JUNE 28, 2010 2:09PM

What I Learned from My First Writer's Retreat

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This is my 'feeling photograph' - my greedy to hold on to all the details that I felt most through a wonderful experience shared by lovely people. And so it's self-indulgently long.  A legend has been included for bullseyeing to spare busy readers from the whole thing.

Description of people are in italics
Lessons learned are in italic bold
Regular paragraphs provide context of events, place or process

  • Workshop exercises are bulletted
(except for Kate and Steve, I X-ed out the names of non-OSers in respect of their privacy. But would love to reveal them if I know they will not mind.)

 (note to those who read my accidentally briefly published unfinished post: you were not dreaming. I deleted it the second I realized my mistake and a second before I realized some comments had been made. My apologies for deleting comments - they are precious to me! And my apologies for posting when I shouldn't have.)

Being local does not exempt me from getting lost, something I accomplish effortlessly.  I know I've missed a turn because the assent up the mountain has become a descent and this mistake is eating up all the margin I built into my travel time.  As I wind my way down I'm on the lookout for an allowance in the road in which to turn around. It presents itself complete with a parked car and its driver standing by, someone to ask directions of. He is an elderly man in a superman T-shirt.  Living up to his advertising, he guides me over the unavoidable steep bump I must negotiate to turn around, his reassuring smiles and firm voice allaying my wincing fear of being tilted over. He gives me directions and, best of all, tells me how he has come to be in Superman gear. A gift from his grand children, he wears it today to commemorate the mountain climb he is about to do in celebration of his age. I don't ask him what that is. 70 I guess. But with defined leg muscles, taut arms, and a solid frame that suggests this mountain climb is not going to present too much of a challenge. Another example of the unfirm connection between aging and decrepitude. Another example for me that whenever I choose to start, as long as I keep at it, my body, spirit, mind will shape itself into the necessary support.

Rescued by Superman I am able to push through the double swing wooden and glass doors of Mohonk Mountain House not too far behind my ETA. I race along the plush deco carpeting of the long corridor that ends with suite 61 of Mohonk Mountain House and arrive breathless and excited at the Writers Retreat group.

Old friend Greg greets me with a big, chuckling, bear hug that I happily lose myself in. Then, moving along a circle of chairs I get to meet the group leader Kate Hymes, OSers Nikki Stern, Gail Walter, Jeremiah Horrigan, Jonathan Wolfman, and Kate's regulars Cxxxxxx and Steve. Lea Lane and Cxxx arrived after me. A cough prevented Cranky Cuss from joining us till the readings at 8pm.

This is a special crowd of people that know how to meet straight in the eye and are comfortable with the quiet, seeking feeling that is carried in this moment, palms facing in warm embrace.

Partly because this is my feeling photograph of a happy experience that I selfishly want to be hold on to, partly because I love sharing what makes me happy, I want to greedily capture the details that I felt most and hope I will be forgiven for speaking so personally. My wish is that these captures will reflect to its owners the joy I received from each.

And Here's What I Learned:

 The OSers and writers from Kate's group I met are incredibly lovely.
Almost everybody wants to be liked, and it's a real pleasure when that is made easy.

Greg is too woven into my life for objective observation. But I can say he is a moutain. Needless to say, a ferociously intelligent and compelling one, with dramatic struggles of internal forces of nature that I have rarely seen outward evidence of but which pours forth in the molten liquid of his writing.

Kate Hymes, our group leader, greets me with a smile that is bright, a shine that commands the space between us clean. Immediately she conveys casually firm, authoritative nurturing. Because she has strength AND she is willing to see me, but she does not come into my space. She feels so comfortable within herself that I relax into myself.

Jonathan feels like he lives close to his stream of being, his face a barometer of rapidly changing weather conditions, revealing the compelling vulnerability of his aliveness. His voice strong and steady revealing the power that affords the presence to that aliveness.

I love Gail's voice; the volume and texture, the cadence and lilt of her South African British accent. I think it represents her gentle, bubbly, careful, loveliness well. Carries well the music of her ready and light laugh, and the feather of her bright movements and conversation that welcomes, eases and soothes. 

Cxxx feels measured and elegantly contained. Like the hypnotic rythm of her poetic prose. Succint.

