VONA Writing Workshop – A few thoughts

I spent about a week in Berkeley last month at the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation – VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts). They, according to their website: “…provide developing writers a place where they can explore their craft in an atmosphere of support and understanding, where they can exchange with great writers ideas and inspirations, where they can gain empowerment to move from VONA to a writer’s life with authority and confidence.”

Okay, I’ll admit, that sounds a bit “fluffy” for me. I see myself as the harsh, intense, lets-go-get-’em kind of workshop attendee. I expect to be up at 8am and writing, workshopping, critiquing, and discussing until the wee hours of the morning (occassionally with beveraging), but I’ve been looking for a place to really focus my writing. Considering that its founders included Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones, considering that it lists other great faculty as well (including my instructor, Mat Johnson), considering that it addresses some of the cultural issues I struggle with in my writing and, perhaps most importantly, is affordable, and only one week long, it seemed a good fit. Odyssey and Clarion, while specific to speculative fiction, which I DO write, are both so long…I just don’t have the leave from work to manage it.

Incognegro CoverSo from June 23-29, 2013 I studied Graphic Novel writing with Mat Johnson. I’ve been home now for about a month.  Enough time to process and think about what I did there, what I learned, and where I want to go.  Overall, the workshop was a lot of fun and I think I got some great information on how to better bring my story together, how to find and take better advantage of high emotional points in my story and panel them appropriately, and to just “get off my butt” and put my work out there. 🙂 Mat also pointed out the thematic dissonance in my piece – Can’t have it be about cowardice at one end, and teamwork/humanity at the other.


And I LOVED the other people in the class:

  • Alberto with his stories about undocumented life as a child, and his great drawings (Below is a pic he did of a character in my story!),
  • Cathy and her amazing zany story of an evil corporation stealing imaginations and building “perfect” worlds and “perfect” people,
  • Danielle and her tale of inter-family conflict, relationships, and love…but with devastating superpowers,
  • Nia and the parallel stories of identity and finding your place in the world – corporate activisim, and transgender life at a women’s college,
  • Saqi and his narrative of a 13th century soldier (Sipahi) in the crumbling remains of the Khawarizm empire, as well as his own true-to-life trip to Kashmir,
  • Carol and her American witch, who is trying to discover who and what he wants to be in a world of adults who all have their own plans for him and his powers,
  • Melanie’s shape-shifter who is trying to make up a lifetime of guilt, from a moment of cowardice that destroyed another’s life,
  • Daniel’s dieselpunk noir tale set a Prohibition-era New York with storytellers, magic, jetpacks, cursed books, and a conspiracy to bring the narrator’s world crashing down,
  • and Rochelle’s wild story of Ella Jones and her magical vagina.

You can not beat that kind of creativity and I hope to see where these amazing stories and great writers’ will land.

For those of you interested in the workshop, I do recommend it.  I learned a lot and working with other Day and Mat Johnsonwriters, and being outside your usual environment are really helpful to pushing through and focusing in on what you want to say and getting it on the page.  If I had to offer a criticism, it would have to be that I had hoped for something a bit more intense.  Our class sessions were about 3-4 hours a day, with time in the evening to write, socialize, etc.  I have to admit, that my personal preference would have been more of a 9-5 schedule.  With only a week available, I would rather have an opportunity to soak up as much information as I can while there, write like mad, and then come home and unpack and process as necessary.

I’m not sure what I myself was looking for in the graphic novel writing class. I am a regular read of comics, a huge fan of Gail Simone and Greg Rucka, I’ve tinkered with writing in the graphic novel format in the past, and even have a couple of short story comics coming out this year in anthologies. But I think more than about the writing, what I learned most was perhaps to trust my judgment and move forward. I keep seeking validation and checking to see, “Is this right?” but it isn’t about right or wrong, it is about story. It is about truth. And if you’re being emotionally honest, then nothing else REALLY matters.