Friday, July 18, 2008

The Lighthouse Retreat

This was the eleventh annual retreat Lighthouse has held and the second I’ve attended. The retreat is held at Shadowcliff Lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado. Shadowcliff is a rustic, eco-friendly retreat center that’s perched high up on a cliff overlooking Grand Lake village and Shadow Mountain Lake. This year there were thirty three retreat participants and six Lighthouse instructors. The lodging is hostel-like and participants share rooms. Shadowcliff serves three communal meals each day and everyone signs up to help clean up after one meal during the week. The main lodge has a dining room and a large reading/hanging out area and it’s surrounded by a huge wrap-around porch. There are hiking trails and woods all around the lodge and there were lots of moose sightings. One of my fellow attendees captured this shot of two bulls.

We ranged in age from early twenties to eighty-one and I think most of us fell somewhere between 35 and 55.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon and got together for dinner. After dinner the faculty members each did a ten minute reading of something they’d published or were working on. The Monday through Thursday schedule was: breakfast, a morning workshop and then lunch. After lunch there was a discussion on one of four books. One day it was a short story collection, another was poetry, another was a memoir and the fourth was a novel. There was an afternoon workshop every day and then dinner. In the evenings there were activities as well. Monday night was game night, Tuesday was participant reading night, Wednesday was a night on the town and Thursday was another participant reading. On Friday morning we took our group photo, had a final session on publishing and we all headed home.

I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy this so much and what I get out of the experience. These are the main things:

1. Taking a week off from work and family to go to a writing retreat allows me to completely focus on writing. It makes a statement that says writing is a priority. Scott is very supportive and because he’s a painter, he understands. If it hadn’t been for his encouragement, I wouldn’t have gone last year. I’m fortunate that I don’t need to justify or explain why I want or need to go. For many of the other attendees (and for writers who might like to do something like this), taking this time away reinforces to friends, spouses, children and parents that this is who we are and what we do. Claiming that part of ourselves that is a writer is one of the most difficult challenges many people face. Almost every writer I know feels a certain amount of guilt and selfishness about the time he or she takes to write. Unfortunately, not everybody has a good support system and may even have people who work to sabotage that writing time. If a writing retreat sounds like heaven to you, you owe it to yourself to go on one.

2. For five days, I was immersed in discussions about books and writing with a lot of people and they were all writers. There were published novelists, essayists, screenwriters, poets, non-fiction writers and unpublished writers of all kinds and of all different backgrounds. What an opportunity! Normally, I don’t get to be with other people who understand what I’m trying to do. All week long I got to be with “my people” and many of them have become friends.

3. Five continuous days of discussion and workshops opened up a flow of creativity and inspiration that is difficult to maintain outside of that environment. Almost every session was suffused with freewriting exercises. I know most people reading this are probably familiar with freewriting, but in case you aren’t, freewriting exercises are frequently used in writing classes as a warm up. Typically the instructor provides a prompt and the group is then instructed to write continuously, usually for about ten minutes or so. The idea is to keep the pen moving on the page and not to self-edit. I have been stunned at some of the results I’ve gotten from these exercises. Although it’s something that anyone can do at any time, there seems to be a heightened output that comes from freewriting in a group environment. Perhaps it’s the collective energy that’s present or the added motivation of having other people in close proximity. I don’t know what it is, but I have pages upon pages of freewriting and many of the exercises resulted in work that I can incorporate into my current WIP.

4. Reading in front of the whole group was an important milestone for me last year because I’d never done it before. This year, I was surprised to find that I was almost, but not quite as nervous about it. I don’t know why reading one’s work in front of a group seems to be so powerful. It may have something to do with claiming our identity as writers. It may have something to do with humility and recognizing that we are learning, but that we’ll never be in a more supportive environment. I don’t know what it is, but that small five minute opportunity to share work with other writers is powerful.

I’ll post about some of the specific workshops later, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the overall experience and why I feel it was so beneficial.

For as long as I’m able, I’ll be going back to Grand Lake.How about you? Has anyone experienced anything similar? Thoughts on reading in front of people? Freewriting? Claiming your identity as a writer?


Sustenance Scout said...

Aaaah, sounds heavenly! I've never ever been to a writing retreat for five days but am looking forward to someday doing that. Maybe next summer? We'll see. All the things you list (readings and freewriting and claiming one's identity as a writer) I have been fortunate enough to experience many times and I love each and every one. The creative life is a wonderful way to go, isn't it?!

Melissa Marsh said...

I want to go! It sounds absolutely wonderful.

My junior high English teacher introduced me to freewriting - and you're right - it's an amazing concept. You can get rid of so much junk and the stuff you produce can be amazing.

I have a pretty good support system at my house - if I desperately need some quiet time to write, my husband will make sure he takes the kids somewhere so I have that time. :-)

Anonymous said...

It sounds wonderful. Maybe not next year, but sometime soon, I hope, I'll be able to join you there! I would love that.

Patti said...

i need something like this. i feel myself struggling, most likely due to life circumstances at the moment, and to be away from everything for a week sounds like the jumpstart i need.

Larramie said...

Perhaps the key to the Retreat's success, Lisa, is not just your "being away" but you're merely "being."

So delighted the week lived up to all your expectations and more. Can't wait to see what results!

Lisa said...

Karen, These are all pretty new experiences for me and I feel like a kid in a candy store!

Melissa, I don't think I ever did any freewriting until I joined Lighthouse. I'm astonished at what comes of it and I always wonder why I don't do more of it when I'm alone. I think it works, but it definitely works better with other people around (at least for me).

