What I Did on My Summer Vacation
August 12, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Gabriela Denise Frank
I expect nothing less than magic from summer writing workshops.
These forays, which claim a week of precious PTO, land during our best weather in the Pacific Northwest when I might otherwise skip town with family and friends to relax by the shore.
“How was your vacation?” colleagues ask upon my return.
“It wasn’t a vacation. I was at a writers workshop,” I insist—and cringe when they say, “Well, that sounds fun!”
Fun is a breezy hike followed by beers and Smores around a crackling campfire. Fun trivializes the soul-searching and social dynamics that make summer workshops spiritually invigorating and emotionally exhausting. Yes, a workshop affords escape from my job and domestic duties—a brief window of inspiration and community building that tides me over for another year—but writing (and getting better at writing) is hard work. I like to point out that these workshops, a mainstay of my DIY MFA, never involve sleeping in.
“But you enjoy writing, right?” my colleagues counter.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun,” I harrumph.
Last week, I attended the Fishtrap Summer Workshop at Wallowa Lake, Oregon. The theme: Steering the Craft, an honor to Ursula K. Le Guin. Headliners included Luis Alberto Urrea, Jamie Ford, and Oregon State Poet Laureate (and Fishtrap co-founder) Kim Stafford. I came for a generative workshop with Sharma Shields, author of The Cassandra, who led our cohort into the realm of dark fiction.
We began our daily meetings with an “entry task”—forty minutes of writing on a prompt intended to open doors into worlds of magic realism. We came back together to share what we wrote, then had time to finish that piece or work on a longer project. The goal of the workshop was to come away with several new pieces that we could develop further at home.
Though I’m primarily an essayist, I’ve found that cross-genre learning between fiction and nonfiction fuels my abilities in both. In studying the elements of craft, I’ve developed a literary approach to my nonfiction, and my fiction has become better grounded in personal experience and physical detail. Labels aside, it is all writing to me.
It may be a sign of these unsure times, our country’s daily struggle to separate fact from fiction, but I was surprised how our cohort blurred the boundary between lived experience and imagination. Though we were supposed to be writing fiction, we responded to Sharma’s prompts with rebuttal letters, revenge fantasies, and revelations from life that we had been holding onto. While what we wrote was surreal, it was based on our lives.
This class, held in the living room of a burgundy cottage tucked into the edge of the forest, became a space for us to mythologize pain, suffering, longing, and hurt as nosy deer peeked at us through the window. In response to a prompt where Sharma encouraged us to find empathy for someone who had wronged us, my experience of childhood bullying by a kid named Tom tumbled out as a myth starring the Gorgon, Medusa, pursued on a bicycle by a mob of boys.
Fishtrap was my fifth summer workshop. I always hope to “find my tribe” at these gatherings, but it never works out that way. I find myself wishing I was one of those chatty, popular camp-goers who gets everyone’s autograph in my yearbook, but in the end, I tend to forge deep bonds with a handful of writers. My experience in adult education mirrors my college days: excited twilight conversations fueled by spirits, and intimacy made with a few lovely people, many of whom I remain in contact with.
The tenor of each workshop is different. Setting and place play into the experience (Fishtrap came with a high mountain lake and plenty of forest hikes), as does the diversity of the cohort. At Fishtrap, there were many writers of a certain age—mature writers looking to play with nature and magic, people for whom writing carries an element of advocation, cause, and urgency. Very Ursula Le Guin. As a generative workshop, the point of Fishtrap is not to market oneself or jockey for agents—it’s to create community and explore new realms in writing.
Each afternoon, as I surveyed the shore of nearby Wallowa Lake where families camped and picnicked, a stone’s throw from the verdant lawn of Wallowa Lake Lodge where two hundred writers gathered beneath a tent each night in search of transformation, I found myself wondering what brought me here. Why Fishtrap? Why Eastern Oregon? Why dark fiction? Couldn’t I write something cheerful or funny for once?
In rereading the stories I started, I found a common thread: each hearkens back to old hurts that, in life, could not be cured. Essays on these subjects would have fallen flat. Sharma’s workshop helped me channel these realities into myth—into writing that empathized with monsters and misanthropes as a means of helping the hero understand her own hand in her fate and recapture her power. Something quite magical. Like listening to grownups tell stories beneath a lamplit tent at twilight, the night birds singing and swooping overhead as the sun sets behind the purple misty mountains.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
Maybe it’s time to admit, mostly to myself, that a summer writers workshop is my kind of fun. Maybe finding one’s tribe means clicking with “only” two or three people out of two hundred who share my chosen peculiarities. Maybe hard work can be classified as enjoyable without diminishing the effort.
Hard work is not the same as a hard heart. The joy of the work is what celebrates it, I think. When people ask how my vacation was, I’ll try to remember that.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her writing has appeared in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, South 85 Journal, Gold Man Review and The Rumpus. In 2020, she will lead a generative summer workshop in Italy. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com