Cxxxxxx is woman magic mystery. Eyes to float in. Voice nasaly, lazily, thoughtfully drawled, pausing to find the perfect metaphor gift of the moment, and leading me wherever it wants me to go. Mona lisa in beach slippers and long skirted florals over gentle curves. And a poetic voice so unself-consciously powerful it whips me into an aliveness that pulses with her rythm.

Of all the OSers I meet today, Jeremiah looks least like the suggestion his photo creates. He is taller, lankier (Jeremiah has none of ungraceful or raw boned traits this incorrectly used word suggests and so I replace it with...) trimmer, smilier, younger looking then I expected. But he feels like his writing; almost as if he knows how to get out of the way of the art of life the way he does with his writing. A comfortable, smooth, humorous, intelligent and extremely personable conduit to getting along better, with everything and everyone.

Steve; sensitivity strengthened by precision. Precision softened by sensitivity. Feeling and thought in fine balance. Exploring with the hands of thoughtful reflection and intelligent sensibility.

Lea is softly, steadily, invitingly lovely. Girlishly pretty, womanly poised, evenly settled. Every aspect about her is like this to me. I want to be enfolded in the reassurance of her. A world of dreams rooted in reality laced with romance. She makes me feel everything is O.K. Without saying a word or doing a thing.

Molly is stunningly beautiful and casually comfortable. At the same time. Maybe its the freckles, or the perfection of imperfections I cannot immediately identify. But she's beautiful and totally likeable in the girl-next-door kinda way. And she's extremely efficient and capable and professional, and again in a way that is totally comfortable to be next to. Molly took fantastic care of us.

Nikki feels feminine gentle and masculine precise at the same time. Athletic pretty. Bright intelligence lucidly expressed. Really nice person, alert to everything, everyone. Living on the edge with animated, articulate response.

In casual conversation Nikki shared an anecdote that brought home the very good point that all we do or present or are in a moment does not necessarily exist outside that moment. It does not necessarily mean anything else by imagined implication or trajected logic. So I descibe these wonderful people with the escape clause of Nikki's wisdom built in to protect them all from my views. And I really hope no one minds me sharing this because I love sharing what makes me happy, and because I want you to know that you are part of that happiness.

  • The first writing exercise was to help us shift gear into writing, The only rule was to finish up when the 5 minutes were up. We did not share the results. It made me realize that shifting gear into writing can be eased along by giving myself some directionless scribbling time.
  • In the second exercise we were instructed to create a literary sketch of ourselves, our lives, while inserting one untrue detail into the piece. This served to introduce something of each of us to the rest of the group, as we took turns reading our piece, after which the rest of the group was charged with guessing which of the details presented was NOT true. Well, a part from all the wrong guesses being a good source of laughter, this effectively demonstrated the difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction. And brought home the point that even when reading autobiographical pieces, do not assume all is true. I also realized how hard fiction is.
  • The third exercise was writing to a visual prompt. 
I found myself standing in front of a generous beach towel covered with torn out pages of black and white prints. Pictures of daily life, snapshots of special moments, places, body parts... One had to be chosen as the inspiration of a story. Which one? Which one?

Finally, being the only one left standing, I settled.  On a picture of a man proudly presenting, with outstretched arms, his christening gowned, smile happy infant.  With 20 minutes to make meaningful ink lines that would somehow connect what was on my paper to what was on this picture, I got busy - staring. It did not help.  I had to stop staring. Start relaxing. Start  writing... whatever.

That 'whatever' allowed me to free dive into my past, to arrive at memories that conected to the picture. I joined the dots. Can't say much about the line that made the connection. But my pen finally had reason to move, showing me that I can only write from my own experience. Fiction or not.

  • Then we each read our results, first drafts all, and receive and give comments in turn. There are rules for commenting, and I'm sure us OSers broke a few. I know I did, consistently. It seems the objective of the rules is to keep us trained on analysis; if we liked it, then why? To keep us from getting personal. To answer the question "what about the piece stayed with me?". This may be obvious to anyone who's studied literature, but it was a happy surprise for me to discover how much I could learn about writing from the guided thinking required of me to contribute a comment, and from listening to the comments of others made in the same vein.

