Treasure Hunt

Periodically, a writers’ group I belong to has a writers’ retreat. This weekend we stayed at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.

The Anderson House in February 2015

It’s an inspiring place—a stately old home set on acres of land with a sculpture garden on the grounds. There’s a sunny library filled with novels, volumes of poetry, memoirs, histories, and art books. Many were written and contributed by the Center’s guests. In each of the bedrooms, there are journals in which previous visitors (including some well-known writers) commented on their stay. Often they mentioned a breakthrough and expressed gratitude for the Great Things they accomplished . . . which was a bit intimidating.

IMG_2353

Contemplative view from my window, minus the other treasure hunter

On Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and stared out the window.

Outside, a young guy in a hoodie and camo pants moved among the trees, sweeping a metal detector across the lawn. He squatted, dug up something with a trowel, then repacked the dirt, and smoothed it out.

What could he possibly have found—a bottle cap? A quarter? The Anderson House is nearly 100 years old. Maybe a long buried artifact had worked its way to the surface.

Inside, I too was treasure hunting. I sifted through files, piles of words, scraps of images, mining my mind for a memory or a line to spark inspiration.

We both worked doggedly at our tasks.

I hoped to uncover an idea that would justify my presence there, so I’d feel worthy of the gift of time.

Quickly I covered up that wasps’ nest of self-doubt and tamped down my frustration. Smoothed over my prickly worries. Don’t be so driven. That’s not how inspiration works.

I reminded myself: Just spend the time. Do the work.

It will come.

Advertisements

Secrets of a Successful Writers’ Group

Several years ago, Lisa, our writing group’s founder, tried to quit. She feared the realities of her treatment for stomach cancer (belching, gas, occasional gagging, and a backpack of liquid food that connected to a port in her stomach) were off-putting. She was also discouraged, because “she wasn’t contributing anything,” meaning that she didn’t have any writing to share with the group.

WordSisters

The WordSisters a few years ago — Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, and Jean. Rose is behind the camera.

The other five members of the group listened, but as she talked, it was clear that thinking about writing gave her a break from thinking about her health, and she still enjoyed our company. One member suggested that we could all chime in with our own bodily noises if it would make Lisa feel more comfortable. We swiped away tears and laughed ourselves silly at that suggestion. Lisa agreed to stay involved in the group.

We support each other as writers.

That moment exemplifies the basic philosophy of our creative nonfiction writers’ group and why we’ve been together for 13 years: we meet to support each other as writers. Sometimes that goes beyond reacting to each other’s writing.

Besides giving each other feedback about writing projects, we also provide moral and tactical support:

  • Celebrating our publishing victories and sympathizing when someone’s work is rejected.
  • Sharing our grant proposals and writing award applications, even when we’re competing for the same grants and awards.
  • Offering support when a member’s personal life is trying.
  • Organizing our own writers’ retreats.
  • Launching a campaign to get Lisa published when she didn’t have the energy for submissions.
  • Attending each other’s public readings.
  • Organizing several extra-long review sessions to provide feedback on book manuscripts.
  • Recommending marketing and promotional ideas, most recently for Elizabeth’s House of Fire book launch.

Most of all, we believe in each other.

Writing Retreat Report: 3 Benefits You Won’t Get at Home

Last weekend, the writers’ group I’m a part of experimented with a do-it-yourself writers’ retreat. We all thought it was a success and even discovered an unexpected benefit.

1. Accomplishment

No surprise. This is one of the main reasons you go on a writers’ retreat. There’s nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. No job, errands, household chores, or running kids around. Just write, think, or daydream—whatever feeds the muse.

I wrote two essays and a new query letter in this room with a view

I wrote two essays and a new query letter in this room with a view

Each of us accomplished more than we normally would. Several of us drafted essays. Others focused on planning—reviewing what they already had written and seeing the possibilities for new work. Some concentrated on researching possible publications and sending queries. Everyone felt the time away helped their writing and creative process.

2. Inspiration

Getting away from your usual surroundings, even for a few days, is very freeing. When you leave the To Do lists behind, you mind clears and there’s room for big ideas. Inspiration bubbles to the surface more readily.Grounds

3. Affirmation

Writers could probably get a lot accomplished and maybe even be inspired if they rented a cabin or house-sat for a vacationing friend. But by staying at a bonafide writers’ retreat, you get more. Hundreds of other writers or artists sat where you sat and considered their creative work important enough to invest in.

