I was writing on my laptop in my dorm room when I heard the door open and a single roll of toilet paper wheeled across the floor and stopped in front of my feet. It pretty much summed up the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2012 Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices: You neither knew what would happen next nor where inspiration would spring from.
Picture this–46 LGBT writers from around the world come together on American Jewish University (AJU) campus in Bel Air, California to study fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and young adult fiction for a week with Dorothy Allison, Cris Beam, Jewelle Gomez, and Alex Sanchez.
I have wanted to study with Alex Sanchez ever since I finished the first Rainbow Boys book and went, “Aw …” I didn’t have a lot of expectations when I picked up that book out of curiosity, but I was amazed at how gooey I got inside after reading about the romance that developed between the math whiz and the basketball jock. I totally believe that there is now a parasitic 14-year-old girl living inside of me and I’m okay with that. So when I saw that Alex was going to be teaching the YA section of the LLF Writers’ Retreat, I sent in the first two chapters of the novel I have been working on since February, and I was delighted when he selected me to participate in his workshop.
You never know how those “creative types” can be, so I’m always cautious entering a workshop setting. However, I couldn’t have asked for a more well-suited group of fellow writers. I learned as much from reading their work and critiquing them as I did from them reading my work and critiquing me. Alex was a very generous facilitator. In fact, he was so nice, I began to wonder if he might be, in fact, a pod person. As it turns out, he really is super nice.
My YA fellows are an extremely talented group of people. Some of us have already published or are in the process of being published, others were just starting out. The subject matter ranged from migrant worker children to intersex and transgendered kids to more typical teenagers trying to make sense of their sexuality, families, and school. My critique confirmed what I already knew (the prologue, now matter how pretty it sounds, has to go), and what I didn’t know (contemporary YA readers are not interested in reading about teenagers in 1985).
“Why did you set your novel in the ‘80s?” Alex asked.
“Um, because I didn’t want to write scenes about texting,” I confessed.
In the end, I received confirmation that the majority of what I had was solid, so I can make some minor adjustments and have a manuscript that is closer to being ready to query agents.
One of the most refreshing things about the retreat was having access to all of these incredible writers. We workshopped with them. We ate with them. We sat in on readings, panels, and lectures with them. (We did not, however, sleep with them, so they did receive a respite from us.) One of my favorite moments was having dinner with Dorothy Allison and discussing North Carolina barbecue, politics, and adult novelty items, just like I was having lunch with a friend or one of my neighbors.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of my roommate, Miguel. Judging from his bio and blog, he seemed a tad serious. I was concerned that he might not be able to tolerate my silly ass, but we ended up getting along fine. In fact, we found out that we were the same age and had actually lived, at times, in the same town growing up. How weird is that? We could have been in the same movie theater or fast food place at the same time and never knew it. We got in the habit of having long conversations in the morning after we woke up. He kept sharing all these incredible memories from his childhood, and I’d say, “Miguel, that’s a story.” And then I’d see this light go on in his eyes and he’d realize it, too. Miguel is going to have an incredible book when he’s finished, so be warned. It was so hard to say goodbye to him when it came time to leave.
It’s amazing how quickly you bond with ten strangers over the course of a week. We not only spent time together in class, but at meals, and we’d frequently gather in the common room. Christina explained British colloquialisms to us, and we explained all the weird things about life in the United States: “New Orleans is in Louisiana, which is east of Texas.” “In the South, every carbonated beverage is referred to as a Coke.” “Water sports may refer to a number of sports that involve water, such as skiing, kayaking, snorkeling, or also be an euphemism for urinating on a sexual partner.” Beth shared about operating her own farm for a number of years and homeschooling her children. Bridget is an artist and healer. AJ is an actor and singer. Nina publishes zines. Rachel used to own a bookstore. Lydia knows something about everything. (She is a librarian.) And Annameekee, a high school English teacher, and I were separated at birth, because we had way too many freaky things in common, which included knowing the lyrics to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Do You Want Me.”
I must say that one of the reasons the retreat went so smoothly was due to the efforts of Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director, and Jenn Reese, Program Assistant for the Lambda Literary Foundation. Any time you had a question or needed anything, they were always available. I’ve never been taken better care of. We also had quite a few laughs, too.
There are a ton of memories that I want to share, but space–and the need to sleep–prevent me from doing so. However, there is one memory that will always remain very special to me. On Wednesday afternoon, AJ, Alex, Annameekee, and I drove one exit down from the campus and visited the J. Paul Getty Museum. (It was designed by Richard Meier, who also designed the High Museum here in Atlanta.) It’s a breathtaking set of buildings filled with lots of natural light and open spaces and stunning works of art. I was especially excited about viewing the Herb Ritts exhibit, as he is one of my favorite photographers. While we walked through the museum, I kept looking around at AJ, Alex, and Annameekee, and I thought, This is one of those moments that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was such a powerful feeling that I swear I could almost feel all of the molecules in my body vibrating. Then I locked eyes with Annameekee and I knew exactly what she was thinking: “Omigod, I’m totally at the Getty with Alex @#%*ing Sanchez and I’m looking at pictures of naked people!”