Sunday, July 22, 2007

Retreat Reflections

One of the great things about growing older is the ability to recognize a profound or significant moment or event while it’s happening. I arrived at Shadowcliff Lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado for the Lighthouse Writers Getaway and until the final workshop finished on Saturday, I was in a world unlike any other I’d ever experienced.

The location was idyllic. I arrived shortly after three o’clock last Monday and since dinner and the welcoming reception weren’t until six, I took advantage of the free time to sit on the deck overlooking the river so I could relax with a book. The roar of the water rushing by was punctuated by the sound of birds. Soon, thunderheads gathered over the lake and I could hear distant booming and see the grey trails of rain pouring from the clouds over the water. No road sounds. No dogs barking. No sirens. No click of a compressor signaling the impending blast of an AC unit.

I’d been nervous about attending the retreat. People began trickling in and we all exchanged the same questions. What are you writing? Where do you live? Have you been on retreats with Lighthouse before? In all, there were twenty four of us signed up and assigned to live on two floors of a three story wooden lodge. There were seven Lighthouse instructors. That first night after dinner, we all gathered together and the faculty members read to us from pieces they’d published or were working on. They were amazing. One read from his fourth novel, another from a short story work in progress, an essay, poems; they were all published authors.

My new roommate Sarah and I sat in the day room on the third floor of the Cliffside Lodge and talked until midnight. It was the beginning of a week long slumber party.

That night when I looked up at the sky, it was a deep, black expanse, illuminated by brilliant white, fiery stars that I can’t remember seeing in the same way since the summers of my childhood.

The following morning I went to my first workshop. This kicked off four days packed with writing exercises and discussions about books and writing that far exceeded anything I could have ever anticipated. I attended nine workshops and four book discussions and every single one of them was interesting, sparked my creativity and taught me a great deal. Every one. I'd never gone to a writing workshop before. A writer from Boulder told me that the sessions we were attending were every bit as good as those she attended in her MFA program.

The first student readings were on Wednesday night. I really did not want to do it and initially was sure I would not. I’d never read my work in public; had rarely let anyone read it at all. Anxiety mounted after I was added to the batting order. I’d be reader eight of thirteen. It was difficult for me to understand why this struck such a primitive terror in me. I’m in sales. I stand up routinely in front of groups of people and speak all the time, sometimes to hostile audiences and my palms don’t even sweat. Of course – I didn’t build the product I’m pitching, so I don’t have an emotional investment in it. If my audience isn’t in love with what I'm selling, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. Wednesday after dinner, the nervousness really kicked in. I remembered that the beta blockers I take every day to prevent migraines are supposed to help with performance anxiety, so I washed one down with a beer before we all gathered for the readings. When my turn came, I apologized in advance for reading too fast – I knew I’d never be able to slow it down to the cadence I’d been hearing – and I did it. I didn’t look up while I was reading, as the more relaxed, experienced readers did, but as I got going, they laughed when I came to a section that I thought was a little amusing and I settled down. When I finished, they clapped – I think I even heard a whoop. I don't know who the whoop came from, whether it was for the work or just because that person knew how nervous I was. It doesn't matter. I crossed a plateau.

I have to say something about the people I spent six days with. There were over thirty of us in a constant state of togetherness and every person was interesting, bright, supportive and generous. Never in my life have I been in such a large group where I literally enjoyed the company of every person. We got to know each other pretty well in such a short time. The age range was from twenty-something to eighty. People came from all over Colorado and our backgrounds represented every possible type of lifestyle and personality. A love of words and writing were our bond.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the solitude and the isolation I’ve experienced in the often lonely vocation of writing. Friends in cyber space have provided the kind of support that led me to seek out Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I can scarcely describe the joy I feel in finding other writers in the Denver area with whom I’ve made real connections. For many months now, I’ve felt somewhat like a person with a third eye, arm or leg – just a little out of place when I'm with others. I got to Grand Lake and found it filled with people just like me and it feels good.

Before I left for the retreat, I believed the experience would signify a turning point and it did. It truly changed my life.

What experiences have you had that marked a milestone for you in your writing?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Lisa, I've been thinking about you all week--hoping the retreat was going well, that you were being filled in all the ways you had needed and hoped. I'm so thrilled to read this account (and jealous, too, if I'm really honest). Like you, my first week-long retreat (at The University of Iowa) marked a milestone for me. I'd been writing my novel for 5 years by then. I thought it was done, but when I left at the end of that week, I knew it too. I also knew I was a writer. Three weeks later, I had an agent, which was a direct result of that week in Iowa.

Other milestones--attending conferences as an author--the first time being on the "other" side of the table was almost an out of body experience.

I can't wait to hear more of what comes for you from this conference.

reality said...

What a happy and joyous post. And I bet the whoop was a hurray , not a sneeze.

One thing I would like to ask is: What did you learn most from the retreat; the one single lesson that you think shall make all the difference in your approach to writing.


kristen said...