OS's Jonathan Wolfman published the result of his, a poem he called MONKEY BAR. I'm too shy to post the result of my exercise here, and I won't even say why lest it be misconstrued as an invitation for encouragement. But I will tell you this, I was blown away by the quality of the first drafts that were read yesterday. I would have been jealous if I hadn't been so buzzed on the euphoria of listening to such good writing.

  • The final exercise was writing to the prompt of a poem so incredibly powerful it overwhelmed me with awe. The instruction following this jaw dropping poem was something to the effect of "Now tell me something that I cannot forget." O.K. No problem.

No problem. Staring at blank paper again. I have many stories, some unforgettable. But I could not find even two good words to stitch together into a sentence. So I stared some more. And crossed out feeble attempts that did not match up to any of the lessons I had just discovered about writing. With the voices of all these marvelous writers ringing in my head, my own sounded terribly inadequate to me and I did not know how to fix it. Write a line, attempt to rescue it, sentence it to death with the axe of scratched lines. And again, and again. Panic rising but this time I couldn't see any literary line to grab on to for bearings or for hauling me out of the abyss of this... blank page.

And I thought "fuck, what am I doing here. I'm not ready for this. If I slinked out of the room, quietly, would anyone notice?" The little meditation I do just so happened to kick in its training, just as I was seriously considering discreet exit plans, and saving me from throwing away this fantastic opportunity, not to mention the money my generous husband paid. In the little pause it afforded me I got to reevaluate the situation and recognize the immense value inherent right here and now: I got to concede, submit, to fuck-up-failure.  In broad daylight. With people I think highly of. With no where to hide. I got to USE failure to free me, at least a little, from its tyranny. This is small stuff but fairly sized psychological failure; perfect training ground.

I closed my notebook, put away my pen, surrendered into this experience. Enjoyed the sound of busy pens and tapping keypads, the afternoon's summer sunshine coming through the windows lining the opposite wall and fuzzing grey all objects that fell before its brightness. The feeling of total, rapt, focus of deep engagement in the room. A furrowing brow, shoulders curving forward in protection of something, chin tilted up in defiance of something. Interesting how concentration wears different expressions, influenced by shades of questioning or determined focus or the resting on a point of balance, or anxiety. The fuck-up failure me losing myself to the glory of it all.

  • The final round of readings (ahhh, just heaven in the beautifully raw and moving and eloquently, poetically expressed revelations - I would love to read the stories of OSers I heard).
  • The final round of enlightening, informative comments.

Comments that inspire a greed to usurp all that wins favor into my own writng. And suddenly I recognize the block that damned my writing in the last session: that although my own permission to fail loosens me from the bindings of its tyranny, and opens me to breathing possibility, I can only inhale if I abandon the usurping of anything not mine. Self-conscious criticism and expectation kills the spontaneity that allows the flow of writing.

The feeling of the unique beauty of each of the voices has filled me up, and awaits the final catalyst that will transform this vibrating pleasure into a gift of understanding for me.

Kate Hymes. Greg Correll. Cxxx. The gathering ball of this experience still rolling on momentum, each of these friends holds out a gentle note of advice, influencing the roll. Then the ball slows and finally rests in this understanding:

That in writing, as in life, I can only be best at being me.

 While I admire other voices, am inspired by them, it is through my own voice that I can express that inspiration. That all things that worked so beautifully in a piece did so because of the context of that piece. It's beauty was contingent on belonging. While I can use the lessons learned in appreciating others writing to fix my own, at this early stage of my own writing I should create from my own unself-conscious voice only.

And so this workshop has saved me from making many wrong turns.

Thank you so much, Greg, for organizing this.
Thank you Kate for being both authoritative and kind and creating a safe place for risk taking.
Thank you Molly for a day that unfolded flawlessly.

PS: Cranky Cuss, It was a delight to finally get to meet you, and I apologize I am out of time for writing today. And am so glad you did not delete the wonderful thoughts you have!

