Is it possible to experience withdrawal from a trip?
It must be, since I’ve been feeling symptoms that I’d label withdrawal since returning from Europe about four weeks ago. It’s likely a combination of things: my partner, her brother, and most of our friends were away at a Certain Desert Shenanigans festival, leaving me plenty of time with my thoughts; and I just started a new job, so even though I’ve got plenty of time to myself, most of it has been consumed with adjusting to the implications of that new role.
But that isn’t an explanation of why I’m feeling the way I feel. It’s the setting in which those feelings have the opportunity to metastasize. To grow tentacles and explore the boundaries of their cage, to prod and test the limits of their power over my day to day.
It might seem strange to bestow agency and cancerous identity to these feelings. After all, you may find yourself asking, didn’t I have an amazing time?
I did. An overwhelming, immensely educational, mind-altering, perception-shifting, notion-rewriting time on my trip. And I came back to my life in the “default world”—as the Burners like to call it—and didn’t have the space I didn’t think I’d need to integrate those new pieces of me into this life.
How can I take the part of me that drank in the community like fuel, that ate up every spark of inspiration, that stoked the furnace that grew in me with reckless vigor, and fit it into the rest of this me, the one with the new commute and the past-due veterinary appointment?
Maybe one of the reasons it’s been more difficult than I’d anticipated is because the farther away I get from that space, both physically and emotionally, the more I think of it as the time I pretended to be a writer. I fooled so many of you, my new friends. Here you thought I was one of you, but I can’t hold a candle to y’all.
Part of me knows that’s absurd, and that I’m breaking one of the more important rules I learned on the journey, but I don’t have you with me to slap my wrist, crew! I’m here with my cats and my thoughts and there’s nobody who can stop this imposter train from barreling through.
So in an effort to stem the bleeding I am going to write about the trip, finally. Maybe it’ll remind me that I am one of you, after all.
Up until the minute Krystal dropped me off at the airport, I was terrified. I’d already spent the money—lots of it—on this trip, and I didn’t know anyone who would be there, at least personally. I’d be going to places I had never been, on a cruise for the first time (which I’d had reservations about anyway), to be a Writer in Public for what felt like the first time. (This isn’t entirely sensible, since I had been to a convention and had been working as a writer in the corporate space for nearly nine years. But feelings aren’t supposed to make sense, are they?)
But something changed when the car door closed and Krystal pulled away. I remembered what it felt like to travel, and to travel alone. I remembered that I love it. I was energized and ready to go.
On the first flight, to Copenhagen, I sat next to a young woman who was traveling out of the country for the first time, for a five-month study abroad program in Denmark. Her whole family was with her, but she wasn’t able to sit with them. We chatted a bit, mostly about her studies. When she asked what I was doing I kept it brief. A writing retreat. No, I didn’t know anyone else who was going on the trip. She said the idea terrified her. I told her I’d felt the same way until about two hours before we started chatting, and we laughed. I can’t remember her name.
After about seventeen hours of travel, I was in Kiel, a port city in northern Germany, standing on front of the hotel and deliriously recalling my reservations about the whole trip from the departures curb at SFO. All these new people, and what if my writing is garbage compared to all of them, it definitely is garbage, oh no, what have I done, now I’m Germany with all these people who will take turns telling me I should quit and they’re probably all very tall and this was all a mistake and maybe it isn’t too late to turn around and…
And I walked into the hotel, somewhat unhinged from the journey, and wholly unprepared for what lay in store for me.
I met my roommate, Travis (about whom I’ll share more, later), and went down to the opening event—a welcome and brief tutorial on how we’d go about boarding the ship. I saw people I recognized, but didn’t know personally. Authors I admire greatly, but hadn’t met personally. It was strange, to feel like I knew these people, but to know that because of our our long, asynchronous, one-way conversation, I was a stranger to them. Not for long, though.
That first evening was about meet-and-greets and learning to write through (and despite) fear. To understand that the fears that keep our fingers from putting words to paper can be looked at and analyzed (somewhat) objectively, and that we can develop techniques that allow us to either ignore those fears, or compartmentalize them, appreciate their strange value, and continue doing the work. It was an excellent way to start the trip.
The following day we made our way to the ship, the boarding of which could be called an ordeal, which in turn was overshadowed by the absurdity of walking onto what was, essentially, SpaceVegas.
