Essays

A Writing Retreat Is More Than A Creative Writing Tune-Up

A few weeks ago, you might remember that I had the equivalent of a writer’s meltdown until I made two conclusions, one of which involved meeting a certain person by the name Lise Weil. (You can read about it here).  After talking to her and learning about the writing retreat that she runs a few times a year, I decided I would attend the next one. It took place yesterday.

Now, what’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat? After attending both kinds of events, I can say this: a workshop is where you go to tune-up your writing skills while a retreat is where you go to tune-up your creative core (i.e. your Self).

From sopl.psychology.uoguelph.ca
From sopl.psychology.uoguelph.ca

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I arrived at the apartment at 11AM, and not long after four other women arrived. With the exception of one (who is a member of my writing group), I didn’t know any of them. However, they were all warm and welcoming.

After some opening chit-chat, we began the day with dream work. We had all been asked to write down our dreams leading up to the event. Each person then shared their dream and then the others had a chance to comment. I am a big believer in the power and messages of dreams, so I was very interested to see where this led. As expected, the activity gave way to some interesting insights and revelations. I had analyzed mine before attending the meeting, but it wasn’t until I listened to the others that I began to see the connection to writing. As my thoughts broke through the little box of interpretations I had built, I was now able to discern issues like, concerns about being a ‘legitimate’ writer and the validity of having a writing blog when I haven’t sold tons of books or ‘made it’. Basically, this dream opened the door to my darkest, deepest insecurities.

Another example: one woman shared her belief that her words and ideas had no value because they were fragments and not part of a whole, realized piece.  In my opinion, her words were magic. Each phrase carried so much weight and beauty, and her expression was so pure and raw. And, when read together, the lines did read like a poem (a whole piece). But my real point was this: Why weren’t the words themselves, or her visceral, honest expression, enough? (On the way home that night when I reflected on this conversation, I realized that this is a question that I should be asking myself). As you can see, things were already getting interesting.

The next activity was to write something inspired by a poem. Lise passed around a bag and we each blindly choose one. The underlying expectation was that each person would somehow choose the poem that was ‘right’ for them. I think, for the most part, we all did. Mine was a wonderful poem by Cynthia Rich called Buddahdarma. Lines like, ‘You are not the person that you knew before’, ‘Your being opens like an unseen door’ amongst others connected to my pit of insecurity. In the writing exercise that followed, the poem inspired the creation of a complete, introspective narrative of 1000 words called A Mirror Tells No Lies. Writing on the fly like that, carried by the power of a few choice words, was revelatory. The resulting story was rife with concepts and metaphors that I must unpack, and Lise suggested I analyse the sections of the poem that triggered that creative burst as a means of better understanding why it connected. This was homework I actually looked forward to.

After that, we took a walk. It’s a deep freeze in Montreal right now, so going outside for an hour was no joke. But, after sitting for so long, I admit it was time to be active. So, I bundled up, grabbed my notebook (yes, we had an assignment to) and got walking. The assignment involved ‘being in the moment’, connecting with what’s happening around us and paying attention to ourselves. Once I got used to the cold, I realized how wonderful it was to connect with my body in motion. One of the women attends an African dance school and she spoke of the importance of the body connecting with the mind. I was reminded that we interact with the world through our bodies which affects our mind and soul. In essence, it impacts our creativity. So I walked, and I sensed, and I experienced. Then I found a little café, enjoyed my unctuous peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie and double latte, and completed my assignment. It’s a free-writing piece, no editing, a journal entry of sorts discussing what the day meant to me. Here is a sample:

‘…I’ve been waiting for this retreat. I wasn’t sure what I would get from it or even what I wanted—I just knew I wanted the experience. It’s nice to be around others who don’t have it all together either—I feel normal. Rather than feeling ‘less than’ because one person has done this, or won this, or talks the good talk. I’m not competing—I’m being. I write and I feel excited. I listen and I feel moved. I share and I feel listened to. This is a unique and precious moment.

‘ I am trying to find my voice and my identity within myself and my writing. In the mess that is my life at the moment, it feels wonderful to be focused on 1 thing. There is no contingency planning, nor worrying; the stress of real life is ‘out there’ and I can concentrate on me. I can delve into understanding this thing I like to do, and that makes me feel grounded. Or it could, if only I could bring this ‘quiet’ back with me into the real world. And, I guess, that is the question for me: How to not lose this focus? How to quiet myself and listen to me when the winds around blow so hard and so fast? The winds of children, and husband, and work, and finding time to have a life outside—it’s a whirlwind spinning at breathtaking speed. Either way, however it ends, I’ve had today. And I am grateful for it.’

