MWW16: Learning to Lead, Learning to Chill Out

Bear with me here, because this is going to be a long one. My Facebook memories are full of MWWs past and I’m gonna get emotional and nostalgic.

2016 was my fourth year at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I started out in 2013 as a little baby agent assistant intern all excited and nervous and no idea how to talk to anyone, much less my agent, Victoria Marini, so mostly I hung out with my fellow interns and hovered awkwardly. It was amazing. It’s where I met and became friends with Summer Heacock and Roxane Gay. It’s where I solidified my friendships with Jackson Eflin and Brittany Means, who are two of my best friends, and have been with me at every MWW since.

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2014. Jackson and I are the only returning interns, so we start calling ourselves Katniss and Peeta. Brittany moves from attendee to fellow intern. I assist Bridget Smith, and delight in telling one man that he was the first and one of two full manuscripts she asked for the whole weekend. Daniel José Older is there, and to this day, if you mention his name around us, we’ll all sigh dreamily and talk excitedly about how his keynote speech kept everyone on the edge of their seats. I’m more confident. People recognize me. People are excited to see me! I’m excited to see them! This internship is quickly becoming about the community almost more than the professional experience.

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In 2015, I don’t apply for the internship – I get asked to return, and to lead. I take the agent assistant interns, and Jackson takes the social media counselors. We get to go to a few committee meetings, we get to train our crew, we basically run that shit. The interns are a tight-knit group of nerds. I assist Janet Reid and have a damn good time doing it. Between that and leading I don’t have much time for rest but tbh that’s how I like it. I do the after-partying, I’m comfortable talking to faculty and agents, and I don’t know how I’d survive any of it without Summer as one of my best friends.

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You’d think, after all that experience, that I’d go into 2016 all smooth and carefree and ready to take on the day.

Uh, no.

This year, I wasn’t assisting an agent. I was just in charge of a group of interns who were trained in a class taught by MWW’s awesome leader, Jama Kehoe Bigger. I went in thinking I’ll have nothing to do and my interns barely know me at all, what will they think of me? I know how to be a leader, but I felt like now I was seen not as a leader and friend, but a leader and adult and boss and I didn’t know how to be that.

I didn’t know any of the agents. I was nervous as hell to meet Julie Murphy. Brittany and Jackson were going to be there, but for the first time none of us were working in the same area. Summer was going to be there but MWW moved to a much larger space, and I didn’t know how much I’d see her. There was a mix-up with the T-shirt place, and I didn’t get an intern T-shirt – the largest they carried was a 2X and there’s no way that’s fitting me.

My anxiety basically ruled me that first Thursday of MWW16. I didn’t feel in control at all. I didn’t feel like I belonged like I had every other year. The first night, my friends and the 2015 agent assistant interns all get the same frantic message: I think my interns hate me.

To everyone else I probably seemed a-okay, if a little manic. But oh man, I was a mess that first day. 13692626_10157132830700697_5023136383583059040_n

Don’t worry. This isn’t a tragic story. It didn’t stay that way.

It helped, definitely, that while I didn’t have an intern shirt, I did have a tank top that Jackson screensprinted for me. I can’t pretend that having “QUEEN” printed on my back didn’t help the confidence.

Sure, I didn’t see Jackson and Brittany and Summer as much as I wanted – I kind of want to be around them like all the dang time – but I did see them. Any time we all had breaks, we found an empty space and talked and decompressed and had fun.

Maybe, occasionally, too much fun.

I talked to Julie Murphy on multiple occasions and didn’t die at all. I also probably didn’t embarrass myself THAT much! I eventually just calmed down and put the fangirling aside and learned to be a person.

Mostly.

It also didn’t hurt that there was a Pokestop in the Student Center and that, along with Summer, intern Kara Harris, and agent Molly Jaffa, we kept it in lures for most of the weekend. I caught a Scyther on Thursday night and it definitely wasn’t during a time when I should have been paying attention to something else, shut up, it was a SCYTHER, what would YOU have done???

And the interns? They were smart and funny and WAY prepared for their jobs. They handled me emailing them a dozen times each day with pitch requests and schedule changes from attendees, they got to know their agents, they bonded with each other. A few of them have already put up blog posts about their time at MWW and their desire to return.

And I guess it didn’t turn out they hated me after all.

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Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

Last week, on the Facebook group for the literary citizenship class I took with the amazing Cathy Day, a conversation started about trigger warnings in writing and in a college setting. It quickly became clear that while many students were familiar with trigger warnings and would appreciate them, professors had, in many cases, never heard of triggers, much less trigger warnings.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to come at this topic, because there’s so much to talk about. Ultimately I’ve decided to come at it the way I do most things – rooted in my personal experience.

