Saturday, April 11, 2015


Writing had slipped away from me for quite some time.  Work does that.  I don't get to read much either.  I spend most of my time reading student papers, so reading for leisure and finding time to write are not of interest or really very accessible.  Who wants to work on their own writing after hand-cramping through a hundred student-written works?  This semester is a bit of a breather because I'm teaching mostly Creative Writing, so I'm not grading essays.  I'm reading creative stuff.  And it's actually good stuff.  However, I'm still policing grammar and I'm still reading a tremendous amount, and since I'm an MA/MFA Creative Writing alum, I can't help but offer more feedback than anyone would ever read.

Plus, there were the doctors.  Speedy Baddriverson's wrath still haunts with back aches and tight hips. Between work and medical visits, writing was not an option.

Then serendipitously, when I was thinking that I needed to really escape this odd life that had become to be mine, I clicked on an email from a creative writing listserv by accident.  I usually delete most of the emails from that listserv, but here was one opening almost on its own.  It was an announcement for the a Writers' Workshop.  It was in April.  It was in Newport, RI.  It was writing.  It was yoga.

It was my dream come true.

Fast forward to driving around Newport, trying to find Mill Lane, finding Mill Lane, and then realizing I'm supposed to be at OLD Mill Lane, which is quite different.

Extra large cows!

Frost's Mending Wall

Now imagine driving in the fog at night

Nothing but nature
Then me pulling up into a driveway at Old Mill Lane and seeing it's a house and wondering if I'm about to walk in on some rich Newport family with my poetry boots on.

Nope, I was in the right place.  The retreat directors flew to the door to welcome me as they put up a sign on the door to indicate that this was the home of the retreat.  This was better than I thought it would be.  I thought we'd be in the conference room of some hotel. Instead, we were in a cozy little sea-adjacent cottage, decked out in cool blues and sea shells and hard wood floors and a fireplace (that had a sign in it indicating that no fires were to be lit). This?  Was heaven.

A Room With A View

Retreat House!

I would soon meet the rest of the retreaters, both participants and staff, and to make heaven even better, we totalled ten.  An intimate retreat.  A real in-your-face-in-a-good-way writing intensive.  Kicked off with a dinner of pasta and the tastiest bread ever and a huge salad and some champagne (that I had one sip of--more on why I can no longer drink some other time).  So really, my Whole 30 nutrition plan would not be appearing on this retreat as that bread lasted well through the last day, and I ate several pieces of it whenever I walked into the house.

We began right away.  I talked a bit about how my back injury had taken me away from writing, and how what I was working on was all about that stupid back pain.  So, you know, positive vibes.  Everyone had interesting reasons for being there.  It was a mixed bag of genre and purpose.

The next few days began with exhilarating yoga.  This was the first time I was taking a yoga class outside of my own personal practice in my living room (aside from half-assed, ass-pain-so-bad-I-was-dragging-my-leg-around yoga during summer solstice).  The first morning I eased into it.  I'd woken up at 5:30 AM--not really having slept from the night before.  I ate my free hot breakfast at the hotel, packed some snacks, pumped my own gas (I'm doing that now and the car has not yet exploded!), and headed towards the retreat house.  Some people were staying there and some were staying at a different hotel, but I'd booked this hotel before lodging was included and I like my space.  And my free hot breakfast.  So every day I took my yoga gear and clothes to the retreat house and then wrote and read and listened. Our yoga instructor gave us yoga pamphlets and took us through alternate nostril breathing and made me realize that even though I can't get my body to do what it used to do pre-Speedy Badderiverson, I am still doing yoga and it's still good for me.  Fitting a bunch of adults into one small room to yoga away was a challenge, but also a bit funny and very worthwhile.

