WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

WU UnConIt’s ten days since I arrived back in Australia after attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem. Ten long days, and I’m only now posting about it. Why? Because if I’d posted sooner, my whole post would have consisted of a disjointed list of unrelated adjectives interspersed with exclamation marks and the occasional unsubstantiated claim that the UnCon changed my life.

But now, ten days later, I feel I’m ready. I’m ready to say that it was a phenomenal, transformational, life-changing, brain-expanding, emotionally-charged hot-pot of creative energy and connection, built around a series of inspiring, enlightening, and incisive workshops.

Or something like that..

Actually, I’ve pondered long and hard about how to share the experience of Salem with you. And as I’ve pondered, I’ve consolidated the things I learned in a deeper and more meaningful way. And thus, I’m ready to share.

I could tell you about the amazing workshops I did — particularly Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”, Donald Maass’s “Writing 21st Century Fiction” and John Vorhaus’s “The Comic Toolbox” — and the ways those workshops have improved my writing and expanded my thinking.

But I won’t.

UnCon Group 2I could tell you about the deep connection I felt with the other writers I met there, many of whom I knew as icons and names online, and the long-lasting bonds that formed during those five days.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the dinner we had as a memorial to Lisa Threadgill, my dear, dear friend who passed away earlier this year, and how laughing and crying with other people who felt her loss so keenly reopened old wounds and yet helped them heal so much cleaner.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about hanging out in a bar at 1:00am on the first evening with a group of people I’d only just met, drinking picklebacks (the most revolting shot I’ve ever tried), and then asking the bartender for his shirt.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about the Poker Cabin, and how it felt to be playing poker of an evening after a long day of brain-expanding workshops and conversation, and the surreal feeling of sitting next to an inspirational (and possibly super-human) NY literary agent as I confidently bluffed my way to a winning hand.

But I won’t.

UnCon GroupI could tell you about sitting at dinner on Friday night, after the UnCon was technically over, and collaboratively building a back-story for our surly waitress using all the techniques we’d learned from Don Maass during the full-day workshop we’d just attended.

But I won’t.

I could tell you about Bob Stewart.

And I will.

Before the UnCon, I knew WriterBob Stewart as a name and an icon on the Writer Unboxed FB page. We interacted once or twice, in an oblique way, and I admired his dedication and persistence, but I didn’t know much about him. As the time for the UnCon grew closer, I learned more about him. He was much older (75, I later learned), and had some health issues. He was an accomplished playwright, journalist, and novelist. And, above all that, he was funny and kind and a good and genuine human being.

WriterBobOn the Saturday before the UnCon was due to start, he was bitten by his cat. Due to other health complications, the bite got infected, and he ended up in hospital. The first thing he did was message Therese Walsh to find out if it was okay if he arrived at the UnCon a little late. Which, of course, it was. He checked himself out of hospital early, and flew to Salem, and arrived on Tuesday afternoon.

I spoke to Bob briefly. Just enough to say hello, and I was glad he could make it. But he was there — real, and solid, and not just an icon and a name. He participated in groups, and stayed for evening sessions. And Wednesday evening, after everything was winding down, he complained about feeling a little funny, returned to his room, and passed away.

We found out on Thursday.

I wasn’t having a great day on Thursday. I finished the day with an amazing session that hit me like a brick wall and made me question the validity of everything I’d ever written in my life. Then, mired in self-doubt, I found myself flicking through the memorial book that had been created for Lisa Threadgill. A book that was full of my words. A book that brought all the grief and pain I’d felt at her passing back to the surface. And so there I was, weeping in the lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, when Therese approached and told me about Bob.

WriterBob Stewart. A man who spent his last days exactly where he wanted to be — with a community of writers he’d only known online, in a beautiful little hotel in Salem.

And so I found myself, on that Thursday evening, telling the other attendees that our evening plan had changed. That instead of a discussion of craft, we would be sharing a toast for Bob, and hearing some of the pages from his latest work. And as I told them, I found myself breaking the news of his passing over and over and over.

Some people cried. Others told me stories. One person looked like she was going to faint. Another told me that he’d lost a number of family members recently, and then excused himself to find somewhere private to sit and reflect. And through it all, I hugged and comforted and listened and was present.

UnCon Group 3But once the toast was said, once the memorial was underway, I couldn’t be present any longer. To coin my own phrase, my heart was a new helium balloon floating through a cactus forest. The slightest brush — skin against skin, mind against mind — would break me. I had too much grief, too much emotion, coursing through my body. I had to escape. And so I fled the room. Quietly. Hoping not to be noticed.

