The light from my headlamp bounced back from a pair of eyes. My brain processed the data: close set orbs=eyes in front of head=predator, eyes approximately German Shepherd height from the ground=large predator. The sky lightened slightly behind the silhouette; round head, short ears = cat. Big cat. Maybe the morning jog wasn’t such a good idea after all. My feline friend and I reflected the light between us as we both wavered in indecision. What is this thing? Stand my ground? Leave? My head shifted to the left. Uphill and slightly behind the first set of eyes, glowed a second pair. Two cats. Nice kitties. I could see the headline now: Veterinarian Eaten by Mountain Lions at Writers’ Workshop. Darwin awards, here I come!
I had known that going to Tomales Bay would mean confronting some fears, but I hadn’t planned on those fears taking a physical form. Flyers regarding the Tomales Bay Writers’ Workshops run through the UC Davis Extension had popped into my consciousness over the last couple of years. Wow! Five days of writing on the coast. Maybe someday. In the last year, I’ve made a promise to myself to embrace “someday” whenever possible. On a whim, I downloaded the application. Ten page manuscript. Ok, one short story. There was only one problem: while I had been working sporadically on a novel for the past four or five years, I hadn’t written a short story since college. I stared at my journal; the pages stared back. As I rolled the pen between my fingers, the memory of a long-distance train trip taken a couple of years ago surfaced. I recalled the disembodied sensation of long hours in my sleeping compartment, the feeling that I was being carried along without my own volition. What if someone had gotten on a train and left everything without consciously meaning to? The story began to take shape. Overcoming the first hurdle, I placed the story in a mailer and sent it off with the deposit. “Don’t worry,” I reassured my husband. “They’ll probably just laugh and say ‘sorry.’” I still have the acceptance e-mail saved on my Blackberry.
Selecting the manuscript to submit for the workshop opened a new packet of insecurities. The novel was about half way through a re-write, and I knew that it was time to get some feedback. 10-15 pages: Should I just do another short story? The author leading the workshop was a novelist; this would be a great opportunity to have a bit of the story critiqued. It won’t make any sense as an excerpt. Finally, I told the squirrels in my head to be quiet, and printed the pages and sealed them in the mailer. Done. Well, almost done. While fairly naïve about the writing process, I am aware that writing critique exists on multiple levels. Friends and family, while delightful, are nearly useless. They are generally unable to separate the writer from the writing, and are completely uncritical. The workshop would provide valuable insights and critique, but I did remember enough from my college days to be aware that the writing workshop is a pretty supportive space. Writers are acutely aware of the fragility of the process and of the ego, and even criticisms tend to be softened a bit. I needed someone who just didn’t care if my feelings were hurt. I needed a professional. Editors, agents, and publishers read thousands of manuscripts a year, and while I’m sure most are lovely people, I felt that I could count on one of this breed to be brutally honest. I wrote the check for the publishing consultation and printed out chapter one with a mild sense of nausea.
The emotional stew that comprised the morning of my departure for Tomales Bay was far more terrifying than any feline encounter. Anxiety, guilt, homesickness, inadequacy – you name it, it was there. The month had been far from smooth already. Due to a combination of work and personal commitments, I had been home one Sunday in the past 3 weekends, my father had had a heart-attack less than 10 days before, the previous weekend had involved an overnight campout with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and I had taken several extra on-call nights at work to cover for a vacationing colleague. Then there was the expense. Work has been slow this year. What was I doing? How could I justify spending money we don’t have so that I could spend five days away from my family, leaving my husband alone with the kids? This was a ridiculous investment in a hobby that has, to date, provided no income whatsoever. Between crying jags, I managed to finish packing and get on the road. As I pulled out of the driveway, I had a sense that I was bidding something farewell. I turned on the radio; thank God for NPR.
A couple of hours and a Swiss Milk Chocolate shake later, I felt better. As my truck wound through the hills between Novato and the coast, I imagined a character in my next novel making her home in one of the barns that dotted the hillside. ‘I can do this.’ Maybe if I repeated this mantra enough times, I would believe it. As the car hit Highway 1, light fragmented on the blue waters of Tomales Bay. I had never seen a place that looked so exactly like the pictures. Tucked away on its hillside above Highway 1, The Marconi Conference Center is a world unto itself. Historic buildings tuck with new friends among the redwoods. The landscaping blends with the forest and is redolent with sage, rosemary, and lavender. Deer, wild turkeys, ravens, and huge jackrabbits (oh, and large cats) populate the woods. One of my classmates commented that he expected the rabbits to be wearing little vests, “and carrying pocket watches?” I asked.
“Yeah, have I said that already?”
He hadn’t. But, it is that kind of place. The workshops, too, are that kind of place. From the moment one sets foot on the grounds, one is a writer. The written word infuses everything. The experience is by turns terrifying, exhilarating, frustrating, uplifting, and exhausting. At first, I chalked the overwhelming sensations up to my distance from academia. I hadn’t sat in any sort of liberal arts class in over 15 years, let alone one that asked me to contribute. Yet, the graduate students in my seminar seemed to feel the same way. More than one person commented that the workshops were “intense.” For five days, we existed in a space outside of the time and geography of the mundane.
Ultimately, I believe my mantra to be true. “I can do this.” I went to Tomales Bay to see if I could write, to see if I could recognize successful writing, and to learn to do both better. Lightning didn’t strike. No one proclaimed my genius. If I had a great epiphany, besides the minor revelation that I like oysters, it was that writing is something I must do. I don’t do it as well as I would like, but better than I had feared. More importantly, the path ahead is a bit clearer. Oh, and the cats and I went our separate ways.