.