The ferry chugged from the mainland toward Martha’s Vineyard. Seduced by a cool breeze and sunlight refracting off the water, I stood on the deck, facing my destination, blurry and indistinct in the distance. A dozen hues of blue draped the sky.
Leaning against the guardrail, memories stirred in me, resurrecting the thrill that used to sweep from my scalp to my toes when crossing Puget Sound during the years I spent in Washington. My life has been a series of journeys. As one ends, another begins. This particular journey would be a short one; I’d come to Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing hoping to find a writing sanctuary, a place that gave birth to stories and buried alive the THOU SHALT NOT rules of literature.
It was an award for an unpublished short story, that led me to the conference. Because I didn’t have enough time to write another story, I reached for an old one. In order to meet the 3,000-word limit in the MVICW fiction writing competition, I’d need to slice more than 1,000 words from the story.
As the deadline approached, I snipped here, snipped there, threaded the remaining words, and read the changed text aloud, repeating the process again and again. Needing every permissible syllable to give my story a heartbeat in a cropped format, I submitted exactly 3,000 words, expecting to hear not a peep from MVICW. I’d add the inevitable loss to my collection of rejections.
In April, while spending some time with my sister in Illinois, I received an email from Alexander Weinstein, founder of MVICW and author of Children of the New World. He had written to tell me that Robert James Russell, co-founder of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, author of numerous books, had chosen my short story for 2nd place and a partial scholarship to 2017 MVICW. With the arrival of Alexander’s email, my plans for July changed in an instant.
Monday morning, the first official day of the conference, I entered a meeting room not far from a harbor filled with boats. Hoping no one would uncover my invisibility until I felt comfortable, I fiddled with a crow feather and a couple of rocks I’d dug out of the island dirt.
Over the next five days I sat through classes taught by a diverse faculty: Christopher Citro, Jennifer Tseng, Allegra Hyde, Robert James Russell, and Alexander Weinstein, teachers who had come to share their knowledge with enthusiasm and sincerity. Intermediate to advanced writers surrounded me. For the first time in ages I felt challenged. Although I’d been teaching writing workshops from time to time, I needed to continue learning. I had set out in search of something special, something unique, something inspiring, and I found everything I wanted at Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, a cutting-edge writing conference.
Before the week was over I was sun-drenched and seeking out the rhythms of my sentences. I learned to welcome the forbidden, to plunder through the shadows for stories, to experiment with language, to trust myself, to be authentic. In one of the most beautiful places on the east coast, I danced with imagery and metaphor; I sang with form and syntax; I embraced my writing voice.
Although the days at Martha’s Vineyard melted one into another, I didn’t mourn their passage. At the end of the conference, I boarded the ferry and left the island to return to my southern roots and write.