But I was.

John Vorhaus*Β  — a man equally funny and wise — saw me going and followed me out. He rejected my claims that I was ‘fine, just fine’, and he sat with me, and we talked. We talked about loss and grief and self-doubt and pain and all manner of things. We talked until my skin no longer felt electrified, until I no longer felt I was going to explode, until I felt grounded again. And during that talk, during that conversation, he said a phrase that resonated with me both then and now, and defines the UnCon experience for me.

“Cherish your emotions’.

When JV said it, he was referring to the grief and shock I was feeling — that we were all feeling — in the wake of Bob’s death. But it means so much more to me.

he entire UnCon for me.

Cherish your emotions.

Think about it for a minute. How often do we truly cherish our emotions? Conversely, how often do we feel shame or guilt about our emotions? How often do we attempt to hide them/ To wall them away, or move on from them, or pretend they’re not there? What would happen if we truly cherished our emotions — accepted them, not as being bad or good but just as being. How would that feel?

UnCon Group 4How would that inform our writing?

How would that inform our lives?

Cherish your emotions.

It ties in to what Lisa Cron said about specificity and back-story. It mirrors Donald Maass’s talk of finding emotional resonance between our lives and our character’s experiences. It touches on Meg Rosoff’s discussions of voice. But, more than that, it is a model, a mantra, for life.

And so when I think about Salem, and about WriterBob and Lisa Threadgill, and about the close connections I forged, and the games of poker I played, and the fun and hi-jinks I was part of, and the way I got lost every freaking time I walked out of that hotel building, I think of that phrase.

Cherish your emotions.

And when it all gets too much for me, when the homesickness for an event that lasted only five days and yet a lifetime threatens to overwhelm me, I take a deep breath and cherish my emotions. And then I write.

* JV has a new book coming out. I’ve read it. It’s brilliant. And you should totally go and buy it right now. Tell him Jo sent you.


Filed under Opinion, Writing

15 responses to “WU UnCon: A Conference of Connection

  1. So many wonderful things you didn’t tell me. πŸ˜‰ Of course, I was right there beside you for most of it, which was a treat, even the pickleback part. Just tapping into JV’s book right now, as a matter of fact. The guy is good.

    While you’re a balloon, I’m more Icarus, soaring higher and higher, doing my best to find the optimum place between sun and earth to ride the heavens for as long as I can before crashing back down to earth. I didn’t think I’d be up here so long. It was my experience at the UnCon — especially with people like you and JV — that’s kept me uplifted. I’ll cherish those days in Salem.

    • Haha. I didn’t mention that the first defining moment of the UnCon for me was you calling my name and hugging me as I arrived, Mike. You were an integral part of my UnCon experience — and, yes, you were right beside me for most of those times I didn’t talk about. πŸ™‚

      I loved JV’s book. I need to go write a review of it. One of the things I love about reading any of his books is that you could be sitting next to him in the bar listening to him tell the story. It’s such an authentic experience of JV-ness.

      I also love (can you feel the love dripping off the screen?) your Icarus analogy. Now that I’ve come home, I feel less like a helium balloon and more like I’m wearing Hermes’s winged boots. Here I am walking on the ground, but at any moment I can lift off and fly into the clouds.

  2. This is beautiful, Jo. Thank you for sharing. Now I have a few new “memories” and a new quote for my desk from John. xo

    • Thanks, Therese. Meeting you and getting to know both you and your gorgeous husband were highlights of my time in Salem. I wish I could have included all my highlights in my post, but it would have gone on forever. As I said in my goodbye to you, the whole week was a highlight. JV’s quote is definitely one worth keeping. Love to you. ❀

  3. When you told me Bob had passed away, I had to fight down the urge to build a safe, comfortable, and yet claustrophobic wall around myself. Flight was my response as well. I had no JV, but I took a walk in the dark, hoping I’d come across a place to pick up a pack of smokes.

    I thought about bravery, because it’s a reoccurring theme in my life. I thought about what brave and shining lights both Bob and Lisa are. How until their last moments, they followed where their souls led them.

    And I looked down one empty, dark, and damp road and alley after another. Thought about how easy it would be to disappear down one of those streets.

    I thought about what a coward I was. What a coward it made me to even think such a thing would be plausible. I was scared. So scared. I know what you mean about a balloon among cacti. Only I wanted to float up and away into the storm clouds, leaving nothing behind me.

    I realized right then that, somewhere, in the back of my untidy mind, the abyss was still whispering, still telling me to give up writing and trying.