A couple of current students in Cathy’s literary citizenship class, Haley Muench and Rianne Hall, have already posted about this topic, and you should go read what they have to say. I will not be responding to what they have said so much as expanding on it. Rianne doesn’t specify, but Haley at least is coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no triggers but is raising her awareness of them (which is awesome), and I would like to come from the perspective of someone who does have triggers.

First off: What is a trigger? First, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • Something that causes someone to feel kinda uncomfortable
  • The results of weakness or immaturity
Actually not an exaggeration

Actually not an exaggeration

Triggers cause panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, hyperventilating. They cause full changes in mood and can make someone irritable or anxious for days. And not just kind-of-nervous anxious – the kind of anxiety with physical symptoms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea. Triggers can even cause vivid flashbacks, like the kind experienced by soldiers with PTSD.

People who are triggered are not weak. They are people who have experienced trauma and who are still in recovery. There is nothing weak or immature about people who have triggers.

Trigger warnings are here to help people prevent being triggered. Trigger warnings do not say, “Don’t write about this topic.” They are saying, “Give people a warning.” Give people a chance to make an informed choice. Give them a chance to consent to handling sensitive material.

I’ve seen people saying that this kind of “coddling” won’t help people with trauma, that they need to face it head on. So, here’s my question: Are you my therapist?

No, really. Are you? What gives you the authority to decide what anyone – much less strangers – needs to overcome their trauma? Where does your magical expertise come from? Are you a therapist who has spent hours and hours in sessions with all of these people? Did you use that information to carefully determine what they needed for a healthy recovery?

I’m gonna bet no. And even if you are a therapist, you’re not everyone’s therapist. You cannot make a broad, sweeping statement about what everyone who has experience trauma needs.

If you’re a trauma victim who doesn’t get triggered or need warnings, great! But there are plenty who do, and you can’t discount them just because you experience trauma differently. Everyone does. It was two years after being raped that I suddenly stopped being able to take the bus or go to class without severe anxiety (both involved confined environments with men that were difficult to escape). For many others, that sort of anxiety/paranoia sets in immediately or not at all.

“But wait!” some people say. “There are too many things that upset people! How can we possibly predict everything?”

Well, you can’t. But is that a reason not to try? I don’t think it is. If you’re not sure what to warn for, here are some good ones to start with: Sexual assault and rape, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and self harm, and graphic violence.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about things that make us uncomfortable?”

Absolutely! We should write and talk about the hard topics (though there are discussions to be had on like seriously do we need anymore graphic rape scenes?). We should be free to write about what we want, and people should be free to choose what they want to read or watch.

“The world comes without trigger warnings, so why should anything else?”

Precisely because the world comes without them. Out in the world, I have men yelling at me from cars telling me to join Weight Watchers. I have people calling me a slut, whore, bitch. I have strange men at bus stations touching my tattoos and harassing me. So what’s wrong with making classrooms safer spaces than the rest of the world?

There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most. I understand that, statistically and in my personal experience, I can’t trust men to listen to me saying “no”. I can’t trust them to let me have control over what happens to my body. So what’s wrong with wanting control over what I read and watch? Of wanting to make informed decisions over whether or not I can handle the content in a class?

I don’t think it’s difficult to add a simple statement or warning to a book about what to expect. You can even just include it in the synopsis on the back. Haley Muench’s post uses the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian as an example. It doesn’t explicitly say “this contains rape” but you can tell from the synopsis that something bad is going to happen. And at a reading, you can just say the story you’re about to read contains suicide or extreme violence – then people can choose to walk away for a little bit.

When it comes to how to accommodate students with triggers, I have far, far fewer answers, so I talked to former and current students to ask about their experiences and opinions. Most students said that they’d never been warned for anything, and several described situations in which they were triggered in class and didn’t feel that they could escape the situation. They didn’t want to draw attention to how uncomfortable they were or to ‘out’ themselves as a victim to the entire class.

One MFA student said: “I don’t personally have triggers, but I am a huge supporter of warnings in an academic environment — to me it’s incredibly basic necessity, given that you’re there to learn, you’re in a situation that has no easy escape, and you can’t learn if you’re trapped in a triggered situation.”

Because that’s what it feels like: Being trapped. “Just leave the class” is easier said than done. It’s better to be pre-warned so that you can either prepare yourself for the material or so that you can talk to your professor about accommodation. Ultimately, the student consensus was that trigger warnings would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, it can easily become very complicated. Where do you draw the line on what to warn about? What happens if a student can’t handle most of the material in the class? How, as a teacher, do you balance giving warnings with giving accommodations? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I don’t think that complexity is a reason not to help people.

