Friday, October 9, 2015

The Writing Barn in Austin, TX: Takeaways from my workshop experience

I always wanted to attend an event at The Writing Barn in Austin, because 
a) Austin, 'nuff said, and 
b) I’d heard about its awesomeness through word-of-mouth in my writing groups. 

In theory, attending seemed like a great idea. It's only a 2.5 hour drive away. But I have two kids, and my hubs travels constantly for work, so it became one of those Maybe Someday scenarios.

Last December, I reached a good place in my writing journey. After riding the Pitch Wars high, I was suddenly fielding agent offers, rather than rejections. I’d practically changed my name to Smug. Things were finally happening, so I was just gonna sit back and enjoy it and read for fun again. All smooth sailing from here, folks! Ha.

I picked up a copy of My True Love Gave To Me, an anthology of holiday-themed YA short stories, at the recommendation of my go-to-girl for books and music. Once again, she was right. The book was adorable. I skimmed the stories until I got to “Angels In The Snow.” That one made me sit up and pay attention.

You need this book in your life.

This character, Shy, was alive on the page. He was different from the YA characters I normally read, because he reminded me of the boys I grew up with. He made me laugh and cry in the space of about ten pages. He was such a relatable character, with insecurities that made me want to crawl into the pages and hug him. I think that’s the first time a short story ever extracted such a visceral reaction from me—because, well, short stories are short. There isn't a lot of room for character development. But this one? I was blown away by the charm.

I flipped back to see who the author was. Matt de la Peña.  I typed his name into Amazon and discovered he’d written a handful of critically acclaimed, award-winning books. How had I not heard of this guy? I downloaded the first novel in the search list, a book titled We Were Here, and started reading it right away. That’s when my holy-shit-o-meter really cranked to tilt.

My God, that book wrecked me. Like, full-on-demolition-derby-in-my-heart wrecked me. Beyond the raw and real characters, there was this powerful social commentary threaded into the tapestry of the story. These kids on the page demonstrated something I’ve known (and lived) myself: kids without means have just as much to say and contribute as the kids who have it made. They want and deserve to be present, too. I told everyone who would listen to read that book. (And then I agonized for weeks over the fact that my own characters were missing the it factor these characters had. How the hell did he make it look so easy to write like that?)

Fast forward to February. The Writing Barn posted an event for October 2015. When I read it on my Facebook feed, I spilled coffee down my shirt. There would be an Advanced Writer Workshop in October, focusing on narrative depth and characterization, with Matt de la Peña as one of the teachers.


I had to try to go, if for no other reason than to hang out in this guy’s shadow and learn how he developed his craft. I applied with a rough work-in-progress, not expecting much. But then I got an acceptance email a short time later. 

Cue the freakout.

Jeremy took the days off work, so that I'd be able to go. (Best, most supportive hubby ever.) I called Kes—my mentor and friend—and asked her to meet me in Austin in October. Though I felt like I’d known her for years after our Pitch Wars experience, I’d never actually hugged her in person. This would be my chance to do that.

Between February and October, though, I barely managed to add 5,000 new words to my WIP. I learned how slow the industry moved, and I had a few stall-outs after months and months between revisions on my previous manuscript. My former smugness evaporated when I hit the wall. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I had a literary agency contract. Validation! Why was nothing happening? Why had I suddenly forgotten how to write?

As excited as I was about the upcoming workshop, I started getting really nervous that I was in over my head. How was I supposed to show up and do this thing when I couldn’t even write a paragraph without wanting to set my laptop ablaze? I made excuses for my lack of discipline and pretended I was okay with it. 

I don’t think it fully hit me that “Advanced Writer” meant actual advanced writers until I got to The Writing Barn on the first day. Realizing you are the least educated person in the room is like realizing you wore a tutu to a toga party, mmmkay? As the wave of introductions circled the room, words like published and grad school and MFA echoed in my head like a gong truck crashing into a ravine.

So me, my technical college education (in an unrelated field), and my rookie tutu tried to blend into the scenery and not talk. Which was impossible, because I got called out for it almost immediately. Amanda Jenkins (Printz Honor Award recipient) was the other faculty member, and she had no problem forcing me into the conversation. She's fierce! It’s moments like that when I wish I’d taken that public speaking class a little more seriously.

