Dyane (looking rather porcine but happy!) with her creative nonfiction teacher Frances Lefkowitz. Frances is author of the stunning memoir To Have Not about growing up poor in San Francisco
Here’s the cover: one of my all-time favorite book covers!
The 2nd annual Catamaran Writers Conference brought me back twenty-four years ago to my days working at Labadie Productions. That was my first “grown-up” job. I helped plan and produce large-scale festivals in Silicon Valley such as the San Jose America Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival, the San Pedro Square Brew Ha Ha, Villa Montalvo Concert Series, Music in the Park and many more. special events.
Those music/arts & crafts festivals drew several hundred thousand attendees over a weekend, and I often worked twenty-hour days. I was able to do that since I was young, although it was (cough, cough) unhealthy, especially when a dormant genetic code for bipolar disorder was in my brain.
I became hypomanic with the lack of sleep, although no one recognized it back then including me. Barely sleeping at those events was crazy, and it kinda made me crazy. But I got a kick out of being a staff member. I enjoyed interacting with musicians and artists, and I really loved getting lots of free food and drinks from my 75 food vendors at each festival!
My boss founded the renowned Paul Masson Mountain Winery Concert Series before starting his own company. He and his wife, co-owner of Labadie Productions, taught me so many things. They became my second family and had very high standards on how I did my job. Event production is not for the weak!
Working a festival is very similar to working a conference. As I observed and interacted with the amazing Catamaran staff I couldn’t help but wish I had been able to work at this kind of event when I was at Labadie. It’s absolutely exhausting to do event production, but so fulfilling, which is why I lasted for almost four years at Labadie.
Apart from reminiscing here, I’ll sum up my Catamaran experience by explaining more about why I loved it so much. I had no idea that a bunch of writers and poets would be so cool, fascinating, and most important: friendly. I thought I’d show up there, keep to myself and feel lonely. I didn’t think I would make a single friend.
I was wrong on all counts, thank God. I connected with the students in my (albeit small) creative nonfiction class. I thought each writer was fantastic, and while I wasn’t going to be able to be BFF’s with them all, I knew that I’d like to keep in touch with them and promote their work, and for some of them, their books and websites.
As for my teacher Frances Lefkowitz…there are no words for how “packed with awesome” she was. Plus, I didn’t have the chance to tell you what a trouper this remarkable writer is. The night before the conference Frances was washing dishes, broke a glass and she came close to cutting the tendon in her right (writing) hand. She had to drive by herself to the ER at midnight. Yikes!
99% of people would have bailed on driving to the conference in that condition (I think she had to drive 3 or 4 hours to Pebble Beach) to teach a demanding class, but she stuck to her commitment and made the trip. Poor Frances’ hand was bandaged up and it looked like a big white lobster claw, but she was able to write.
Frances didn’t complain about her injury – not one word. Now that’s dedication and true guts. That’s my Teacher. I cannot WAIT for her next book (about learning how to surf later in life and breaking her neck) to be published and become a bestseller – she’s one to watch!
And now I’d like to share a few highlights from the conference…
Chicken Killing Poems #1 & #2
If you told me that I’d listen to not one but two lengthy, extremely detailed, disturbing poems about the mechanics involved and emotions triggered when killing a chicken, I would have said, “No way!”
On Friday night, the renowned poet Ellen Bass recited a poem “What Did I Love” about her first time killing a chicken accompanied by her wife Janet. It was extremely well written and I could never pull something like that off, but the subject matter wasn’t what I’d choose to listen to in a chapel on a balmy August evening. Guess what?
You can listen to it too via The New Yorker – Bass fan Phillip Levine reads it!
On Saturday it was our big night. The evening was designated for a reception and the opportunity for most of the teachers to read their latest work. Twenty students were invited to sign up so they could read their work too. I wasn’t going to do this as I thought I’d probably pass out if I did it, but I wound up caving and taking part. (More on that later.)
On Saturday night a student named Marek from Warsaw, Poland recited his chicken killing poem in his heavy Polish accent. Marek read with such feeling; it turned out he was quite talented. Boy, it was a grim poem – even gorier than Ellen’s masterpiece. Marek had me in tears at the end.
Back to my decision to read- on Saturday afternoon during my meeting with agent/San Franciso Writers conference founder Michael Larsen, he advised me to do as much public speaking as possible. When we finished our session, Michael had me so pumped up that I sprinted over to the sign-up sheet. With a fleeting sense of confidence, I scrawled my name in the #18 slot. That wasn’t the greatest placement since by then everyone would be totally pooped out, but I did it anyway. Whatever, I thought, throwing caution to the wind.
