Yale Writers’ Workshop Recap

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:

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My session 1 instructor Lisa Page reading from the anthology she edited, “We Wear the Mask.”

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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.

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Summer Writing Workshops: Sleepaway Camp for Adults

In all my years, I have never been to camp. I always wanted to go so badly, though! Who wouldn’t, after watching Salute Your Shorts or The Parent Trap (1998) or Bug Juice???

As an adult, I’ve chosen to make up for those camp-less years by going to summer writing workshops and residencies because they’re just like camp! Sorta… I mean, you wear t-shirts and shorts, and there’s usually some weird songs and dances, and you make lifelong friends doing the thing you all love to do—writing.

If there’s one thing I learned from all these camp shows, it’s that community (and true love) is found in these solitary places where you’re separated from your family and “real” friends. For me, the goals of summer writing workshops are (a) to become a better writer through the lectures and exercises given by great instructors and (b) meet writers with whom I can continue to exchange work. As I said in one of my applications, writing is a solitary activity that requires a village, both editors and readers. Summer workshops allow you to do all of those things while removing you from your comfort zone and letting you get a bit silly. (I missed the boat on the true love thing at camp, though, but I’m good to go in that area, anyhow.)

Last year, I went to VONA/Voices in Philadelphia and had an AMAZING time, and then I went to the VQR Writers Conference (picture of some of us above!) in Charlottesville and also had a life-changing experience. I chose those conferences for their prestige, but mostly for their locations—it’s pretty easy to get to Philly and Charlottesville from DC.

This year, I approached my conference applications a little differently. Essentially, I thought, I will go big or go home, even if it meant traveling pretty far.

Sooooo [DRUMROLL, PLEASE], this year, I’m pleased to announce that I will be going to three conferences: the Yale Writers’ Workshop, the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference!

I thought I had a good chance of getting into Yale, but Squaw Valley and Bread Loaf were total “let’s get the first rejection out of the way, just like Tin House.” (And yes, I was rejected from Tin House. But that’s okay!) If I had to rank summer writing workshops, I’d put Sewanee at the top, then Bread Loaf, then Tin House, then Squaw Valley—and I’m going to number 2 and 4! I was and am so honored that I was selected, I hardly know what to do with myself!

Yale starts next week, so I’m excited to head up to New Haven to work with Lisa Page and Julie Buntin on fiction and novel writing. I’ll also be focusing on fiction at Squaw Valley (hopefully with Dana Johnson), then switching up to nonfiction (hopefully with Emily Raboteau) for Bread Loaf.

I’m so thrilled to get this summer started! It will be a lot of travel and time spent away from my spouse, but camp is an investment in your social skills, leadership skills, and talents, so the world is better off for it. Can’t wait!

 

 

It’s just come pourin’ out of me

It seems that the key to killing writer’s block is to say that you have writer’s block.

When I wrote about the blockage I was experiencing back in January, I was in a really tough place. I’d sent my book out to a few readers and was waiting for their feedback, but was struggling to produce while I waited. Normally during periods of writer’s block, I read. Something about reading loosens up the mind a bit. It’s almost like physical therapy: it strengthens you without exhausting you, to heal whatever it is ailing you.

Then I started an online fiction writing class at the end of January, and it ended right before AWP at the beginning of March. Maybe it was reading my classmates’ work, or focusing more on making up stories rather than telling true ones, but I’ve been on a bit of a tear since I got back from AWP/vacation.

Since then, I’ve written four long-form essays (those that are at least 2,000 words; one topped out around 5,000), and revised two short stories, one of which I’ve started submitting to literary magazines. I’ve published two of the short pieces that I’d been toying around with forever, one on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and one on Blavity.

All that to say, March wound up being pretty darn productive, and April seems to be following suit, so yay! I’ve got to get all of this generating done before my brain decides to turn off the faucet.

