Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Staglevision] on the land: the lambda literary writers' retreat

Dear friends and readers,

Like other fellows, I've had difficulty verbalizing how much the Lambda Literary Writers' Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices meant to me and to my writing.

I should start with a confession: before the retreat, I had my reservations about "Gay Writers' Camp." I've never really felt comfortable in mainstream gay culture. I don't parade my sexuality; I avoid West Hollywood clubs. I worried that the retreat would sacrifice craft for community, that celebrating queer identity would take precedence over the work itself. And I worried about putting myself out there. Would I be comfortable in an environment where my sexuality was such a salient issue? Would I fit in with the other queer writers? I'm a shapeshifter. Passing is my default, my defense.

Well, I quickly discovered that I didn't need to pass. Not here. As we went around the room sharing why we were here, so many of the writers' responses resonated with what I felt. They were here to reenergize their writing, to gift themselves time and space to write. They were looking for community to make the writing hours bearable and readers who wouldn't ask, "Now, by 'topping,' do you mean ice cream?" They wanted writing to be less painful. They wanted reassurance that they were "serious writers."

They knew me. They were like me. I felt so relieved and so grateful. For the first time, we were the majority. We queer writers defined the norm.

We were a diverse group. People of all ages, races, and genders united by a burning desire to write, to have our voices heard. We were DJs and academics, astrologists and former strippers. We were late bloomers. We had cool tattoos. We were fierce and spunky and hilarious and smart. The other fellows nudged me out of my shell. They asked me questions about my novel, teased me for lugging my tea stein to every class. Not only were the 32 other fellows extraordinarily talented, but they also amazed me with their sensitivity and understanding. For once, I could just be myself. And for someone who never felt quite at home in the queer community, this felt so supportive and safe. It was home.

That week in the hills of Bel Air was as thrilling and expansive as the first quarter of college. High above the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, I felt completely, refreshingly disconnected from my day-to-day concerns. Despite our packed schedule, the atmosphere was relaxed, everyone wagging their tails. We bonded in the dining hall over Raymond Carver and cold cuts, worked and laughed on the couches in the "Stud" Center. Friendships came easy: writing was our common language, authors our shared heroes and forebears. After readings, we drank beer (or tea) with our instructors and watched traffic twinkle up the 405. We danced in our dorm rooms. We giggled outside until 4 a.m. We shared anxieties about our work, composed impromptu poems in the computer cluster. Our conversations inevitably returned to writing. (And we took lots of photos!)

Our fiction workshop was rigorous. From 9 a.m. to noon, we sat in a windowless room around five tables that we dragged into a pentagon. Our instructor, Nicola Griffith, tailored the workshop to best serve our needs. Sacrifice craft for community? Not on her watch. On day one, she gave us a crash course in narrative grammar, point of view, dialogue, and story arcs. On day two, we began workshopping our writing samples. It wasn't always pretty; one by one, our samples were broken down so they could be built back up. Stopwatch in hand, Nicola kept us humble and succinct.

On the final day of class, she rallied us with these words:

You are the chosen few. The next generation of LGBT writers. The new queer fiction tradition starts right here, right now when you leave this room. You dozen are the Knights of the Pointy Table. You will lead the charge. Where will you take your people?

Being queer and being a writer are two identities that aren't easily disentangled. The retreat celebrated both. We wrote about our lives; we wrote to save lives. I left the retreat with a greater affinity to my community, and also a greater sense of responsibility.

As you all know, I've been working on my novel since graduating from Stanford. Four years now. And there are times when it's been murder. Times when I've sat in my room, unable to string words into a sentence, wondering, "How many more years?"

Not only did the Lambda retreat renew and empower me, but it reignited my passion for the novel. Nicola and the other fellows helped me remember what I loved about my book. What the novel could be, its possibility and promise. "Your characters haunted me," they said. They called my first chapter "evocative," "poetic," and "gutsy as hell." After I read Simon's transformation scene on Friday night, their excitement fueled me with a sense of urgency. This was a story that needed to be told, and only I could tell it. I left with a mission: Continue writing. Lead the charge.

Thank you to the Lambda Literary Foundation for this life-changing opportunity, and to the instructors and my fellow writers for giving me the tools, affirmation, and support I needed to keep going.


Video - Steven Tagle reads an excerpt from Encantado

Photos - 2010 Lambda Literary Writers' Retreat

Fiction instructor Nicola Griffith's recap

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