Attending a weeklong writers’ workshop is one of the many ways a writer can level up in their craft. I was fortunate enough to spend the last week of June at the University of Pennsylvania in Philly for the second session of VONA workshops (which is one of the many reasons this post is late!). VONA, Voices of Our Nations Art Foundation, is one of the leading workshops in the nation for writers of color. It was founded in 1999 after Elmaz Abinader, Junot Diaz, Victor Diaz and Diem Jones saw that there was a dire need for a space and community like VONA where writers of color could support each other and grow in their craft together.
Every writers’ workshop has its own culture. Last summer, courtesy of a scholarship through my university, I attended the Community of Writers in Lake Tahoe. While I met some nice people and Lake Tahoe is beautiful, VONA had a totally different vibe and I felt like I connected with my workshop group on a totally different level. I also felt very fortunate to study with Kiese Laymon who was the first editor to publish my work and get me paid for my writing when he was at Gawker.
Monday started with a sound healing session with the amazing Gina Breedlove. After my chakras were in alignment, I met with my workshop group for our first session. We spent nearly 3 hours just talking about our feelings and the ethics of writing memoir and personal essay. This felt radical to me. I’d been schooled to separate my feelings from my work during workshop, which is a nearly impossible task. I think beginning the workshop by acknowledging people’s fears and dreams as writers made us all handle each other with elevated care for the rest of the week.
Location, location, location. While in Lake Tahoe, I shattered my iPhone screen for the very first time ever. The nearest repair shop was over an hour away in Reno. I had to go. It’d be difficult to get through the rest of the week without a phone and I was leaving out before the shop would be open on the last day and headed on a cross country road trip, so I had to get it handled. It was so inconvenient. Attending a workshop at UPENN was nice because it’s in the city and we were able to walk to all kinds of restaurants and bars – Which was so necessary because the campus food was… well campus food.
You probably won’t get any actual writing done. I got a small amount of writing done for a client, but for the most part, I was too spent after workshop to really harness the power of my mind for writing. I also knew I had a limited amount of time with these amazing people and I wanted to use it wisely, so I was more likely to head over to happy hour than to head back to my dorm and flip open my laptop.
You’ll leave feeling inspired. Not only has my writing community expanded, but it was so refreshing to get away from my typical routine for a week. I also read a lot of amazing writing, which gave me some fresh ideas for my own work. The feedback I received was super motivating (TIME TO FINISH YOUR MEMOIR, MINDA!). I wasn’t in love with the essay I submitted for workshop, but my group showed me all the things my essay was doing right, which made me feel more able to correct what it was doing wrong. There were several essays and book suggestions thrown around while at VONA and many of the writers I met are producing work I’m eager to look up.
How do you find the right writers’ workshop for you? To really feel like you’re getting your time and money’s worth, research the writers’ workshop you’re applying to beyond their website. Lots of people write blog posts about their experiences (kind of like this one!). You can also ask writers you know if there are workshops they recommend. VONA had been recommended to me about 90 times before I actually applied. I wanted to make sure I was in a good place financially and with my project before going. If you’re worried about the money aspect, many workshops offer full and partial scholarships and I regularly see writers crowdfunding to cover their expenses. Tip: Just apply, and worry about how you’ll get there later.
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