The Catarmaran Chronicles: Killing Chickens & More!

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Dyane (looking rather porcine but happy!) with her creative nonfiction teacher Frances Lefkowitz. Frances is author of the stunning memoir To Have Not about growing up poor in San Francisco

Here’s the cover: one of my all-time favorite book covers!

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The 2nd annual Catamaran Writers Conference brought me back twenty-four years ago to my days working at Labadie Productions. That was my first “grown-up” job. I helped plan and produce large-scale festivals in Silicon Valley such as the San Jose America Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival, the San Pedro Square Brew Ha Ha, Villa Montalvo Concert Series, Music in the Park and many more. special events.

Those music/arts & crafts festivals drew several hundred thousand attendees over a weekend, and I often worked twenty-hour days. I was able to do that since I was young, although it was (cough, cough) unhealthy, especially when a dormant genetic code for bipolar disorder was in my brain.

I became hypomanic with the lack of sleep, although no one recognized it back then including me. Barely sleeping at those events was crazy, and it kinda made me crazy. But I got a kick out of being a staff member. I enjoyed interacting with musicians and artists, and I really loved getting lots of free food and drinks from my 75 food vendors at each festival!

My boss founded the renowned Paul Masson Mountain Winery Concert Series before starting his own company. He and his wife, co-owner of Labadie Productions, taught me so many things. They became my second family and had very high standards on how I did my job. Event production is not for the weak!

Working a festival is very similar to working a conference. As I observed and interacted with the amazing Catamaran staff I couldn’t help but wish I had been able to work at this kind of event when I was at Labadie. It’s absolutely exhausting to do event production, but so fulfilling, which is why I lasted for almost four years at Labadie.

Apart from reminiscing here, I’ll sum up my Catamaran experience by explaining more about why I loved it so much. I had no idea that a bunch of writers and poets would be so cool, fascinating, and most important: friendly. I thought I’d show up there, keep to myself and feel lonely. I didn’t think I would make a single friend. 

I was wrong on all counts, thank God. I connected with the students in my (albeit small) creative nonfiction class. I thought each writer was fantastic, and while I wasn’t going to be able to be BFF’s with them all, I knew that I’d like to keep in touch with them and promote their work, and for some of them, their books and websites.

As for my teacher Frances Lefkowitz…there are no words for how “packed with awesome” she was. Plus, I didn’t have the chance to tell you what a trouper this remarkable writer is. The night before the conference Frances was washing dishes, broke a glass and she came close to cutting the tendon in her right (writing) hand. She had to drive by herself to the ER at midnight. Yikes!

99% of people would have bailed on driving to the conference in that condition (I think she had to drive 3 or 4 hours to Pebble Beach) to teach a demanding class, but she stuck to her commitment and made the trip. Poor Frances’ hand was bandaged up and it looked like a big white lobster claw, but she was able to write.

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Frances didn’t complain about her injury – not one word. Now that’s dedication and true guts. That’s my Teacher. I cannot WAIT for her next book (about learning how to surf later in life and breaking her neck) to be published and become a bestseller – she’s one to watch! 

And now I’d like to share a few highlights from the conference…

 

Chicken Killing Poems #1 & #2

If you told me that I’d listen to not one but two lengthy, extremely detailed, disturbing poems about the mechanics involved and emotions triggered when killing a chicken, I would have said, “No way!”

Well.

On Friday night, the renowned poet Ellen Bass recited a poem “What Did I Love” about her first time killing a chicken accompanied by her wife Janet.  It was extremely well written and I could never pull something like that off, but the subject matter wasn’t what I’d choose to listen to in a chapel on a balmy August evening. Guess what? 

You can listen to it too via The New Yorker – Bass fan Phillip Levine reads it!

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On Saturday it was our big night. The evening was designated for a reception and the opportunity for most of the teachers to read their latest work. Twenty students were invited to sign up so they could read their work too. I wasn’t going to do this as I thought I’d probably pass out if I did it, but I wound up caving and taking part. (More on that later.)

On Saturday night a student named Marek from Warsaw, Poland recited his chicken killing poem in his heavy Polish accent. Marek read with such feeling; it turned out he was quite talented. Boy, it was a grim poem – even gorier than Ellen’s masterpiece. Marek had me in tears at the end. 

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Back to my decision to read- on Saturday afternoon during my meeting with agent/San Franciso Writers conference founder Michael Larsen, he advised me to do as much public speaking as possible. When we finished our session, Michael had me so pumped up that I sprinted over to the sign-up sheet. With a fleeting sense of confidence, I scrawled my name in the #18 slot. That wasn’t the greatest placement since by then everyone would be totally pooped out, but I did it anyway. Whatever, I thought, throwing caution to the wind.

I decided to read a four-minute-long piece that I wrote in class about a significant place. I chose the loony bin literally (ironically) down the road from the conference called CHOMP where I stayed five times. I titled it “PTSD Highway”.

