My week at VONA (June 22 – June 28 2014)

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When you’re serious about your craft you put yourself in situations that will push you to your limits. Greatness isn’t given. It is earned. Grateful to be a small branch on this tree that is VONA. May we all flourish individually and grow collectively. And may our stories be the foundation that binds us together. -NAR

It has been almost a week since I’ve been back from my trip to Berkeley, CA where I attended my very first Voices of Our Nations Arts workshop.  VONA founded in 1999 by Junot Diaz, Elmaz Abinader, Victor Diaz, and Diem Jones is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation. It brings writers of colors together for one week at UC Berkeley where their work is centralized and honored.  Over 2,000 writers from around the globe have participated in VONA. I can now include myself in that list.

It has taken me this long to write about my experience because I needed time to digest it all. Though I documented each day with a video blog sometimes putting it down on the page proves to be a bit more difficult. The VONA experience for me was in one word, transformational. I learned things about myself as a writer that I had never realized before, about why I write and what my origin story is (thanks Evelina). I learned how scene, plot, character development, and point of view are all critical elements to writing a great story. I learned where I should use more exposition and where I should use less. I learned that sometimes internal dialogue is good in order to better understand what a character is feeling and thinking. I also learned that sometimes developing a scene and showing action is better.

There were so many moments that I pinched myself because I could not believe that I was sitting amongst some of the best writers of color in the country and worldwide (there were some writers who came from other parts of the world). It all felt like an amazing dream. Each of the facilitators are award winning authors. Each brings a uniqueness to story telling that is unmatched. They were all so friendly and approachable that even if you weren’t in their workshop you could still sit and talk with them about anything from writing to family. When you hear that VONA is a family, it’s true. You are embraced from the very first day and as the week progresses that family bond only gets stronger.

In the workshops you are encouraged to share your stories. You are encouraged to be vulnerable and open. You laugh and cry all the while knowing that your workshop peers get it. There is no having to explain your story.

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” ― Franz Kafka

That quote from Franz Kafka is for me what VONA was about. It was about writing authentically and honestly. Writing the story that matters to me first. If the story doesn’t matter to the writer, if it doesn’t invoke feeling in the writer it won’t matter to the reader. Most writers tend to hold back sometimes because they are afraid of what others will think when they read their work. We do tend to bend it and water it down. VONA taught me not to. VONA taught me to get at the emotional truth of the story.  VONA taught me to write the story that matters to me.

“Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”
Meg Cabot

Every day I was there I felt a shift happening. I allowed myself to become uncomfortable and write the story that I could not write. During our free writes I wrote about things that I thought I never would write about. I finally got to the emotional truth in my story. I wrote scenes that I never thought I’d write and because I did I have now brought my characters to life. I have made them vulnerable, and honest, and real.  I have allowed myself to write authentically and unapologetically and now my writing will never be the same. VONA changes you in the most beautiful way. I encourage all writers of color to apply because once you attend you will be forever transformed.

“When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.” ― Dean Jackson



 **This article was originally published July 2014. This is a re-post.**

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