“At” the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop

I’m really glad that summer writing workshops resumed this year after the abyss that was 2020.

Last week, I “went” to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop—even in the virtual setting, I’d argue that was one of the most intense conferences I’ve done. The thing about Kenyon (and I don’t know why more workshops/conferences haven’t done this) is that it’s generative, so you don’t bring something you’ve already written to have people give you comments on it, you produce new work every day. Then you come into “class” and read that work, and get a new prompt for that night, then do it all again the next day. I came away with starts to five essays, which is really impressive, if you think about it.

I worked with Dinty Moore, a really amiable man who teaches at Ohio State and runs Brevity magazine, one I’ve admired for a long time (and have published in its craft-related blog). He stipulated that our responses to the prompts should be 300 words or less, so it felt like writing flash if you could contain a whole story in so few words. Of the five essays I began, I think one of them is suited to that shorter form, but the others gave me nice entry points into considerably longer works.

My workshop-mates were incredibly talented; it was a joy to listen to their stories every afternoon. (The conference was structured so that we met for 90 minutes starting at 1pm ET, then there were panels and readings in the afternoon, and faculty readings or open mics in the evening.)

The tough part was that, since the conference was virtual, I was still working and doing all my other life stuff. I had to push back a client deadline to give myself the brain space to generate work (300 words doesn’t sound like a lot, but was actually pretty challenging), and I missed the last day of class because I had a childbirth class to attend. Alas.

On the bright side, being at home allowed me to show my spouse more of what I’m up to at these conferences: talking about writing and listening to great readings. Over dinner, we listened to Kaveh Akbar recite poetry from what looked to be a monastery in Italy and Jamie Quatro read a fiction that felt like an essay about alternating days waking up a Christian and an atheist that felt all too relatable.

Ultimately, the point of art is to create emotional resonance, to sound some gong in some part of yourself that awakens you, even if it’s only the tiniest part of you, to something you didn’t know about yourself. It felt extra intimate to have that experience with my spouse. I’m grateful for it.

“Write what you write”

Two weeks ago, I attended the Indiana University Writer’s [Virtual] Conference. The in-person conference scheduled for late May of last year was cancelled, of course, and it made me anticipate this year’s all the more.

IUWC isn’t one of the “big name” conferences like some other’s I’ve done, but they attract huge names. I tried not to faint thinking about the fact that I was going to work with ZZ Packer.

Packer is an absolute legend in her own right. She was the first contemporary Black writer I encountered when I was first being introduced to literary fiction in college. Her short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, is a bible of sorts when it comes to character-driven narratives about Black people in America. Her book was one of the few I actually read for class (yes, I was a terrible English major who didn’t really read for her literature classes, but read everything for her writing classes), and it made such an impression on me about who I could be as a writer. It would take almost another decade of maturity as a human being and as a writer for me to decide this, but partly because of Packer, I chose to write exclusively about Black protagonists. MONUMENTAL FREEDOM.

Anyway, to talk about the workshop itself would be to talk about how I tried not to get starstruck, and how, in a way, I was grateful this wasn’t in person because I really might have fainted. (Which would have been extra concerning given how pregnant I am. Then again, because of how pregnant I am, I would not have been given clearance to travel, so it all worked out.)

I had the class read a work-in-progress that was inspired by the most recent season of The Bachelor. It’s told from his mother’s perspective, and she was a joy to write because I wanted to challenge myself to create an unreliable narrator; not someone who you don’t trust to tell the truth, but whose judgement you nearly constantly call into question. It was an amazingly fun story to write, and I would say it’s one of my finest works to date.

And the participants (and ZZ) gave me glowing feedback! I wasn’t seeking it, but it’s always delightful when you get positive feedback on your work. The suggestions they made were so helpful for taking the story to the next level, deepening it to a place of emotional relevance I didn’t know I could reach. Honestly, I didn’t know what to say when my workshop was done except, “Thank you.” I was floored at how much everyone saw the potential in my work.

