The view from AJU
A few days before I was supposed to leave for Los Angeles, I freaked out.
When I first found out that I’d gotten into the Emerging LGBT Writers Retreat, I’d been pretty excited. I’d spent several months working on the application and then trying not to obsess too much about whether I’d get in or not. When I got my acceptance, the Lambda Literary Foundation also gave me a partial scholarship, and after a couple weeks agonizing over it, I came up with a plan to make videos as a way to raise funds for the rest of my tuition. It went better than I expected, and thanks to some really amazing friends and family, I was able to fund not just my tuition but also my plane ticket.
I thought I was all set, until July 3. That’s when I found out we’d need to submit 40 pages and a synopsis for the workshop. I did not have 40 pages or a synopsis. I’d just begun a revision of my book, Mind Tricks, and I had maybe five pages at the most. I hated the old version and was planning to rewrite it from scratch. So I made a schedule for revising and rewriting what I hoped would amount to 40 pages, and I figured, if I really pushed myself, I could pull it together in the next few weeks.
Things did not go as planned. The next day I got a call from my mother. My grandmother’s hospice nurse had told her that Neeny was starting to show “the signs.” Neeny had been in hospice for about two weeks, and up until that point, we’d heard all sorts of things. Things like “some people are in hospice for years.” The future was a roiling sea of uncertainty. Jill and I had begun driving home from Austin every weekend to spend extra time with my grandmother and help out in any way we could. The trips were hard. I could see that Neeny wasn’t going to get better this time. But there was no clear indication of when anything would happen. We were all just kind of waiting to see how things would progress.
Even after I got the call from my mother and packed up on a Thursday night to go home, we still didn’t know what would happen. No one was talking about it in specific terms. And maybe I was a little bit in denial. I’m not sure. We knew about “the rally.” But when it happened, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. It was July 5, the day before Neeny’s 91st birthday, when my grandmother asked to be wheeled into the dining room for dinner—something that hadn’t happened in a few days. Earlier that day, the hospice nurse had come by again, and she said things were looking better than she’d thought they would. And here was Neeny, sitting at the dinner table with us for two hours, then refusing to go to bed afterward. Instead, she was wheeled into the Blue Room, her study, where we all sat with her while she opened get-well cards and talked on the phone with my cousin and my brother. Some part of me knew what was happening, but her birthday was the next day. I was certain she’d be there for it.
I’d bought birthday balloons. I’d bought party hats and a giant banner. I bought noisemakers and Star Wars napkins that had pictures of Yoda printed on them, because Neeny once took me to see Episode Two. I bought two candles that made the number 91. But on the morning of Neeny’s birthday, at 7:00 a.m., the phone rang, jerking me out of sleep, and I knew.
Her house was right next door to my parents’ house, the house where I grew up. Mom and Dad threw on clothes and headed out the door, Dad telling me that Neeny was “unresponsive” as he hurried down the hall. I stumbled around, trying to find something to pull on over my pajamas, while Jill sleepily asked me what was going on. Just a few minutes behind my parents, I ran across the yard to Neeny’s house in a groggy fog, my heart pounding. By the time I got there, she was gone.
The two weeks following that day were a time warp. They stretched and dragged like silly putty. I could barely keep track of what day it was. I’d remember things that had happened a week before as if they’d happened months ago. I slogged through work in a haze. I spent my evenings lying on the couch and staring out the window, at the TV, or into space. The last thing I wanted to do was write. The last thing I wanted to do was anything at all.
Eventually, I noticed that the end of the month was creeping up, the retreat drawing nearer and nearer. The only thing that motivated me to get off the couch was guilt at the prospect of making the other Lambda fellows wait so long for my submission. I dragged myself upstairs to the spare bedroom for several days in a row, slouched on the futon with my laptop, and attempted to write. I have never before hated writing so much. I’d been frustrated, discouraged, even angry about it at times, but I’d never hated it. This time, though, I reached a point where trying to force any more words from my brain made me want to throw up.
