The Path to Inspiration: A Week at Djerassi

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Stay the course.

Inspire. Spark. Motivate. Encourage.

The path to inspiration — especially when it runs parallel to getting published — can seem a lot like the one above: fog laden and uneven. Inspiration is an elusive beauty at times, and then at others, everywhere but overwhelming, and finding balance can be difficult. I spent last week at the Djerassi Program for a Writers Workshop and Retreat with Nova Ren Suma where inspiration appeared in all her forms.

I arrived to San Francisco on a cool, but muggy, afternoon. The ride from the airport was enlivened by an accidental detour into a state park off HWY 280, and made extra-special because my CP Susan Crispell was in the car enjoying it with me.

Our driver, Celia, had promised the first trip into the Djerassi Program was “an experience”, and she was right. Due partly to the winding mountain road, and partly to the unshakable sensation that we were leaving normal behind and entering somewhere entirely other, we approached in hushed but blissful wonder.

View from the Barn, where I was staying.

View from the Barn, where I was staying.

Where my own search for inspiration was concerned — and I’m not even certain in what form I expected it — Djerassi and the other writers were equal sources. The setting was blessed with rolling hills, creeping fog, and stunning peeks of the Pacific Ocean. The writers were blessed with talent and kindness.

The first morning we shared our opening pages, discussing hooky first lines, what information is critical and what can really be left out, cut, or pushed back. We set the workshop schedule, and even though I wanted to cry at the thought, I also signed up to do a reading from my completed YA fantasy.

Climbing. (Courtesy Nova Ren Suma)

Climbing. (Courtesy Nova Ren Suma)

I tried to focus on the moment because I knew the moment would soon pass.

And it did, all too quickly. Before I knew it, my critique arrived, accompanied by a clear morning and shimmering blue ocean on the horizon. The response to my work-in-progress was overwhelmingly positive, and while there were suggestions of things to improve, to clarify, to expand, the resounding sentiment was they loved it.

Let me say, that can be just as hard to hear as criticism. It can be just as difficult to accept as being told you’re doing it all wrong. (By the way, I am pretty sure I am always doing it wrong, but I firmly believe it is how I must also do it if I’m to do it at all.) I left the critique in a jumble of emotion.

It took a few hours for those emotions to clear, but with clarity, came this: the story was working. The world building was making sense. The characters were (mostly) connecting. And even though I still had questions, it was worth pursuing. In my private conference with Nova, I talked through the ending of my WiP and she encouraged me to keep going in the direction I was headed. (“No, it does not sound crazy,” she said kindly. ) She also gave me pointers on how to strengthen the narrative where it was weakest.

That evening, I read aloud from my completed YA fantasy Redhunt. Reading aloud from a novel you have written is one of the most emotionally draining experiences you can have as a writer. (Yes, even more than querying, because you feel it all at once and in front of everyone.) It’s also a huge part of selling a published novel and something every author will have to face at some point. It’s hard, but it’s vital. I am glad I did it, even if I still feel exposed when I think about it.

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The focus of the retreat was writing — ours, each others, our favorite books, etc. — but it wasn’t all spent sitting at a keyboard or holding a pen. Writing is done by exploring. By talking it out, or talking through someone else’s, or staring at the ceiling for long stretches of time. A writers retreat is built on writers connecting with other writers, it is made by people giving each other time, or talking about books, or Doctor Who, or failed concepts or shelved novels. It is measured by more than word count (and I’m not just saying that because I got less done than I’d hoped to).

It is just more.

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Nova arranged for Margot Knight, the Djerassi Executive Director, to take our group on a sculpture tour of the property. Djerassi is more than a place to write — or paint, dance, compose, and generally create— it is a place unique and ever-changing, a work of art itself. A place worth getting to and exploring if you have the opportunity.

It is a place, and a time, I will never forget. Coming home with new friends and allies for the writing journey, with renewed faith, or confirmed suspicions, with new words and plans, was the very inspiration I needed.

First Time: A Writers Retreat

If you follow my blog, you may remember me mentioning over the past few months that I was doing a workshop and retreat through the Djerassi program in Northern California, taught by the incomparable Nova Ren Suma.

Those of you who don’t know me from daily life, will not know that this is the first trip I will take on my own. Ever. I am twenty-nine-years-old and until now I have only ever traveled in the company of someone else.

How is that possible?

I met my husband when I was eighteen. We were young and poor when we married. I was twenty-one, barely able to drink legally, when I began working full-time as a receptionist while my husband attended school on a full scholarship. We traveled with family for weddings. We took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Life allowed us to experience many things together all over the country.

Fast forward five years, my husband applies for a job in New York city and for the first time in his life he’s traveling alone to interview for a tech start-up. He got that job, and together we moved to Brooklyn. As a girl from a groovy, smallish college town in Texas, moving to Brooklyn, NY was like being a house cat released into the jungle.