I was accepted to the Yale Writers Workshop for this summer (yay!), and I will be doing fiction this year. I am incredibly excited about this for so many reasons, the primary being that I finally feel validated in fiction, the very thing I started writing all those years ago. It also means that I actually have to start writing the novel that’s been rattling around my brain for almost 4 years; I cheated by writing out the parts I knew best in a short story (what I’ve been submitting), but it’s time to write the first 10 pages of the book, which one of my Yale workshops will focus on.

All that being said, it has been a great month or so of plowing through new material. I wish I liked revising more, so I’d be more excited about all of the re-shaping I have to do, but I’m going to try not to think about that right now and just continue pouring out whatever comes in.

Yet Another Dry Spell

Coming off the holidays is hard for lots of people, but seemed to be a bit harder for me this year. I haven’t written any new material since September, but at least I had my book to toil with. But with it out with my readers, I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for the past month.

I went through a similar stage around this time last year, but I thought it had more to do with the fact that I’d moved from New York back to DC. Moving is the worst, and it takes a lot of me. Sure, I moved again four months ago, but I figured I’d be cured of the subsequent writer’s block by now.

I’m never entirely sure where writer’s block comes from for me. Sometimes it actually is fatigue: going hardcore on the book to get it to my readers sort of wiped me out (think of re-living the first 30 years of your life in a few days. Yeah.). Other times, it’s been boredom (exclusively writing about myself for so long is actually kinda dull because my life is not *that* interesting). Other times, it’s fear, or at least a questioning of why I’m doing this.

I think this bout of writer’s block has been a combination of those three, especially the last one, and especially because I’m looking for a job now. So, I reminded myself of my MO: I have nothing to be afraid of. Especially not writing because it’s not like writing can hurt me. I can delete what I don’t want, in fact.

So, I started a new piece, an essay that’s been blowing around my brain in some form for over six months, exploring giving and why I can’t seem to do it all that well, even when I want to. It’s a start and I’m happy about that. I want to finish some pieces I’ve been dragging my feet on, but I also want to start this year properly, by moving *forward.*

My Book Is With Readers (*Faints*)

That’s right, folks.

My memoir is sitting with three people right now, being read and commented on.

I am so nervous, I don’t really know what to do. I know all three of them, and I chose them specifically because I trust their judgment, but it’s still incredibly nerve-wracking to think about someone reading the whole thing of something you’ve poured yourself into for such a long time. They’re basically reading me, in book form. And they will suggest improvements and ask questions about me, in book form. ACK!

I needed readers because I feel a little blind to my own story. I’ve concentrated on the first few chapters in the workshops I’ve done in the past year and a half and no one has read beyond that. I would continue doing workshops, but if it’s taken a year and a half to get through chapter 8…of 28…you see where this is going.

This won’t be the only time I’ll have readers review my manuscript. I’ll take their notes and implement edits, then likely go with another round of folks’ eyes.

I want to be done with my memoir, but I have to remind myself not to rush this process. Great art takes time–and a village–to make. That’s frustrating as hell when the artist really wants to go back to writing fiction and leave this whole messy business of reliving traumatic childhood memories behind, but it’s all a part of the process.

Here’s to my current readers and future ones!

Who do writers of color write for?

I’m currently in a couple of online writing classes as part of my near-constant efforts to become a better writer.

For one of the classes, I submitted a few chapters of my memoir, parts where I talk about the churches my family went to and how life started to change when my half-siblings started coming to live with us. I very carefully went through these chapters to make sure that there was a good balance of child-voice narration and adult reflection, a comment I’ve gotten before. I also tried to make sure that my theme—seeking belonging and stability in a home that was constantly changing—was coming in clearly.

The class gave me positive feedback, mostly. But I couldn’t help noticing that someone made comments about things that I hadn’t written: my mother’s skin tone is dark (false), my father was unemployed (false), that my family was sticking together during dysfunctional times (false), that my brother was kicked out of the house (false).

I wondered if the person had actually read my piece at all, since nothing of the such is said anywhere in the chapters. It is clear that they didn’t do all that close of a read, and maybe allowed the stereotype of the “typical” Black family to fill in the blanks.