This was validating on a number of levels, but the biggest one? That it’s okay—actually, more than okay, maybe necessary—for me to write what I write. I was so concerned that my stories are too “loud” or have too much “plot” because I like using unexpected containers (such as a reality television show) to explore “literary” topics (the story is actually about well-meaning parenting gone awry). And ZZ said that that was okay!

“Write what you write,” she said.

Words I will never forget as long as I live.

During our one-on-one conversation, I told ZZ how much her work meant to me, how formative it was to me as a young Black writer. I found myself getting a little emotional—I mean, how often do you get to tell a true role model how they made you feel?

“That means so much,” she said. Or something like that. Honestly, I kinda blacked out at the thought that I was talking one-on-one with ZZ Packer.

It made me think of conversations I want to have in the future. By writing what I write, I want to help liberate other writers, especially Black women writers, to do exactly the same. A beautiful circle of writing life.

Writing *is* Freedom

I spent most of last week in Cleveland, Ohio, somewhere I never thought I’d go, for work, of all things.

My spouse and I drove the way, though I’m fully vaccinated and he is half so, since I figured it’d be safer than flying. We made the drive on our 9th wedding anniversary, and I couldn’t help reflecting: “If you had told me nine years ago that I’d be driving out to Cleveland to meet with a client because I run my own business, and I’m also eight months pregnant, I would have said, ‘WHAT?’”

I never had aspirations of being an entrepreneur, I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids, and I never thought that I’d wind up having both of these things at the same time. And yet, I can’t tell you how happy I was the entire time, including in the weeks leading up to the trip.  

What made the trip most satisfying? Well, realizing that I actually am making an impact on my client’s business.

Yes, I know I must be doing something right because we have a great working relationship, but there’s a difference between being paid to do something and actually seeing the effect of it before your eyes.

“Vonetta has helped us feel free to tell our story,” my client said—IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE.

(For the record, I’m basically a management consultant. I work with finance people to help them build their business and tell their story well, so they can raise capital to invest in other people’s businesses.)

The fact that he equated me with FREEDOM was so powerful, I nearly cried. The whole thing was so stupidly satisfying, I felt I could tell my own story better: the arc of my career hasn’t felt like much of an arc at all, but a bunch of haphazard decisions, but there is a clear through-line of storytelling.

I started my career in communications, where I learned how to bring clarity to complex subjects like scientific research and financial advice for institutions, then learned how to get the story out of investors. Freedom, for me, is telling stories and equipping other people to do the same.

I couldn’t believe that I only just discovered that on this trip, but I couldn’t be more grateful.

It’s further confirmation that my work-work and my writing-work don’t sit on opposite sides of some invisible fence that’s painful for me to straddle; they’re actually both co-working and co-existing inside of my brain, harmoniously.

Yesterday, I did an informational interview with a prospective MBA student, and I told her, “People tend to want to tell women—especially Black women—that you can’t have it all. By that they mean, you can’t be happy with every aspect of your life. And I’m here as evidence that that’s patently false.”

Yes, my life will look different once my baby is here, but knowing that I live to tell stories in as many ways as possible makes it so that I cannot fail or feel guilty. And that, my friends, is stupidly satisfying.

The Gift of Writing Across Industries

I’ve written before about how writing in my business is very much different from writing literary fiction and nonfiction (and even blog posts, if I think about it well enough).

I’ve avoided doing heavy writing my business, for fear that the lack of creativity required would somehow make writing in general less interesting to me, which I don’t want to happen, obviously. Business writing—especially in financial services—can feel so sterile, where everyone sounds the same. Ironically, I would say there is no “voice,” but of course there is, it’s just so monotone. This is why no one remembers any business memo they’ve ever read.

But a couple of weeks ago, when someone asked me to help them write a business document, I started to rethink these ideas.

The document, known as a private placement memorandum (PPM), is half marketing doc, half legal doc. It talks about what plans the person or team has for their business, what they’ve done in the past, who they are, and what they stand for as a business (aka, their brand, to a certain extent). Writing these documents can be lucrative; for experienced writers, these documents can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Not gonna lie, the idea of it got my attention.