Kristen, I would so LOVE it if you did that!

Patti, I just can't gush enough about how wonderful it's been these last two summers. I know there are also other retreats on other places around the country and throughout the year, but I have this one in my own backyard and I really do love all the Lighthouse faculty and members. I have to pinch myself because I can't believe how lucky I am to have this so near. I am very grateful.

Larramie, That is so existential, so Larramie and so true.

Yogamum said...

Okay, I'm in for next year. You sold me on it.

Usman said...

If only I lived closer, I would be in for the next one.
What a wonderful experience you enjoyed.

Mary Ann said...

It sounds wonderful. For me, reading my writing to a group of people is asking for their feedback, live in real time rather than in print and with a little time delay. They get to see my face when/if the feedback's not fabulous. So, yeah, nervous-making.

Love your blog, by the way.

Lisa said...

Yogamum, YAY!!! I am so glad!

Usman, It would be a bit of a trip, huh?

Mary Ann, Fortunately, the reading isn't really a critique-seeking forum. On the other hand, plenty of people will come up and comment later outside of the large group and let you know if they liked what you read (I haven't had anybody go out of their way to tell me they hated it!. It's mostly a platform to share work and see what others are working on and to provide mutual support. Lighthouse does have plenty of work shop opportunities (which I've also taken advantage of in the form of 8 week novel work shops), and you do get very detailed critique and input from those.

CindyLV said...

Great post, as usual, Lisa!

Last year, I made the huge leap to "come out of the closet" and tell people that I write. That I'm a writer. I wasn't quite prepared for the complete lack of fanfare. Not even a single trumpet blare! The response I received was roughly equal to what I'd expect if I'd announced I was planning on wearing my blue shirt tomorrow. "Oh, that's nice."

When I attended my first writer's workshop in April 2007, I felt like I'd died and gone to Colorado! The energy, the interaction, the ink in the air...SLURP! (excuse me, I'm drooling at the memory).

The first time I stood up and read my own work in public, I actually forgot to breathe. I sounded like an auctioneer on helium. When I finished, I looked up at the silent crowd and waited, waited, waited for their response, while mentally breaking all my pencils and vowing never to make this mistake again. Then I heard a quiet, "Wow." from somewhere in the back of the room. Then the crowd opened up a bit and I got about 15 minutes of great feedback. I'm addicted for life.

Regarding freewriting, in college, my instructor had us try it, but I was too tightly wrapped for such unrestricted freedom. A few years ago, after re-reading Natalie Goldberg, I gave it another shot. And, I have to say that I am, in fact, the best writer in the universe (in my freewriting fantasy world, of course). I've never shared any freewrites with anyone. And I hardly ever go back and re-read them myself. When I do, I don't recognize myself, my style, my tone or my words at all. It's like I was possessed. And I am amazed at the quality. I just haven't used any of it yet.

Re; Retreats: I hereby commit to participating in a writer's retreat with any money I may earn from my writing. There, I've said it in public. It's official!

Ello said...

I would love to go! It sounds like writer's heaven and in a beautiful natural world. Although you forgot to mention how the food is. That would be a big important point for me. Can't live without good food!

Sarah Ockler said...

I'm so glad you had a wonderful time in CO! I missed you and everyone there but it's good to know the tradition continues. I'm hoping to go next year.

So how's the WIP?

Lisa said...

Cindy, you've really captured it. I will say that at this retreat, the participant readings are just that -- they aren't done to solicit critique or feedback, just roaring applause and support :)

In the workshops, two or three people (out of say, an average workshop size of 10-20) will voluntarily (nobody is ever put on the spot) share what came out of a freewrite immediately after doing one. Since the freewrite is used to support an underlying workshop about a specific subject, like cinematic writing, character development, dialogue, etc., the sharing is instructive to the listeners and usually the people who read do it because they are surprised/pleased at what they got.

You're on the hook now! Folks, you saw it here first...

Ello, Ah the food. I think the food is fantastic, BUT it's important to know that the Shadowcliff staff uses locally grown everything when they can, organic, healthy everything. They have great healthy meals and they always offer vegan/vegetarian choices and can cater to nearly any request (like gluten-free, for example). The meats they served this last time included chicken, bison and lamb. If you are a picky eater and don't care for this kind of diet, you may not like the food. Just about everybody seemed to really enjoy the meals though.

Sarah, We missed you! I really hope you come back next year, even though by then you'll be a hugely famous published YA author. Keep me posted on your publication milestones so I can post them here too.

My WIP -- er, actually, I am working on it right now when I should be working on work. It's actually going great. I worked out a lot of issues at the retreat and Shari Caudron doesn't know it yet, but it's almost entirely because of her work shops ;)

Vesper said...

Claiming that part of ourselves that is a writer is one of the most difficult challenges many people face.

You are so right, Lisa.

Being with people who understand, who share what you are doing is irreplaceable - that's what blogging has done for me and that's why it is so important.

But I am shy; I don't know if I could read my work in front of other people. I admire you very much. :-)

Lisa said...

Vesper, having all of those people around who are feeling exactly the same way is what makes it so safe. Last year I thought there was no way I could read in front of the group either and everybody was very encouraging and after I did it, I was really glad that I had. I think it's a "conquering your fears" thing. This year I thought it would be easier, but I was still really nervous -- but there were a couple of people who swore there was no way they'd read, and in the end, everybody did and I think everybody was glad they did.

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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