A year ago I challenged myself to get fit, make time, floss more, consider the long view, and apply to a writing workshop. Sixty resolutions, hoping for a 20% success rate. The list has many unchecked boxes, but I applied to Writing x Writers in Tomales Bay, figuring if I learned I wasn’t a real writer, at least I’d be in a place I loved, where the hills and fog would comfort me. Also, there would be cheese nearby.
I collected enough little stories to fill ten pages, held my breath, and hit send. When they hit accepted back, I was certain it was because I agreed to pay for the conference, not because of my words. I chose my faculty member, Luis Alberto Urrea, because his workshop description was the only place I could imagine slotting myself in, and even then, I wasn’t so sure. I revisited and revised and refreshed my manuscript for critique, engaging Kate, Brendan, Alex, Steve, writing coach Jena Schwartz, and any one who would have me. I read Hummingbird’s Daughter, and the submissions from my cohort. I was in over my head, but I bought new pens and notebooks anyway. Last week I packed my bags and headed to the coast.
When I arrived, I realized the conference center was on the steepest hill, and I would be walking up and down it several times a day. I knew the hill existed (and Steve later confessed he worried for me the whole time, knowing how I work to avoid hills, having witnessed how easily they induce tears, self-doubt and Steve-focused anger), but I had tucked it away with my other denial-ish stuff. Food was up the ridiculous hill, and our classroom and events were at the bottom. That hill would kick my ass. I knew driving was possible, but I also knew I wouldn’t move my car…I’d move myself instead. This wouldn’t be pretty.
So many words. And sentences. I was surrounded by tall trees and clean air and people who loved words and stitched them together to make not one or two or five, but thousands of sentences. Every morning we worked with our cohort of 12 to review those amazing sentences. In the afternoons we would gather to hear the faculty share the why and how of the sentences, and to listen to other attendees read their sentences. In the evenings, faculty would recite sentences I had never imagined and challenged us to use our sentences to fix what is broken in our country. Sometimes I was confused or uncomfortable, but never bored, and always inspired. I worried about my own small sentences. My stories that contained only three sentences and spoke of women wearing unicorn horns, men building sandwiches to prove their love, airplane seatmates removing their leg, and mothers packing their daughters’ parachutes.
The first night as we walked back up the hill, I dropped behind my new friends, telling them we’d meet later. I trudged, stopped, trudged and stopped, and tried not to cry. I got to the top and popped some Advil. The next day, I did it several more times, and I popped several more Advil. I snuck out of the sessions without my friends, so I could walk alone.
My piece wouldn’t be workshopped until the last day, so I had plenty of time to ponder. I felt good about my work, though not confident this was the right place for it. I didn’t even know what to call it…not poetry, not prose. My group had already read my manuscript, and my friends knew my concerns. They told me they already loved my sentences, and I was able to relax and enjoy theirs. Most were working on novels or big stories, with so much work to choose from that they wondered if they had submitted the right piece. I had only these small stories. I tried not to be a baby, because I am 60, and neediness isn’t all that attractive on me.
When people insisted on accompanying me up the hill, and I learned to say, “I am going to stop for a minute” without feeling like a loser. I learned to walk backwards up the hill. And across the hill. I waited for the birds and the deer to tire of me before I moved on. Tomales Bay is kind that way, offering so many ways to look around, rather than only at ourselves. Trees with peeling bark, iridescent hummingbirds, noisy ravens, dripping moss.
One morning Luis drew a river for us. It zig zagged across and down the paper, bending at every edge. He described the barriers and problems that showed up along the river. Broken bridges, nuclear power plants, boulders, drought. He said “The story sits in the bends of the river. Where what worked before no longer works. Where change must happen.” I imagined placing Steve’s vellum paper on top of my sentences, to see if I could draw a river with bends over them, to see if there was a story in the bend.
By the third day I didn’t need the Advil. By the fourth day I realized the hill was an obvious metaphor. I still stopped on my walk up, but I listened to my breathing and didn’t feel ashamed. As folks would pass me, I would laugh, “It’s a metaphor.” They already knew.
Open Mic was scheduled for Saturday afternoon. My friends kept after me to sign up. I am all in for emotional juice (like being afraid), but I waited until the last minute to add my name to the list. Next to my name I wrote “Kim Tackett-Barbaria writes always short and almost true stories.”
And then I walked back up the hill to lunch, where my friends (who I imagined flew up the hill) saved a place for me. Just for me. Damn, this is a really big hill.
I wanted to read four short pieces from Marriage and Other Mountains. I knew which one I wanted to start with, but I had a sentence to fix. My roommate, Carolyn, had pointed out a familiar issue earlier, and I thought about it all day. After lunch I read my edited version to Carolyn. She shook her head. I crossed out the pesky sentence, and made the other change she suggested eight hours ago. I had been struggling with that sentence for years, and all it needed to do was leave the premises.
I ran into Julie walking down the hill. I showed her the front of the abandoned building with its shadows and vines and portals over the bay. We stopped to peek in the windows and take a few pictures. And breathe.
After the third Open Mic reader, I began to lose my nerve. I told Kerri I needed to leave. She said, “I will chase you down.” I didn’t move. I waited though everyone else’s amazing sentences for Pam Houston to call my name. She read my intro, made eye contact and smiled “you can do this” and handed me the mic. I read my sentences and everyone laughed. Especially at “When I promised to love you forever, I didn’t mean continuously.” Afterwards, person after person, all writers who loved words, told me they loved my sentences.
On the last night, Susan asked our table what our big takeaway was. Some mentioned how they had new ideas on how to handle a specific character in their novel, or how to reconcile summary vs. scene. I said, “I know I am worth this.”
On the last morning, I packed my bags in my car, trekked up the hill for breakfast with my other roommate, Kate, who lives at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I stopped, and it was OK. I drove my car down for the workshop, as I’d be leaving from there anyway. I didn’t think I needed to add one more climb. It was easier, but I felt I had cheated. Those walks down and up were good for me. And not just for my cardio and glutes, but for me.
My crit went well. I cried a little. My team loved my small sentences. In fact, the main critique was to make them smaller (coincidentally, the same critique my family offered a month ago). To not over explain myself. That when I trust in the story, I am sharing it with the reader, and letting them take it for their own. My writing was called contemporary and fresh. Kerri challenged me to explore my darker side. Julie said “Skip the puns, you’re better than that.” I loved her for telling me the truth. Susan told me there was a market for my work. Luis said my stories were full of the bends in the river. He wrote that my fresh impressionism enabled him to be a companion in my composition. He joked that the group should take up a collection so I could make a tiny book about marriage. He wrote to me that with such concise and compact words, there is no room for fog, digression or generality. I may have to put that over my desk, yes?
My sentences and stories were enough. And I didn’t have to walk up that damn hill again. Though I suspect I will apply next year, and the hill will be waiting. I suspect it will kick my ass, but I will be ready.
At home Steve was finishing painting my new writing studio. It’s Alex’s old room, upstairs, with the solar system and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, and the cow jumped over the moon switch plate. The windows look over the best tree. The wall behind my oak desk is a deep indigo, and the walls surrounding the bookcases are a cool gray. The trim is clean and white, and it will be wonderful. He told me he’s calling it the “Not A Baby Writer’s Room.”