There are many things that writers dream of. There is this whole writer-life that exists out on the horizons, as seen from the vantage point of a beginning writer. For many of us, these dreams begin when we are still children. That would be me. Dreams of publication and book tours, meeting the editor for the first time and residencies, conferences and travelling for research, readings and book launches and write-ins and writers groups and an MFA and… these are all dreams that I have had. Many of these dreams I have seen come true in the way that many authors experience it: gradually. There are more dreams to be realized. This past week, I was able to fall headlong into one more writerly dream.
In one year from now, I will be putting my homeschooling days behind me. At least, that’s the plan. For the past year, in the pandemic, I have been “warming up” for this coming change of seasons by increasing my writing. I plan to continue this for the next year, even though life should be returning to a somewhat normal pace and then blastoff in a year. This past winter, as part of that warm-up while I was submitting short stories and a new novel at a snail’s pace, I decided to apply to a residency (which I have done before) and for a fellowship at a conference. While the submissions process is mostly discouraging news (although we are celebrating the rejections and I’m going to aim for 100 rejections this year!) I was thrilled to get both the residency and a fellowship for the conference.
There was this whole confusion with the fellowship, too, but it turns out they liked the writing I submitted (reminded them of Anne Tyler) and also the essay I wrote about being a parent writer. The bummer was when I found out that the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Conference was not going to take place in Martha’s Vineyard due to the darn pandemic. Nope, it was going to be virtual. Erg. First conference, ever. First time at Martha’s Vineyard, ever. First time being a fellow, ever. Aaaand go figure out a way to be secluded for the week, just make sure you have WiFi. You can make friends from thousands of miles away, right? I put out a social media message asking friends and family if they happened to have a spare house or apartment that I could stay in for a week without interruption. My mother-in-law almost immediately responded by connecting me to my husband’s aunt and uncle and their condo in Delray Beach, Florida. Honestly, I had my doubts because it seemed too good to be true. As is often true in life, I needn’t have worried.
Day one: I loaded up my luggage, groceries for a week, and my trusty laptop, journal, and pens in my Forester and pointed myself south. I turned Sense and Sensibility on Audible and punched the address into Waze. I drove and drove and drove and stopped for gas twice and at two rest areas. I arrived at the condo—a place I had never been in a city I had never been in—at 9pm. It was expectedly hot and humid, my lumbago was killing me (that’s what I’m calling it now to be funny because if I can’t be funny I’ll cry instead), and I couldn’t actually figure out how to get in the building for several panic-stricken minutes. Figured it out, proceeded to unload the car one manageable load up the elevator at a time, and shut the front door behind me at 10pm. Boy, was it hot! Actually, why was I still so very hot? Aha. I made a rudely late-night call to my uncle to tell him that his A/C appeared to be broken. He apologized, had me try a thing or two, and said he would get it taken care of ASAP. In the morning, when A/C people could be routed out. I unloaded the cooler, double-checked the locks, pointed a fan at myself, and went to sleep with Sense and Sensibility—the movie—playing on my laptop because I didn’t have the energy to figure out a new remote control.
Day two: The A/C guys had been alerted and were on their way. I was hot (obviously), smelly, and looked like something the cat drug in, but I just stayed calm and collected until he arrived and fixed it enough that it turned on. The swoosh sounded like heaven. A/C is a huge drain on the environment but it is wonderful to behold. During this time, I also took the liberty of making myself the first of my favorite meals (Eggs Benedict) and settled myself in, spreading what I thought I would need for the conference on the thankfully large coffee table in the living room, facing the enormous windows looking out at palm trees and blue sky frizzled with intense sun. Once I was cool and presentable, I wandered out of the complex, orienting myself to the beach, the downtown, and the pool. Made myself two more meals and settled in for the Opening Ceremonies with my prescribed elderflower cocktail. (The elderflower is a tradition to welcome in the muse (or maybe the fairies).) As the sun set, I melted into the couch as best as my back would let me, that cocktail in my hand, the laptop lighting the room, a notebook already being filled with frantic notes, and I waved goodbye to the critic and the slacker so that my real writer self could come out and play, all week.
