Inspiration and Joy at the Vortext Writers’ Conference

 Memoir, Writing  Comments Off on Inspiration and Joy at the Vortext Writers’ Conference
Jun 242016

I love writers’ conferences. My grandmother bought me a ticket to my very first writer’s conference back when I was in my mid-twenties —  her way of both supporting my career aspirations and encouraging me to get out of my apartment and maybe find a husband! Grandmother had no idea that men tend to be scarce at these gatherings, but thanks to her, I did discover that hanging out with folks of any gender and orientation who are as passionate about writing as I am feels pretty great.

Last month I attended the VORTEXT conference on Whidbey Island for the second year in a row. Organized by the nice people at Hedgebrook, VORTEXT offered a superstar faculty line up including Dani Shapiro, Hannah Tinti, Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Baszile, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Laurie Frankel, and Kate Gray. Every single one of these ladies delivered an inspiring keynote address that both made me cry and made me want to write  and write and never quit.

VORTEXT is only for women writers, which may account for the extra caring, super supportive energy crackling in the air. I spent a lot of time with a couple of friends I made at the 2015 conference: Rebecca Wallwork, author of Hangin’ Tough, a fun book about The New Kids on the Block, and the very witty Kira Jane Buxton, whose McSweeney’s pieces probably landed in your Facebook feed if you have the right friends. Here we are:


In addition to the faculty keynotes, there were writing workshops, panel discussions, and an open mike for attendees. Rebecca, Kira, and I forced/encouraged each other to read. Unbeknownst to me, Kira taped my reading and sent the video over after the fact with a note to put it on my website, but so far I’m technically challenged. We’ll have to save that video for another post.

For now, here’s a little something I wrote during my workshop on “Mystery and Necessity” with Kate Gray. She gave us a prompt — “If I could tell you…” and the room filled with the sound of  ink scratching on paper.

If I could tell you that it would be all right, I would.

But I can’t.

There are no guarantees. But I can tell you this: your life will be beautiful. Beneath the pain, beneath the struggle, beneath the words, beauty lives.

You are here, which means you get the fleeting joy, the moment of understanding, the flash of love. You are here, and you get to have it all if you open your eyes — the pain, the struggle, and the love.

Whatever you have right now, wait. Something else will arrive soon, neither too early nor too late, but perfectly on time.

You are here with the trees and the rocks and the ocean and the wind. You are here with the birds and the squirrels and the snakes and the dogs.

You are here. The trick is believing that’s enough.

Writing, Me, and Carli Lloyd

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Aug 222015

Earlier this summer, I wrote an essay about that tragic pool party in McKinney, Texas, where police overreacted, with guns drawn, to a complaint from a white mom about noisy Black teenagers at the community pool. This has been a season of extreme racial tragedies, and I had trouble getting the piece published once the news cycle had moved on.

Rejection is part of the writing game, but as every writer knows, not all rejections are equal. When an editor simply ignores your submission, that’s a bottom-tier rejection. The next step up is a form letter: “Sorry, not quite right for us.” A personal rejection constitutes the best of the worst: “We love your writing, but this piece isn’t quite right for us. Please send us something else soon.”

My McKinney piece, titled “A White Mom, Living #BlackLivesMatter” garnered a lot of personal rejections. A couple of editors even shared that they felt that they’d already covered this topic multiple times. While that was frustrating to hear, I understood. When the tragedies come one after the other, it’s  hard to get readers to care about the latest one. So many of us have tragedy fatigue. And it’s hard to keep writing about racial justice as well. Even Ta-Nehesi Coates doesn’t know what to say anymore. But not talking about the problem we all live with doesn’t make the problem disappear.

So I kept pitching my essay, giving it a few tweaks after each no to try to make it better. But doubts started creeping in. Nobody cares about McKinney anymore. Nobody wants to hear a privileged white voice talking about #BlackLivesMatter, and maybe I should take a seat. What if the writing is just really, really bad? Maybe I truly have run out of things to say about racism and being a white mom of black and brown kids. After all, I’ve written about it A LOT. Maybe I should just be quiet.

On the other hand, I’d spent HOURS writing this piece. I wanted some reward for my effort. I wanted people to read it! And here’s what, or who, kept me from giving up: Ms. Carli Lloyd.

