Tales from the Midwest Writers Workshop

When my stepfather told me about the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d only ever attended conferences geared toward writers of science fiction and fantasy. What would a non-genre writing workshop be like? Would attendees enquire about my novel only to stare blankly once I’d finished raving about assassins, memory-altering experiments, and a mental plague that makes victims catatonic? Would I find myself lingering awkwardly on the fringes of discussions about memoirs or cookbooks or even literary fiction? We all know speculative fiction—and genre fiction in general—is the black sheep of literature. Genre writers often have to suffer the literary and nonfiction community questioning their legitimacy. As speculative writers often do, I feared the negative appraisal of my literary fellows.

But of course aspiring writers can’t be so easily phased. If the idea of being rejected by other writers is enough to make you quiver in your boots, then the querying process and the whole ordeal of finding an agent will probably reduce you to a blubbering wreck. After some research I discovered that several agents attending the conference represented speculative fiction, a few panels focused on problems pertaining to spec fic, and one of the guest lecturers was a spec fic writer. Moreover, the Midwest Writers Workshop is the very place where Veronica Roth met her agent. How could I have ever doubted it?

After three days of networking, pitching, and listening to prolific writers share their wisdom, I came out of the conference feeling glad that I didn’t let childish fears deter me. Pitching to two amazing agents (getting invaluable advice and a full manuscript request in the process) was one highlight. Another was helping a fellow writer with her pitch. After an unsuccessful first pitch, she felt so discouraged that she was on the brink of skipping her second one. I’ll never forget receiving a big hug from her when my advice and encouragement helped her get a partial request from her second agent.

The guest lecturers also exceeded my expectations. One writer in particular made an impact on me. Daniel José Older is a speculative fiction writer who sheds light on underrepresented minorities without lending his writing a didactic or moralizing tone. His writing is crisp, poetic, and uproariously funny despite its serious subject matter. His guest lectures included: Fundamentals of Writing “The Other”;  Context the Changemaker: Using Worldbuilding to Address Social Justice Themes; and Writing Speculative Fiction.

I walked into the Fundamentals of Writing “The Other” lecture expecting the Other to be something relating to Darko Suvin’s theory of cognitive estrangement. Something about the means through which science fiction provides us with a new way of perceiving the world, one that demands we read more carefully and are more thoughtful about the content.

I imagined “Other” meant aliens, robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. I was wrong. The Other, for Older, meant underrepresented minorities, ethnic protagonists, and dynamic characters from the LGBT community. Sometimes, being exposed to events and experiences filtered through an unfamiliar point of view can seem as alien as the robot point of view we all readily recognize as Other.

I realized that the Other isn’t something only speculative writers should aspire to incorporate in their novels. Defamiliarization is necessary in every genre to push readers’ boundaries. Interestingly, Older expressed the idea that writing ethnic stereotypes (even positive stereotypes, such as the “magical” elderly black man in fantasy) is worse than abstaining from writing about minorities altogether. He admitted that for a long time he didn’t write from a female perspective because he simply didn’t feel comfortable with it—he didn’t feel that he was ready for it, and that’s okay

Older also served as keynote speaker for the workshop’s closing banquet. Suffice it to say, despite being ridiculously hungry, I was unable to pay attention to my meal while Older was speaking (bursting into laughter with a mouthful of lasagna was something I hoped to avoid). He enthralled attendees with tales of his decade spent as a paramedic, including the time he received a phone call from Untold Tales from the ER, requesting an “uplifting” story about his experiences in emergency medicine. The lady on the phone didn’t appreciate his sardonic storytelling skills as much as the writing community at the MWW did. And before my sides had even stopped aching from laughter, he began reading a more sombre piece—a poignant response to those (myself formerly among them) who believe that working in emergency medicine leaves one desensitized to suffering. I didn’t know when the laughter became a bone-deep silence, or that my mood could be so completely inverted in a matter of moments. Older, I realized, was a master: a ventriloquist of emotions, while I was the puppet pulled on the strings of his words.

If you want a taste of Older’s wit and style, check out his anthologies, Subversion and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond, or his collection of ghost stories, Salsa Nocturna. His YA novel Shadowshaper will be out in 2015.

The lesson here is: don’t be afraid to take a plunge into the literary, fellow writers and readers of speculative fiction! It’s not nearly as daunting as it seems, and as The Spectatorial so aptly demonstrates, the two genres can often coexist.

I’d recommend the Midwest Writers Workshop to anyone looking to make literary connections, find a like-minded writing group, or listen to experts share detailed experiences about the industry. You’ll edit others’ work, practice your verbal pitch, and even talk to a handful of literary agents. And I promise, nobody will give you blank stares.

 -contributed by Alexandra Balasa

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