The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True
September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments
By Loree Griffin Burns
I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.
But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.
Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.
Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”
I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.
When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”
And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.
I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.
That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?
When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.
I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.
August 31, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Armen Bacon
Maybe you know the symptoms. Long forgotten memories bombard every inch of your being, clog veins, arteries, and leave you breathless. Light bulb moments left and right – the kind that cause sleep deprivation, anxiety, existential crisis. An exceptional few wait till you’re in deep REM sleep, then strike with a vengeance. You stumble from bed hunting down pen and paper. Stub toe(s), walk into walls, jot what seems brilliant (in the moment) onto a wrinkled napkin, grocery receipt, white space from yesterday’s newsprint. Head returns to pillow while prayers beg that you can decipher scribbles in the morning. None of this, by the way, amuses your sleep partner (human or feline).
Recently in recovery from a two-week creative nonfiction workshop, yes, I’m inspired, but now suffer the aches and pains of said affliction: severe withdrawals – missing new friends, guest artists, early morning writer talk, even the anxiety and angst of assignments, final project deadlines, a showcase reading.
And so unfurls the life-altering experience of being sequestered in a room 8-10 hours a day, asked to respond to thought-provoking and sometimes terrifying prompts beginning: “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” Volunteering to read aloud what you hope is a solid sentence or story line, you welcome criticism, revise essays, remind yourself good writing takes more than passion, desire, and love of the craft. It demands equal parts time, discipline, risk-taking. Madness and grit.
In my case, shadows of ancient ghosts returned to accompany me along this journey. They arrived from every wrong turn I’d taken in life and included old boyfriends, estranged relatives, my own wannabe personas. Trapped in crevices of time and memory, some hid in margins of old journal entries, then negotiated their way onto the page. At one point, internal censurers nearly convinced me I was in way over my head. Drowning in what has been called the “invisible magnetic river.” Following a current leading nowhere. My feet couldn’t touch bottom. Thankfully, a voice inside reminded me that if I kept writing, I’d survive. Trust more. Worry less.
I kept writing. Using words as oxygen.
Gifting myself time and permission to make writing a priority for two non-stop weeks required an announcement to the universe that I’d be occupying sacred space with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging around my neck. Reluctantly, they obliged. Aside from Mother Nature’s wrath: blazing California fires and a sweltering San Joaquin Valley heat wave, the world did not cease to exist.
The aftermath is, of course, to keep this practice in forward motion now that class is over. The fact I’m sitting at my computer crafting this blog submission is a reminder that, “Yes, I can.”
I learned a few other things during class also worth sharing:
1) Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul. This is your life. If you want to be a writer, write.
2) Regular doses of literary penicillin help – go to readings, find quiet time in a library, stash paper everywhere, have books on your nightstand. Read. I know. It sounds so simple.
3) Find your people. We all need back up singers.
4) Gasp. Write about things that stretch (and scare) you.
5) Practice literary citizenship. Let other writers know they are brilliant. Applaud their efforts. Cheer them on. Embrace the spines of their new books, take a selfie, and post it on social media with a positive comment. There’s room for all of us on the literary stage of life.
6) Learn the rules – then dare to break them.
7) The laundry and dishes can wait.
Armen Bacon is the author of Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship. Her second book, My Name is Armen – A Life in Column Inches, contains a decade’s worth of Fresno Bee columns and other essays on family, friends, love and loss. Her third book, My Name is Armen (Volume II) – Outside the Lines, “takes readers beyond the margins of everyday life – always circling back, returning home – celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.”
July 9, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Donna Talarico
It’s conference season! Wait. I think it’s always conference season. There’s always something happening, from coast to coast—and beyond. The literary and publishing world is filled with events of all shapes and sizes where we can learn, share, network, explore, and grow. And if writing isn’t your only job, your other industry(ies) may also offer some amazing professional development opportunities.
I’ve been attending conferences since 2006 as part of my marketing career, and I fell in love. Hard. I adore conferences so much that I now run one. (It’s called HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.)
To help you prepare for your next conference as an attendee or speaker, I’m sharing some tips on how to make the most of your event, from how to stay organized to how to stay healthy.
Take Notes…. By Hand
Research shows we often remember things better when we write them down vs. typing. I’m a big fan of hand-writing notes. If you’re a visual learner like me, you can also doodle in the margins or format your pages in a way you like for better recall. (Example: I use a lot of arrows and circles when I take notes.) By all means, jot down your ah-ha moments the best way for YOU, but consider going back to analog. Plus, you’ll have a tangible memory of your time at your conference!
