Up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the mornings were cold and the internet worked only after the sun came out and re-charged the cells from the panel on the roof, after the little yurt where I was staying with my boyfriend became bright and warm. He was living, temporarily, with his mentor and friend, Bob, on Bob’s off-the-grid compound in rural New Mexico. There was an outhouse on a hill, well water, and solar power with limited storage for everything else. We drank jug wine and Wild Turkey and ate big slabs of meat: beautiful, fatty briskets and whole roasted dog-chicken (chicken that was cooked for Bob’s three rowdy setters, but functioned as “perfectly good people chicken,” too), which Bob stored in a somewhat-cool cooler outside.
The boys were waiting for their books to come out—their first and sixth, respectively—and they spent their mornings and afternoons making slow headway on new projects while also doing the work of pre-publication, back and forth with their editors and publicists and French translators. I was waiting for, well, something to happen. Anything. Once a writer begins submitting, life becomes of series of extended waiting periods. Every day with the potential to deliver fantastic news or crushing rejection directly to your inbox. (Most days, of course, don’t. Most days, if you’re lucky enough to find the time, contain only the quiet plodding ahead of more words on a page, just you and your brain and your fingertips on the keys.)
But this day, yes, good news delivered as the internet creaked on. An affirmation, by way of invitation to California. Congratulations! We couldn’t be more thrilled to offer you a fellowship to the Writing By Writers Workshop at Tomales Bay in Marin County, California…. We look forward to hearing you read your work at the Fellowship Winners Reading at the workshop.
I had applied to Writing by Writers for the same reason I applied to any conference: the chance to study with a specific instructor. In this case, author Pam Houston, whom I had loved since Cowboys Are My Weakness (second-person short stories are my weakness) all the way through to her latest, Contents May Have Shifted, a globe hopping series of interconnected, nonlinear vignettes that slip playfully along the line between memoir and fiction. Houston’s work had already taught me so much—about writing, of course, but about life, too—and I was ecstatic to be able to learn from her in person, and in one of the most beautiful places in the country, no less. My boyfriend spun me around, kissed my eyelids, my cheeks, my forehead.
—Wonderful, he said. Well done!
Later that afternoon, we hiked down to Bob’s little adobe house. Bob was drinking tequila and limeade and eating frozen shrimp. He had been hard on me during over the course of the week, short tempered and critical. Too hard, I thought, though in retrospect, perhaps I was being too sensitive, still raw after a bad divorce in which I had detonated a bomb inside my first marriage. A couple of our late night conversations had ended angrily (him), or in tears (me), my boyfriend stuck awkwardly in the middle between his new love and old mentor. But last night had been good and fun—we had gone into town for sopapillas and carne adovada, come back late and blasted music from the sound system in Bob’s truck while we danced off our dinner in the dark, literally kicked off our shoes—and I desperately wanted to hang on to some of that levity from the night before.
We told Bob the good news: the fellowship, the conference, the reading.
—All right, he said, channeling Matthew McConaughey. Now don’t screw it up, he added, teasing. In his way, kindly.
I considered myself warned.
Writing by Writers wasn’t my first conference experience. Ten years earlier I had traveled to Toronto for Humber College’s writing workshop. It was the summer after my senior year in high school, and I was 18 years old, so young and ignorant that I hadn’t even realized it was an accomplishment to be accepted; I thought attending was simply a matter of signing up.
I wanted to go to Humber for the same reason I had initially applied for Writing by Writers, to study with an author I admired. In the former case, YA superstar, Francesca Lia Block. I had discovered Block’s work on the shelf at my local library, where I would ride my bike nearly every afternoon after school, wandering the stacks and killing time. I checked out I Was a Teenage Fairy and The Hanged Man so many times I finally had to beg my mother to drive me up to the big Barnes and Noble in the next town so I could buy copies for myself. I bought Weetzie Bat and Violet & Claire and Girl Goddess #9 with the little paycheck I was earning as a check-out girl at Market Basket. I bought Tori Amos albums because her lyrics appeared in some of Block’s books. I took fashion cues from fictional characters. Most importantly, I studied the shape of Block’s novels, tried out the tone in some of my stories. I read an interview where Francesca named One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of her favorites, and so I read that, too. I learned about magic realism. I became interested in mythology.
