Saturday, April 19, 2014

When tact is the first thing to go

A week ago today I was about to sit down for my final dinner with 300+ writers in various phases of their careers or aspirations. It was the final day of a camaraderie that began the moment I had arrived at the Dayton Marriott Wednesday evening to the sound of laughter and clinking glass emerging from the hotel restaurant.

There was so much to learn at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop that I tried to take copious notes.  It was like a perpetual classroom of those friends you secretly hoped you would wind up in detention with. These were my people and I felt so comfortable around them that I made a conscious effort to sit with different individuals at meals, so that I could have a chance to get to know at least something about as many of them as possible.

So how do I wrap up a review of three spectacular days? I think about stupid stuff I did, of course.

For example:

The workshop where I started to raise my hand during a session, not because I had a question, but because the woman one row ahead and three seats to the left had raised her hand twice and didn’t get called on. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought this one through… what was I going to do – say, “She raised her hand,” like we were in grammar school? Fortunately, she did get to ask her question before I had the chance to find out just how I’d muddle through that one. I could not have slunk down in my seat low enough, I’m pretty sure.

And that time I jumped out of a photo op because I mistakenly assumed everyone else sitting around the table was part of the Not Your Mother’s Book anthology staff, only to find out I was wrong - after the photo had been taken. When I spotted that picture among the collection in Facebook later on, I could point out exactly where I had been sitting. Sigh.

And then there was that moment that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, when I held up a book by another author and asked well-known author, humorist, and feminist scholar Gina Barreca if that other guy was going to be at the workshop.

I sense that you are shaking your head in embarrassment for me. You should, because being new at writers’ workshops, not to mention - you know, the whole logical thinking thing – my first thought at seeing Ms. Barreca seated behind the cash register in a room full of books was: Oh that’s interesting… the presenters must help out in different areas of the workshop. So what would that mean -- Lisa Scottoline is on dishes after lunch??

Yeah. I was that person.

In the end I had to ask myself, what did I take away from this workshop that might help me to put behind those uncomfortable situations, which I somehow managed (and not just last week – it’s a common occurrence) to precipitate?

It’s more about what I didn’t take away.

I didn’t leave with uncertainty. From that first night of introductions to the last morning of a taxi ride to the airport with a talented writer who happily shared her experience writing for the Not Your Mother’s Book anthologies, I was enveloped in a cocoon of like minds, and it was exactly where I wanted to be: with people who simply write life.

I didn’t go back to my room each night feeling like I didn’t belong, and that everyone could write better than me. I did find quickly that we all process and write differently, and for that we should all be grateful. Imagine if everyone said exactly the same thing? There was a freedom in the constant reminder that, by writing what we know, we give voice, flavor, and ultimately our personal touch to the story. It is ours to own.

I didn’t come home alone. I came home with half a box of other writers’ business cards and a list of everyone who participated, courtesy of the fantastic workshop coordinators. I also came home with confidence, drive, goals, and hope. I came home writing, and I haven’t stopped.

I didn’t carry with me a fear of approaching someone like Phil Donahue (or the person with bunny slippers who coaxed Phil Donahue into trying them on) to tell him that my mom and I are big fans and miss him on television (because, you know, he’s never heard that before). I wasn’t shy about telling very, very funny lady Leighann Lord that her dad/daughter story had me in stitches because of a similar incident at our house. And even though my throat felt like I had swallowed a rock when I tried to talk, having a few minutes with “that girl” from Newtown, CT was like opening a gift (having my picture with Leighann photo-bombed by her later on was priceless, and it also gave witness to the magic of those three days).

I didn’t take fear along for the ride because it wasn’t allowed in this place. This was a place to speak and laugh and cry and be genuine. And everyone I came in contact was thoroughly genuine.

There is more to my story about Gina Barreca.

After attending a tremendously inspiring workshop she shared with Suzanne Braun Levine, Ilene Beckerman, and moderator Patricia Wynn Brown, I approached her and fumbled my way through what must have sounded like an insane explanation for my stupid question the night before. She was not only sweet about it, she also didn’t seem phased by it, which gave me hope that mine was not the most pathetic excuse for idiocy she had ever heard. Just nod your head.

Later that evening at a book signing Gina (oh yes, we’re buddies now – says me) signed my copy of her book, hugged me and said, “You’re a sweetheart.” I will admit to silently praying this wasn’t code for “you scare me” or “schmuck”… something along those lines. But this gracious lady looked me in the eye, and her smile was sincere, and I walked away glowing.

As a final note about how our differences in writing style didn’t matter one lick during the workshop, here are the words I wrote down during Dan Zevin’s “write down five words you think are funny” exercise.

Conundrum
Sphere
Jokingly
Misappropriate
Verklempt

Not even close to what anyone else had, I imagine. I don’t know what that means, but I felt terrible for the poor person I handed those words to. Even though I had my reasons for thinking they were funny (in a slightly skewed way, I’m afraid), I knew she wouldn’t be raising her hand any time soon to rattle them off in a sentence.

Still, given the same question again, I would have at least one of those words on my list. It would probably be verklempt, so I will use it in a sentence.

I get verklempt thinking about those 719 days until the next Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

2 comments:

  1. Oh Janine! I live that you thought Gina Barreca was working the register. She is one in a billion. And the EBWW is truly a gathering of our tribe. Nicely said.

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  2. It was a memorable experience, and I too look forward to the next workshop. Meanwhile we write…and write…it was great meeting and talking with you.

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