The writing workshops evolved into thrilling and borderline surrealist events.  The first night, through my uncontrollable yawning (most writers stay up til the wee hours--I go to bed at 10:30/11, so this was a challenge in and of itself, writing at 9 PM), I participated in a workshop of Evocative Objects.  We each pulled an object out of a bag and wrote about it without naming it.  Mine was a fake mini tree that you would find in a diorama.  Turns out that most things in the bag were wedding favors, mostly odd wedding favors.  Which is a great prompt for the future--write about every wedding favor you ever receive from all weddings you ever attend.

Throughout the week, there were some other gems...

Literary Taboo was the game of taboo without the buzzer.  We picked a word and had to write about it without using the "taboo" words on our cards, and instead focusing on the five senses to evoke what the object would be.  Most of us chose two words and incorporated them into one piece--mine were lighthouse and crocodile.  The lighthouse part was easy.  If I can't describe a lighthouse in at least a hundred ways, then I should have to move off of Long Island.  Crocodile wasn't as easy, so I chose to incorporate Elton John lyrics, which I found are not exactly poetic.

Page To Performance was amazing.  A two-parter, we watched and listened and discussed how to make our works come to life.  Enter the amazing video of Uh Oh Plutonium by Anne Waldman. 

There was other stuff, too, but this was just my jam.

We got to play around with instruments.  The next morning at 6 AM, I went into my car with the idea of playing a sea chanty as background to my poem, but it didn't work because I couldn't play the chanty from my phone through my car's bluetooth and record at the same time.  Instead, I recorded my poem over radio static that became unstaticky at the end of the poem, which was totally unplanned but worked a whole lot.

I shared with them my love of Momentage, the app that lets you put sound to photos.  I use it for my poetry sometimes. It's neat!

Theatre of the Impossible and Against Aristotle: New Structures for New Stories were the playwrighting sessions with Stephen.  I'm not a script writer.  I loved taking script writing as an undergrad, and I adapted plays in high school, but scripts are not what I automatically do--same with fiction--they are not my jam (but Uh Oh Plutonium totally still is).  I passed on the Theatre of the Impossible prompt having no mojo for it at the time (more on why in a second), but I still loved learning about all the seemingly impossible stage directions that appear in scripts.  You know: Exit pursued by a bear.  The second session helped me figure out how to be a better teacher.  In Creative Writing, I teach four major genres, and with script writing, I teach Freytag's Pyramid and in medias res for structure.  Now I can share all these interesting patterns, showing a variety of what's out there that can structure a play.  So helpful!

Now we all know that if the crazy is lurking somewhere, it's finding me.  Enter the guest.  The guest, a writer not on official staff, came to give us feedback on our manuscripts.  A day before the retreat, we were to send three pages of what we were working on and a summary of the entire piece.  I sent three problematic poems and a summary of my full manuscript, a collection of poems that reflect different ways to deal with chronic ailments.  When she met us, she had already read the pieces we'd sent in, so she identified with that.  She met me and exclaimed, Oh the car accident lady!

Now that could have been fine and it was actually funny.  But then when she met everyone else, she commented on their writing instead.  To me, that meant she didn't care for my stuff.  And that's okay.  The stuff I sent in was meant for critique.  Because this was a workshop retreat.

When we got into the feedback portion, Things. Got. Weird.  She saved me for last.  After giving much praise to many writers, she said that my work was not honest and I was avoiding dealing with what I wanted to say.  She asked, Why not write about the accident?  I said, I have.  She said, Why isn't that here?  I said, because I'm actually happy with that stuff and I gave you things I'm not sure about.  So she said, Well, you have to do your research because these poems don't work and you don't know Simone Weil's work at all.  Then she said, It's as if you're afraid of my criticism so you didn't want to hand me the work about what you're writing about.

Um. If I were afraid of criticism, why would I hand in works that were problematic?

And, that whole Simone Weil thing that she said I had to research?  Well, one of the poems is about how I know nothing about Simone Weil and I'm too lazy to research her, so I make things up.  I think the point was missed.

