“I’m going to make such an ass of myself,” I explained to Dr. Unicorn*, my best friend who moved away last summer. “It’s a contest for beginners, and I don’t think of myself as a beginner, and when I won I’d sold enough stories to be disqualified twice over, they just hadn’t come out and the contest doesn’t count them until they do. I’m having backward Imposter Syndrome, where I feel like I’m too qualified to be worthy, and I can’t talk about this with other writers because, come on, who the hell gets uncomfortable about winning things because they’re too successful?”
And that was basically it. I felt like my level of ass-ness was directly proportional to how awesome winning was, because it was a win that should have gone to somebody who was a beginner, who did need the validation winning the contest would give them.
“Is this the sort of thing where friends and family would come to support you for? Because I’d go, if you wanted me there.”
That was the moment where all of the awesome of winning finally sank in. It was like putting sugar in black tea or a dash of salt in cake batter. On my own, I look at me winning and I see all the writers who haven’t been as lucky as me and had the same opportunities I’ve already had, who would get so much more out of winning, and who work really hard for it, quarter after quarter, and I feel like I cheated them. Dr. Unicorn let me short-circuit that, made it something cool, let it be this awesome thing that was going to be fantastic. I needed that. Bewildering
I started preparations for WotF in November. I had to – I run my own business and if I didn’t I’d never survive a week away and absorbed by something else. My flight out to the workshop left on April 7. My first official communication about the workshop, including such information as the exact dates, came on February 15. If dependent on ASI, I’d have had less than two months to prepare for the trip.
I didn’t get a schedule or agenda of any sort for the workshop until the day I got there. What they gave me was a lie, more likely to lead me into error than actually represent what was happening. They were irritated when Dr. Unicorn hadn’t already made travel plans for an event we had no information about. During the workshop week, they’d get irritated when somebody believed the printed schedule and wound up wrong, or missed a thing because they’d been pulled away for a photo shoot, interview, etc. It wasn’t malice. They really are that disorganized and badly managed.
This contest has had such a huge, massive impact on so many people that there’s a sort of “induction into tribe” effect surrounding it. Past winners reached out to create spaces for the new winners to connect, ask questions, get the logistical details that ASI wasn’t together enough to provide. The generosity displayed by those people, and then during the week itself by the judges and other professionals who don’t have to be there or do anything, but do anyway because they care and think it’s important to teach the industry and the business to the new people who are getting in and might not have any other way of learning…it’s astonishing.
I don’t mean they’re being pure altruists. It’s in their interests to find fresh talent and build relationships with them. But they’re far, far more generous than they have to be merely to accomplish that, and the fact that they care is enough to make the contest and the experience something special. Things become valuable simply because people value them.
ASI’s first question when they called me was whether I’d be bringing a spouse. I did a little dance, then gloated a bit when I said, “No, but my best friend is coming down from Seattle for the gala.” Best friend. I don’t mean boyfriend. I don’t mean partner. I mean best friend. I mean the person who gave me the space I need to feel like I deserved this.
“Oh,” they say after a long, awkward pause. “Well, good for you.”
The next day I got an email letting me know that the men would have their measurements taken for tuxes during the workshop week, and somebody would be in touch with the girls about acceptable colors for their dresses. My grandmother, who loves clothes and buying me pretty things, was taking me shopping when I went to visit her. I tried to find out from the contest what their guidelines were. I got my dress six weeks before leaving for the workshop.
The guidelines finally came three weeks later, when their hair and makeup coordinator asked me for a picture of me in the dress. The gorgeous dress my grandmother traipsed around Richmond with me to find.
The only question I have is if your dress is not too tight. Something like one size or even two sizes too small? It is true that the dress is probably made to be fitted but sometimes is looks better to have it not too stretchy. That is a bit of a concern I have. Is there a way to trade it for a bigger size?
And when I replied saying that my dress fit fine, but I’d be willing to wear a tux if they were concerned?
I’ll look at it when you have arrived. If needed I will find a solution in locating another dress. I have done it many times. I am made responsible to have you all look great. I just am looking for a back-up in case, so I am not having to handle any last minute which I am sure you understand. What is your size?
One of the stories I didn’t get to hear about the contest until after I won was about the winner they made cry over her dress. The awesome, fantastic celebration of the launching of a new writer’s career, and they made her cry. Over a dress. Oh, and it’s not that anybody would ever say anything to Dr. Unicorn about them not being a straight man, but they shouldn’t dress too femme because the people at ASI don’t really like that.
I very nearly didn’t go.
Inspiring Have you ever watched somebody as they realize they have a shot at their dream? I mean watched the actual realization happen, over the course of several days, where they get tired and overwhelmed and it just clicks that they’ve got what it takes? I get high on that. It’s part of why I like working with first time buyers as a Realtor – seeing somebody realize they get to have a thing they deeply want but didn’t actually expect to get is amazing. The workshop week was full of that. And watching other people watch it happen and seeing how it affected them was fantastic, too.
It’s possible I dove over furniture to hug Dr. Unicorn upon their arrival Thursday night. I’m not sure. I know I was mid-sentence with Mark-from-Kobo, stopped to say, “Excuse me a moment,” and then I was hugging Uni. There was furniture between where I’d been and where Uni was, and I don’t remember going around any furniture. Whatever I did, it was with grace and dignity, and I am not ashamed.
Infuriating The winners are not real people to ASI. It’s not malicious. From ASI’s perspective, there are no real people, just pawns in their great publicity machine designed to sell books with L. Ron Hubbard’s name on them. The workshop is a side effect, and one which clearly gets in the way of their staged publicity shots. All of their shots are staged. They will drag you out into the afternoon L.A. sunlight, even when you’re protesting that you’re over-heated, extremely photo-sensitive, and already have a massive headache from too much daylight, then expect you to harass strangers on the street so they can film you “interviewing a stranger” for your 24-hour story. Then they’ll ask you to do it again, except could you give me that smoothie you’re clinging to as a defense mechanism?