The retreat center itself is dedicated to fostering your work. At the Anderson House, the setting includes floor to ceiling bookcases filled with literature instead of the ripped up mystery stories like you’d find at a rental cabin. Each bedroom has a journal full of entries by previous writers and artists who are wishing you well. You feel you’re part of a larger tradition.

ParkingIf the retreat center thinks I’m an artist, I must be!

Plan A Do-It-Yourself Writing Retreat

Many writers daydream about getting away from it all so they can spend focused time writing—no interruptions, no responsibilities—just writing for hours at a time. Often making that daydream a reality seems hard:

  • That memoir workshop in Ireland sounds wonderful, but who has that kind of money?
  • Places like Ragdale have a rigorous juried application process. Most writers won’t be awarded a residency.
  • Getting away for a week isn’t realistic for writers with day jobs and/or significant family responsibilities.
  • Attending professionally run writers workshop and retreats can trigger an attack of insecurity (I’m not as talented as all of those other writers. What if the people are cliquish and pretentious and I don’t fit in?)
What a writers retreat looks like in my daydreams

What a writers retreat looks like in my daydreams

Invent the Retreat That Fits Your Life

Several months ago, the writers group I belong to began brainstorming how we could put together our own writers retreat, and we had the following criteria:

  • We wanted a long weekend away instead of week-long retreat.
  • The location had to be affordable.
  • We wanted a place within an hour or two of the Twin Cities, so we wouldn’t spend too much of our precious time driving there and back.
  • Each of us wanted her own room, and ideally, the place would have a kitchen and some communal areas. Staying in your room all day and all night could get claustrophobic. Having a place to walk would also be good.
The contemplative walk I envisioned

The contemplative walk I envisioned

After doing some Internet research, we found that retreat centers would be better than motels or condos, because they are more peaceful, less expensive, and often have kitchens. The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota met our specs and had an opening on one of the weekends we wanted to get away.

What our retreat location actually looks like . . .

What our retreat location actually looks like . . .

Talk About Expectations and Set Ground Rules

We have been part of the same group for more than a decade. We like and respect each other, but we wanted to avoid some obvious pitfalls if we could. Our discussions led to these guidelines:

  • This is NOT a girls’ weekend. If we’re too social, it will defeat the purpose of being on a retreat—getting the solitude to be creative.
  • We’ll eat dinner together both nights, but aside from that, there’s no need to socialize.
  • Each woman will set her own goals, which could be writing, revising, napping, reading, walking, daydreaming—whatever each person needs.
  • We’ll go out for dinner one night and cook one night. For breakfast and lunch, you’re on your own.

    That contemplative walk will actually look more like this

    That contemplative walk will actually look more like this

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re excited, but we’ve never tried this before. Wish us luck!

 

Writers Supporting Other Writers–Writing Process Blog Hop

If you’ve been following WordSisters, you know that Elizabeth and Ellen write the blog on alternate weeks, and occasionally, guest bloggers like Jean Cook and Brenda van Dyck join us. We have been invited by Shannon Schenk to participate in a blog hop (thank you, Shannon!) and so we are writing a shared blog in which we each answer some questions about our writing process.

From Ellen . . . me on 620

I feel privileged to call the Twin Cities my creative home. Institutions like the Loft and Hamline’s M.F.A. program, as well as the numerous aspiring and accomplished authors who live here, combine to create an exceptional writing community. Classes, resources, and writers’ groups are plentiful, and that’s how Elizabeth and I came to be in the same writers’ group and to launch this blog. The Twin Cities’ strong supportive writing community helped Shannon (a Hamline M.F.A. alum) reconnect with Elizabeth (another Hamline M.F.A. alum) and allowed me to discover Nodding and Smiling, Shannon’s blog. She has the sensibility of a poet with the insights of a psychologist. At her invitation, we are participating in this writing process blog hop.

What am I working on? Ellen answers . . .

I’ve completed a memoir manuscript (BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE) and I write essays, but currently, WordSisters gets most of my attention.

In many ways, Elizabeth and I seem like opposites—she’s very athletic, while the only way I’d be ziplining in Guatemala is if there were a gun to my head! She grew up on a farm while I’m a city kid through and through. But what drew us together is that each of us has a longstanding commitment to improving our writing and telling our stories. We also are fierce mamas. She is mom to 11-year-old Antonio and Crystel, and I am mom to Mike and Greg, who are in their early 20s.

Although our blog topics often vary widely, our commitment to writing is the same. We energize each other. I know Elizabeth is counting on me and I know she won’t let me down either. Together, we’re better. We also both like self-publishing—the empowerment of it and the connections we make. Each week, one of us sends our thoughts and observations out to the world and we connect with all of you. That, too, is very powerful.

Why do I write what I write? Elizabeth answers . . .

At the PORTA Hotel Antigua in Guatemala, I’m sitting next to my eleven-year old daughter who visited with her birthmother a few hours ago. My eleven-year old son is nearby, watching the Teen Beach movie in Spanish and English on the television. He also visited with his birthmother today. My partner Jody is working out in the hotel’s gym.

The focus of my writing is integrating my story with my children’s. I’m a birth mother and an adoptive mother.

As I hugged Rosa (Antonio’s birthmom) and Mayra (Crystel’s birthmom) goodbye today, I thought about how they must feel giving up a baby for adoption, visiting with their child, saying goodbye again with only the promise that we’ll return in two years. I, too, gave up a son in adoption. I know how it feels to not have a living part always with you—like having a phantom limb. But I’m also the adoptive mom standing on a cobblestone street with their child, while they are climbing slowly into a van to take them back to their casa.

During the next nine days, I will explore and study the heritage of my children, who are indigenous Mayans—an opportunity made possible because I received a 2014-2015 Jerome Travel and Study Grant. The information gained will be used to improve my memoir manuscript, HOUSE OF FIRE. It will help me finish the last chapter that brings bring the narrative full circle—from the trauma of my childhood sexual abuse and being forced to give away the son I conceived as a result of the abuse, to the healing and joy of my created family, and finally, to the redemption of returning with the children to Guatemala and figuratively handing them back to their birthmothers, their birth country, and their countrypeople – allowing me and the other birthmoms to experience love and forgiveness.

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

This new material will help me strengthen my manuscript’s theme that hope, joy, and redemption can prevail over trauma.

I write what I do because my ultimate goal is to speak publicly throughout the United States and internationally about breaking free from the cycle of violence, the trials of starting my own healthy family and the challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy despite being stalked by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

 

What is your writing process? Ellen answers . . .

Often, I start with a phrase that repeats itself in my head until I pay attention and start writing. Sometimes I have a flash of insight that intrigues me and I can’t rest until I work it out on the page. Then I’m off and writing—totally involved with writing the first draft. I love the rush of inspiration when that happens.

But just as often, I’m not inspired. However, I’ve learned to trust myself—if I show up and sit at my computer, the words and ideas will show up, too.

My favorite writing spots include my office at home, our sunny porch, and a chair overlooking the lake in Lebanon Hills Park—I’ve revised large hunks of my book there.

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

After I write the first draft of anything, I know I need to let it cool off. I always allow time to look at the piece—whether a blog, an essay, or a newsletter for work—with fresh eyes a while later. Then I begin revising, and the more time I have to revise, the better the piece will be. I rely on other readers to help me see what works and what doesn’t, and Elizabeth and I always share our blogs before publishing. However with blogging, I’ve had to learn to let go of the desire for perfection—sometimes I need to accept that pretty good is pretty good and I should just press Publish.

Introducing Cynthia Kraack

Elizabeth and I would like to introduce and recommend Cynthia Kraack, a talented novelist. Her first novel, MINNESOTA COLD, won the 2010 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for fiction. LEAVING ASHWOOD is being released July 1st. It is the final book of the speculative fiction ASHWOOD trilogy about a family living in post-global depression. She has had short stories published and received professional recognition for her work in writing business simulation games. Cynthia, a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing, also holds a graduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Marquette University. She is a native of Wisconsin and has lived in Minnesota all of her adult life.

We feel lucky to live in the Twin Cities—a haven for creative people, especially writers. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about a few of us. Be sure to check out Shannon and Cynthia’s blogs!