    I denied it. I denied it and found a particle of courage I clung to on the walk back, sucking down an American Spirit cigarette.

    Then, I found you and our other friends and I saw something- the abyss written in your faces as well. And your utter defiance of it.

    That was my takeaway, overall, from the UnCon. As writers and deeply compassionate and sensitive artists and humans, we all have that murky water there. It’s where our deepest selves thrive. And we deny it by examining it, laughing, sharing, hugging, living, and letting a little blood on paper day by day.

    Brave and vulnerable. Honorable and compassionate. Willing to tell stories that help others stand in defiance of their abyss.

    My kindred spirits. xox

    • I love you, Tonia. Your outward reaction to Bob’s passing was so very similar to my own inward reaction. But, as I often say, I’m good in a crisis. When something happens, I can stay calm and help others through it. It’s only afterwards that I fall apart.

      You are one of the bravest people I know. You can’t be brave without feeling fear. The person who is never afraid has no capacity (or need) for courage.

      Cherish that murky water. It’s what makes you, you. ❀

  4. This is beautifully written. When I think of UnCon, one of the things that springs to mind is you. Mostly in motion. But also hugging. Both were full of characteristic Jo-Energy.

    I’ve gleaned from a few comments that some who were meeting me IRL for the first time found a more sedate version of me than they’d anticipated. Whether that’s the case or not, I’m positive no one found anything but an even more vivacious version of you.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely version of the parts of your experience I didn’t witness. And thank you for being an even better version of you IRL.

    • Thank you, Vaughn. Your comment made me all teary. I had such a great time at the UnCon, but one of my few regrets from Salem is that I didn’t find the opportunity to sit and talk with you in any depth. That’s the top item on my bucket list for #WUUnCon2016.

  5. Beautiful post. Cherish indeed.

    I had come to the UnCon a little disillusioned with my writing journey.For me, the optimum personal moment came when standing in Old Burying Point a little after midnight, and it started to rain. All those faded epitaphs and faded dates in time, centuries before I’d ever existed. I remember the yellow leaves covering the ground were wet and stuck to my shoes. I realized that this moment mattered, that all moments matter, and we have a limited number of them. I needed to get back to work, to use those moments to the best of my ability.

    Cherish, indeed. Thank you. xo, Jo

    • What a beautiful moment, Bee. Beautiful to experience; beautiful to cherish. I’m so glad to know that your writing journey is proceeding in the right direction now, and that you’re enjoying it again. Much love to you, and give your lovely daughter a hug for me. xxx

  6. Oh, Jo. What a wonderful, perfect post to follow the conference. I don’t know you well, but I sure do like you a lot. And not just because of the awesome, Firefly-inspired wardrobe choices. πŸ˜‰

    Thank you for sharing some of what the time in Salem meant to you, and for writing about Bob, and what it was like to be there that week, in such an honest, compassionate way.

    ‘Cherish your emotions’ is good advice. Thanks, Jo and John, for passing it along.

    • Thank you, Erin. I wish we’d had more time to connect at the UnCon — and over more than just our mutual love of Firefly-inspired clothing. πŸ™‚ I’m still cherishing all the emotions the UnCon inspired in me, and I hope you are too. xxx

  7. Jo, thanks for sharing these heartfelt thoughts. As I read these posts about the UnCon, what strikes me is how this event was life-changing, but it impacted individuals in such different ways. I, too, had the privilege to meet WriterBob. I was supposed to pick him up at the airport and we corresponded prior to the conference. Therese informed me he was in the hospital and I did not get a chance to pick him up. In fact I was surprised and pleased that he made the effort to come. I introduced myself to him in the lobby and he could not have been more gracious. He made a point of telling me he had read my first novel and really liked it. I took to him immediately as we both cut our teeth as newspaper reporters.

    I was happy to meet you in Salem. Your unbridled enthusiasm and joy were a huge part of the success of the conference. All the best to you and I hope you will attend in 2016.

    • It was really great to meet you in person, Chris, and to put a name to those initials. I’ve also been struck by how profoundly, and yet how deeply, most of the attendees were changed. Mike described the event as “his Woodstock”, and Risa compared it to “Burning Man for writers”.

      I’m so glad you had an opportunity to talk to WriterBob and and connect with him. I wish I’d had a chance to have a longer conversation with him, but I’ve really benefited from hearing the stories others have told about their interactions with him. Thank you so much for sharing yours.

      I certainly intend to be at #WUUnCon2016. I hope to see you there!

  8. Pingback: And Then This Happened | VR BARKOWSKI

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