Trigger warnings in classes are not about censorship, being weak, or asking to be treated like a precious snowflake. They’re about providing a safe learning environment. What’s wrong with that?

#mww13

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

All hail the interns. Photo courtesy of Cathy Day.

It has taken me a week to figure out how to blog about the Midwest Writers Workshop. I just didn’t know where to start. Do I talk about my awesome fellow interns/ninjas/redshirts? Or a few of the really awesome people who put it together? Or the visiting literary agents and faculty, with a clear bias on the one I was assisting?

Real talk time: I still have no idea where to start or what to concentrate on.

Maybe there just isn’t a single bead of awesome for me to focus on. Because here’s the thing – there was just too much that was unbelievably beautiful. I met too many amazing people – faculty and guests alike – and was too immersed in too many freaking crazy opportunities.

I got to assist Victoria Marini, a kickass literary agent that made my potentially stressful job really fun. I met Roxane Gay, who I also interviewed before MWW and did a (fingerling) presentation on in my literary citizenship class. I convinced her to join OkCupid. She convinced me that I belong at the University of Alabama creative writing grad program. I got to hang out with a lot of really cool writers and agents. Yeah, the chairs were crazy uncomfortable for fat people but I took some advice from body positivity goddess Ragen Chastain and said, “Hey, maybe we should change that.”

And then I broke down and had a panic attack but even that led me to meeting a beautiful and amazing woman who worked me through it and then ranted with me about how much Moffat sucks.

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Also, I touched Brooks Sherman’s hair.

Like you don't want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

Like you don’t want to touch it. This photo also courtesy of Cathy Day.

There was a lot about #mww13 that was the coolest ever. I believe the faculty and agents who say that it’s one of the best writing conferences in the country. If you ever get a chance to register and come, DO IT.

In the meantime, there have been many blog posts about the conference, some of which are linked in this sentence. The super cool Cathy Day also made a Storify for each day of the conference, featuring tweets that exemplified each day. If you want even more, you can still check out the #mww13 hashtag on Twitter. A lot of people were way more informative and less gushy than I was in this post. Go check them out. If you were there, share your experiences!

Because here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community. I’m working to be a writer and maybe that’s what I’ll be or maybe I’ll be an agent or editor or just an eternal conference attendee. I can’t tell the future. What I can tell you is that last weekend left me feeling the way Alpha always left me feeling – so exhausted and energized and at peace.

It felt like home.

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Yeah, That’s Not How You Do Literary Citizenship

getting real tired of your shit“I’m a professional writer of forty years! Can any of you stand up and say the same?”

The microphone hijacker is drunk. His shouts crash out of the speakers and drown the awkward silence.

A group of (really quite talented) writers in their twenties had gathered at the bar to read poetry and prose, to listen, appreciate, and celebrate each other. I came thinking, “Maybe I’ll read next time.”

The drunk does not approve. He repeats: “I’ve been a professional writer for forty years!” He reads clumsily from his partner’s book of poetry. He commands us to purchase it when it goes on sale next month on Amazon. To the relief of the crowd, he only reads one poem before retreating to his table.

I’ve been, for the most part, quite lucky in my meetings with other writers, so this man’s rude interruption last night came as a nasty surprise. I’ve had writers judge me for writing and enjoying genre fiction and young adult, but I’ve never personally come up against someone so bitter. It’s a part of the writing world that I’ve been vaguely aware existed, but have not encountered.

What causes an older, more experienced writer to shame someone for their youth and relative inexperience? These writers came wanting to build a sense of community, wanting to support each other and perhaps attract more to the fold, and they were shouted down by a bitter old man.

You could hypothesize that it has to do with age. The landscape of writing is changing. More people than ever before can be published writers. Is he resentful? Is that why he reminded us multiple times that he’s a “professional” writer, despite acting just the opposite? But my experience with older writers has always, on the whole, been incredibly positive. They’re often willing and eager to share their experience and help younger writers through the many stumbling blocks of the profession. Or, when they’re older but new to writing, I’ve been treated as a fellow student of the craft, someone else who’s still really learning.

Perhaps this comes back to luck. I hope not. I want writers like last night’s drunk to be a minority. I want the kind, encouraging writers like Cathy Day and Linda Taylor to outnumber him.

The readings continued despite him. Writers and those who had come to listen fought back against him. I imagine he was too drunk and angry to care about our words the time, but I hope he woke up this morning regretting his actions. I hope he thought over what he’d said and done and realized how toxic such behavior is to the writing community.