When I agreed to do it, it wasn’t for the money, though. It was to eradicate the fear that writing in a new style would somehow displace my current one.

I’m still in the Short Story Intensive at The Writer’s Center, churning out a short story every month in what feels a lot like a portion of an MFA program. I’m still working on essays with friends I met at the VQR conference (almost four years ago now, good Lord!). I’m still preparing for summer writing workshops, the first of which, the Indiana University Writers Conference, takes place in less than a month.

Thinking about all of this, I realized it’s not actually possible for my creative voice to be displaced; there’s too many things constantly galvanizing it.

So, with that in mind, I plunged into the PPM… and I found it FUN. Which is bananas. Sure, the information could feel a little bit dry—investment performance is only so exciting and industry research rarely knocks anyone’s socks off—but that was why they hired me: to make what they do sound interesting (without lying, of course). And I had a great time doing it!

It was a moment in which I remembered that my writing is a gift to the world, not something I should hold onto for myself, or even for just my literary community. The more people I share it with, the more true and honest I feel.

So, maybe one day I’ll be raking in the big bucks by writing more of these documents. I’m not certain I’m headed in that direction, but I am certain that I’m feeling one step closer to my full self. I never thought that would happen from work, but, hey, what do I know?

Early Morning Angel Hours

Last week, I woke up every day between 5:15 and 5:30am.

This is an extreme anomaly for me, as I am a sleeper. For the past five years almost, I’ve been a full-time writer, then an entrepreneur who set her own hours, so I’ve gotten a lot of sleep every night. But last week, I just didn’t feel like sleeping.

It wasn’t insomnia. Maybe it was some other form of anxiety that pumped adrenaline into my veins, but I felt overcome with the desire to be productive. So, I’d wake up, have a glass of water, do my devotional and prayer, then be in front of my computer by 6am.

My assistant told me that she once heard the time between 2am and 5am called the “angel hours.”

“There’s something special in the air at those times,” she said. “It’s easier to get downloads then.”

I’m sure it’s easier to get actual downloads, given that there’s fewer people online in the US during those hours, but I agreed that she was right about a certain level of spiritual downloads, too. Great ideas seem to be just floating around, waiting to be caught.

I spent the workweek mapping out new marketing materials for a client and new messaging for my own business. I also signed a new client (yay!) and start work for them tomorrow.

Inspired by all I did during the week, and with extra time staring at me over the weekend, I rewrote my whole book proposal. I overhauled the overview and rewrote the chapter summaries to feel more like stories rather than synopses of what happened. I’m not quite done—I realize I need to add some cultural context to the overview, to say “why this book, why now”—but I feel much better about it than I did before.

I rarely say, “I’d like to toot my own horn about this great thing I did,” but last week really was easily won. I have no idea why my body chose to do what it did, but I thank it immensely.

I’m going to try to replicate it this week. I wasn’t successful at it yesterday (since I stayed up later than I thought I would, working on the proposal Sunday night), but I did it today. And there’s always tomorrow. I look forward to what the air has for me while its still and quiet.

5 years ago: My First Steps to Becoming a Writer

Pardon me for not blogging for a while! I went on vacation in the middle of March, and coming back after required much more catching-up than I thought it would. But here I am!

Last week, Facebook reminded me of a memory from five years ago: I’m sitting outside of a café in Paris, wearing a turtleneck and sunglasses, attempting to smile without smiling; in the next frame is a beautiful crepe galette with rich brown buckwheat crepe and a sunny side up egg smack in the middle. I recorded this moment via selfie, apologizing to Anthony Bourdain for not being able to eat the egg part of the crepe—it smelled too much like egg for me to even consider eating it.

The important part here is that it was on that trip to Paris that I decided to quit my job and become a writer.

