Writer’s in Paradise – Eckerd College – First Days

Welcome to Florida!

It’s 3:00 A.M.

“Imminent Extreme Alert. Tornado Warning in this area til 3:30 AM EST. Take shelter now. Check local media.” -NWS

I wake up groggily to my mom shaking me and telling me there’s a tornado warning. My phone is on silent so I miss the Alert. I take stock of myself and realize I need to put on more clothes before joining my various family and pets in the tiny room we’ve deemed ‘safest.’ It changes every year. The first time it was the kitchen off of the living room with boarded up windows. It had water and food. Next it was the tiny bathroom with the tub filled with water. We didn’t all fit. There’s less of us here now and the little room off the lanai is where my mom leads us tonight. It’s not in the center of the house. It only has a skylight and a small window. It has barely enough room to fit the four of us humans and the dog and two cats. The first tornado warning has been preceded by rain since nightfall and the wind is howling. Then quiet. “If you hear a chugga chugga sound like a train, we’re in trouble,” my mom remarks. She knows. She’s seen a tornado up close. I’m not afraid. We’ve never really been privy to the destruction and terror of a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake (I live in WA state now). I’m tired and worried about getting enough sleep and whether any debris will damage my rental car. Do I have the right insurance for tornado debris? But it’s ok because the first tornado passes and I drop back into bed. Not five minutes later my sister wakes me out of my groggy half asleep half awake state. “There’s a second tornado.” I get up, less groggy. I notice the alert on my phone. How did they know I left WA for FL? I leave that thought be as I start to worry about the wind level. But the second tornado passes us by without harm and I get back into bed. Now the howl of the wind makes me nervous and the pounding rain makes me think more on the rental car. What if there is hail?

The next day I wake to a mostly sunny, bright FL morning. I’m relieved there was no damage surrounding our house. There’s one palm frond downed next to our palm tree. That’s it. I head to the conference. St. Pete is a 40 minute drive from my house so I give myself an extra thirty minutes. Good thing I did because I go to pay my Skyway toll and the guy tell’s me it’s closed. I wrinkle my brow in confusion. This does not compute. Sure, it’s windy but how do I get to Eckerd on time without the Sunshine Skyway? I nod my head at the toll collector’s directions to turn around at the rest stop. I’m sure it’ll make sense when I get there. Everybody else will be turning around. Or not. There are cars going either direction on the bridge. What does that even mean? I assume I don’t want to drive on a ‘closed’ due to weather bridge and turn around and head to Tampa. There’s another way to St. Pete and after an unmanned toll (sorry rental car) and an extra 40 minutes and some severe winds on the Tampa bridge to St. Pete I make it a few minutes late instead of half an hour early to the welcome speech. Not a welcome to Florida, but a welcome to the writer’s in paradise conference. I wonder if anybody else had the same experience I did that night and morning. I doubt it. Most attendees are staying near campus.

I quiet my mind and pay attention to the welcome speech and the subsequent key note speaker Gilbert King. I groan inwardly to sit through an hour and a half of a non-fiction writer’s speech, but this guy is special. I’m riveted by his words and the way he has everything he wants to say lined up in his mind, ready to throw out to the crowd. He was the nonfiction Pulitzer prize winner for a reason. An hour and a half is a bit long but he uses the time well. Almost everybody pays attention the entire time.

After we’re dismissed for lunch I find some other YA group members and we troupe down to the cafeteria for lunch. Go Eckerd! Our tour guide may have said the food wasn’t that great, but they have a near full salad bar and many, many choices. It’s a pay one price get everything you want deal and that is very appealing to me, even as a smaller meal eater. I dine on meat and salad and refresh my tea.

After lunch the workshops begin. I’m nervous. I’m excited. I do and don’t know what to expect. I know I won’t be able to find the building without help. I don’t know if I’ve done enough prep, that I’ve read the manuscripts well enough or thoroughly. It’s neat to finally put names to faces and stories to personalities and see the similarities or differences.

We start with introductions and move into basic housekeeping of how we’re going to conduct the critiques. I’m glad the schedule of critiques has me going midway through so I can see the process before my piece is critiqued. I’m slightly sad my critique is not on my birthday. Wouldn’t that be cool!

Our guide/instructor Laura Williams McCaffrey had us write a 1-2 page critique letter-style to the author with a synopsis, things that worked, and things that didn’t work with specific examples from the manuscript. She also had us pick out three words or phrases that especially struck us.

Not everyone interpreted the three words direction the same and not everyone interpreted or submitted the same type of synopsis for their own work. I wish I had made mine more play by play than the simple paragraph I’d submitted.

We start by saying the three words/phrases out loud and McCaffrey writing them on the whiteboard. No explanation. No editorializing. The first one reads like a poem or a portrait-like synopsis. We start with one manuscript and spend an hour going through start to finish with our critiques and then making general comments. The person whose piece we are critiquing doesn’t speak. After the first hour or so McCaffrey has the author of that piece break her silence to ask questions or answer some of our more insistent questions. I find that with 12 people it’s hard to find a place to interject my opinions and that my opinions/critiques aren’t as thought out as some of the other writers. Some of them are more experienced with analysis and critique and articulating what they want to say as me. I become more vocal during the second manuscript’s critique as I become more comfortable. We end a bit abruptly as we’ve run through our time and will pick up in the morning where we left off.

The workshop group is very structured and McCaffrey keeps us in line as much as possible. The other writers are varied in their critiques and the level of depth they give and the amount of critique versus criticism they divulge. I find it all very fascinating. I want to sit back and watch while at the same time have a one on eleven conversation. I try to hold my tongue until I have something important or cohesive to say. It’s difficult. I’m learning.

To be continued…