However, by the time I was set to speak (11:15 p.m. – a late time for someone who usually goes to bed around 8p.m.) I decided to wimp out on my choice. I recited my poem “Enough” instead. I didn’t care if everyone else read for much longer periods of time. What mattered was my getting up in front of the crowd and doing it. Fortunately, I had my beloved Kindle with me so I could access “Enough” via my blog.

There were so many fabulous readings. In a deadpan voice, a nonfiction teacher named Robin Hemley read about an Air Supply reunion concert that was absolutely hysterical. Frances’ micro-memoir about breaking her neck while surfing was so brilliantly written and intense that you could hear a pin drop in the theater.

When I was called up to the stage, I stood in the wings and started to freak out. I whispered to the seasoned co-MC Kevin (our poetry slam master/owner of the Art Bar & Cafe @ The Tannery in Santa Cruz) for advice. Kevin whispered two bits of wisdom:

1) Breathe in, breathe out, and…

2) Keep my feet in the same place.

The other MC named George, also a terrific speaker, announced my name. On shaky legs I hobbled onstage in front of the podium.  I had been warned about the extremely bright spotlight which nearly blinded me. I looked out at a sea of blackness. I couldn’t see one face. It sounds kind of good, right? It wasn’t – it was really weird. My legs kept shaking but I remained glued to my spot, following Kevin’s dictum.

As an icebreaker/stalling device, I told the audience that I was nervous and explained how I asked Kevin for the last-minute public speaking advice. Some of them may have thought that was a bit funny. I certainly hoped so. Then I commanded them to give Kevin a round of applause for all his hard work, which they were happy to do as he had been a great MC/teacher throughout the weekend.  

I explained my switcheroo from a 4 minute-long piece to my forty-second poem, and I know they were glad about my decision. I could feel it in the air. Everyone was ready to call it a night!

Since I was saving everyone so much tine, I gave a brief introduction to my piece. I leaned in toward the big, black microphone, making sure I looked at the audience even though I couldn’t see anyone. They could have been a bunch of aliens for all I knew. I said,

“I made a last-minute change from a four-page-long freewrite to a very short piece I wrote for a wonderful, cutting-edge website called Stigmama, which is on hiatus. It was founded by Dr. Walker Karraa, a mentor of mine who has believed in me as a writer. She’s the author of the book Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth. Walker is also a trauma expert so she really knows what she’s talking about. Stigmama’s purpose is to break apart the stigma that our society places upon mentally ill women. It’s called Enough.”

I proceeded to recite my poem with as much emotion as possible despite feeling like a zombie. I tried to keep looking up, not down at the podium, although all I saw each time I glanced out at the audience I saw that unnerving black.

Enough

Enough of feeling obligated to you even though I don’t owe you anything

Enough of supporting you as much as I can, yet you never throw me a bone

Enough of worrying if others like me – that went out with the 70’s

Enough of comparing myself to Photoshopped fourteen-year-olds with professional makeup artists

Enough of comparing myself to others’ social media: likes, comments, pages, blogs & followers

Enough of trying endlessly to accomplish what our society deems respectable

Enough of bipolar depression kicking my ass

Enough of putting pressure on myself to be enough

Now I’m strong enough to say…

Enough

—-

As I reached the second-to-last line about strength, I emerged from the podium & busted this move!fly

It was well-received – people even clapped! 🙂

 

Elated after facing my fear of public speaking, I made a deep curtsy as if I was in front of Princess Kate or starring on Downton Abbey. It was hilarious! The audience was so kind, probably due to the heady combo. of exhaustion, the sea air, inspiring writing, gifted minds, and lots of high-end drinks imbibed at the reception.

It didn’t matter why they were nice – I think they meant it. I even had one writer named Barbara hop out of her seat to come hug me, and she thanked me for speaking about mental illness. Several other attendees thanked me later on, mentioning they had experience with bipolar in one way or another – talk about awesome.

There were more adventures, but I’m beyond tired tonight so I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’m lifting my rule to blog 1x/week just for this week. I want to capture a few more memories and share them with you.

In my next post I’d like to share some websites of some very special writers I met at Catamaran.

In the meantime take care, hope your Monday wasn’t too Mondayish, and I send you my love.

Dyane

A Writing Paradise – My 1st Day at Catamaran

Unknown-2The Stevenson School, Pebble Beach – what a gorgeous setting for the 2015 Catamaran Writers Conference

 

I wasn’t planning on blogging at the Catamaran Writers Conference taking place at the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach.

But I can’t help it! I feel compelled to share with you today’s highlights as well as let you know that I didn’t melt into a puddle due to my extreme social anxiety.

Ever since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007, I’ve battled terrible social anxiety merely going to the coffee shop or market, so imagine what I felt when I showed up at a conference of 100 writers, all perfect strangers. Yikes!