I now know that I went to the retreat to find my voice. Not only to find it, but to find value and purpose in that voice. And to learn to love it. Our voices are a reflection of our soul, who we are in the deep and shadowy places as much in the bright and sunny ones. That is the mystery behind the Mirror story that I was to analyse and the reason that poem struck a chord so hard that my fingers could do nothing but write a story to illustrate that awakening. I am my writing, and my writing is me. The good, the bad. The beauty, and the horror. And with that acceptance comes a measure of peace.

Picture by Amanda Staley
Picture by Amanda Staley

How about you? Can you relate to this experience? Have you attended a writing retreat and what did you get from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

Essays, Misc

When You Are Discouraged

I haven’t posted many articles about my ‘writer’s experience’ lately, mostly because I figured a series of depressing posts featuring my rants and raves wouldn’t be very interesting. Okay, maybe interesting but not very useful.  We all face moments of frustration and disappointment when we strive to succeed at something we are passionate about. The challenge becomes how to get out of that black hole and what to do with ourselves once we do. 

Months ago, when the first phase of this downward spiral hit, I was coming to grips with reality: finding success as a writer is extremely hard. Not to mention that no matter how good our writing might be, that is no guarantee that an agent or publisher will want to work with us.   

Reality check number two: wanting to reclaim control of my book, I cancelled the contract with the company that published it, but now I had the monumental job of doing everything myself: republishing the book, marketing and promoting it, figuring out the numbers and following stats and purchases, if there were any. I felt like I had made a huge mistake. The burden is massive. Fact is, I just don’t have the financial or time resources necessary to sell my books the way the experts say I should. And, I’m not an island. I have kids, a household to maintain and a fulltime job. No matter how much I wish otherwise, I can’t just dump my job to write fulltime. In order to maintain balance in my life, I had to sacrifice writing time to be present elsewhere. It was that, or burn out. 

Still, this current phase was different. I wasn’t feeling good about my writing. I’d produce something I thought was good, but the comments I got back all seemed negative to me. Then the doubts set in. Had I lost my touch? Were people just not into what I was writing? Did they not get it? And so on. And on…and on.

image from youthvoices.net
image from youthvoices.net

Part of this comes from the writing group I joined. The group itself is great. I love the social aspect. And chatting about the art-form we are passionate about while working together to improve our pieces is wonderful. However, we each have our individual styles, most often skewing towards literary fiction. I have often felt a little like a fish out of water. Sometimes I wondered if I would be better off in a genre-oriented group. But a big part of the reason I joined was to benefit from the lit-oriented environment. 

Anyway, I finally broke. And it was this breaking that led to getting out of that black hole. Below are two of the main things I learned: 

  1. Talk to the right people. I have a small circle of internet writing friends I trust, and they gave me a place to vent. I’m sure I tried their patience, but I appreciate their concern and the time they gave me. Then someone in the writing group mentioned an upcoming writing retreat, so I took a chance and contacted the host. Her name is Lise Weil, professor, founder of literary magazines, and award-winning writer, though I didn’t know this when we spoke. (Thank goodness because I would felt intimidated otherwise). Mrs. Weil ‘got’ my problem right away. When she voiced my own suspicion that my writing world had been ‘shaken up’, I immediately relaxed. The tension seeped out of me, like someone had just sucked the poison from a snake bite. Just having someone name your problem and empathize with you can get you back on track. Needless to say, I will be attending the retreat and I will be blogging about that. 🙂
  2. Always come back to your centre. Exploring new writing styles led me away from my own Voice. This insecurity caused me to seek approval and validation from others and to concluding my work was bad when things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. I forgot that failure doesn’t mean the work itself is bad, or that I suck. It just means I need to work harder. And I must be patient. Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how I was feeling and inspiration led me to bang out a flash fiction piece to accompany it. It was raw and fuelled by angst, but it felt great to put my feelings in prose. The piece even won a flash fiction contest I was encouraged to participate in. Last weekend, I went for breakfast with Sharon from my group again, and we wrote short pieces based on paintings hanging in the restaurant. I had no idea what to write, but I shut out my doubts and let my fingers do the work. I was thrilled with the result.  The point is, these experiences reminded me that writing from the heart is what makes me happy, and that I most enjoy writing when I don’t always know where the story is going to go.  I feel alive when I’m not trying to be this or that kind of writer. When the most important critic of anything I write is me because what is on paper is my truth. 

And that is what I learned. I’m going back to basics, back to what makes me love writing in the first place—pure self-expression. Some will get on board and some won’t. I may never become famous, and people might not ‘get’ or like my work. But at least every piece will be me.

Picture by Amanda Staley
Picture by Amanda Staley