Writer Unboxed Un-Conference: Through-ness and The Power of Genuine Community

Photo Credit- Mike Swift

Photo credit Mike Swift

Sunday night. My suitcase yawns open in front of me, empty and waiting. My flight leaves in eight hours. Piles of clean clothes encircle me as I kneel by the case and examine each possible outfit. Where should I start? An unfamiliar question for a seasoned and decisive traveler who usually has her bags packed in record time. I’d been looking forward to Un-Con for a year, but that was before June, before Mom. Now, I don’t want to go. The hollowness inside me goes too deep. People expect to meet the confident, encouraging Heather they used to see online, not her shadow. Not this untethered girl without a mother, a soul floating, trapped between the living and the dead. This girl who breaks into a million tears at inappropriate moments. How will I keep up a cheery façade for an entire week? It’s hard enough keeping it together in the safety of my own home.

I want to feel the true excitement others feel as they get ready to descend upon Salem, but every beat of my heart screams at me to crawl under the covers and hide. I fucking hate it— the grief that eats away at the edges of my joy and leaves me paralyzed. And part of me hates her for dying, for leaving me so raw, irrational, and fractured to the point of un-recognition.

“You’ve made a commitment, you have to go.” My mother’s voice, the one I’ll never hear again, plays inside my head. “It’s all about attitude.” She reminds me. “It’s all about choice. Choose to put your best face forward.”

I’ve never been great at putting on a mask, Mom. You know that. That’s your device, not mine.

But, she does have a point. Where was that brave girl, that risk taker who moved half way around the world and never looked back? The girl who saw life as an adventure to be lived? Who faced the darkness straight on? When did I become so insular? Such a coward?

As I place a pair of jeans into my suitcase, I call to my former self; beg her to come back to me, but she remains silent. A mask it is, then, and I force a smile and swallow the tears.

Monday morning. I wake with a spark of excitement until I have to kiss my husband goodbye and give my dog a hug. I taste salt on my lips and swipe my cheek. Once I’m on the plane I’ll be fine, I tell myself. Three deep breaths and the knot my stomach had tied itself into starts to loosen. And then I’m there, in the security line, and I secretly wish I hadn’t booked a flight with fellow Mod Squad members and roommates Kim and Valerie, that I could disappear into a book, into myself instead, and never come out again.

And then I’m through security and walking toward Kim, with her easy smile, and a little more of what binds me, unwinds within me. I hug her and I forget to be afraid. And then comes Valerie, and laughs, and conversation. By the time we get to Boston, that spark of excitement burns bright. Next a hug from Vaughn, and Bernadette, and Tonia, and the warmest welcome from Therese anyone could imagine. The light of her spirit chase the last of the shadows from mine, and in that moment, I know that I am safe.

Dinner brings more friends, and more hugs, and although there are seconds when darkness nibbles at the hole in my heart, I ignore it and focus on the amazing people around me. Each with their own stories, their own fears, and tell myself that I am not alone.

When the sessions start, I’m open and ready. I find myself resonating with Meg Rosoff as she talks of Through-ness and writing from a deep place. “Everything that’s in your head is what makes you special,” she says. You have to spend time in the unconscious mind, create an elastic connectivity. Don Maass, Lisa Cron, Therese Walsh, Brunonia Barry, Liz Michalski—each challenge us in their own way to dig deep, to get specific. Story is meaning.

Having attended my fair share of writing conferences, the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference quenches a thirst that the others haven’t. No agent pitch sessions. No author panels. No banal sessions on basic craft techniques—and I don’t miss them. Instead, I revel in soul-searching. In delving into the true craft of understanding who I am as a writer, what makes my voice unique. It is here, at the core of my being, in vulnerability, that story comes alive. It is in darkness that characters become, as Therese Walsh puts it, Velveteen. It is in authenticity where the story begins to resonate with readers. Day after day I drink up the love and support of this amazing community and feast on the knowledge of the session leaders until I am full to bursting.

So now, two weeks later, I sit in my favorite chair, a steaming mug of green tea in my Un-Con mug. To say the week transformed me is an understatement. It didn’t just change me; it re-tethered me to myself and to the world. I want to thank each and every person at the Un-Con for being a part of this amazing event. Each of you, in your own small way, transformed me, with a hug, with a smile, with a word. I needed this—this re-connection —to help me reconcile grief as a new part of myself, to accept that I’m not the same person I was before Mom died, and that’s okay. She’s gone, but I’m not. There are still moments when I doubt, when I feel lost, but I know this is the first step in learning who I am without her. I am ready to work again, to embrace life and the challenge of reaching a deeper level in my writing. And to that, I owe the power of genuine community.


  1. So many damn moving posts about this one event. Such a catharsis this event created, for so many of us. I know if it happens again, the next UnCon will be special in its own way, but I don’t think this special stew of emotion and trust will ever occur again. Not like Salem in ’14.