I’m aware that this happens in MFA programs and writing workshops the world over. That’s why organizations such as VONA and Cave Canem exist. That’s why Junot Diaz wrote this piece that tore (and still kinda tears) the writing world apart, exposing this stuff that happens way too often.

It is not fair at all to writers of color who work so hard to create damn good art when our art is cast aside or, worse, assumed to be someone else’s experience.

I’ve had to think about the idea of “writing for the audience,” in the sense of asking myself, “Who is my audience?” Is my audience people who know what a Wave Nuveau is? Is it people who know that playing drums at church is not a paying job, but a volunteer position? Is it people who don’t assume there was a question of paternity because I was born with my mother’s last name?

Yes.

I so desperately have wanted to be inclusive with my writing, but I realize that word “inclusive” is inflammatory, and it doesn’t actually apply to me.

So, my audience is those who know what a Wave Nuveau is and those who will pick up their iPhones and Google it, for the love of God. Being bothered to learn something from me is the ultimate sign of respect.

That one time I thought about an MFA

If you know me well, the title of this post elicited a gasp and a subsequent jaw drop.

I have an MBA from Georgetown University and daily I consider going back into the business world full-time. Why on earth would I think about getting an MFA?

Basically, I need the feedback on my writing.

I’m still on the third round of edits of my memoir, and I’ve gotten to that place where I need more feedback than “Great dialogue!” and some clarification questions. I have a decent handle on the craft elements of creative writing, but I don’t feel that I have quite enough for how good I want to make my book.

If I wanted to self-publish, I probably wouldn’t think about it. If I wanted to write this in more of a self-help fashion about how to forgive and forget a delinquent parent, then I probably wouldn’t think about it.

But I want to write a damn good literary memoir and I need more support.

Hence, the thoughts of an MFA.

Now, I wouldn’t do it full-time because I don’t think I can handle another immersive academic experience as an adult. My MBA was rough sailing, not just because of quantitative classes and fellow type-A classmates, but because I was in a bubble again, sort of like college, but I had actual adult responsibilities, too, such as paying my rent and ensuring that I was going to land a job at the end of all of that madness. I’m also not interested in teaching, which some MFA programs let you do in lieu of paying tuition.

So, I’ve considered low-residency MFA programs. Usually in low-res programs, the students and faculty meet for a week or two a few times a year, and the rest of the learning is done online or, more likely, you’re working on your project at your own pace. My understanding is that low-res programs tend to be cheaper, and you still get the community of writers who are going to give what I call masters-level feedback on your work. So, that’s what attracted me: folks who are passionate about their projects and want to put more juice into them than the workshops one typically signs up for.

So, will I do it?

Probably not.

I’m still itching to get back to work, and my spouse and I might try to start a family next year, so there’s a lot of balls in the air. Introducing another ball would likely send the whole deal crashing down.

For now, I’m going to stick with my current online classes, give them my all, and take in all the feedback I can get. I’ll also be more focused on beefing up my community of writers here in DC. I should also reach out to the other amazing writers I’ve met through my previous classes (I don’t know why I haven’t done that yet!) I want this book finished strong, darn it!

New website!

Hello all! Pardon the short post today, since I’m just back from vacation, but I wanted to officially launch my new website! It’s very creatively addressed www.vonettayoung.com.

Many thanks to Michele Filgate, who encouraged her students to get a website and for giving me the idea for the layout. And thanks to Squarespace for making the page so easy to create.

Happy Tuesday!

Empathy is the worst

This has been a tough memoir week. I’ve been editing my book head-on and full-time for about two weeks, ignoring all other essays and works-in-progress that I’ve got going on. It’s October, and I want to be done with the third draft in a really short order, so I’ve plowing along like crazy.

Last week was really tough because I’d gotten back to the meat of the crazy of my story: all of my siblings living in the same house, my dad being really possessive, and feeling like my home was actually divided between two teams. It was hard to write out the memories a year ago, but this time, I’m reflecting on them, which is a lot worse.