I have never done a reading in nearly so public a place as a bar. I’ve read in classrooms and at a bookstore surrounded by my fellow Alphans, who outnumbered the unknowns. Those were safe spaces. A bar has the potential for, well, people like that drunk. Even when he wasn’t interrupting us to give the worst possible publicity for his partner’s poetry, his table was rude and loud. Readers at a microphone surrounded by several speakers could hear that table over their own voices. That wouldn’t happen in the kind of secure environment I’m used to. That honestly scares me. I don’t know how I’d react in that situation, and I hate that I’m so intimidated.

The thing that really sucks is that I’m probably not the only one. What if one of the readers last night had that experience and is frightened off from doing it again? What if someone came, like me, thinking that they might join in and now, like me, are kind of freaked out by the idea, all because some drunk writer decided to take his frustrations out on us?

I am incredibly proud of anyone who puts themselves out there and does a reading like that, even moreso if you can survive an experience like that and do it again. We need more of those people spreading confidence and support, getting the bitter poison out of our collective systems. Maybe those of us who have a little less courage can take strength from them. I hope I can.

What about you? What’s the worst (or best!) experience you’ve ever had with a reading? Can you empathize with this dude more than I can? Have you seen more of this dark side? Hit up the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What About Publishing?

book slothLast week, I told you about some lessons I learned about writing. Now, let’s talk about publishing.

For my literary citizenship class this week, Cathy Day assigned us roughly ten million things to read about publishing. I’m not complaining, mind you, not at all. I will take any trusted sources on publishing that I can get. You can get links to about half of the material we had to read on the sidebar of the literary citizenship blog, but I’m going to give you a summary of the 7 Big Lessons I took away from the reading.

1) Publishing is a business.

You might be thinking, “Duh. It’s called the publishing industry. Of course it’s a business.”

The problem is that, as a writer, you might think that you can completely divorce yourself from that and just be the creative artist. You can’t. It’s not just that you’ll have to do some self-promotion. If you go the route of traditional publishing, you’ll lose a lot of creative control over things like the cover and title. You might have to make edits you don’t want to make. You’ll have to realize that, yes, this is a business, and you need to act professionally.

2) If you want a place for your book to go, you’re going to have to buy some books.

Amazon didn’t kill bookstores. We did. We “decided that convenience was more important than community“. We are entirely responsible for keeping the literary world aloft. If you want to be a writer and you want people to buy your books, then you have to buy books first. You have to keep the presses and publishers and bookstores in business.

(Not that buying books on Amazon is bad. It’s not. But still. You can’t blame them for being successful.)

3) Self-publishing isn’t bad.

Confession: I struggle with a bias against self-publishing. A lot of this has to do with what I’ll talk about in lesson #4. It’s hard not to think of people who self-publish as vain, but self-publishing and vanity presses are not the same thing. There are loads of reasons to self-publish. Maybe they want more control. Maybe they want a bigger share of the profits. Maybe they don’t want to wait the years it can take a book to be published the traditional route.

Why should writers be judged for that? Here’s my big resolution to myself: be more open to the self-published.

4) But it does have some drawbacks.

Yeah, there are still problems. While there are certainly high quality self-published books out there, there are also an awful lot of unvetted books. There are books that have been edited maybe a few times, and maybe not even by another person. There are poorly designed covers and bad copy editing, if any at all.

If you want to avoid self-publishing pitfalls, there are people out there who can help you. Take advantage of their services.

5) Then again, so does traditional publishing.

So, you go the traditional publishing route. Let’s assume that you’re okay letting go of some measure of control. What are the other bad parts?

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See gives us a look behind the scenes. It’s pretty nervous-making.

When you go the traditional publishing route, the company to a pretty large extent decides the fate of your book before it even comes out. They choose when to release it – some times of the year are much better than others – and how many copies to print. They decide your place in line. Just how much are they willing to spend on you? Just how much are they going to push your book? They decide how to present the book. They send it out for pre-reviews, and those pre-reviews really seal your fate. You don’t have control over any of this. For the most part, you won’t even be told about any of these decisions.

And publicity? Yeah. For the most part, you’re going to have to rely on yourself.

6) No matter which way you go, you’re going to have to do some work.

That’s right. You know that with self-publishing, you have to promote yourself. But the same is true for traditional publishing! No one cares as much about your book as you do. You have to be out there telling people about it. Build up your internet presence, go to bookstores, libraries, book clubs. Have contests and giveaways. There are loads of ways to get the word out, so get to work!

7) You need to really want it.

You might notice that this whole publishing thing is sounding really difficult. There’s no magic spell to getting noticed or published. There is, however, a lot of hard work to be done, and that’s on top of the writing of the book itself!

Publishing takes time. You’re going to get rejected, a lot. You’re going to have people that don’t like your book. And you’re just going to have to keep going.

So. Do you want it badly enough?

I know I do.