I decided to read a four-minute-long piece that I wrote in class about a significant place. I chose the loony bin literally (ironically) down the road from the conference called CHOMP where I stayed five times. I titled it “PTSD Highway”.
However, by the time I was set to speak (11:15 p.m. – a late time for someone who usually goes to bed around 8p.m.) I decided to wimp out on my choice. I recited my poem “Enough” instead. I didn’t care if everyone else read for much longer periods of time. What mattered was my getting up in front of the crowd and doing it. Fortunately, I had my beloved Kindle with me so I could access “Enough” via my blog.
There were so many fabulous readings. In a deadpan voice, a nonfiction teacher named Robin Hemley read about an Air Supply reunion concert that was absolutely hysterical. Frances’ micro-memoir about breaking her neck while surfing was so brilliantly written and intense that you could hear a pin drop in the theater.
When I was called up to the stage, I stood in the wings and started to freak out. I whispered to the seasoned co-MC Kevin (our poetry slam master/owner of the Art Bar & Cafe @ The Tannery in Santa Cruz) for advice. Kevin whispered two bits of wisdom:
1) Breathe in, breathe out, and…
2) Keep my feet in the same place.
The other MC named George, also a terrific speaker, announced my name. On shaky legs I hobbled onstage in front of the podium. I had been warned about the extremely bright spotlight which nearly blinded me. I looked out at a sea of blackness. I couldn’t see one face. It sounds kind of good, right? It wasn’t – it was really weird. My legs kept shaking but I remained glued to my spot, following Kevin’s dictum.
As an icebreaker/stalling device, I told the audience that I was nervous and explained how I asked Kevin for the last-minute public speaking advice. Some of them may have thought that was a bit funny. I certainly hoped so. Then I commanded them to give Kevin a round of applause for all his hard work, which they were happy to do as he had been a great MC/teacher throughout the weekend.
I explained my switcheroo from a 4 minute-long piece to my forty-second poem, and I know they were glad about my decision. I could feel it in the air. Everyone was ready to call it a night!
Since I was saving everyone so much tine, I gave a brief introduction to my piece. I leaned in toward the big, black microphone, making sure I looked at the audience even though I couldn’t see anyone. They could have been a bunch of aliens for all I knew. I said,
“I made a last-minute change from a four-page-long freewrite to a very short piece I wrote for a wonderful, cutting-edge website called Stigmama, which is on hiatus. It was founded by Dr. Walker Karraa, a mentor of mine who has believed in me as a writer. She’s the author of the book Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth. Walker is also a trauma expert so she really knows what she’s talking about. Stigmama’s purpose is to break apart the stigma that our society places upon mentally ill women. It’s called Enough.”
I proceeded to recite my poem with as much emotion as possible despite feeling like a zombie. I tried to keep looking up, not down at the podium, although all I saw each time I glanced out at the audience I saw that unnerving black.
Enough of feeling obligated to you even though I don’t owe you anything
Enough of supporting you as much as I can, yet you never throw me a bone
Enough of worrying if others like me – that went out with the 70’s
Enough of comparing myself to Photoshopped fourteen-year-olds with professional makeup artists
Enough of comparing myself to others’ social media: likes, comments, pages, blogs & followers
Enough of trying endlessly to accomplish what our society deems respectable
Enough of bipolar depression kicking my ass
Enough of putting pressure on myself to be enough
Now I’m strong enough to say…
As I reached the second-to-last line about strength, I emerged from the podium & busted this move!
It was well-received – people even clapped! 🙂
Elated after facing my fear of public speaking, I made a deep curtsy as if I was in front of Princess Kate or starring on Downton Abbey. It was hilarious! The audience was so kind, probably due to the heady combo. of exhaustion, the sea air, inspiring writing, gifted minds, and lots of high-end drinks imbibed at the reception.
It didn’t matter why they were nice – I think they meant it. I even had one writer named Barbara hop out of her seat to come hug me, and she thanked me for speaking about mental illness. Several other attendees thanked me later on, mentioning they had experience with bipolar in one way or another – talk about awesome.
There were more adventures, but I’m beyond tired tonight so I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’m lifting my rule to blog 1x/week just for this week. I want to capture a few more memories and share them with you.
In my next post I’d like to share some websites of some very special writers I met at Catamaran.
In the meantime take care, hope your Monday wasn’t too Mondayish, and I send you my love.