After two weeks away, I’m back in DC and back to blogging! I spent ~12 wonderful days in New Haven, CT at the Yale Writers’ Workshop, where I had an amazing time.
YWW splits its workshop into two sessions. For Session 1, my instructor was Lisa Page, a splendid English professor at George Washington University (yes, I went all the way to Connecticut to work with someone who works down the street from my house. Life just be’s that way sometimes). To be honest, I wasn’t super-familiar with Lisa’s work, but I just had a good feeling about her, that she would be a good teacher and a strong workshop facilitator. I was totally right on both fronts. I got great feedback on a short story I wrote for fiction class last year that I decided to dust off. I’ll start doing revisions on it soon, then it’ll be ready to submit.
Session 1 also included a panel with a few literary magazine editors. Reps from PANK, The Common, and Bodega told us about what they look for in submissions and if they pay or not (most journals don’t, unfortunately. I guess that’s the plight of the artist? Either way, explains why I’m looking for a job now.) We also got to do sort of a speed-dating session with them to ask them additional questions after the panel.
One topic I broached is that experimental (which is apparently a bad word these days) fiction seems to be all the rage—weird sh*t is the easiest to find in lit mags. Unfortunately for me, I write super normal sh*t—stuff about family and relationships and friendships, mostly all enacted by super-ordinary Black people. My work isn’t boring, it just isn’t weird, and I’m finding that it’s been difficult to place my work. One of the editors agreed with me—there’s so many markets for weird stuff that they wind up having to publish normal stuff, because there’s just not enough weird to go around. Which made me feel better, I guess. I’ll feel even better if they actually publish some of my work…
For Session 2, I had Julie Buntin as a workshop leader, and she was also amazing. I was surprised to learn that she’s younger than me, mostly because she is super-mature and wise beyond her years. Her novel, Marlena, was a total hit last year and won all kinds of awards. I read it before I went to CT, and I adored the writing, though the plot was kind of a downer.
Session 2’s workshops were more focused, on genre or something else; Julie’s class focused on the first 10 pages of a novel, so I workshopped, well, the first 10 pages of my novel. (Have I mentioned that I’m writing a novel? Maybe I have… I can’t remember. But, yeah, I’ve started a novel! It’s essentially about a family that reunites after a funeral, and it explores the discomfort that sits at the intersection of race and class. [Much of my fiction is about this of late.] While I was in CT, I got a Zipcar and went to Madison, where the fictionalized setting of the action takes place.)
It was incredibly helpful for me to think about being so intentional as a writer. Sure, in the first draft, you just get it all down on paper, but it’s the revision and shaping up that really matters. I knew that before YWW, but it hadn’t really solidified for me until then: workshopping the first 10 pages of a novel I haven’t finished writing (I just finished chapter 2) really made me wonder why I’m writing it and what I want to say, which is elementary but monumental for a writer to establish so early on.
I also got a big confidence booster—for Session 1, some of the other participants in my class hadn’t written fiction before, so I sort of automatically took the seat of expert, which felt great. I still learned a lot, but also felt better about what I already knew.
There were, of course, readings out the wazoo! Each faculty member, plus Porochista Khakpour (pictured above), who was going to be on staff, but was ill and starting her book tour, read and they were all incredible:
My session 1 instructor Lisa Page reading from the anthology she edited, “We Wear the Mask.”
My session 2 instructor Julie Buntin reading from her novel, Marlena.
There were a couple of blunders—a young white woman telling me my hometown, Camden, NJ, was terrifying; an older white man reading his first-person account of a slave woman being separated from her baby, with superfluous dialect, racial slurs, and all, then asking me the next day how I felt about it as “the only Black person in the room”; me telling Hallie Ephron that I loved her essay, then her saying she didn’t write essays, then me getting embarrassed, then me realizing a week later that she was the correct sister and I got embarrassed for no reason—but overall, I had a great time.
I don’t know if I’d go to YWW again since the demographic wasn’t all that diverse in terms of ethnicity or age (this conference inclined older and whiter), but I really enjoyed myself and was honored to have been selected to go.
A year ago today, I was at VONA, in the throes of a life-changing, soul-nourishing experience. I know I can’t expect all summer writing workshops to be like that, so I’m tempering my expectations. I’m just blessed that I’ve gotten to go to so many of these, to have gotten to know so many great people, and to have become a better writer, step by step, day by day.