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.