I’ve just returned from the Rainforest Writers Village Retreat 2013. There are numerous blog posts after a writer’s retreat. If you want to hear about the general experience, check those out. This one is more personal.
At the retreat, panelists explained the difference between literary and commercial fiction—boiling it down to resonance and resolution. My week had a theme that stretched back to the first Rainforest I’d attended, last year.
Both years, I spent the week before Rainforest visiting my brother, his new baby, and his inoperable brain tumor. Surgery removed most, but not all, of the tumor. If they’d continued he would have lost language. They dominated my thoughts at Rainforest. I went for a walk and in a moment of unlikely coincidence, met another writer attending for the first time. We made friends on the path and walked back, agreeing that it’s easy to feel like an outsider. After Rainforest he thanked me in his blog for cheering him up. Only later did I find out his mother had a brain tumor. Can you imagine the conversation we could have had, if we had known? I’m glad we didn’t.
But I knew he shared my feelings of alienation. They should label the nametags of newbies at all writer’s conventions and retreats. Just attending is a huge act of bravery, and most of us aren’t the types to introduce ourselves around.
This year I knew the schedule and expectations, but still sensed people testing each other, trying to find where they ranked in the pantheon of writers. J.A. Pitts gave a lecture on the “Imposter Syndrome” which rang true for many people. It’s hard to see your own accomplishments because you know how you got there and aren’t sure you can add to your successes. I don’t think I’m insecure, until someone asks about my writing, which I’m proud of but don’t like discussing in real life (IRL). It’s a bit like first-time podcasters editing their own recordings. They’re shocked to hear their own voices, but eventually don’t notice it anymore. I’m still hearing the sound of my own voice when I talk about writing IRL, and no matter how relevant it is, it sounds inane to my ear. John Pitts argues that you need to take a stand and say what you have to say. James Van Pelt agreed, saying that writers need three things. The third of which is something worth saying.
I consciously started attending conventions and the retreat in order to step outside the insular bubble of indie authors I’d accumulated on the internet. It’s wonderful, and comfortable, but limiting. At this retreat something that should have been shop-talk, “What agents are you querying?” threw me. This isn’t the sort of thing my circle of indie authors discusses, for obvious reasons.
One person who was confident, and rightly so, was Robert J. Sawyer. Plainly successful in his career, he spoke about turning prose into scripts. Late one night, I saw him sitting on the couch with James Van Pelt on his right hand, neophytes sitting on the floor in a ring at his knee, making an imaginary director somewhere happy at the symbolic postures.
As it got later, we covered many interesting topics. If you want to realize how far you have to go, listen to insiders discuss the minutia of writer’s sartorial choices and who has a shtick to make them memorable. I didn’t know most of the people they referred to by first name.
I left thinking about all the advice given by the pros, and grateful for the new people I’d met. Next year, I’m resolved to seek out anyone new and introduce myself. Bob does a great job of that. Perhaps I can make someone’s time more comfortable. Because these annual events are starting to become milestones by which I measure my progress. And I can see the changes in other people’s lives, a year at a time.
My brother’s son is a year old and saying his first words. My brother’s tumor isn’t growing, according to MRIs. But I couldn’t help thinking of my friend from the last year. His mother died a few weeks before Rainforest and he had to give up his spot.
I hope he’ll be back next year.
My theme was progress. What will yours be?