(Adding this post publishing and as a note that relates to greg's comment:
I had wanted to end the story with Jonathan, Tamar and I, in our respective cars, getting lost on our return to New Paltz. I'd been following Jonathan so closely I'd forgotten to pay attention to where I was going (but it doesn't take much to confuse me) and Jonathan is not local. So we both end up in Rosendale, I think. This is where we stop and try and figure out what to do. At 10:40 pm we are unlikely to meet anyone and I can't even get directions from Mark because I can give him no bearings. But Jonathan and I know that we can at least head back to where we came from. And with my car in the lead now I do actually see someone, get directions, and Jonathan says "I'll follow you." I inform him he'll be the first one to ever do so. But guess what, we all end up exactly where we're supposed to be. Now doesn't that close the circle completely?)


copyright 2010 Maria Heng


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Everyone should check the picture that Maria uses as her avatar. That smile is genuine, warm and welcoming, and it was a delight to meet her. The strength and courage in the words she read at the reading were inspiring.

Even though I was only there a couple of hours, everyone was even nicer than I pictured. Thanks, Maria, for this lovely recap of your day.
This: "Rescued by Superman..."

WOW! This about the coolest lead-in to a stroy ever and how is it you did not tell us about this. You sly boots. Or maybe magical encounters happen to you all the time.

I love your description of the day as a magical encounter. Grounded in practical lessons, good observations. The feeling-impressions you give? I recognize everyone you describe.

Writing is feeling our way forward with words, ordinary words, that fulfill your sublime final lesson: "That in writing, as in life, I can only be best at being me."

I was entertained and enlightened by this. But I must notice the intuitive literary aspect, and so I return again to the way you start: A little lost, then up, down, back out, finally in? what a resonant pre-echo, an allusive beginning for the interior travel of your day, through and deeper into meaning. How to keep track, and yet find a unique way.

You are generous to the reader. You allow us in, and shrug, just-so, and yet what you share is profound. About writing, and learning to "relax in that position" -- 'that position' being the difficult relationship artists have to this so-called life.

Thank you for sharing your experiences here. I just felt it would be wonderful and a great thing to do for everyone who could. R
Dear Cranky, you are so sweet to me! Which, of course, made me smile. Thank you so much. And yes, everyone was so nice. weren't they? I'm sorry your cough kept you away for most of the day, I would have enjoyed the addition of you through it. Maybe next time your body will be more coorperative. BTW, is the piece you read online? I would love to show that to my neighbors who I suspect would love to show it their fellow members. You have a big heart Cranky, and a smart way of expressing it.

Greg, I just LOVE your comments. Not only do you cheer me on but you also show me thing in a much sharper focus then I have. The superman element aws completely true, and I'm not good at evaluating what is of interest to others but I loved superman so could not resist sharing him. And what a lead in to the day it was for me. It wasn't til the very end of this post, which I had wanted to continue to include the readings, cranky, the carriage room perhaps but was not permitted to by a clock run out, and i was forced to end, and i was writing that last line that I had closed the circle and engaged the metaphor I'd wanted. You do not miss much eagle eyed greg. and i thank you for your astute reflections!

Sheila, you are so right. I learned things in a very direct way, pressure cooked into me. Maybe one day you will join one of greg's future retreats. thank you for reading and commenting.
I'm gobbling up the leftovers from the table. Any scraps the attendees offer are much appreciated. I would have loved to have been there for the feast! You write about this beautifully Maria - the intro is especially crafty, drawing me tentatively in, up and over with you before you finally enter the door, to encounter what awaits (more of the same). I would have been right there with you, listening to the scratch and eying the door. Bravo! to you for grabbing your bootstraps and hauling yourself into the midst of the maelstrom. How fabulous!
I loved reading this; thanks for providing this view of the workshop. I can picture it so clearly now, especially with your characterizations of the attendees. It is also instructive simply reading about your own process, so forthrightly presented.
Dear Gabby, you made me laugh with delight at the image you presented of your poor writing orphan waif self. Thank you so much for the compliments and the scratching to get in.

Dear Sophieh, thank you so much for reading and commenting generously. Really appreciate this from you.

Now I'm off to the gym and a birthday.
Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope to be a part of the next one. Wonderful, really._r
People, please read Maria's post about the moon. She is that rare spirit who transcends earthbound limitations to soar like a swallow and sing like a sparrow. What an honor to meet her and what a profile in courage she is.