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
One of my favorite conferences each year is called HighEdWeb—or, Higher Education Website Professionals—and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a speaker at this event each year since 2011. My first HEWEB, as we call it, I heard a piece of advice at the conference orientation: to go to a session I’d never think of attending. Now, for a conference like this one, the subject range is really broad, from highly technical to content, so there may be more to choose from, topic-wise, than a niche, writing-related conference. But still, peruse the schedule and find something that gets you out of your comfort zone. You may surprise yourself by what you learn—and what new inspiration you leave with.
As a professional marketer and content writer, at web conferences I’d gravitate toward the “word stuff,” but now I always take in at least one technical session so I can expand my horizons. I may not ever be a die-hard programmer, but at least by exposing myself to content from brilliant folks outside my specialty, I can learn a little more about “how the sausage is made” and meet people I may never have met.
Take Breaks & Unwind
I’ll admit that when I present at a multi-day conference, I often sit out the session before my talk so that I can have a “zen moment” before I go on. (I don’t like missing conference content, so if it’s a one-day event, I might not skip a time slot…) I found that when I’d race from one session to get to mine on time, I’d be flustered, winded even. So, I now take a moment for myself to regroup. If the event is in the same hotel I’m staying in, I’ll go to my room and not exactly meditate, but just spend some quiet time so I can be focused and ready to engage the crowd. Otherwise, I’ll find a quiet place, such as a sitting area in a far-off nook.
Whether or not you are speaking or volunteering at a conference, it can be helpful to take a breather from the action. To decompress. To reflect. At HippoCamp, we realize people may need some downtime, so starting in 2017, we introduced a Relax & Recharge room that has some tables, chairs, couches, and chargers. People can escape to this room to recharge themselves and their devices. Many conferences, in fact, have started creating “introvert corners.” So be involved in the conference as you can—that’s why you’re there!—but take care of yourself.
Participate in the Back Channel
This is my favorite one. I should have put it first, but I wanted it to be a gem in the middle of this post. Twitter, I think, is what made me fall in love with the conference community. Or maybe it was conferences that made me fall in love with Twitter? I’m not sure which came first. But back in 2008 when I worked for an ecommerce company and we were exhibiting at the Internet Retailer conference in Boston, I did my first live-action Twitter contest. To this day, at Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference, I toss out trivia questions as part of the Hippocampus Magazine booth (with prizes.) That’s on the exhibitor side. For the attendee side, the back channel can be a wonderful place, long before the conference even takes place! I’ve seen friendships blossom on the HippoCamp hashtag (this year, it’s #hippocamp18), and then get to witness people meeting each other in real life for the first time at the event. (To help facilitate this, we put Twitter usernames on badges when they’re provided at registration!) It’s even better when I see the conversations continue after the conference.
During the conference, though, you can use the hashtag to share nuggets of wisdom from speakers—we also put speaker Twitter handles on the program to make it easy to quote them. Some people I know even use Twitter as a way to take and save notes.
I do firmly believe you should be present at a talk and pay attention to the speaker, but tweeting a few times during a session is acceptable in my book. After the conference, then, people can look through the hashtag to see what happened in sessions they didn’t attend. An active back channel is an amazing way to bring people together, to show the amazing things happening, as well as get people “watching at home” excited about the event too.
Hydrate & Take Your Vitamins
Self-explanatory and obvious, I know… but especially if you’ve flown into the event from another time zone, you may already have some adjusting to do. I know many people, myself included, who always feel a little off after traveling. (If not a cold, at least a little fatigue!) So, stay hydrated and healthy! Maybe pack some Emergen-C or Airborne.
Be Positive & Cordial
One of my favorite graphic t-shirts says, “Work hard and be nice.” It’s a fitting shirt for how I like to live life and, well, it’s also a nicely fitting shirt because the fabric is so cozy. Along the lines of that t-shirt saying, one thing I hear often about HippoCamp, from in-person feedback or post-conference surveys, is that it’s a warm and welcoming environment. I love that our conference exudes friendliness, and that’s thanks to our attendees! Each conference begins to have its own personality and vibe, and I am so proud of what we’ve cultivated together at ours.
I’ve attended conferences—in various industries, not just writing—where the environment wasn’t as nice. No matter what event you’re attending, you’re bound to find a differing opinion, a session that wasn’t what you expected, a dessert bar that didn’t have something you liked, or something else you weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, to help make whatever conference you’re attending to remain on the “nice side,” I encourage you to save any useful critique for after the event, such as in private post-conference surveys or notes to the organizers, rather than turn to your neighbor or to Twitter to vent in a stream-of-conscious-y kind of way simply because negativity can be infectious. (For example, I’ve seen some hurtful things posted about conference speakers at an event or too, and this negativity bothered me.) Instead, in general conversations and the back channel, try to be positive to one another and keep that uplifting spirit going. I think doing so adds to the energy of any event!