Like everybody else, I found Carli Lloyd’s hat trick in the Women’s World Cup final thrilling to watch, but what truly inspired me was her scrappy back story. Her path to international acclaim has been long and rocky, but Carli just kept playing her game, stunning soccer fans everywhere at the age of 33, which is kind of old for a professional athlete. After the World Cup, I decided to make Carli Lloyd my writing spirit animal, which means keep working, keep shooting, do my thing and ignore the people who tell me I’m good but not good enough.

So I kept pitching my essay, until finally this week, Jennifer Pastiloff at The Manifest-Station gave it a home. The positive, emotional response to the piece has been moving for me, both as a mom of Black children, and as a writer. Jen’s website was a new market for me, and so my words have reached a fresh audience. It feels like the modest success of the essay arrived at just the right time in just the right way. A great reminder to stay in the game and keep shooting, just like Carli.


To read “A White Mother, Living #BlackLivesMatter,” head on over to The Manifest-Station.


Women Writers: Apply for a Residency at Hedgebrook!

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Jul 222015

A few days ago I hit send on my application for a 2016 residency at Hedgebrook, the artistic retreat center for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington.  Last year, Hedgebrook received more than 1,400 applications for just 40 slots. Winners are provided with a private cabin and delicious, farm-fresh food for two to six weeks of creative time This is my second time applying; I hope it doesn’t take me eight tries to get in, but if it does, it will be worth it.

The wonderful thing about Hedgebrook is that you don’t need to already be world-famous or connected to get in; unknowns as well as established writers are selected as residents every year. If anybody out there is interested, get to work. The deadline for applications is July 28. For more details, check out the video and graphic below. Go for it!




Jun 012015

This week staff writer Kara Brown published a snarky piece at Jezebel titled Delete Your Memoir. She writes:


Go ahead, do it. Drag and drop. Hold down the “delete” button for 45 minutes. Throw away your entire laptop if you must, but just get rid of it. Please, enough with the goddamn memoirs…

If you want to tell a story, do so without centering every single detail around yourself and your pithy afterthoughts. Maybe you have had a life experience that truly is unique and riveting and can teach us all something about life and love and loss and whatever other adjectives you suggest to the person writing your forward…

Better yet, go write some fiction that’s loosely based on your own life but much more interesting because you get to change all the stuff that nobody cares about. Be David Sedaris! He’s got it figured out!

This post REALLY  annoyed me, and not just because I’m  (ahem) writing a memoir.  Here is Brown, using her huge national platform at a supposedly feminist website, to remind other women that their personal stories don’t matter, but if they are going to bother to try to write anyway, they should just write LIKE A MAN — a very specific man who has been hugely successful thanks to a distinctive voice and sensibility that nobody could hope to imitate, even if they tried. And don’t get me started on the fact that all of Brown’s examples of terrible memoirs were written by female celebrities who are not actually writers at all  — but why pick only on women?

Right after I read Brown’s post, I traveled to Whidbey Island in Washington for a long weekend at the Vortext Conference, joined by 60 other women writers and an extraordinary panel of female faculty, including Dani Shapiro, Ruth Ozeki, Hannah Tinti, Carole DeSanti, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Victoria Redel. Vortext is a program of Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit whose “mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”

I don’t know how to put the beauty of this conference into words. Writing workshops and inspiring keynotes. Women supporting women. Women encouraging women. Writers sharing their hopes, fears, and strategies. Generous, accomplished writers honoring the passion and commitment shown by those less experienced by speaking candidly about their own struggles. Women giving each other PERMISSION that the world out there too often tries to revoke.

So please, do NOT delete your memoir, or throw away your novel, or quit writing your poems. Do not stop doing that creative thing that you love, even it you do it badly sometimes. Do not give in to the voices that want to shame or silence you. Do not surrender to the people who just don’t understand. Don’t be David Sedaris. Be you.

This is me. Reading from my memoir in progress at VORTEXT.



For all you writers: the aspiring, the struggling, the enduring

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Mar 032015

I guess I could call myself an aspiring, a struggling, AND an enduring writer. I haven’t been blogging much  (ok, at all) because 2015 is my year to write a book.

I signed up for a course called “Novel in a Year” with Ellen Sussman, the author of French Lessons, a New York Times bestseller, along with several other novels, including her latest, A Wedding in Provence. My book is actually not a novel, it’s a memoir, but the class is still a perfect fit, since it’s all about getting guidance and butt-kicking from a master teacher,  and support from other writers  who all have a story to tell.

Last week Ellen sent us this video from Ira Glass that I thought was amazing — and the advice applies to more than writing, doesn’t it?