As I bumbled around the podium that first night, muttering some nonsense about my dog, and how I suck at math (who knows what the fuck I even said!), it occurred to me what my problem had been. I was a fraud. When getting an agent didn’t turn me into someone who could write without even trying, I figured that meant I was just a blind monkey who tripped and fell into a pile of bananas. Total dumb luck. I started believing I didn’t really belong in the writing community.

Imagine my surprise when these BFDs at The Writing Barn scooped me into the fold and convinced me that I do belong. And some of them, I discovered, had the same fears as me.

Attendees, faculty, & interns with our lovely host, Bethany and precious little Taru.

The weekend was full of inspiring lectures, narrative-sharpening exercises, and a true sense of community. The workshop portion terrified me, because I didn’t know until a few weeks beforehand that everyone would be reading and critiquing what I’d submitted. (rookie) But it actually turned out to be the most enlightening part of the whole thing. I got to bounce ideas around with these talented people, about their work and mine. They were more down to earth than I ever would’ve guessed. That didn’t stop my internal monologue from getting stuck on just be cool, just be cool the whole time, though.

There was this moment on Friday night, though--I was sitting on the screened porch at the barn with Carrie and Claire, listening to the cicadas. We were tipsy and talking about shamanism (you'd have to be there to understand why this is not weird at all), and I was like whoa. I'm one of the cool kids right now. A wine shaman, if you will.

Here are my top three take-aways from my weekend at The Writing Barn:

1.     Believe you can, and then do it.  I wish I could tell you I learned that validation doesn’t matter. That getting an agent, or receiving positive peer notes, or having one of your heroes compliment your work doesn’t affect who you are as a writer. But that would be a big fat lie, because I may or may not have laminated my notes from Matt and Amanda. We’re all just putting our insides on paper, so of course we want people to love it and validate us. The caveat to that is this: the validation doesn’t do the work. You still have to do that part yourself. Constructive feedback definitely helps. Go to a workshop, people. The experience re-lit my fire.

2.     Be disciplined. Matt talked in his lecture about “clocking-in” and writing every day. That’s something I absolutely have not been doing until this week. When I got back from Austin, I resolved to treat writing like a real job. Every day this week, I sat down and worked from the time I got back from taking the kids to school, to the time I had to leave to pick them up again.  Then at night, I put them to bed, and I stayed up to write. Yes, the laundry is suffering. But screw it. The closets aren't empty yet. And that discipline resulted in the most prolific week of my entire writing life. I wrote 21,469 words between Sunday, October 4th and today, October 9th. That’s more than four times what I’ve written since February. My manuscript is over 50k words now.

3.     Have patience with your characters. This one is the hardest for me, because patience is an enormous pain in the ass. Last time I prayed for patience, I found out I was pregnant with Jax, my youngest child--the wild one. God’s got jokes, y’all. Anyway, one of the recurring notes in my feedback was that I get in the way of my characters. I get impatient and start talking to the reader as “the writer,” instead of letting my characters tell the story they want to tell. Total a-ha moment, because now I notice every time I start doing it. Apparently I also thought it was necessary to foreshadow everything. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) 

You're singing Guns N Roses now, aren't you?
I learned so much during those four days, and I made a lot of great new friends. Best of all, my muse woke from a long hibernation.

If you have the opportunity to go to a workshop at The Writing Barn and/or hear Matt de la Peña or Amanda Jenkins lecture/speak, trust me when I say this: DO IT. I feel really fortunate that I got to meet and work with them.

Did I walk away with some Holy Grail secret recipe to creating characters that resonate the way Shy and Miguel and Danny so effortlessly do? No. But at least now I’m actively working on it. :)

Here are a few pictures from the weekend: 

I arrived to chocolates on my pillow at The Book House. <3

I got my hug. <3 Love this girl. Best roomie ever.
These sweet babies live at The Writing Barn & greeted all of us every morning.
I bought a hard copy & got it signed. 
Did not go all fangirl like that time I met Johnny Damon, thank God. 
I wanted to, though.