I was 30 years old, my father had been deceased for six months, and my job had devolved into a type of emotional abuse with which my subconscious was familiar. Honestly, I felt like I was eight years old again. I decided to travel alone because I’d never really done that before. I’d studied abroad and galivanted all around Europe, but with girlfriends, with whom we could watch out for each other, as my mother always dictated. I was afraid to travel alone—what if someone followed me and found out where I was staying? What if someone tried to assault me and there was no one there to help protect me? What if my wallet was stolen and I got stranded? Many of these fears were understandable, but not all that likely, when I thought about it. The only way to no longer be afraid was to show myself that I could do it. So, I did.

Although the purpose was for me to exist elsewhere as a solo individual, I met up with a couple of friends, since I’m blessed to have friends around the world. One of them, Laetitia, was a delightful woman from Lyon who’d done a semester abroad at Georgetown while I was there for my MBA. She and I hit it off as teammates on a project, and it was such a joy to see her in Paris. She took me to a restaurant that served Lyonnaise food, and I swear, it’s still one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. She told me about how great her life in Paris was: she was single, in her early 30s, had no intentions of settling down anytime soon, and loved her job. But, she admitted, if she could, she would leave it all behind, “And write poetry.”

I told her I’d been thinking about leaving my job to take up writing; not poetry, but a memoir and maybe fiction, which I’d loved since middle school.

“If you can do it, do it! I would do it,” she said.

I would say this planted a seed, but it actually watered a seed that had already started germinating and blooming into a tiny plant. I’d already been thinking about it, it seemed that every sermon I heard at church alluded to it, strangers I met would tell me unaided about risks they’d taken. It couldn’t be anymore clear that this was what I was being called to do.

I waited until mid-July to actually leave my job, mostly due to the practicalities of my 401k vesting schedule (I’m no fool—that would have left money on the table), and so began a three-month journey of waiting to be my next self, as it were.

I reflected on this on that Facebook memory, and two of my friends’ comments stood out to me most. One said, “Happy re-birth day!” And another said, “I can see the woman in you reaching back to grab that girl’s hand, as the two of you walked the streets of an unfamiliar world.” Both of which brought me to the brink of tears because of their truth.

I became a new person on that trip—that person is a closer version to the me you see today. I’m proud of her for choosing to honor 8-year-old her, the one who relied on books to show her worlds she preferred.

I’m so glad I listened to the nudges that brought me so many steps closer to the truth.

What is storytelling, anyway?

As a writer, storytelling is not something that I think about, largely because it is reflexive: I think of something I want to write about, then I write it down. Taking into consideration the narrative I’m going to tell doesn’t really cross my mind. That would be like thinking about breathing—it’s just something I do to sustain myself.

Turns out, not everyone is like this! (“Surprise, Vonetta, not everyone is a writer!” was how my brain said it to me.)

It also turns out that this is a really valuable skill in service industries. Which makes perfect sense, right? You have customers who aren’t coming to you for a thing, but for an experience, so you have to be able to talk about that experience in a way that’s enticing.

When I started my business working with folks who are starting their first private investment fund, I knew I would cover some topics like this, such as how they should talk about what they do in their presentations, for example. But I more so thought I would focus on other things, like how they should best build their business and go about hiring and retaining people. It turns out that that storytelling piece has meant more to my clients than anything else—whoddathunk?

My clients tend to be pretty analytical finance people, for whom numbers speak louder than words. But the people they are talking to tend to come from backgrounds closer to mine: liberal arts undergraduate degrees, probably some sort of analytical master’s degree, but a personality that focuses much more on the qualitative than the quantitative. So how do you get these sets of people to understand each other?

This has been a great opportunity for me to lean into my writing skills. Not so much my ability to put something on paper and make it sound coherent, but how to really immerse the reader in an experience.

Last week, during my monthly roundtable talk (where I bring industry people together to network and hear me blab about things I’m passionate about), I talked about forming a story. I gave the framework “P-A-R,” which stands for “problem, action, result,” and also gave another option, “S-S-N”: “See, what had happened was…, So I said…, Next thing I know…” Basically, these are simple containers to give context (the situation), reaction (what the protagonist chose to do in the face of that situation), and impact (the ultimate outcome of the protagonist’s actions on the situation).