Let me explain. The cruise ship’s ostentation was more than a little tacky, to the point where I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud when I finally made it through the various stages of boarding and saw the interior for the first time. It was like this Italian cruise ship line took their idea of what Vegas is, mashed it together with a single viewing of a Star Trek episode (for their signage and some of the decor) and said “yeah, that’s a good motif for our vessel, let’s go with that.”
I’ve made no secret of my newfound distaste for cruising (as you might recall from a certain poem published on this very blog), but that’s more a “me” thing than a “cruise” thing, I imagine. See, I used to have chronic vertigo as a result of stress-induced vestibular migraines, and a week on a cruise ship felt like being on the verge of a vertigo episode for nearly 24 hours a day. Not terribly fun. That being said, I will absolutely be going on a cruise again, next year, to attend the 2018 Writing Excuses Retreat. Because it was just that good.
Rather than go into the details of every day on the cruise, and our various stops along the way, I’ll go into what I’ve taken away from the retreat—which I recently did orally on that there podcast I have.
The retreat was unlike anything I’d done before. To be surrounded by a group of peers who’ve all signed up to take part in this creative growth, together, was motivating in a way I could never have anticipated. To hear their stories, both fictional and personal, to see them at work, to understand each other on a fundamental level, was overwhelming. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was really part of a community. Sure, I have love, friendship, and community here and in other spaces in my life, but there was something different about this one. Writing is a personal, vulnerable, deeply strange thing, and to share it wordlessly (ironic?) with this group was like having a boulder lifted from my shoulders. I never knew I carried it until it wasn’t there. Instead of hedging my nerdiness in regards to writing, as I often do in the real world, here I was free to be me, and my own aforementioned nerdiness could barely hold a candle compared to the group at large. I had so much to learn from these people, and the only tragedy is that I had but one week to work with.
The instructors were fantastic. Caring, careful, intelligent, sensitive, available people who had no reason to be, other than that we share something outside of our relative levels of success. I got to finally talk to these people—these people—and they treated me like one of their own, no questions asked.
I got to pester John Berlyne with questions I never knew I had about agents, and rather than brush me aside he came and found me after his session so that I could ask the rest of the questions bouncing around in my head. I got to see Wesley Chu, delighted at finding his own books on the shelves of one of the best SFF bookstores I’ve been to in the world (in Old Town Stockholm), and I shared in that excitement with him—with a frikkin’ Campbell winner! I got to ask Tempest Bradford about my story, and she gave me such amazing feedback that I doubt I’ll ever forget our conversation. I got to know Thomas Olde Heuvelt and David Samwel, terrific people who shepherded me into meeting some of my idols at Worldcon. I got to sit down for an amicable lunch with Aliette de Bodard, who asked about my work with genuine interest, which lead to a long conversation about the nature of mortality and grief. I got to laugh with Dan Wells and his daughter, Audrey, about the boat-related shenanigans.
And that’s saying nothing of my classmates, who were every bit as stimulating and helpful as the instructors. I especially want to give a hat-tip to Travis Sullivan, my roommate on the ship, whose no-nonsense approach to solving story problems helped me break through on more than one idea that had been plaguing me prior to the trip. Also he somehow got me to go to the gym at 6am, which is a thing nobody has ever been able to make me do. Go figure.
Even if I went through the retreat moment by moment, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I think I’ve done a good enough job at showing how meaningful it was for me, though, so I’ll move on to Helsinki and Worldcon.
Arriving back in Kiel was surreal. The week on the ship had been both an eternity and a blip, and I was glad to be rid of the boat part of the ordeal. A week is a long time to spend thinking about writing all day, and while I felt ready for a breather, I wished that after a weekend of exploring I could go back to another week of retreat. But I had a flight to catch the following morning, to Finland.
That evening I went for a walk through Kiel with Yvette Keller and Mark Bessey, a wonderful couple from Santa Barbara with whom I felt immediately at home. We had an excellent (non-vegan, sorry) dinner, after which we returned to the hotel for the night. They were heading on the Castle Tour (epic, right?) with others from the WXR group, while I was heading directly to Finland to pretend I lived there for a week.
Helsinki is a wonderful city. It’s like a cross between Manhattan and San Francisco, but with a fraction of the population. Amazing food, beautiful architecture, water, parks, excellent public transit—Helsinki’s got it all. Not to mention that it was substantially more diverse than I’d anticipated. I saw mixed-race and interfaith families happily strolling about, like it was no big deal (because it is no big deal) and was refreshed. Granted, it’s more than likely that I’m applying a certain rose-colored lens to the place, but I was happily surprised by the positive commingling of cultures and backgrounds that surrounded me. I mean, I’m in a mixed-race relationship in Oakland, and I’ve gotten dirty looks walking down the street with Krystal, my partner. Go figure.