So she told me to write something new and give her something for the next day.  Then she asked who the accident lady was, I raised my hand as everyone pointed at me, and she said, No, you're the car accident lady--I mean the other accident.

Yes, this all happened.  And then there's the second session.  The second session was a bit late the next day.  Theatre of the Impossible was the first session, and having sat through the oddest critique in history (or so I thought), I wasn't up for writing much.  I'd pulled out a poem that I liked from my manuscript and wrote a quick unfinished one for the second session the night before.

Second session--it went on forever.  I ate some bread.  I picked at my nails.  I stifled yawns.  I liked hearing about everyone's work, but it was dragging.  Then came my turn.  She asked me to read the poem I liked out loud and I did and she said, Yes there you have it!  Then she asked me to read the unfinished one out loud and told me it was unfinished and it needed more.  I said it was a first draft and she went into a discussion of how our first drafts were not as good as their first drafts (don't ask me who they are--I do not know).  She asked if I had gone deep into that place of writing.  I responded that I did my best.  She then told me I was an angry person.

I'll say that again.  She said I was an angry person.

I was like, I certainly hope not!  And everyone kind of laughed.  And then she went on. Then she said she didn't know me personally but she thought that I used anger to get over and out of the pain I'd been in.  I agreed with that.

Then she said that I was probably very funny.

What? The? Hell?

She said that she and I would probably sit back and laugh together if we knew each other better.

What? Is? Going? On?

Then she said that I should make a chapbook of all the poems like the one I already knew was good.

So to summarize: I'm afraid of writing about what I want to write about.  I fear feedback.  I'm an angry person.  And I am quite funny.  Oh! And at some point she also said I'm very sensitive.  Clearly.

When I wrote up my evaluation, I wrote that in workshop, I never use "you" when I talk to others about their work.  I use "this piece," "this word," "this sentence," "this paragraph," "this line."....

The last morning, one of the coordinators pulled me aside to personally apologize and said that the critique was really unhelpful and it was more of a personal attack.  Then she said, When she suggested you were an angry person, we looked at each other like, what is going on????  I was like,  I didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, so I let it go.

I've been through this kind of thing before.  I can recognize absurdity before it even emerges.

That was the only drawback.  Two sessions out of the whole retreat, and I got to eat bread during one of them?  That's nothing.  Plus, the director didn't need to apologize for the actions of someone else, yet she did.  That's class.

The fortunate twist is that the absurd feedback got me talking to one of the other writers about our manuscripts and we exchanged our work and went off on our own late night writing workshop together and decided we'd continue to exchange work because we are so on the same vibe of writing. It was spectacular. I stayed up into the wee morning hours to read her stuff. I am a writer after all!

To top it all off, well, two things.

1. Too Many Cooks.  Fair warning, if you watch this, you will remember it forever, and the song will haunt you for days.

As an experiment in collaborative writing and performance, we watched this and then made our own recording. It was probably the most fun I've ever had yelling out the names during opening credits.

2. The last morning, the retreat directors made french toast and eggs for breakfast. As we finished up yoga with some long meditative poses, the sweet scent of breakfast wafted into the living room. The clanging of pots and pans became the soundtrack to savasana. More heaven on earth.

Breakfast was wonderful. We decided we'd keep the writing going. We will give prompts and write things and offer feedback and support each other. So in addition to my workshopping partner, I also have the group's work every week to look forward to.

With one accidental click of an email, my writing life is back. It's nice to be home again.


Steph Auteri said...

1. "Uh-Oh Plutonium" has been in and out of my head ever since the retreat (well, that and "Too Many Cooks") and I now have the video bookmarked for all of eternity.

2. That critique. I was silently screaming inside my head as it was happening.

3. Even though it's ridiculous because we are both incredibly busy, just say the word and I am still down to create a yoga publication with actual personality.

Christina said...

Steph, I'll totally do a yoga publication! It might take forever to do it, but we can!