Reflection means that I’ve had to look a certain circumstances—such as my father throwing my sister across the room—and analyze what I think was going on there—he wanted her to follow his rules because maybe he felt she was being ungrateful, or at least not as grateful as she should have been.

Reflection feels sort of like justifying crazy behavior, like what I just did in the previous paragraph. But it’s not condoning what happened, just trying to understand what the “what the hell” about it.

In this exercise, I’ve empathized with my half-sisters and their mother, who, as best I know, despise the fact that I exist. All of my life I wondered why they felt this way, and then I reflected on their character and was amazed at how it felt to put myself in their shoes (kinda like what I did here). It was exhausting, almost as if I was feeling too much at one time. But it made my sisters and their mother human to me, not just people who hate me.

I’ve made some semblance of sense of my mother, thinking about her upbringing and the responsibility she bore for her siblings, and what might have attracted her to my father. I’ve thought about my father and the catalysts of his insecurities, the things that drove him into the pulpit seeking the admiration of others. I’ve thought about how my brother was my only ally in my house growing up and that his moving away when I was 9 actually kinda hurt, but how he served as a bridge between me and the “other team” in our dad’s last days.

I don’t know if I’m right about any of these things, but it definitely feels better to try to understand rather than just feel like a victim to whom all of these things and people just happened to. It’s a way of playing a role in own my narrative because, as a child, there wasn’t anything I could do. Reflection has given me the agency that I didn’t have as an eight-year-old. And that is both empowering and, quite frankly, exhausting.

That being said, I’m off on vacation to the West Coast with my spouse for a couple of weeks, so you’ll likely get no post from me next week. Have a lovely fortnight!

All the Feels

Lately, my goal for my writing—especially my essay writing—is to achieve a high level of emotional resonance.

Emotions not focused on happiness/joy are tough for me sometimes. My default setting is to avoid them because that’s just how I was raised: don’t focus on the negative of the situation you’re in; survival requires focusing on the positive.

But being able to dive into dark places and then articulate those feelings are precisely what I should be able to do if I want to be a good memoir writer.

I read with envy pieces by Ashley C. Ford (especially this one), or this piece by T. Kira Madden. I thank God that nothing that traumatic has happened to me and that these women are survivors, but the point I’m making is that these women are just that good at their craft that they make me *feel* what they felt, even if it was just a sliver of their emotion.

This involves going into to really scary places in one’s mind and talking about really scary things.

For me, one of those scary places was my career. When I was treated poorly in my last job, I internalized some of those things and felt like a huge failure all the time, while I was in the job and after I left and started writing. Doing creative nonfiction classes at Sackett Street and Catapult with the same instructor, Michele Filgate, helped me break out of this a little. Michele told us to go where we were scared because that’s where the story is. (One of her own hard stories was recently published by Longreads, please read it!)

So, I wrote about some of the microaggressions I experienced in my job, how my bosses tried to make me feel like I was crazy when they were the ones doing the abusing. I didn’t know how to convey how I felt except to just be honest.

It took months and multiple workshops, but I finished the piece. It was published last week by Levo League, a career website targeting Millennial women.

I was blown away by the responses I got from my essay. Woman after woman commented on the post or sent me messages saying that they had been through similar situations. One even said she was wondering if she was crazy, questioning whether she was in an abusive environment or not, but my essay helped her confirm that she was.

With over 2,000 views, I am so overwhelmed and blessed that so many people have read my work and that it resonated with them.

This should be a lesson to me to keep going where it’s scary: the places where people need light and know that they are not alone.

Expressing my feelings doesn’t come easily to me, but I can see how it helps. It’s helped other people, and it has helped me regain my confidence in myself. I’m still finding my voice, still getting comfortable with the idea of going into these places where I don’t want to go because they don’t feel good. My craft needs for me to, and the good Lord is calling me to, to help people know that they are not alone.