During the week leading up to Worldcon I explored Helsinki, eating delicious food and taking long walks, getting a bit lost and finding my way home—the kind of solo travel I prefer. I connected with folks from the cruise as they trickled into Helsinki, hitting up an Irish bar for a bluegrass band (that played R&B covers), or eating literally the best meal of my life (shoutout to Nina and Dan for sharing that with me). Suffice it to say that I had a love affair with Heksinki, and while I would love to return, I have no idea when the next opportunity will present itself.
Worldcon was huge, overwhelming, and as different as possible from the retreat, but valuable for a completely different set of reasons. I had an overfull itinerary planned out, with sessions overlapping each other throughout every day of the convention. But I didn’t account for the volume of attendees, the difficulty of getting into the rooms, and the general anxiety that comes from being squeezed through a fire hazard of a hallway while trying to beat the rush so that you’re not greeted by a “Room Full” sign on the door.
After the first panel I attended—in which every seat was taken, as was the standing room along the walls, and the floor space in front of the standers—I decided to forgo rushing to any other panels. I moseyed down toward the cafe, which turned out to be where I’d spend the bulk of my time over the next four days.
I was immediately greeted by one of the instructors from the cruise, who introduced me casually to the gentleman he was standing with, who turned out to be a Hugo-winning author of an excellent novella. From there, I was walked to a table full of kind folks who were more than happy to have me join them to chat. Only once we’d already been laughing did I learn that they, too, were quite successful authors, all with deals for forthcoming or in-progress series with major publishers.
And so Worldcon passed, with me bouncing from group to group, always feeling welcomed and treated as a contemporary, to the point where Charlie Jane Anders, who must have recognized me from a reading a few weeks earlier in Berkeley, asked where I’ve been published, why I looked so familiar, and if she’d read my work. It was surreal. I met so many authors and editors I admire and schmoozed with celebrities of my world, and it was the most normal thing in the world.
Worldcon had its ups and downs—downs being the somewhat broken mechanism of the event, ups being the incredible networking opportunities it provided—but I credit the success of that event entirely to having attended the Writing Excuses cruise. I felt like I was a member of a secret cabal of writers. Everywhere I turned I saw a familiar face, and was comforted. An environment that normally would have terrified me—an overcrowded convention full of tall people and lines and whatnot—became thrilling. Who would I see next? Who would I meet through them?
Worldcon came and went quickly, and I left with a huge list of books to buy, authors to catch up on, and friends to add to my various social media channels. By the time I was getting ready to fly back to the states, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I felt like I’d gotten a taste of the life I’ve been wanting to live for so long; a Writer among Writers, engaging with the creative content that means the world to me.
On the other hand, I was heading back home, to see my love, our cats, and to start a new job with one of the most exciting companies in the history of technology. A true win-win.
I look back on a particularly dark stretch of time, in my early 20s, wherein I didn’t have a clue where I was headed creatively or professionally, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite having a corporate job in entertainment.
I was terrified of settling for a life that amounted to a creative void, an endless chase of the illusion of success that would always move just out of reach. Of defining myself by my paychecks, and not by the substance of my interests. Of seeking the same kind of lobotomy that only substance abuse or self-help cults can provide. I worried that I was stuck on a path that led in a spiral, ever downward and ending somewhere too dark to contemplate.
One day, driving home and talking to my dad on the phone, crying and trembling with this overwhelming fear—as I did on far too many days back then—I set myself an ultimatum. I told my dad that I did not want to be having the same conversation when I turned 30. That I wanted to know what I wanted to do and how I would get there, that I would feel comfortable with who I became, with the plans I’ll have set for myself, that I would be proud of myself, and that my family would be proud of me.
I turn 30 in January. I’ve grown my book review blog into a “thing” that has fostered opportunities I’d never have anticipated. I have a new job, working for one of the biggest and most successful companies of all time. My title there is Writer. And I attended the Writing Excuses retreat, which left me feeling like I’d been strapped to a rocket and shot into the sun. And instead of bursting into flame, the great ball of pulsating energy reached out, collected me, and brought me into itself, all warmth and belonging and light.
I can see where I was then and where I am now, but if you asked me how I achieved the goal I set myself those years ago, I couldn’t answer. I don’t know.
But I’m glad I’m here.
Also published on Medium.