    By carrying your mother in your heart, she is carrying you through, Heather. And we are always here for you, too. I feel buoyed by you, so I hope to provide that feeling back. Hugs to you, my friend. Thanks for sharing!

    • Vaughn, I agree that the magic that happened in Salem 04′ will likely never be matched, but future events will have their own brand of magic, I’m sure. Thank you for always being such a big support. Knowing you has been a blessing. Thank you for leading the way in the WU community. Love you, my friend.

  2. Damn! Awesome post! Heather, you took me back to where I was in the not-too-distant past, and I was right there feeling it with you. I thoroughly (or should I say throughly) understand the feeling of release from the weight of grief. This was, in a way, exhilarating to read. I think Anne LaMott said something like, “when we let the world see our monsters, we realize they’re a lot alike” (paraphrased). The UnCon helped me gain the last bit of acceptance toward my loss.

    • Mike, I wish I could reach out and give you one more real hug. I know you’ve been where I am, and only those who have lost a parent can really understand. It’s a grief so different than any loss I’ve felt before. Thank you for reminding me of the Anne LaMott quote. So appropriate and beautiful. Here’s to acceptance and peace, my friend.

  3. Thanks for sharing, you wonderful, amazingly strong woman. It was a true pleasure to meet you at the UnCon. I’m glad your mother’s voice prompted you to get on that plane.

    • Thank you, Erin. I’m so thankful for each connection I made in Salem. I can’t imagine not getting on that plane now. Life is to be lived.

  4. We hardly had a chance to talk, but it’s incredibly moving to me that the UnCon could provide that kind of healing. Hugs, Heather. I’m so glad you’re not seeing the life/death thing as a mutually exclusive dichotomy any more. (Hope that makes sense. I’m writing a novella about a family in mourning, so I’ve churned this over in my mind. Hugs.)

    • Jan, thank you! I think the Un-Con came at just the right moment in my grief. Healing is hard, the wound will always be with me, but I do feel lighter now. I wish we could have spent more time together. There are so many people I met in passing, but didn’t get the chance to really talk with.

  5. Heather, you know I love this, and I’m so proud of you for sharing it publicly. I’m so glad you got on that plane, and that I could, in some small way, help ease the anxiety about going. You helped me with that, too! I was a nervous wreck sitting there alone at the gate until you arrived!

    We must go have lunch or something after Nutcracker insanity is over. We live so close, there’s no excuse for us not to see each other regularly.

    • Love you so much, my friend. Thank you for being there with me every step of the way. We are going to make lunch a monthly thing as soon as Nutcraker is over. 🙂

  6. I’m writing this in the midst of my kids and animals- not a single one using their “inside voice” so I hope I can convey at least a portion of what I feel about you, this post, and our time at UnCon.

    I wanted more time with you. Yet I am so grateful for the time we had together. All those hugs- you and Mama T. are some of the world’s best huggers. (Oh, and Jo, too!) I am also so glad the UnCon helped you in the way you needed.

    For the record, you are even better than ever. This post, as much as I enjoy PDN and what I’ve read of PDN2, shows even more of that spirit, sensitivity, and courage that drew me to you. I know two things: 1. We will meet again. 2. Your career is only just beginning.

    Thank you for this post, and thank you for all the ways you’ve been there for me in the brief years we’ve known each other.

    Love you, my kindred spirit. xox

  7. Grief is its own world at times, and it’s good and maybe necessary for us to keep a foot in the others worlds, even as we learn the new terrain. I hope you are able to walk wherever you need.

    • I love the image of keeping a foot in two worlds. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  8. I just wanted to throw my support in the ring. It’s tough sometimes to have a somewhat public persona and be the kind of approachable person you need to be when being approachable may be the last thing on your mind. You’re an incredible person. Know you can reach out to me, or any other number of people, if you need to. I’ll take a moment and stand under the snow flurries for you my friend. Sending all my best! Hugs and chocolate too. 😉

    • Brian, thank you so much for your support. I can’t tell you how much your friendship has meant to me over the years. As you know, it is tough to strike a balance sometimes, especially when there’s so much pressure to be visible. Social media drains my energy even on a good day, so struggling with personal issues makes it even harder to want to connect. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been laying so low both in blogging and on Twitter. Thank you for standing under the snow flurries for me. Snow always makes me feel washed clean, peaceful. Hugs and chocolate to you 🙂 <3

  9. Heather, to say I’m glad that the Un-Con provided such healing for you would be a vast understatement. I didn’t realize the extent of your struggle before arriving in Salem, but what a wonderful thing that the experience was such a comfort to you when you needed it. I’m truly honored that I was able to play a part in that. Write on, Dream Catcher Heather! xo

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