Today’s blog is from WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS participant Lizbeth Phillips, one of three participants in this year’s weekend writing retreat. She’s being mentored through December via a grant from American NewMedia.
As I was driving home from South Carolina on June 6, the Facebook Instant Messenger on my phone dinged. It was hard to drive in heavy traffic while puzzling over who dinged at me, so after I cleared the hurdle of a major Interstate highway junction, I found a gas station to get fuel and check messages. Incredible message on Instant Messenger. I had to do a double-take because my friend Wendy Welch wanted to know if I was interested in a writing retreat and support so I could finish my novel. The message was for me and Cathie, another writer I hadn’t met yet. Wendy ended the message with the suggestion that I mull it over and get back to her.
I got back in the car and headed for home, dreading the mix of dysfunctional drivers and the consistent malfunction of the Asheville, North Carolina highway system. The highway still wound around the Blue Ridge Mountains when my phone dinged again. Wendy figured I had plenty of time to think about whether or not I was ready to truly commit to two or three days of serious writing, and she was right. Two years had gone by since my first writing workshop with Write Comes to the Cumberlands, and I felt vulnerable texting her back. When I pressed the Send button on my phone, I knew my priorities moved from wanting to write to being an author.
Eighteen days and plenty of messages later, I was on the road again. The cabin hideout for writers was just over an hour from my Abingdon home. When I got to our rendezvous location, Wendy and I loaded all the food and writing gear I brought along, and then we followed the road least traveled down a holler between two knobby little mountains. When the road ran out, we followed the trail that went around a curve and up a steep hill to the Writer’s Hideout, a remarkable, rustic cabin that only a few people and God knew about. I met and instantly liked Cathie. Twenty minutes after my arrival, the three of us started writing.
We each claimed a writing spot in the cabin and started work. Because I started and stopped so many times in the past, I had a curmudgeon of words that required serious revisions and edits. The afternoon was spent cleaning up the most important little messes I hadn’t bothered to tidy.
My nemesis, Stuff-I-Thought-More-Important, got tossed off the front porch and landed in the pond at the bottom of the hill. It sank to the bottom so that its only view was the underbellies of huge fish and singing frogs. It couldn’t have happened to a better excuse not to write. After two years of waiting, my book characters filled me in on what happened while I was away, and I was overwhelmed because I couldn’t type fast enough and listen to all the shouting that came from the abandoned fatty folds of my frontal lobe. Too many incidents leading to the still unknown climax, some falling action mixed in, and thanks to a chat with Wendy, the subliminal resolution and the threat of a sequel revealed themselves all at once!
At one point I stopped typing and wrote developments and questions in a little notebook using three colors of ink—past, present, future. Different plot elements had to be sorted, and writing them down stilled the cognitive backchannels. Back and forth with this strategy that slowed the actual writing process, and if Wendy hadn’t asked me if I’d like a ride toward town to check my phone for messages, my brain might have heaved a big sigh and run for the pond to join my excuses. Relief was not my reaction to her gentle voice bringing me back to the cabin; she knew I was in the book. It was a gentle shake, like a sneeze or a hiccup that reset my body’s electrical system. And it was enough to make me waver between connecting with the real world or staying in the fantasy one. I stayed, kept the dogs company, and kept on writing. The cabin faded away again, and I found myself traveling in time to a moment in history I must have mused over as a young child. Time travel, generational misunderstanding, disobedient magic, and a girl trapped in a human world she does not understand. The impossible happens, and what should have happened in the first place never enters in. What was this madness, I wondered.
Luckily, I got to take a break and fix spaghetti for the three of us. Dinner conversation centered on what we were writing and what we hoped to achieve before going home Sunday. Three writers sharing thoughts and ideas in the Writers Hideout. It felt like one of those reality show ideas a nerdy producer pitched to a TV network, and I was so glad that the only technology allowed was the use of my laptop (wifi in absentia). Then it was back to writing, at least for me, because some plot development insisted it was the next thing to write about. I was a slave to my imagination’s memories, so I piled up in the office armchair with my notebook, pens, laptop, and some M&Ms. I have no idea how much time passed; I was on a roll and didn’t care.
Nature, however, knew I needed another interruption, so it began with the call of a frog on a log in the pond at the bottom of the hill. Three frogs answered, and then it was all over. Half the frogs in Welch Pond started singing, clicking, clucking, hacking, humming, or plopping. I got up from the chair and made for the door so I could stand on the porch and listen to what started out as the forest backchannel and eventually crescendoed into an amphibian concerto like no other.
