Tag Archives: writing retreats

It’s Writing Retreat Weekend!!!

Once a year, thanks to the American NewMedia Foundation, two writers and I embark on a journey. The program asks the writers to set goals for the next year in terms of what project them want to work on, and what they want the outcome to be.writing-a-research-plan

And then we work. Hard.

We always start with a writing retreat, a kickoff to a year of wordsmithing and prioritizing and crafting. Not all the fellows have been women, but I think it is harder for women to make time for our own writing. It’s a “hobby” that produces less tangible objects than knitting or crocheting, and it’s something we can’t “prove” we have a “right” to be doing by the standards of return on investment.

Sod that for a game of soldiers. We write for fun, for mental health, because we have something to say, because it’s satisfying, or just because we friggin’ want to. Why women have to justify time spent in this way, I don’t know. But never mind. Tonight the words will start flowing, faster than the wine, and we three will dive deep, down into the waters of creativity.

It is like diving. What feels cool and clean one minute as you slice in with surgical precision can become deep and suffocating and murky the next, and that glorious feeling of control disappears into something approaching panic. It’s dark in the creative spaces. That can be good or bad.

What it never is, is boring. This year promises to be as challenging and invigorating as the previous ones have been, me learning from the fellows, the fellows learning from me. It’s kind of a full circle of growth return.

And so we start, late this afternoon, down the path toward the sea of words. Wish us luck!

 

1 Comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

A Novel Concerto in Frog Minor

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Tutankhamen’s Tomb/Palace

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog

Many folks have been asking for pictures of the refurbished basement, but I’ve been waiting until it was finished (can it ever be truly finished, he said?). Anyway – last night it was finished enough for the Needlework Gang to get a guided tour, so –

How it was at the beginning.

How it was at the beginning.

The 1903 rotted windows.

The 1903 rotted windows.

The ceiling as it was.

The ceiling as it was.

a new wall takes shape

A new wall takes shape

New windows.

New windows.

New ceiling.

New ceiling.

Hardwood floor starts to go down.

Hardwood floor starts to go down.

The entrance to the tomb gets a makeover.

The entrance to the tomb gets a makeover.

An antique mantlepiece and not so antique fire.

An antique mantlepiece and not so antique fire.

Approval!(I think!!)

Approval!
(I think!!)

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Jabberwock vs. the Narrative Arc

So the last time I finagled a weekend away from the bookshop and holed up to write, the Jabberwock roared and a lot of work got done. But I also discovered something. Three days isn’t as good as two days.

If you have three days, well, it stretches out, luxurious, like a snake in the sun, SO much time to get things done. If you have two days, you arrive the night before and haul your writing utensils onto the desk and slam some food in the fridge and start making notes to yourself so you can get up in the morning and hit it hard.

I come from a long line of procrastinators – which is in itself an oxymoron; think about it–so it doesn’t surprise me that time is the first thing I squander when there’s “plenty” of it. And this past weekend, with just two days to write, I got double the word count of my three-days wonder in late January.

It was less listening for the roar of the Jabberwock (if you’re going “huh” just now check out the blog postings from a few weeks ago) and feeling his claws pull me in, than constructing a framework on which to build: “this goes here, write a section that bridges that,” managing word flow and putting things where they make a cohesive narrative arc.

Oh, that sodding term again. For those unfamiliar with it, the narrative arc is what distinguishes a series of fun, comedic episodes forming individual chapters from a story with a beginning, middle, end, and series of events and consequences that spark other events and merge into a whole. A whole, not a hole. Narrative arcs are what make stories compelling because you want to find out what happens next, as opposed to just a pleasant read one can dip into and come out of at will.

Narrative arcs are flippin’ hard work. But once you get the frame up, they really help move the story along.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, sorry we forgot to put a blog up yesterday and we’re back on schedule now: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with Jack guesting once a week.

4 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing, Uncategorized

THE DAY AFTER

So the blog was quiet this week because it was the Final Push. St. Martin’s Press wanted the manuscript “as close to finished as possible” by the Friday just past. My friend Cami Ostman (author of the running memoir Second Wind) comes out from Seattle every year for a writing retreat, and this visit coincided with the big editing job.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t the last time I’ll see the ms. before it’s published, just the last time any big edits can be done. From here on out, it’s tweaking, typos and punctuation debates. The galleys will arrive soon.

Knowing it was the last time to make anything creative in a big way,  Cami and I disappeared to my cabin in the woods (it’s where I lived while in graduate school, and I managed to buy it once I graduated) and wrote our little asses off, our hearts out, and our fingers to numb stumps. (Insert additional cliches here.) Cami, my friend since high school, was working on a novel, and very kindly told me, “Stop me at any point you need a reader.” I wrote two additional chapters and edited one that was a dog’s breakfast, plus read the entire work through again for flow, continuity, timeline, and–yes–the dreaded Narrative Arc.

It’s funny to read something for the last time before you can’t change it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the editing process–well, okay, except for that horrible week with chapter five that my friends had to basically haul me out of. (Thanks, Elissa, Pamela, Nichole, Jodi, Cami, Kathy, Heather and anyone else I am momentarily forgetting.) I’m not the kind of writer who gets writer’s block so much as writer’s box.

In my attempt to explain everything clearly but in a pithy way and without pissing anyone off, I create walls of words that climb ever higher; ignoring every writer’s good advice about brevity and simplicity, I keep trundling down the canyon until I reach the death-trap end, have to admit the whole thing is a wash, and call in the ‘dozers to tear down the walls and dig me out. I wind up ripping the whole thing out. It wastes time in terms of actual production, but even those blind canyons are kind of fun–and useful–in the writing process.

If you have time.

But that’s what we no longer had, that week in the cabin. Instead, a deadline loomed. A dead line. A marker in the chronological pattern after which “this” could no longer be “that.” What was written would stay written. No more “I could just revamp Chapter 12 a little…”

And for the first time in my writing life, I panicked. After this, nothing could change! After this, it HAD to be perfect! After this, the sky would turn green and the grass would grow purple and fish would carry hand guns ….

Not. After this, life would go on as normal. I would need to do the dishes and catch up on the week of work waiting at my day job while I was on “holiday.” After this, friends would call and we would go out to eat, or keep each other company doing household chores.

Life doesn’t change that much, the day after “this” becomes “that” permanently. As Anne Lamott says (paraphrased here) whatever you’re expecting after you write what you meant to say and turn it in, don’t. Just move on.

We write what we mean to say, as well as we can, with sincerity and adjectives and perhaps a sense of humor, and then we go on living. I’ve got a bookstore to run, and a bunch of friends to hang with, and some laundry that is long overdue. My husband is still a sweetheart and our upstairs kitchen is still overrun with foster kittens waiting to be adopted. I can go back to practicing my harp, which I’ve missed.

79,116 words and two loads of towels later, life still looks sweet.

3 Comments

Filed under humor, Uncategorized