Find Your “One Thing”
Back at my first HighEdWeb, I also heard the line: “find your one thing.” While you will leave a conference with lots of great ideas and new information, it can also be overwhelming to have so much activity in that brain of yours. So find that “one thing” you want to focus on first. What is your number one takeaway? This is not to say you can’t implement various things. Rather, set some short- and long-term goals.
Stay in Touch
Keep the conversations going, online or off. If you exchange cards (yes, many writers still have amazing paper business cards, and I love them!) or emails with someone, follow up. Even if it’s just a quick, “Great to meet you at Conference XYZ! Please stay in touch!” One of the most rewarding things about running a conference is seeing what develops between people after the event. Book ideas. Assignments. Workshops. Just lots of collaboration between people who didn’t know each other yet. And that, my friends, is why conferences are such a good investment. It’s not just about taking in X-mount of hours of classes or meeting ABC instructor. It’s about EACH OTHER. We try to help facilitate this at HippoCamp with a conference Facebook group, at least to get people started before they take conversations offline, where the magic really happens.
Everyone conferences differently. These are just some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me make the most of my professional development events, and many of them which I tried to use as a conference organizer to enrich the experience for my own attendees. Feel free to share your own conference tips in the comments!
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and marketing consultant by day, and she also is founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions (Books by Hippocampus and HippoCamp.) She loves greasy spoon breakfasts and road trips, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and has work in The Writer, mental_floss, LA Review, and others.
June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments
Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:
Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?
Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch. I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.
Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?
Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.
Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?
Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what? Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.
Guisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?
Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.
Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.
Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?
Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.
Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.
Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.
Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?
Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.
Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?
Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world? I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.
Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?
Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference. Truly bucolic location. And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot. I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. It’s so smart. I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!
Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.
Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
April 11, 2018 § 30 Comments
By Laura Gilkey
These are the first words I am typing on my brand new laptop computer. I bought the laptop, I told myself, so I can write when I need to write, where I need to write. An investment, I said.
My husband went to the techy store with me, wholeheartedly supporting my investment. He believes in me, the poor guy. We chose a middle-of-the-road laptop, no bells or whistles, not a huge amount of memory and a three-digit price tag, not four. I just need it to be fast, I said. I need it to keep up with me. With all of this writing I’m going to do.
This investment came just two weeks after I invested in attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa, an hour’s drive north of where I live. I was so proud of myself for committing to it, despite a near-crippling case of Imposter Syndrome. I catered the conference to my own particular palette these days: memoir, grief, research, trauma. I was riveted by three full days of panel discussions with incredible voices who tell incredible stories. I filled a legal pad with emphatic notes. My mind was brimming with words like intersectional and liminal and narrative arc. I couldn’t wait to get home and write. Of course, first, I made a list of more than twenty books referenced during the conference, books I clearly must read before attempting to properly tell my story.
Three months before the conference, I invested in a writing coach. She is someone whose work I greatly admire and whose opinion I value implicitly. I chose her because six months ago I invested in her online workshop for mothers who write, and it was exceptional. I produced good work during those ten weeks, and I learned a lot from her, and from the other mothers taking the class. So I hired her. Which is so great. Except that I’m not giving her anything to work with. Since our agreement, I have sent her fewer than twenty-five pages of manuscript. And that was two months ago.
But hey, I haven’t been procrastinating, I tell myself. I’ve been doing field work. I’ve been studying the barred owls that will play so indelibly into this story. I’ve been keeping a detailed journal of their behavior and of my experience observing them. And I’ve been writing the letters to my son. I have to write those. More than a hundred now.
I am completely procrastinating. Jesus. The laptop, the conference, the owls. This essay. As much as his story burns in my chest, as much as I know I cannot live with myself if I do not write it, I don’t want to. What is my problem? I wrote for 772 consecutive days when Benjamin was sick. I shared my writing with a blog audience that grew to several hundred per evening. I didn’t edit myself, and I certainly didn’t care who was reading what I wrote. I wrote because I had to. I wrote to survive.
I know I need to write now. There is something so big at stake here. But I don’t want to recount the chronology of my son’s death last February. I don’t want to go deeply into the pain Benjamin felt when his liver and his spleen grew to twice their normal size. I don’t want to smell that occult blood again or feel the unwelcome shift in the alternating pressure mattress or watch him try to push away the inevitable. He was nine years old.
I do want to convey the joy he brought to our family, though. To the world. That was a big fat note I wrote on my legal pad at the conference, and starred: to capture the magnitude of the loss, you must capture the magnitude of the joy. And I need—need—to delve into the unmistakably divine events that have happened since his death. I have no idea what will come out of those pages. That’s why I need to write them.