Wendy told me to wait for it, and I listened intently. First, a low hum. Then the baritone warming up sang in a vibrato so magnificent many of the girl frogs fainted into the water, the splashes adding percussion to the notes sung. The performance was like no other. When the lightning bugs added ambience, the mosquitoes finally drove me indoors. I went back to the chair and finished the chapter. Then I turned in for the night. Sound sleep lasted several hours before the frogs woke me, and the baritone would not stop singing, so I named him Big Boss and covered my ears with a pillow. That worked until 1:36am (according to the clock on my phone that had no signal). At that point I decided the concert was an all-nighter, so I recorded the music—even though the windows and doors of my room were closed. It WAS loud enough!
Morning light filtered through the window and shone pale on the wood floor, but I sensed its presence. I hurried into my day clothes, grabbed my laptop, and hurried to the kitchen table to write some more. I supposed I should forgive the frogs for singing so loudly because my brain had worked all night on that story. I could hardly keep up! I wrote an entire chapter before anyone else was up and moving around, so I was ready to cook pancakes when Wendy came into the kitchen to check on me and let the dogs out to go walkies.
After breakfast we retreated to our writing spots, and before getting too far into the next development, an odd thing happened. The Hideout moved to the back channel, and the story became real. A break. Lunch. A discussion about how the weekend was going so far. A walk. Then more writing until dinner, which was salmon and rice that Cathie fixed. Refueled, my characters decided I had more work to do before I turned in for the night, so I relented. I worked my keyboard until it was hot to the touch, typing as fast as I could to appease my protagonist and her father. It all happened so fast, I never noticed it was nearly dark outside. Big Boss did his deep CKerrrrrrrr-ummmmmmm mmmmmmmmm, and all the little girl frogs swooned into the water while the lesser male singers made their signature sounds. The concert lasted all night and almost to sunrise, and I recorded parts of the Concerto in Frog Minor because I knew no one would believe how talented Wendy’s frogs were.
Twice in the night I had to open my laptop and write something down so the butler would stop telling me things I wasn’t ready to know. (You see, the butler know and sees all, and he let me know he was omniscient.) I remember thinking that maybe I could have a taxi run over him because he didn’t look both ways before crossing the street. He grumbled about how mean I was and left me alone, so I slept. At 6:30 am, I rolled out of bed, hurried into my Sunday-Going-Home clothes, and headed for the kitchen table with my laptop. Another chapter was finished before I shut my authoring laptop off. I stowed it in my gear that was under the steps, ready for the journey home.
Over a breakfast of French toast, I wondered and worried. We said goodbye to Cathie. Then I worried some more. I tossed and turned what was accomplished at the Writers Hideout and weighed it against expectations of others for the coming week. In all, I edited my foreword and wrote 10,000 words (3 chapters, 30 pages). The subtle change in my thinking was not wasted. Instead of thinking about what I had to do, I was thinking about when and where I would write EVERY day. I tried to figure out when I could return to the cabin and write for days and evenings with nothing to keep me from it. For the first time ever, I knew that I would not skip writing, that I was committed to writing as though it was my job. By the time Wendy and I had locked the front door and headed for the car for the ride back to civilization, I promised myself that I would work on my novel every day, that I would alert her if I struggled, that I would rely on her wisdom to get me through any pressures or doldrums. We said our goodbyes and headed in two different directions, headed for home.
I did not listen the radio. Never checked the news to see what had happened while I was in another world. I did text three family members to let them know I was headed home. Then I drove through the back channels of civilization and paid close attention to my novel as it continued to write itself on my brain cells. Another chapter. Another day. It was a glorious Sunday because twenty days ago, my friend Wendy Welch sent a text message that saved my writer’s life. My purpose was reset, and destiny moved me to take ownership of my imagination and my work. Thanks to Wendy Welch and Debra Hallock from American NewMedia Foundation, I will finish this novel by Christmas so that it can be launched into the new year like a resolution to secure my future as an author of young adult literature. Oh, I almost forgot! I should also thank Cathie for sharing her work and giving feedback on what I wrote. And for the sake of personification, I must bow to the Writers Hideout for its sanctuary and applaud Big Boss and his choir for their latest pond production, Concerto in Frog Minor.