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.