Oh hooray! You're back and it sounds like it was such a wonderful experience. Like Judy, I'm a bit jealous.

I can't wait to hear more about it in the days to come. I'm so happy for you...a turning point, indeed!

Patti said...

you have been in my thoughts all week, and i am so glad to read it went well, and your expectations were exceeded.

"...I remembered that the beta blockers I take every day to prevent migraines are supposed to help with performance anxiety, so I washed one down with a beer..." this line cracked me up and i could so see myself in your shoes.

Shauna Roberts said...

It sounds like a wonderful experience, and I'm so glad you went. Congratulations on reading your work in public and making new writing friends. I'm looking forward to hearing more about it.

Therese said...

I'm envious, too! Of the setting, of the slumber-party experience, of being immersed in the art and craft of writing...

I have only ever attended one conference, and it was nothing like your experience. Good, but not even close in terms of significance.

I'm so pleased for you, Lisa; if you could see me, you'd see my tail wagging. :)

Oh--and as for milestones: one that stands out for me was in an MFA workshop early in my second year, when my professor was so pleased by something I'd written that she read it aloud to the class. It was a profound "I can really do it!" moment for me.

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I too have been wondering how the treat was working for you. Glad to hear it exceeded your expectations. You've made me feel a little bit bolder about trying somthing like this. Like Judy, I'd love to know what nugget you took away that was most helpful.


Lisa said...

Judy, the idea of a retreat at The University of Iowa -- I have no words. I'm not sure there is a more compelling story about the power of a retreat than yours!

Reality, I learned so much that I have plans to dedicate individual posts to each of the sessions and I'm in the process of emailing the instructors to ask permission. The sessions were conducted in a very logical order and most of them built in some way on each other, so by the final day, the session called "Chapter One and Beyond" really provided a great summary and checklist for taking a look at the first and subsequent chapters to determine whether or not we've done our job in motivating a reader to keep on reading. I'll expand on this later this week.

Kristen, it was wonderful and when I met my new friends I could not help but tell them about all of you. As a matter of fact, I talked about every person that's commented so far with at least one or more of the people I talked with this week.

Patti, I was offered a close proximity to an umbrelly drink (vodka and cranberry juice), but thought the beer would set off the beta blocker a little better. If I'd been thinking I would have tried to score a Xanax or one of those other miracle anti-anxiety drugs I keep hearing about :)

Shauna, when I read your post about your writers group and as I've read comments about some of the circle you have in New Orleans, I wished for something like that myself and now I have it. I never realized how important meeting other writers would be.

Therese, of the 24 attendees, all but seven were women and it was actually the most fun I've had with a group of women ever. We all talked all the time and had a most rousing late night game of Taboo on another night -- it was a blast. I am right there with you in that classroom reading. Approbation from someone I truly admire and respect is the pinnacle of personal reward for me and I suspect it is for you too. The thought of you listening, while your professor read your work put a big grin on my face.

Amy, if Grub Street does retreats, I'd insist you go! Apparently, Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Grub Street started at the same time and the faculty members know each other, maybe from Emerson. I'll bet it's a similar experience. If I were not so far away, I'd say come to the next Grand Lake Getaway -- I'm already clearing my calendar for the week of July 7th, 2008. I want to post about each session in the order I took them, but as I mentioned to Reality -- Chapter One and Beyond was incredibly useful as a guide for checking Chapter One, but also each subsequent chapter and scene to ensure they are serving the story as they should.

Larramie said...

Quite simply, all you needed was the opportunity. Last week one of my day calendar entries read: "Opportunity doesn't arrive, it's always here." And you walked right through its door, Lisa. I'm literally thrilled for you!

Lisa said...

Larramie, you are so right. Opportunity really is everywhere and usually it's fear that prevents us from recognizing it, but it helps to have a little help from our friends. In a private email, Therese encouraged me to look for a resource to find the kind of help I craved and that's how I found Lighthouse Writers Workshop -- in my backyard all the time. And even once I found them, I was thinking maybe I'd be ready for the retreat next year. If my inspiration and partner in crime, Scott had not pushed me to call and ask about the retreat, I'd probably still be procrastinating.

Ross said...

Lisa: I think you really captured the experience! I also thought the retreat was fantastic. Then a gut shot at home... but that's another story. Are you signing up for any of the upcoming classes at Lighthouse? Thanks again for the ride, and I hope to see you there again next year.

Lisa said...

Ross, My awesome carpooling friend! Yes, I am registered in Jenny's 8 week novel writing workshop, starting August 13th and I also signed up for the 4 week workshop with Nick Arvin in October on Experimental Structures in the Novel. I may even do the weekend retreat in Fairplay in October, although I may actually be out of town then so I'm not sure. I hope everything is OK (?). Oh, and I wouldn't miss the Tobias Wolff stuff in September. Can you tell I thought the whole thing was great?

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf