What Was This Farm Girl Doing at AWP?

Ellen, Brenda, and Jill  Members of my Writing Group

Ellen, Brenda, Elizabeth and Jill
Members of my Writing Group

The Association of Writers and Writers Program (AWP) had their annual Conference and Bookfair this past weekend in Minneapolis and over 13,000 people attended, including me.

I could have left after the first panel discussion I attended: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. I got my money’s worth in the first hour of the four-day conference.

I heard, “What is our truth and are we doing that on the page?”

I heard, “I allow myself to be a person who can change.”

I heard, “Let’s put out shit that matters.”

Those few words gave me the courage to own my story in its entirety.

When asked what I write it was easy for me to say, memoir, adopting infants from Guatemala, raising them with another woman, etc…but I generally would not say the whole of it.

Fear of how people would see me was part of that.

But, no one else can tell my story.

My completed memoir manuscript, House of Fire, uses fire as a metaphor for the dysfunction in my family of 14 growing up on a Wisconsin farm. I interweave the incest that defined my childhood and teenage years with how I healed. The book describes how my partner, Jody and I, intentionally created a safe healthy family by adopting and raising two infants from Guatemala.

I’ve spent over thirty years working on myself to have my past not define me.

And, to that end, I’ve been successful.

I contain multitudes: the Tae Kwon Do black belt who is a goof who loves to spar at the Dojang, the mother of two twelve-year olds, the police reserve officer, the human resources manager, the soon to be Assistant Scoutmaster, the writer and author, and the woman who married her partner last August.

I’m also the woman who suffered repeated sexual abuse, who had a hushed-up abortion after I was impregnated at 14 by one of my brothers, who was pregnant again within a year by another brother, who gave up a son and never saw him again.

What I wanted most in my early twenties was to know that people could not only survive what I did, but heal and live a good life.

Now, my book, House of Fire, will help me be that person for others.

I didn’t go home after that first hour of the AWP conference. I remained among my tribe of 13,000 writers.

I also have another tribe who I hope to reach through the printed and spoken word.

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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!

 

Dealing with a Dry Spell: Perspective for Writers

Often my writing struggles concern wanting more time to write. Lately, I’ve had enough time, but I’m writing less—the words aren’t flowing. I’m still writing, but much less enthusiastic about what I’m coming up with. I’ve learned some ways to cope with a writing dry spell.

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1. Don’t freak out. “Dry spell.” “Writer’s block.” “Just feeling off your game.” Whatever you call it, it’s like insomnia. The more you fret, “OMG! I have to get up in an hour-and-a-half. I’ve GOT to get more sleep!” the less likely you are to fall asleep. Similarly, if you tell yourself, “I’ve been sitting here 45 minutes and everything I’m writing sounds stupid. Why do I even bother?” you’re guaranteed to shut down your creative energy.

2. Trust yourself. I know. I know. Easy for me to say. But after 25+ years writing advertising and marketing, I’ve learned that the words and ideas will come back.

Countless times, I had two hours to come with an ad concept. The graphic designer and I tossed out ideas, drew, played with words that had a ring to them, and described possible visuals. At first, most of what we brainstormed was weak, clichéd, off the topic, or all three.

We could have let ourselves panic, but we pushed away that feeling and kept going. Part way through the process, something shifted and the better ideas began to flow. I learned to get comfortable with spinning my wheels mentally. Sooner or later, my brain would engage and we’d have several viable concepts.

As long as I trusted myself to think up something, I would. Writing essays, blogs, and memoir take deeper thinking and more sustained effort—they’re harder—but the approach is the same. Trust yourself.

3. You can’t stop being a writer, so you might as well keep going. Haven’t you sworn off being a writer at least once? Haven’t you told yourself, “I don’t have any talent. No one is going to be interested in what I’m writing. I should quit fooling myself. Etc. Etc.”?

How’d that work out for you? You must still think of yourself as a writer or you wouldn’t be reading this! Whether you like it or not, your writer’s sensibility continues to notice and mentally record the funny conversations you overhear at the coffee shop. The writer in you searches for the right words to describe the colors of grasses in autumn or the texture of a beat-up sofa—even if you’re just relaying a funny story to friends. You might not be writing much right this minute, but you’re still hardwired to be a writer.

Since you can’t eradicate writing from your life, keep writing. Although there are different theories about this, I personally think it’s better to keep writing regularly, even if you only write a little bit, because it keeps you limber.

But be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect as much. For example, set a goal of doing 20 minutes per session. Let the measure of success be that you did it, not that the writing was great. Perfection is not required.

4. Trick yourself into continuing. Quite often, I’m not excited about what I’m writing, so I’m not eager to start work. Or I have no idea what to write, but I still have a blog due. Both situations lead to creative procrastination. I may feel a sudden urgent need to answer emails, switch loads of laundry, or even pay bills (and I hate to pay bills). However, I’ve promised myself I’d sit at my computer and try to write, so after a few distractions, I settle down and try again.

Occasionally, rereading what I wrote last time pulls me in. I start to see things I want to add or change. Other times I fuss with making minor edits or researching some factoids. While I occupy the front of my mind with busywork, the back of my mind begins framing new sentences. Then all I need is the good sense to stop editing and start writing down the new words forming in my head.

Another trick is to work with a writing prompts. Poets & Writers is a good resource for prompts. Evocative photos can also help you access the creative part of your brain that’s being so elusive.

Most of all, trust yourself. The words will come.

What helps you when you’re in a dry spell?

What To Do When Your Editor Has Your Manuscript

ostrich-with-head-in-sand 2Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any nervous energy waiting for her response. I’m looking forward to her feedback. And, as soon as I receive her comments, I know that I’ll stick my head back into the manuscript and write, revise, and write.

An ostrich doesn’t bury her head in the sand but she does dig a hole in the dirt to use as a nest for her eggs. Several times a day, the ostrich puts her head in the hole and turns the eggs.

Since winning the 2013 – 2014 Loft Mentor Series in Creative Nonfiction, I devoted my time to babying my book. Every spare moment I had went into the work that would result in this baby growing into a manuscript worth publishing. I had a vision. I purged what wasn’t working and kept writing what was.

With my newfound free time, I turned my attention to the cat room. It had become a stockpile of possibly useful stuff. Every time I walked into this room it bugged me. I’m a purger by nature. I don’t like stuff.

Transforming this room became a creative process. I had a vision for the room. I knew that it could be more than it was. Focus, hard work, and purging would bring my vision to fruition.

I’m the purger in our house. That’s my role. I enjoy it. For me it is creative. When Antonio and Crystel get to the point that even they can’t stand their bedrooms, they’ll turn their rooms over to me. I’ll go through every slip of paper, every drawer, every pencil box and organize, toss, give away, and rearrange. At the end of the day they have bedrooms they don’t recognize as theirs.

Of course, there are those moments when I discard something I shouldn’t. Crystel asked me where her grocery bag of papers were. She said, “They are in the memory box like the pictures you took down off the wall, right?”

Sorry, honey, I thought. That paper bag went straight in the trash.

“Ms. Hutton said we’d need those later in the school year.”

“Oooooh,” I replied.

Jody, also enjoys when I get in this state of mind. I can bring orderly to chaos to any kitchen cupboard or linen closet.

Maybe I am a good purger because I don’t have an attachment to stuff.

There isn’t much that I won’t give away. I am one of twelve children and my mother would stack our clean clothes on numbered shelves. We each had a number that corresponded to our birth order. As the fifth child, I was number five. Even so, one day I couldn’t find a pair of blue jeans that I got for Christmas. Finally, I figured out that number six brother was wearing them. Possession became ownership.

173314-stock-photo-sky-movement-head-sand-power-forceI tackled that cat room with the same intensity and focus that I used to write my book.

Within three days, it wasn’t recognizable and I had a new sitting room.

Soon, I’ll be burying my head back into my manuscript. I’ll be a mother to my words. Turning each one over and over. The only difference being … will be where I’m sitting. The cat room has become my favorite creative space. I’m confident I’ll emerge with a book worth reading.