And then I realized I’d actually very much simplified the concept of the narrative arc: Inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

I love it when my writing life and business life collide, and even more so when they do it without my noticing!

This exercise was handy for me as a writer, too. It helped solidify what I’m learning in the Short Story Program at the Writer’s Center (which is great, btw) and made me feel very powerful about this talent and skill that I have. I love knowing that being a writer makes me special in the world. Sometimes, that’s easy to forget since my writing community so large, but once I’m outside of it, I’m an anomaly. I like to think of it as being a single rock thrown into a lake, and its ripples roll out for miles: making an impact and being able to describe the experience.

On a roll with panels!

When it comes to panels, I’m on a roll, apparently! (I forgot to get a picture, sorry!)

On Saturday, I was featured on a panel for the DC chapter of the Ellevate Network, called “Write a Book: Get Started!” I was honored to have been asked to participate. I highly respect the women in Ellevate, a professional women’s networking group, and was even more thrilled to do it because it allowed me to talk about another aspect of my life, the one readers of this blog know best: my writing life.

I’ve been on an Ellevate panel before, last fall. We were talking about how to make the most of the current age, which seems to drag on and on. I was asked to give my take as an entrepreneur/solopreneur. I encouraged everyone—as I’ve been doing for months—to make the most of this time. Doing another Ellevate panel and the other talks I’ve been doing in my business community (see here, here, here, and here) have been my way of doing that. The virtual space allows for way more exposure than in-person events; why not make yourself known in the easiest way possible?

I covered literary writing and traditional publishing, while the other person, Dr. Joanna Massey, covered business book writing and vanity and self-publishing. It was great getting a sense from her of how her process differs from mine, and how writing her books helps to bring her business.

Doing this panel also helped to reset my expectations. I’ve been immersed in the writing world for almost five years now, and everything about it seems commonplace. But I have to remember that not everyone knows what I know. For example, folks were shocked to hear that, even if my book were accepted by a publisher tomorrow, you wouldn’t see it on shelves for 18 to 24 months. They were surprised to hear that you don’t need copyright “protection” before the book is published because you can’t copyright an idea. It was nice to be able to both educate and encourage people, though I did wonder, given the amount that we threw at them, if it was encouraging at all.

It was only an hour long, so we could cover only so much. One thing I wished I’d gotten to talk about more how important having a writing community is to the process of literary writing. I touched on it just a little bit, while we were discussing how one makes time to write while working full-time and maybe having family obligations. Writing with my friend Amy on Saturday mornings since the fall has really helped push my work along. In fact, in our session right before the panel, I made headway on a short story I’ve been percolating on, finding a new entryway into the protagonist’s motivation. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t taken the time to write with Amy. Having an accountability partner of any sort is really key when you have so much other stuff going on.

It was funny. I realized that writing and publishing are two things that I can talk nonstop about, or at least manage a really solid monologue for 20 minutes or so. I hope to bring that level of enthusiasm to my work, as I help my clients tell their story, and to my querying process, which as been kind of on hold at the moment, since I’ve got so much work going on. Clearly, I’ve got passion and I’ve got words. Now, all I want is a book to show for it. 😊

A new conference feature: Me

Two Saturdays ago, I attended Barrelhouse’s Conversations and Connections conference with two key differences.

The first was that this year’s was virtual, of course. Last year’s event was cancelled, as the DC session usually takes place in April or May, and last April or May, we were still bound to our homes. So, instead of trekking out to George Mason University on a warm Saturday morning, I fired up my laptop at my breakfast nook.

On the one hand, it was weird – the Barrelhouse conference is one of my favorites because it’s local, so almost every writer milling about is someone you know or are destined to run into again. This encourages lots of conversation (and connection, ha) and everyone is super-friendly. People were no less friendly this year, but it was hard to translate the chattiness to Zoom rooms, where we’re now conditioned not to talk over each other. On the other hand, it wasn’t so bad – I normally wind up eating a fairly mediocre Cosi bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, and this year, I was able to eat whatever was in my own kitchen. (I did, however, miss the Peruvian chicken place across the street from GMU, which writers tend to crowd because the food is so darn good.)

