Fight Club – VONA-style

It has taken me a couple days to prepare this post.  I am only days away from the conclusion of my first Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) experience and even now, I’m dealing with cognitive, sensory and emotional overload.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow schedule of events, those are posted on the website, besides an hourly by-play wouldn’t fully express it.

Let me just start with me.  I walked in with no real expectations.  I figured at minimum, I would get a comprehensive critique of my work.  Maybe I also expected a few didactic lessons on writing craft, show-don’t-tell, grammar lessons etc.

I got some of that, but it was so much MORE.  Our facilitator – I need to pause here and draw your attention to this pronoun – OUR, not MY.  On Friday morning, I walked into a workshop and by the close of the day, we had evolved into a unit.  Eleven of us settled into this cramped classroom, looking into the faces of strangers and evolved into Abani’s Fight Club.  It was mind-blowing; I’d never experienced anything like it before.

Okay, now back to Chris.

Chris Abani is intuitive, observant and scary insightful.  Do a Google search and you will discover a man with an extensive/impressive literary portfolio, peppered with prestigious awards and honors that most writers are too afraid to even dream of.  If I’m to be honest, I expected to snooze through a good deal of his workshop, especially the lectures, expecting a long drawn out esoteric discussion on the use of metaphor and symbolism in post-modernism America, or some shit. He has a PhD and a full professorship, so I’m pretty sure he could talk that crap if he’d wanted to, however, he quickly disabused us of that notion and asserted that, if we were willing to work, he would give us so much more.

Chris also made a point of telling us to get used to hearing him say “muthaf*&#” over and again.  In fact, I learned quite a few new expletives, “moody f&*#” being one of my personal favorites.

So, he asked us, did we want it easy or did we want it hard?

Well, you know, eleven dedicated writers, most of us had made significant sacrifices to get here, several of us were already published, others currently enrolled in or graduated from MFA programs, we’re not pansies, for goodness sake, so of course, we told him we wanted to do the work.

What the hell were we thinking?  **smh**

Chris is a strong and challenging trainer.  He pushed hard, not to break but to break through protective and defensive barriers that prevent us from getting to the heart of our work.  The unique part of him was his willingness to travel down the rabbit hole with us.  I believe it was his willingness to be vulnerable that took away fears of negative judgment and created a safe place of trust.

So, he was work-shopping us and not our work specifically.  We did eventually get around to the mechanics of writing, but by that time, once we understood what we were writing and why, and why this particular story had to be told by us, the whole process went faster and smoother.

I started the process of identifying who I am, as a writer.  I’m learning to trust my instincts about my own unique form of story telling.  Can’t nobody tell a story like me, because it is mine to tell.  You and I might witness the same accident but the re-telling of it will be just as different and unique as our fingerprints.

Do you know what kind of storyteller you are?  Have you any idea, if you’re unaware, that if you try to write in a style that is incongruent with your natural oral abilities, your story suffers?  How many of us really understand story structure, design principle, storyboarding, scenes, entry and exit values? Oh, and exposition kills!

Overall, I would say that VONA exceeded my expectations. If you have the opportunity to apply and attend, I say go for it.  The staff is gearing up for the summer workshop, five days instead of three and it will be held at the University of California, Berkeley campus.  Chris won’t be teaching fiction, but I understand that the current Rock Star of the literary world, Junot Diaz will be there, in addition to seven other very talented facilitators.

I entered the University of Miami campus with the expectation that the VONA fiction workshop would fix complications in my work.  I left with the knowledge that the answer to the complication was within me.

With heartfelt thanks to my new family, Chris, Alejandro, Bix, Buki, Charlotte, Cyd, Daisy, Kourtney, Patrick, Roseli and Sheilah.

6 thoughts on “Fight Club – VONA-style

    1. Evelyn, I hope that you’re accepted; VONA really is a life-altering experience. Yes, I’m still in regular contact with my small group of workshoppers, as well as several other writers from different workshops. I didn’t apply this year but I’m hoping to return in 2015. If I can answer any other questions, let me know.

      1. Okay, two more question then. 🙂

        Would you say that a majority of the workshoppers are established writers, like the ones in your group? You said many were current MFA students or published. What percentage would you say weren’t published or MFA students/grads? Curious to know if I have any chance at all.

      2. Evelyn, I’d say you had an equal chance of being accepted. In my group, some were published, others current or past MFA students and then there was me! At the time of my application, I was an unpublished writer who had only started writing 2 or 3 years before. In fact, I don’t even write literary fiction, I write commercial mysteries and thrillers. I honestly wanted to ask Elmaz and Chris both how exactly I got there but I was afraid they’d realize their mistake and send me home. Seriously though, I needed VONA like a thirsty man needed water and I think THAT was the basis of my acceptance.

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