But still, in all my travels, I was always accompanied by someone.

This morning I sat alone in an airport full of people, tapping at keys, and I realized this trip signifies more to me than it may seem on the surface. The first trip I take on my own is one done to hone my craft. I am a writer, even if I’m not an author yet, and this is me raising my hand to say yes, I’ll go. I become. I do.

The thrill of being in Northern California, the excitement of meeting my critique partner Susan in person (and fangirl flailing in the flesh), the opportunity to talk with fellow writers about the process, to revise, write, and even finish our work-in-progress’s, and to do all of this with Nova — who is a huge inspiration to me and someone I look up to and admire — is made that much sweeter by my aloneness. There is no one holding my hand or walking me to the gate or chatting with me on the plane. It is just me, typing words 32,000 feet in the air, in a tiny seat by a foggy window.

I am never really alone, though. None of us are. Everything we do, no matter how grand or mundane, is only accomplished by the love and support of many. Many saying yes. Many taking up the slack. Many granting us grace, or a chance, or a shoulder.

When I got through security at DFW airport, I texted my husband this:

I made it through security. Alone. I am a real life grown up person now. 

I also texted my parents and Uncle because there is a part of me that will never grow up. Those three people support the woman I am even if they still remember the little girl I once was. A girl scared of skeletons and obsessed with Pollyanna, jumping from windowsills  while she reenacted the fateful scene that left her heroine paralyzed. The little girl dreaming larger than life dreams — dreams far too grand for the wispy sprite she was.

I am still that little girl who thinks she can do anything, but still want to be told that’s OK.

I’ll be posting on Twitter and on this blog when I can, sharing my adventures this week and imparting some of the knowledge I gain.

Irving Library Beneath the Surface Author Panel and site of utter fangirl overload

Nova and Me

It is hard to know where to begin this post because I am still mulling over my magical evening.

Last night, we assembled (we being a bunch of readers from North Texas) to soak in the glorious genius of: Nova Ren Suma —lovelier than I even thought possible and so filled with knowledge and incredible stories, Tessa Gratton — hilarious and witty and I’m glad she is not a politician, Ransom Riggs — very tall and not terrifying like his book but undeniably interesting, Tahereh Mafi — stunning and engaged to Ransom Riggs but is an elegantly normal sized wordsmith, Rae Carson — blows me away with her awesome and is a reformed beauty queen who loves Star Wars and the intersection between literary and commercial fiction so…good taste, and Aimee Carter — accessible and honest and dry, which are some of my favorite things. The panel was wonderfully moderated by local author, Jenny Martin, whose book Tracked debuts next year.

The Irving Public Library is sprawling book-haven. I’m accustomed to libraries being a normal size and I always find my way to the end of them before I’m ready. Irving impresses. The event featured tons of freely given swag, a tower of cupcakes and a candy bar. My phone was nearly dead because I used the voice prompts in google  maps to get to Irving, and earlier in the day I was compulsively checking email because…well, I do that…so I took almost no pics.

You can take my word for it, and also, Twitter has pics. I wanted to buy all the books, but alas money and responsibility prohibited. I did get a handful for signing, which was giving me social anxiety during the panel. I was determined to quell my urge to be nervous and weird.

Before the event, I planned to meet up with Nova, but her travel arrangements went haywire and she barely made it to Dallas in time for all the Library revelry. Timing was on my side, as well as nature, when I stopped into the bathroom and in came all the authors —including Nova — freezing me by the trashcan. We laughed and gabbed and talked about how sucky Delta Air is and how wonderful it was to meet, and she graciously introduced me around and exclaimed positives about my book.

It is almost too exciting to write about, that I really, just, can’t.

Author panels are always incredibly fascinating to me. As an aspiring author, I watch and learn from them. I glean knowledge about the business I want to be a part of as well as the task of writing books readers will love. But as a reader, I gush and laugh and want to jabber about the books they’ve written that I love and will love in the future.

One of my favorite moments during the panel was when they each told their unique “road to publishing” story. Some had always known novels would find them, some began in screenwriting, pursuing film, pursuing extensive education, pursuing politics and world-changing and wizardry. For most, it was a road littered with rejection and agony, as well as a road of self-discovery.

The panel ran long, but not a single person in the room cared. I was sad it was ending, actually. And then, even though it went late, the authors kindly chatted and listened to all of us thank them for their books and pose for a picture and tell them about our Twitter. (Me, I did that. Because I am hopeless.)

I got to hang with friend and 2014 debut author Lindsay Cummings and fellow bookworms — particularly Cherie, a girl almost as tall as Ransom Riggs who I’m nicknaming, ironically, Little Libba — and talk only books. My favorite kind of talking.