The other difference that was pretty key was that I was featured on The Editors Panel. Me. On the Editors Panel.

I flattered when the organizers asked me to do it, and I also kind of wondered if they were joking. I looked at who all else was on said panel and felt, for sure, they’d invited me by mistake. The others were T Kira Madden (EIC of No Tokens and author of one of my favorite memoirs, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls), Jennifer Baker (now Senior Editor at Amistad Books), Matthew Ortile (Managing Editor of Catapult and founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines), Marisa Siegel (EIC of The Rumpus). Basically, all these famous people…plus me. It reminded me of that episode of Family Guy when there was an art exhibit that would be traveling to London, Paris, Milan, and Quahog, Rhode Island, and I was Quahog, Rhode Island.

I joked about this while I was introducing myself, and they all said I was being ridiculous. “You’re one of us!” Jenn said.

Lord have mercy.

Impostor syndrome finds funny ways of sneaking up on us, even denying the legitimacy of a perfectly legitimate invitation. And by “us,” I mean “me.” I hope one day to grow out of it, to realize that I’ve worked hard for where I am, and even if I hadn’t worked hard for it, I’m still where I am and that I should honor that.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Barrelhouse conference! I hope it’s in person, so we can chat and hug and drink boxed wine in real life. And I hope I’m invited to be on the Editors Panel again. I’ll sit on the stage and I’ll smile and laugh, like I’m supposed to be there. Because I am.

Grieving for Narcissists

Well, January was a month.

What started with great intentions of turning over a new leaf quickly turned into the chaos of insurrection, impeachment, and an inauguration.

I tried not to let the first two get to me too much, even though that’s kind of hard to do, especially because I live in DC. There’s something about the air that changes when these sorts of things happen here. Even if you don’t work on the Hill—or have absolutely nothing to do with “Washington” the way my spouse and I do as private sector corporate workers—it all impacts you somehow or another.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that I was thrilled about the inauguration. It’s a DC holiday, so I spent the day in sweats and my bathrobe. I started the morning thinking I’d work a relatively normal number of hours, until around 11am, when I decided to turn on the TV. I’ve watched several inaugurations now and all I could say about this one was, “Man, this is boring…THAT IS SO GREAT!”

I was blown away by how disrespectfully beautiful Barack and Michelle looked, and how genuinely happy everyone seemed to be to see each other, even if they were wearing masks. Even though it was muted, it was still celebratory, not the weird funereal feeling there was back in 2017.

But later in the day, around maybe 2pm or so, I started to get a headache. I lay on the couch and continued watching, feeling so much relief at how normal and dull everything was. I commented on Twitter that it felt like I was releasing muscular knots I didn’t know were there. Later, I told my therapist, “I feel like I got a deep tissue massage – I feel great and terrible at the same time.”

I continued to feel headachy and off for about a week. And I knew exactly why.

I told my spouse, “I feel like my father died all over again.”

When you remove a narcissist from your life, it can be painful. There’s a measure of grief that happens. Not because you necessarily want that person back in your life—certainly not if they were very toxic. But the human brain and body gets used to what it knows, and it finds safety in it, even if it’s not actually safe.

I reckoned the way I felt to walking for miles on a treadmill, then attempting to walk on land—it just takes a moment to readjust to the new normal that’s the actual normal.

I’ve been readjusting to my new/actual normal, one where I actively choose to extricate myself from situations involving narcissistic people. This is obviously safer and healthier for me, but I’ve been surprised at the amount of grieving that’s come with it.

If I never saw 45’s face again, I’d be happy about it. It’s not that I want to pretend that he never happened, I just want to say, “Okay, that was a thing that happened and now it’s not happening anymore and I’m still here. Let’s move forward.”

I’ve been able to do more of that the past week or so. In addition to feeling physically thrown off, January kept me busy with lots and lots of work, between my client work and a couple of new internal initiatives for my business, not to mention my short story class starting up.

But it’s a new month, and I already feel better. More like I can put one foot in front of the other on perfectly solid ground.