After Craig, the girls & Miss Lucy dropped me off, I was scared. Ten minutes before our arrival, we drove past Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP). I stayed at CHOMP five horrendous times, and today my PTSD from those experiences was triggered.  I drove on that road so many times to admit myself for suicide-related reasons and also for a ton of outpatient ECT.

At the Stevenson School entrance, I busied myself with the logistics of checking in and finding my room. The weather was my favorite kind: clear, warm and sunny. Thankfully my thoughts moved away from CHOMP as I got caught up with how incredibly beautiful this campus is. The school is sa-weet! It reminded me of my alma mater UC Santa Cruz, but it’s fancier.

Here’s a picture of my dorm:

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At 4:00 p.m. the day’s events began with an orientation. That was fine because I didn’t have to schmooze and I only needed to pay attention to the speakers. But after that introduction, the schmoozing began in full force. I took a few drops of the homeopathic anxiety reducer Rescue Remedy; it does help (at the very least on a placebo level) but it’s subtle. 

The first reception began. (Yes, the first one.) It was fine and I had some good talks getting to know a few of my classmates. The next agenda item was meeting with our teacher Frances Lefkowitz, but unfortunately she was running late and couldn’t make it. Luckily for us, one of my classmates, Rayne Wolfe, was Lefkowitz’s self-proclaimed “biggest fan” but she wasn’t a mere groupie. She knows Lefkowitz and conference staff assigned her the task of filling in. She gave a fabulous testimonial about her teacher and was hilarious, so she won me over in about 10 seconds. I was already impressed with her submission and intimidating background. (Wolfe’s book, Toxic Mom Toolkit, has garnered the kinds of 5-star reviews writers yearn for and has sold like hotcakes around the world.) Oh, and she worked as a longtime journalist for the New York Times and more! Check out Rayne’s blog – she’s also giving her take on this conference and I love it.  Then our six-member class did a brief round of introductions. It was so cool to meet such passionate writers whose heartfelt submissions I’ve analyzed over the past month.  

Dinner followed and it was all good – portobello mushrooms, broccoli, rice, baked tomatoes – so healthy, yes?  (But thank God, they had chocolate cake, people!)  Then came another reception, also enjoyable, another shot of Rescue Remedy and finally a poetry reading by the two acclaimed instructors Ellen Bass and Jericho Brown.

Yesterday I wondered how the hell I’d get through Day One, let alone the rest of the conference. I was so freaked out knowing I’d have to make small talk with a variety of strangers – it had been a long time since I was in this kind of situation. To add to the fun, as a person who sweats like an Olympic Athlete when anxious, I oooozed wide circles on either side of my tank top and at the breastbone area. It was almost funny, except for that it wasn’t!

It’s difficult to make a seamless transition from sweating to poetry, but here goes: some of you know I’m not a poetry fan. Wow – after I typed that sentence, a bolt of lightning tried to strike me.

I’ve published a couple poems but I didn’t consider them to be Real Poems, if that makes any sense. I wrote them just to give it a try. I was going to pass on tonight’s poetry readings, but at the last minute I decided to give them a chance.

The building used for this reading was a stunning chapel. It had an enormous window overlooking the trees and sky, and unique architecture. It was an uber-cool chapel.

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Jericho Brown gave the first reading, and his delivery alone was absolutely incredible. His poems had palpable power, although it was hard for me to follow them because I was exhausted and I have a “poetry block”. I also had a full bladder and I was too lazy to leave the room, which I don’t suggest if you’re going to a poetry reading. He’s a brilliant scholar/teacher/author and has all kinds of impressive credentials you can read on his website

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Ellen Bass followed Jericho, and she remarked that he was a hard act to follow. Now, she lives in my town and she’s famous there. She has sold millions of books and co-wrote the international bestseller/classic The Courage to Heal. 

I had never seen her in person nor read any of her poems. To my surprise, I really enjoyed her poems as most of them (but definitely not all) were quite funny and easy for me to follow. She was charming and had a great rapport with Jericho, who told us that he considered her to be his “Aunt Ellen” and that one of her poems helped him “believe in God”. (He didn’t say which one – I need to find that out.)

After the intense reading, I walked back to my dorm wiped out but I was happy. Then I realized something icky. Ellen Bass was the contest judge who rejected my poem that I entered for the Felton Friends of the Library Contest!

I wrote this rather scathing blog post about Ellen Bass. While it was quite a let-down to have a muckety muck writer reject my writing, I’ve come to terms with it. I won’t pull her chair out from under her at dinner or anything mean and immature like that. She won me over tonight. 

So that was my day. I’ll be writing about the next huge challenge I face here: getting my writing critiqued by seven writers. I’ll probably sweat a small pool around my feet when that happens, but it’s for the greater good of my book. 

Thanks for reading this!

lots of love,

Dyane

p.s. I wouldn’t be here if not for the encouragement of bestselling author, friend, and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) of Santa Cruz County’s Vice President, my fellow Board Member Wendy K. Williamson!