When it came time to request a mentor for the conference at Humber College, I wrote her name in for my first, second and third choice. Mercifully, they granted my desperate request.
Save for a couple other outliers like myself, I was the youngest attendee by at least a decade—green and excited and certainly in over my head. I bought the book of every single instructor at the conference, and halfway through the week, realized authors were generally gracious if you approached them and ask them to sign a copy, not, as I had originally suspected, annoyed. It was a heat wave in Toronto that week, and I wore ripped jeans and ribbed, white tanks, which I cut into crop tops to show off the brand new Picasso tattoo on my back. I pretended to smoke cigarettes so I could stand outside with everyone else, an early education on writerly politics. (Despite my best efforts, I could never quite manage to form a habit.) I met Edward Albee. It was Alistair MacLeod’s birthday and the conference threw him a little party; I took a picture of his cake.
Initially, I was terrified of meeting Francesca. She loomed large in my imagination and I feared knowing her—the real woman behind all those beautiful words—would ruin the mentor that I had invented for myself.
My memories of the workshop itself are foggy, but my fears were unfounded. Francesca was lovely: an artist, kind and warm, intelligent and insightful with our work. It was my first workshop and, at the time, didn’t realize how special that combination of attributes were. Still, I didn’t feel in any way qualified to comment on anyone else’s work, because I, of course, wasn’t. I was simultaneously mortified by and deeply proud of my own messy, amateurish work—the ego and anxiety of writing already at odds in my internal life. I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of what would turn out to be years and years of education—a BFA in creative writing from Emerson College, workshops at Grub St. in Boston and Harvard’s continuing ed. program, an MFA from Lesley University. Before I understood the immensity of the student loans in my future. Before I had read a single book on craft. Before AWP or BEA. Before stacks of rejection letters, and before those stacks would evolve to an email folder of rejection letters, taking up space on some cold server farm, humming and whirring thousands of miles away.
I had won an American Heritage dictionary from a Teen Ink fiction contest and attended this conference; I was fairly confident I would be a bestselling author before my 25th birthday.
What I remember is this: after workshop one day (mine, I believe), Francesca sitting with me on a brick wall. Next to us, giant white hydrangeas with mopheads so big I would have barely been able to wrap my arms around them. It was an informal chat, and I hadn’t learned yet that the magic of conferences usually occurs outside of structured time. First, an helpful piece of fashion advice: stick with the basics for your clothes and don’t worry about name brands; put your money into your shoes and bags, they will last longer and make a bigger impression. And then she told me, off-handily, that I reminded her of herself, when she was my age. I nearly levitated.
It was the best compliment I had ever received, and I let it carry me through dark nights doubting myself and my work, doubting I could ever get this story, this scene, this line, right.
I remember leaving Toronto energized and hungry. It would be years before I ever understood revision before I knew what patience really meant. But the writing world seemed close, seemed possible, and I was ready to get to work.
In the time between my acceptance and the Writing by Writers conference itself, my boyfriend and I had gotten engaged and I had quit my job managing a bookstore in Massachusetts to move with him to a tiny cottage on a wildlife sanctuary north of New Orleans. For a number of reasons, it was not the best moment for me to be attending a writing conference. My fellowship paid the tuition, but not travel. We were phenomenally broke and I had liquidated my little 401k just so we could buy groceries and pay rent. To add insult to injury, the Point Reyes National Seashore was closed because of the government shutdown; I wouldn’t even be able to visit the beach. But most importantly (most honestly), I didn’t want to leave. My fiancé and I were finally, after many months apart while he was on his book tour, making a home. We were in the dizzying first months of love and cohabitation and the last thing I wanted to do was miss him again, even if only for a week.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to run away anywhere. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Still, I was in no place professionally to turn down opportunities and so I dutifully packed my bags, and went. The plane tickets to and from San Francisco, perhaps irresponsibly, added to our ever-increasing credit card balance.