Day three through seven: A Zoom conference is a few things that a conference is not: it is lonely. It is really heavy on screen-time. The tech and the tech-driven connections can be overwhelming. Turns out, all that Zooming and Whova-ing made it possible for some of the attendees to be able to “attend,” at all. So I was trying to be all make-the-best-of-it, but I did miss the in-person experience, for sure. Especially when I spent anywhere from seven to ten hours per day on Zoom, and some more time trying to check for meet-ups and messages and group things. Since I was there as a parent-writer fellow, I fell in with the parent-writer group and tried to let other things go (except very late in the week I discovered the early risers. If you know me, this is laughable, but it was a way for me to actually get in some writing). The parent-writers became my clique, my table in the cafeteria. (We actually had some Zoom lunches together.) Believe it or not, my normal life did not completely cease and so after the occasional errand or whatnot, I had between one and one-and-a-half hours a day to do some sort of vacation-y activity. I sat in the cabana at the beach (usually reading or writing), went for walks, visited a wildlife preserve where the sheer number, cacophony, and stench of the cranes made me shake in my tennies, swam alone in the blue pool, played with my camera on the streets of Delray, and even took a dip in an ocean pulsing with sargassum. As for the conference itself, the days went like this: 10am class one, break (which was sometimes a lunch meet-up), class two, break (in which dinner must be thought of or picked up/taken out), readings, short break (which was often another meeting), and finally lounges (which was really just more readings and an occasional “writing jam”). By this time, it was 10:00pm. Gathered my wits about me. Set down the journal and pen and closed the laptop. Did the dishes. Slid into PJs. Slept propped marionette-like on a sea of intentional pillows.
Day eight: Sure, the conference had ended for most attendees, though there were still connections to made on Whova. But I was now looking windswept and pallid, staring down a temporarily-bachelorette living room strewn with wine glasses, hair ties, deserted books, a pile of bright, dirty sundresses, and a settled tornado of papers. Mostly, this tornado was as virtual as the conference itself, trapped on the jaundiced screen of my laptop. There was a literal storm brewing for the afternoon, so I made myself put on a bathing suit and enjoy an entire morning laying on a lounge under an umbrella, people-watching, reading about writing from Ray Bradbury (who just loves it), stretching my sandy toes into the sun, feeling the warm breeze on my face, tripping into the waves behind old women in shower caps doing the backstroke, and sinking down into the froth hoping the gators and sharks would see the old ladies first. In the afternoon, I cleaned up after myself, packed, but mostly spent time with all the notes and files I had acquired over five days of intense instruction and workshopping. I actually didn’t even finish, but I began to make notes on my notes, to-do lists, to-buy lists even, organizing bits and pieces of existing and new ideas, stories, and even poems. I’ll have months of things to do, just from this one week of infilling.
Day nine: Drove home with breakfast burrito and bahn mi and cherries, listened to Emma and The Great Gatsby, collapsed on the floor from back pain while my children graciously unloaded my car, took muscle relaxer, watched In the Heights with my daughter while my body went all leaden, fell asleep.
What I brought home: new connections, many of them; twenty-some-odd pages of notes on everything from running your characters through hypotheticals to good novel-ing software; a list of twenty-two books to read, three residencies to apply for, six apps and software to buy, groups to join; notes added into three existing novels; two new novel ideas; three new creative essay ideas plus another already rough-drafted; two new short stories begun; something like five poems; lots of new tools; tons of advice; fresh momentum; an organized project list; hope and community.
This is where I wrap it all up and put a bow on it. Was it worth it? What did I get from it? Would I do it again? Would I recommend this particular conference? My mind still feels like its spinning. I also know that my experience was very specific to this year with the whole pandemic-virtual thing. I was nowhere near Martha’s Vineyard or the experience writers have been having at the Institute of Creative Writing for years. And yet. And yet it was worth it, I would do it again, and I would recommend this particular conference without having experience of any others. I just told you a bunch of things I took away from it, and I am under the impression that this conference is special because it is intentionally non-competitive. There was almost no criticism, just encouragement and making space for all types (in our case, snapping and waving hands in our little Zoom-squares and typing “Nice!” and “Amazing!” into the chat as shaky-voiced writers glinted their eyeglasses and read “new” or “old” or “uncomfortable” fragments of pieces). I kinda think repeating this conference would give me some repeat advice, but I also think I could sink deeper into the writing part of it, for all that. Being in an encouraging community of like-experienced people, taking classes on things that matter to you and interest you, networking (oh! that word!)… I would actually love to go back when the conference is back to its non-virtual self, partly because I went this one, weird time. But we’ll see. We’ll see who loves my writing and puts gold stars on my applications by this time next year. By then, I’ll be done homeschooling and so much will be never-again-the-same.