May 2-6, 2011.
Yes, I finally did it. I managed to do something entirely nourishing to my writer’s soul.
I’d determined that I wanted to go to at least one conference week-long workshop last year and when the announcement went out in November 2010, I signed up right away. Barbara Kyle, one of the workshop presenters, was also offering 20-page critiques for a nominal fee. Again, I was in.
My next challenge was how to pay for the venture. I applied for a Northern Arts Grant for professional development from the Ontario Arts Council, but was not accepted. So, credit it was. As far as conferences go, the CAA conference wasn’t expensive. Even with my day job, I don’t make enough money to drop a thou and not feel it. Still, it was time and long past that I made a substantial investment in my creative self.
Throughout February, March, and April the CAA conference organizers held little writing contests to get participants in the creative frame of mind. I submitted to two of the three and though I didn’t even manage an honourable mention, they were interesting exercises and did serve to build a lovely feeling of anticipation.
I made my leave request at work as soon as I could, but operational requirements made it seems unlikely that it would be approved. As the date of the conference approached, I began to worry that I’d have to withdraw.
Then my father passed away, April 9, 2011 and thoughts of the conference vanished. For the week previous, Mom, a family friend, and I took turns watching vigil. Dad had originally gone into the hospital March 18, 2010, and though he never recovered sufficiently to come home, his final illness and his ensuing struggle were completely unexpected. Needless to say, Mom and I were devastated.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump: that’s all I have to say about that.
In the dizzying days following, my leave was miraculously approved. Now the conference had a second purpose: I needed to get away and do something that did not involve Dad, his funeral arrangements, or my mom’s uncertain financial situation, all of which were consuming my life in large, ragged mouthfuls.
The drive to Grand Bend from Sudbury, though long, was relaxing. There’s some beautiful country in Bruce and Gray counties, and now, there are lovely windmills and solar panels dotting the landscape. I don’t understand the public resistance to wind and solar. They’re some of the cleanest, greenest sources of energy around, and I didn’t find them ugly at all. I rather thought them graceful, alien guardians, standing sentinel over the people and the land. In any case, I arrived at the Pinedale Motor Inn in time for the evening meet and greet, and welcome barbeque.
I discovered that that year’s conference was a departure from previous years. It was set up as a writers’ retreat with workshops and events, but with the afternoons off to enjoy the town and to write. No maddened dash to attend competing workshops, this. Never having attended any conference before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like exactly what I needed.
I won a bottle of wine in a raffle. We were off to a good start
The first workshop presenter was Sandy Plewis. Her session was highly interactive with lots of writing exercises, but she depended heavily on secondary sources in her lectures. She seemed pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the conference attendees to dig deep and write. There was not a still pen in the house when it came time to complete an exercise.
Globally, she was complementary. My characters were interesting, their conflicts dynamic and immediate, but then, as the critique commenced, the shortcomings emerged: the pacing was too fast, my scenes lacked a sense of place, and I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ hearts and minds. And I was too subtle. While I got a lot of good advice from Barbara, by the end of it, I was dizzy, hardly able to breathe. I think it was a panic attack. I wasn’t able to think about things clearly until much later in the day.
Barbara’s workshops, one based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the other on her own experiences as a first draft survivor, were illuminating. Though not heavy on the writing, they were professional, and informative. I had a revelation.
I’d read Vogler’s book, and its inspiration, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. The guardian at the gates has been a repeated part of my development as a writer, and my past experiences with those guardians informed my inner critic, the biggest, baddest guardian of them all. That’s what happened in the critique session. Though intellectually, I knew that Barbara was giving me exactly what I needed to head into the next revision of my novel, to make it stronger, and better, emotionally, every negative that emerged seemed a confirmation of my worthlessness.
So … I confessed. Spastically and awkwardly–which is the only way I can confess the deeply embarrassing–I told everyone about my struggle.
Even the annual general meeting was interesting. As a professional member, I had a vote.
Overall, the CAA conference was a very rewarding experience, and one I hope to repeat.
Conferences can be fertile experiences. Have you made a breakthrough at one? New friends? Networked connections?