Maria: feminine gentle and masculine precise--what a neat description. I thank you.
I'm only just now catching my plane home. Not sure how to use this testy thing!
This was so very beautiful. Such insight such wisdom and that wonderful clear honesty that sings! Seems to me superman will always catch you when you fall . You are an angel - a slightly wicked one but an angel all the same. You can write girl!
This was so deeply and generously informative.

And what you wrote about me I could write about you, as well as "brave" and "inspirational" and so many more true and wonderful things.
Maria is a gem.
She helped me find my way, having gotten myself spectacularly lost at 11:00 pm, back to New Paltz. And a very fine writer, to boot! R.
Sounds wonderful. Wish I could have been there. Maybe next year...
Maria! I have a terminal case of writer's workshop envy here! What a terrific experience! Your work carres the energy of your time there. You've successfully reflected the light of your peers and the fanning of your own flame! How wonderful...both your descriptions, and this amazing opportunity to meet people who share your passion! How inspiring to spend time with people you respect and admire!!! I'm sure this was a lovefest marked by reciprocity too! I am So happy for you! (Didja cop some autographs?) If we have one in the Midwest I think we should get tshirts or sweatshirts and fine point markers and sign those babies. Thanks for a very good read (Don't worry about the length...ya gotta tell the story with your eyes, your heart!) ...so cool! r
That was terrific, and as Gail said, You can write girl!!
And fast too. Thank you for your kind words. You are a force of nature. I don't know where you get it from, but keep going back for more.
This was wonderful. How I wish I could have been there.
Thanks for the wonderful glimpse of what sounded like a fantastic weekend that I'm so jealous I could not make.
Maria: Being thought highly of -- not to mention being described as "lanky" and looking younger than I am, is an honor I sheepishly (and gratefully) accept; it was also the only time I doubted -- however fleetingly -- your otherwise exact, thoughtful and graceful words.
Oh Maria, I love you! I love your writing and I can't wait to do it all again!
I haven't been to a writer's retreat in years and I desperately wanted to attend this one, but finances did not permit it. I am so glad you attended, Maria, and brought back your experiences to share with us. You made me feel I was there. Thank you.
Joan, I really hope you will be part of the next writer's retreat because it was so enriching, and because I would love to meet you, circumstances permitting.

Dear Nikki, thank you very much for recommending my post and for seeing so much that is wonderful in me (I'm considering having it printed on a t-shirt for myself that I'll wrap myself in for dream time sleep). I am honored to have met you, The profile in courage herself, and I would agree with all the wonderful things said about you in the praise for your book Because I Say So

Dear Gail, I hope you are safely and happily home by now. Thank you for enjoying this post and commenting generously at the cost of suffering those testy things. I think you got the "wicked" down right. I really enjoyed righting this post, because there were so many wonderful things to write about - you all!

Lea, you are extremely lovely and I thank you for your presence, your attention, your words - straight into me and back out.

Jonathan, that was so funny! I do believe you have the distinction of being the first person in my life to follow my lead in a car. I'm infamous for intuitively selecting wrong turns in the road, yet we all found our way home! It was a pleasure meeting you and to witness the strength you live your life by. And to hear the humor you bring to even grave situations in the rich story you shared of your stay in China: http://open.salon.com/blog/jlw1/2010/06/28/os_retreat_at_mohonk_the_chinese_night_i_was_held_hostage .

Steven, thank you for joining the post retreat celebration here and I also wish for your presence at a future workshop in real time.

Persistent Muse, I love your idea of T-shirts as autograph space. Just the idea of forming an autographed memory to take home...terrific! And Yes, Yes, Yes, it was wonderful. It was VERY focused on writing and on listening to writing and commenting. Most of our interactions were in this setting - we got to put ourselves, rather naked, out there to each other. It seemed apparent to me that the majority of OSer, definitely including me, unaccustomed to this method of workshop required courage to read, the kind that expresses its final moment in deep breathes, bracing, and plunging. And I think that was one of the best parts of the workshop - because it builds trust in the uniqueness of our personal voice, builds the courage to hear it, trust it, share it. It would be so nice to meet you Persistent Muse and I really appreciate the read you gave this post and the enthusiasm you share in your comment.