Support your local library by going to events such as this one wherever you live. A huge shout-out to Half-Price Books for selling me too many things, and all the clever booknerds I met last night in Irving!

17 & Gone and Me

This is a post in two parts, wherein I examine both the brilliance (without giving away spoilers) that is Nova Ren Suma’s book 17 & Gone, and the treacherous time that is being seventeen going on eighteen.

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That’s me, seventeen years old. I’d just chopped my hair short for the first time ever a week before my birthday. My skin was going through a fresh scrubbed, sun-kissed phase. Soon I would go on my first real date, with my first real boy, and we’d kiss for the first time on a swing set. Soon all of my hopes would be dashed, eroded by choices too hard to make for a seventeen year old girl. Soon, the bubbly, confident girl I’d always pretended to be would start to fade, into someone volatile and confused, ever-shrinking, ever-wandering. I’d get in fights I couldn’t win. I’d fail tests I should have aced. I’d wreck cars and friendships and store signs. I’d stand by while everything around me crashed and burned, leaving in the wreckage the shell of who I’d been before. And it all began after I turned seventeen.

17 & Gone is the story of Lauren, a seventeen year old girl who is having visions of missing girls. The common thread between the girls is that they are all seventeen, and all suddenly gone without a trace. Lauren launches headlong into investigations, seeking answers for both their stories, and her own. Why are they speaking to her? Will Lauren be the next seventeen year old girl to vanish? Is there anything she can do for herself or the others?

This book is layered with depth, and intrigue, and finely crafted plotting, but what makes 17 & Gone so utterly engrossing is the trepidation the reader carries with them through the pages. The need to put the book down, but keep it close. I actually, very nearly, had to put this one in the freezer to diffuse some of my anxiety.

It is hard to write about 17 & Gone because so much of the story must be experienced first hand. I would never take that away from you, but for the purposes of this post, I will share something that has nothing to do with the twists and turns in the plot. Speaking, here, about her mother, Lauren says:

I nodded and let her keep touching me, even though every finger on my scalp and every brush against my neck felt wrong all of a sudden, weird. It wasn’t so much her. Again, it was me. All me. My skin was tightening against intrusions. My body was pulling in on itself like a knot tied over a knot tied over a knot that would never come out.

This is seventeen. Much of my late teens were filled with this raw, hidden pain. Pain I couldn’t quite make sense of, or put words to, or recognize for what it truly was. But more, what Lauren’s words remind me of is feeling desperately and hopelessly misunderstood, because suddenly the girl I had been wasn’t fitting with the girl I was becoming. I wasn’t a woman, not by a long shot, but suddenly I was doing womanly things and being asked to just accept them. My future was growing complex.

At sixteen, I remember driving around with my brother and one of my friends, cranking Jimmy Eat World up in my beat up Jeep Cherokee, and talking about Harry Potter while we ate Frosties. Sixteen was the last time things were simple. Sixteen was filled with certainty. It had been about school and books. It had been me and music and giant drinks from Sonic.

Seventeen changed everything. Suddenly I was about to graduate, and I was supposed to pick a school and take the SAT’s, and plan a future. At seventeen, I was eyed. Boys looked at me more like meat and less like furniture. My cheekbones were sharper, my eyes caught on the curve of a guys muscle under his sleeve, and not the idea of his charm. Seventeen meant I had to act, not observe.

For Lauren, seventeen meant danger. It meant you could be stolen, and no one would care, because isn’t that just what happens if you’re not careful? 17 & Gone illustrates a universal truth about the perilous downward slope of the seventeenth year. The knowledge that you leave behind the girl you were, but you may never make it to the woman you should become. For Lauren, the fear manifests in waking nightmares of the lost girls before her. For me, the fear followed me into every decision I made.

Somehow I managed to survive seventeen, though I can’t tell you if Lauren does — you’ll have to read the book to find out! — and become the woman I was warring with back then. As a teenager, I don’t think I would have believed you if you’d told me I would. I think, like Lauren, I would have been sure my fate lay with the other vanished girls, trapped at seventeen, never getting to move on or see if they could hack it. That’s why 17 & Gone is such a valuable read, for a girl struggling to stay upright on the slope towards eighteen, or a woman who still remembers tripping along that same path.

Many things about my seventeenth year were magical, and everything I had ever wanted or more. Seventeen forms us, and in some ways, it is impossible to avoid the dangers that await on the other side of it. But you won’t be seventeen forever, I know I wasn’t, no matter what that ends up meaning for you now.

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17&gone

Buy 17 & Gone where books are sold, and follow Nova on Twitter by clicking here. If you live in the DFW area, Nova will also be at the Irving Public Library on July 11th for an author panel. Don’t miss it!