They’ll stalk you while you’re trying to write that story to the point where the only way to avoid them is to leave the building. Then turn off your phone, because they’ll call you to have you stage “writing” for them. They’ll take your drinks, your bags, your jackets, whatever they think doesn’t fit with their image, and it might take days for you to get them back, if you ever do. By the end of the week I’d been triggered into disaster mode so hard that I had a pharmacy, snack bar and toothpaste in my bag, which I was clutching for dear life. It’s been several weeks and I’m still twitchy whenever somebody’s behind me with a camera.
At the gala, they fed the vegetarians London broil. They fed everybody London broil. They never asked about whether there were vegetarians. The ones who got to eat instead of being dragged off for more photo ops or for documentary interviews were lucky. The writers never got to see the displays of the artist portfolios put out at the after party. That really bugged me since I was very invested in the artists by then. ASI dragged me away from the signing so I could give an interview that was not remotely subtle in its attempt to bait quotes praising L. Ron Hubbard. I’d rather enjoyed talking to strangers while signing their books.
But honestly, the most infuriating part? Before the interview, they handed over forms with blank fields and generic release language and asked for your signature.
“What should I put into the blanks?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll fill that out at the office,” they answered.
That’s more or less the opposite of the model for good business practice they ought to present. Especially to beginners and new people who might not know better and are there to be mentored.
This is definitely more of a commentary on my daily life than the typical workshop experience, but I worked less that week than I had any week all year. Right up until my body figured out I was on the west coast and it should adjust my sleep cycle accordingly, I was the best rested I’ve been all year, too. Having a week to think, breathe, and do nothing but books and writing and related things? Fabulous.
Then again, preparing for the workshop was a significant source of extra stress in the first part of the year.
“How’s your week been so far?” Uni asked during post-hug unpacking. I’d just seen my art for the first time a few hours before and I was absolutely buzzing about it. Half an hour later I was nearly finished talking about all the people I’d met and liked. And giving their back stories and details.
“There’s Randy who’s hilarious and sweet, and Kat who’s into board games, and Amanda who had me as her roommate until you got here and manages to be adorable about missing her kid, and Tim who’s the published finalist and I think he doesn’t think he belongs here but he’s great and needs to figure that out, and Megan who’s accepted my challenge to a cage match to defend the honor of our respective artists…”
“So, you’ve basically adopted everybody?” Uni asked. “I should have guessed you were going to adopt everybody.” I may have used a rude gesture when I replied.
I compulsively read reviews of my stuff. Bad reviews don’t hurt my feelings – I sorta like them – but I’m desperate to find out whether the people who read it got what I was trying to do, they understood what was happening, whether the story worked. My 24-hour story was one of the three that got critiqued by the group. Tim Powers called out absolutely everything I’d put into it, and pointed at exactly the things I’d done in order to put them there. That was my personal win for the week.
Ass-making of self
After the gala, when everybody was punch-drunk and hanging out in the lobby, I was talking to Randy, Megan, and Leena, three of the four first place winners. Randy had just won the grand prize. Megan got teary. Then Leena. Shortly, Randy joined in. I pointed and giggled. Then offered hugs. Then giggled at them some more. Though I wonder whether one can actually make an ass of one’s self if one is always an ass.
While I was thinking very seriously about not going to the workshop, I decided that, you know what, I can’t possibly be the only person getting patronized and insulted by ASI, and while I can certainly walk away without feeling like I’ve done myself any significant harm or losing something I need, I am, as noted at the beginning, very lucky. Not everyone is, and maybe I have a responsibility to see things through and not be quiet, because I have very little to lose. That made it better, gave me a way to go without being a willing victim marching into a bad situation.
I was sharing the emails I got from the hair and makeup person as they were coming, and getting feedback on my replies since I was, by then, so emotionally bankrupt I didn’t trust my instincts. What was Uni’s suggested reply when, in order to rescue me from my error in dress size selection, ASI asked me for my dress size?
“My size is fire and death!”
I made a T-shirt. I offered to make one for anybody else who needed to turn the nonsense into a joke, rather than a threat. There were some takers. There were private emails from past winners offering consolation and support and suggestions for where I could run for rescue if things got bad while I was there. Because, apparently, winners needing rescue is a thing.
There were also less private emails from past winners telling me I ought to feel more grateful, and that unnecessary drama is just that.
And the general sense that this contest wasn’t so much a validating, awesome prize I’ve won, as a force of nature to be navigated and endured.
I went expecting to come back with a clear answer about whether or not I’d have preferred to just spend the week in Seattle. I don’t have it. The good parts were awesome. The bad parts were devastating. There was a range in the middle that was more or less obliterated by the extremes. I certainly could have done without the stress and nastiness in the weeks leading up to the workshop, when I had to orchestrate leaving my life for a week to walk into a situation where I more or less expected to be treated like garbage, and had my expectations met several times.
But once I got there, there was entirely too much good to elide or gloss over. I’m going to be ambivalent about this experience, qualified in my recommendations around the contest, for a long, long time. That’s absurd. There’s no reason for any of the downsides, no justification. There are too many people who care too much; too many things that are too good. I went to the workshop expecting to end it in a rage and advise everybody to run screaming. I walked out wanting to be able to recommend the contest without caveat.
I can’t. But I want to.
*This is a pseudonym, obviously. The pertinent individual requested that I use one. They didn’t get a choice about what it was.