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  • Sean Smith

The Question Everybody Asks About "Transformation Summer"

The question is an inevitable, and quite understandable one, and often gets put a few different ways:

"So, is the book autobiographical?"

"Did you base it on real events?"

"Is this a true story about something that's haunted you for years and years, only with the names changed?"

The answer is no, no, and no.

Transformation Summer is a work of fiction, and Seth (the book's narrator) is not me. When I was 16, my mother did not drag me off with her to some personal-growth camp in Big Sur (OK, when I was 11, we did go to Esalen once, but mainly because there was a rock concert going on). And I can't say there's anything in particular from childhood that's "haunted" me over the decades -- not even the Colts losing Super Bowl III (I was a big Johnny Unitas fan) -- the way that Seth's two-week sojourn at the Toward Transformation camp has stayed with him for so long.

Here I should pause and invite those of you unfamiliar with Transformation Summer to follow this link for some background, and gently urge you to buy the damn book.

I don't mean to sound scornful or dismissive about the "did-this-really-happen?" question. It's perfectly natural to wonder if any novel or work of fiction has some autobiographical dimension to it, and in fact I think most all of them do. Authors tend to write about what they know, what they're familiar with. Maybe the inspiration or the template for a work of fiction, if not based on a personal experience, is something that happened to a family member, friend, acquaintance, coworker, neighbor. Perhaps it's a time or place (or both) that holds some significance in the author's life. Or an item glimpsed in a newspaper story or history book that, for whatever reason, stuck in the author's mind and moved him or her in some way to dig deeper and learn more.

Once I had the basic idea for Transformation Summer (that's a whole other blog post), I zeroed in on what Toward Transformation should be: not a resort, but someplace where you withdraw from the world into a setting that has its own ecosystem, with shared values, beliefs and purpose. I thought about the series of weekend youth programs organized by the Quaker meeting I attended for the latter part of my childhood. I remembered the camaraderie I formed with the other kids and how, within the program's formal structure, we created our own informal set of expectations, behaviors, activities, customs, rituals, etc. – perhaps a game that some of us would always play, or music we would listen to on the stereo, or private conversations with individual friends. I'm sure many of us have had similar experiences, whether at a childhood summer camp, a retreat, even an annual music festival; we get caught up in this alternative universe, and then somehow we have to make our way back to the universe of home, school or work.

While working on the book, I discussed this vision of Toward Transformation with a friend and he said, "Oh, you mean an intentional community." I think that's an accurate description, even though the concept of "intentional community" is usually associated with communes, cooperative housing, shared households and so on. Toward Transformation, as Seth learns, was created around a kind of collective DIY vision but also a sense of fellowship -- but he sees cracks in the foundation, and that ambient tension looms as he gets to know more about the camp and the people in it.

So, no, Seth is not me, I'm not him, and there was no Toward Transformation camp in my past. Not exactly, anyway.

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