So I stopped writing. I literally dumped my computer off my lap one week before I was supposed to leave for LA and said, “Fuck it!” to the empty room. Then I opened the old draft of my novel, copied the first 40 pages of it into a new document, dashed off a synopsis, and sent the thing without even reading it over for typos. I couldn’t stand to look at any of it. Then I shrugged and figured that at least it was over. I spent the rest of that week half-heartedly trying to read the submissions of the other fellows and feeling alternately guilty and apathetic about my lack of progress.
And then, just days before I was supposed to go, I panicked. I looked at the work I’d done—primarily the lack thereof—and was certain that I’d squandered my chance to be useful at the retreat, either to myself or to the other fellows. I was doing a crap job at critiques, and I’d sent in sub-par work for them to read. I’d be wasting everyone’s time by going.
At that point, I think the only thing that stopped me from backing out was the fact that other people had paid for me to go. Other people had seen something of worth in me or in my work and decided to give some of their money to make it possible for me to attend this retreat. I’d already bought my plane ticket. I had no choice. So I packed up my suitcase, got on my plane, and wound up in Los Angeles at the American Jewish University.
The first day of the retreat was hard. My brain felt like it was on lockdown, probably because I was so stressed out and sad from the last two months that I didn’t think I could handle much more. Meeting people was hard. Talking to people was hard. Just being in the same room with people was hard. But I had to try to make it work, and not just for myself. I had to try for all those people, my friends and my family, who had made it possible for me to be here.
The second day was also hard. I kept finding myself in situations that involved interacting with other humans, and I desperately wanted to communicate with them, to connect with them, but the lockdown was still in effect. I felt awkward, shy, inadequate. I felt like I’d failed before I’d even gotten there.
That afternoon, though, something shifted. Our workshop leader, Malinda Lo, had scheduled time slots for individual meetings with her where we could talk about our works-in-progress. For some reason, I picked one of the earliest slots, and I was terrified. I stressed about it all afternoon, leading up to my 4:30 appointment, wondering what I could possibly say about a submission I hated, especially when my mind was somewhere else. My stomach was in knots as I walked in and sat down next to her.
But then we started talking. Malinda asked me questions about my book, and I focused on answering them. We began discussing things like world-building and character motivations and research and complicated plots, and as we did that, the haze in my brain started to lift. My focus shifted away from the last few months, away from my awkwardness and terror, and back to my writing. I woke up.
By the time I left that meeting, I felt excited again. I was excited about my writing, and about the workshops, and about critiquing. I began to look around me, as I went to dinner with the other fellows, and it occurred to me that I was finally here—I was at the Lambda Literary writers retreat, and I was surrounded by nothing but other queer writers. The experience was unique—and I was struck by how truly amazing and fantastic it was to be there, spending my days like this. And I woke up some more.
The rest of the week went by too quickly. I made so many friends. I enjoyed those workshops more than any others I’d ever participated in. I became completely immersed in the experience, in being somewhere I’d never been before, largely isolated from the things that had haunted me back home. After a year of trials and heartbreak, something finally felt right. I felt right.
The Lambda Literary retreat gave me something to care about. It gave me something to hope for and to work toward. Most of all, it gave me the people who made that possible—Malinda, Rose, Dave, Jesse, Tess, Dakota, Miguel, Laura, Nash, Gillian, Audrey, and M-E, not to mention many others outside of the YA/Genre track. These people gave me encouragement, camaraderie, rides in their cars, fascinating mealtime conversation, unicorn masks, wine and vodka, a shitzillion hilariously wonderful photos, Indian food, cuddle huddles, and their brilliant ideas on how to make my writing be the best that it can be. I love them and miss them, and I can’t wait until I can see them again.
The Lambda Literary 2013 YA/Genre Fiction Fellows
Articulating what exactly was so special about that week in Los Angeles is difficult. But I know it came at a time when I needed it the most. It gave me joy. It reawakened my desire to write—it showed me that I still could write. It showed me that, in spite of everything I’ve lost, I am still me, and I am still here.
For a fantastic day-by-day breakdown of what the YA/Genre track was like at the retreat, check out Audrey Coulthurst’s LLF posts! Also check out Malinda Lo’s and Rose Yndigoyen’s amazing posts about the week, and click here to learn about all the fellows.