The one and a half hour drive from San Francisco to the Marconi Conference center on Tomales Bay was gorgeous: over the Golden Gate bridge and through the tight, winding roads of Northern California, where I became intensely carsick in the back of the shuttle I was sharing with eight other conference attendees—Bob’s words, Don’t screw it up, bouncing around in my aching head, more jinx than playful warning.
The afternoon of the fellowship reading was cool and sunny. In an attempt to center myself, I took a scenic walk along a wooded trail leading from the dorms to the biggest meeting room, which was full with other attendees and instructors and light coming in through big windows. Normally a confident public speaker, I felt out of sorts, anxious and jet-lagged. Instead of choosing to read from the story I had submitted for acceptance, as any sane person might have done, I had decided instead to read from the very rough, first draft of a novel I had only recently started writing. By the time it was my turn at the podium, I was bleary eyed with nerves. I rushed through my selected excerpts, stumbling over my own words and, at one point, lost my place entirely. In a panic, I re-read the entire page.
It was a mess. The audience politely ignored my obvious blunder, but the disaster reading effectively screwed me up for the rest of the week.
I made a few off comments in workshop that seemed to suggest a less-than-close reading of my peers’ work, despite poring over their stories for hours and taking copious notes. I told a confessional life story to my roommate, who hadn’t suggested any interest in my recent or distant troubles. I was deeply lonely, but the center, named after Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer in wireless communication, did not have a cell phone signal. I had to hike up a steep hill for reception, the only chance for staticy cell conversations for my fiancé back at “home,” a state I barely spent six weeks in.
These issues, I should say, were entirely my own. Pam was a phenomenal instructor—smart and full of heart, and I knew now how important and rare these qualities were. The women in my workshop were kind and talented and serious about writing. Point Reyes was beautiful and the weather was northern California perfect, but I was exhausted to still be performing as Student. And my heart was 2,275 miles away.
I tried to make the best of my time. I still bought a book from nearly every instructor. I still enjoyed the readings. At the end of the week, the conference organizers served an outdoor buffet of freshly shucked Tomales Bay oysters and cold white wine. I sat alone on a brick wall and enjoyed the simple, perfect meal, consoled by the fact I was flying out the next day and was already planning on changing at least my last name, in only matter of months.
I was socially awkward, terribly homesick, and had most definitely screwed it up.
I had meant to end this essay with a balanced warning about writing conferences. That there is a risk, at a certain point in one’s education, to over-workshopping your fiction. That attending conferences could actually be a kind of procrastination from the real work of writing. That yes, of course conferences are important and informative. That they can be great fun and even life changing, but that sometimes it’s best to look honestly at where you are, keep your money in your pocket, and stay at your desk. I had a-budding-on-conspiracy theory about there being many more opportunities to separate a writer from her money than there are ways to put money in her pocket and that, at times, the writing education industry seems to take advantage of this.
And then, after a years-long dry spell, I had another one of those rare, rare days where good news is delivered. A story of mine accepted for publication in an anthology. The very story I had workshopped in class with Pam Houston and my cohort at the Writing by Writers conference, dutifully revising with their notes and suggestions.
And the editor of the anthology? Francesca Lia Block.
My husband, kissing my eyelids, my cheeks, my forehead, telling me, well done. Wonderful.
So instead I leave you with this: Writing is a long game. Even when you think you’re done, keep pushing. Buy the books, even if you have to charge them. (And if you get the chance, ask for the author’s signature—it makes them feel good.) Use writing as an excuse to travel to beautiful places, but don’t stay gone from home for too long. Seek out kind, insightful mentors whose work sparks a fire in your belly. Hell, seek out many. Start a collection. Enjoy fresh oysters even if you’re having a bad week, no, especially if you’re having a bad week.
And if you’re a young writer who is certain your work is special and needs to be read, but are nervous and wondering if you should be doing this writing thing at all—that’s normal, keep going. You are not alone. You remind me so much of myself.