One of the AWP Conference panelists I saw—twice, actually—offered readings of her “craft essays” as accompaniments to each literary piece she read. These were breakdowns of her observations, not about the subject matter, but about the process of writing it. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand why she felt the need to write them, let alone share them with other writers, but now I do. This procrastination of mine, this series of investments, this anguish is just another layer of the storytelling experience. It helps me understand the importance of the knowledge I hold, because of Benjamin. It tells me to be brave, like he was. To go into the pain. I will tell his story and I will do it right here on this laptop, so help me God, and I’ll do the best job I possibly can.
Laura Gilkey is the mother of two sons: Banyan, a healthy, rugby-playing adolescent, and Benjamin, who died of leukemia in February 2017. Laura’s writing through Benjamin’s cancer treatment is archived at BenjamintheBrave.com. Additional work has been published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mommy Magazine, and Pulse Voices for Medicine. Laura co-produced Maternally Yours, a weekly community radio program, for five years. Guests included CNN Hero Robin Lim, Right Livelihood Laureate Ina May Gaskin, and Dr. Maya Angelou.
March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments
Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.
Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
From a one-day workshop in your hometown to a three-week residency in a distant artists’ colony, there’s magic in sharing time and space with other writers. But maybe you’re tired of waiting for the right time, location and price. What about organizing your own retreat? How hard can it be to pick a place, decide whether someone’s teaching or you’re just sharing workspace, round up a few friends and go?
That said, you might want to do it anyway.
Back in 2015, I attended Joanne Lozar Glenn’s session on retreat-planning at Hippocamp. I studied her handouts, thinking this could be fun? Maybe?
I looked around. Writer friend Hananah Zaheer holds a biannual retreat with a collective of writing pals, taking turns teaching craft elements, meeting in different cool cities. Ryder S. Ziebarth hosts one-day workshops on her farm in rural New Jersey, inviting guest speakers like memoirist Lisa Romeo. Joanne herself leads single-day and multi-day workshops year-round. I googled ‘writing retreats.’ Writing for Caregivers. For Ministers. Jumpstart Your Memoir/Novel/Nonfiction Proposal. Writing in Ireland, in Mexico, in Hamlet’s castle. A smörgåsbord of residencies and workshops. I thought, I’ll just sit with this idea for a while.
Flash-forward to December 2017. I knew I wanted a retreat in India, in June. I’d led plenty of small-group immersion tours. I got good reviews when I taught. But I had three editing-client manuscripts due in January, my ideas hadn’t solidified…maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then my husband made me a website. Surprise!
Suddenly I had to write copy. Pick the right boutique hotel. Choose a focus for the week. Make decisions. I checked out an expensive learn-to-plan-a-retreat course online. I could take the class or keep paying rent. But their free intro videos made two major points:
- A “destination” retreat isn’t just a workshop in a pretty place. The location should complement and inspire the work.
- Narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone with money and pages who has a week off and wants to go to that place,” specifically define an immediate, pressing problem and how you can help them solve it. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, the problem should be solved.
I’d already picked India so I had to reverse-engineer the connection between work and place. Preferably without appropriating Indian religious beliefs or spiritual practices outside my culture. Colonial Fort Kochi had been Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and ruled by other Indian kingdoms before independence, so what about tapping into rebirth/regeneration from a historical perspective?
What writer-problem could I solve? What’s been missing from previous otherwise-terrific workshops I’ve gone to? Well, I often don’t make much progress on my own work. It takes hours to thoughtfully critique 25 pages each for as many as 10 classmates, then discuss them in class, and maybe half the notes I get back are useful. I want the teacher’s attention and I want to work on my own pages. I want a goddamn Oompa-Loompa, and I want it now. There had to be other writers who felt like this…I hoped.
My husband—a numbers guy—suggested a “break-even” spreadsheet: list every expense, including planning and teaching hours. Hotel rooms. Workspace. Meals. Local guides—don’t forget the tips! I researched other retreats’ offerings; the list got longer. Insurance. Welcome baskets. A reading night—wine? How much wine? How many hours to read everyone’s full manuscript in advance? Add profit on top, divide by number of participants, and that’s what tuition costs. I figured a low profit for the first year—a small bonus on top of hours worked. Get it off the ground, make money later if it’s a success.
Now I had numbers and a website. I knew the retreat would focus on major revisions of existing manuscripts (rebirth!), working only on one’s own pages, and ideally, each participant finishing their current draft. But what if I totally sucked at this and everyone had a terrible time and hated me forever?
I turned to some experts for advice.