Yalebo, So that's who you are, Steve! Very nice meeting you, and a pleasure to meet your work; the top of my head frizzles in deep recognition of your truth http://open.salon.com/blog/yalebno/2010/06/27/just_be_quiet_and_pass_me_the_spoon - I loved this. And I hope you don't mind me posting this link to it. Call it my collage memory of all the things I liked best of that day.

Mimetalker, I wish you could have been there too. Thank you for coming back to this post, to read the finished version. I really appreciate your generosity with your time.

Trilogy, thank you so much. I bet there will be more.

Dear Jeremiah, you provided all the goods, I merely labeled them. Ha! But "lanky" was definitely not the right word for you - I just checked my understanding against a dictionary and I was wrong and will go in and change that. Because you are graceful, and because there is nothing sharp about your appearance - you wear a comfortable degree of softness. So thank you for bringing that to my attention, but if it is because you are challenging compliments, be careful - I might punish you with more!

Molly beautiful, you ARE poetry. Yes, it would be wonderful to do this again. Thank you so much with love and love.

Ladyslipper, I am so happy reading my post brought you in to share the experience. That really satisfies me as a writer, and as a person. I think we need to start putting quarters in a WR Jar!
Now I feel like I was there, participating in the workshop, learning alongside you. Lots of insight and practical information, along with the (as usual) poetic writing.
Thank you for transporting me into your great experienc. I love writing workshop and would have enjoyed that one, too.
You made the event live for me.

Wow - thank you for all of the insight. This sounds like a lovely group to get lost and found in. I am jealous! :)
Bellwether, L and Sparking, thank you very much! Wish you coulda been there.
Damn. I should know better than to allow my mouse to scroll down thru the comments before commenting myself. Sure enuf, second from the top, right below Cranky, is Greg. My head's bobbing up and down as I read his comment...what else to say? I do feel after reading Maria's exquisitely sensitive descriptions of the people I knew here only from their avatars and their writing, that I almost feel as if I did meet them in person.

I shall not scroll any further down. This is enuf to chew on for a while. Thank you for sharing, Maria!
Nice seeing you here, Matt, and thank you for your generous comment.
Thank you for making this weekend come alive for me. I am astounded that I haven't discovered you before this. :)
You are wonderful. I wish I could have been there.

Long ago, I decided I would write a satire about every major OS event (the get-together in Las Vegas, the "never-materialized" meeting in Oklahoma City, etc.)

I can't resist the writer's retreat. I'll publish it tomorrow. Please don't be offended. It's meant to be fun. I promise!

Sweetfeet, thank you!

Steve, I am suitably braced for some hard laughing and good fun - can't wait now! xoxo
comments saved from accident posting of this before it was ready:

That was wild. I just hit "post Comment" and poof the whole post disappeared! It was a great post, Maria - nice to meet you, I just discovered you from someone elses page. Luckily my short-term memory is fairly robust. I think I said,
"What a wonderful post, I'm so pleased I found it. You're honesty and recall of how you were feeling is so well articulated. I felt like I was there with you. I loved the image of, 'Mona lisa in beach slippers...'"

Then I added:
"I think it's just an old wives tale that watching water doesn't make it boil. So I wouldn't give up on starring at blank pages. As an artist I've stared at many a blank page...something happens, eventually."

Other people had very nice things to say too! I look forward to reading the finished piece.
Graham Sale
June 28, 2010 11:44 AM

I commented about how much I enjoyed meeting you and the others. I haven't deleted those thoughts.
Cranky Cuss
June 28, 2010 11:46 AM

I came too...filled with envy
June 28, 2010 11:50 AM

I can't duplicate the tribute I paid you *sniff* but I know it had something to do with your resiliancy and courage and insight and fortitude and the way your small body and indomitable spirit filled the room and how I will never look at the moon without thinking of its healing power. Something along those lines...
Nikki Stern
June 28, 2010 12:30 PM

Whew, I thought I dreamt your story...My first writers retreat was done on a whim. I needed to get away and do something creative and it fell in my lap. I travelled alone to a strange place, for the first time in 20 plus years. It started out scary, I felt misplaced initially and then at some point I belonged. I forged friendships that continue. It was one of the best impulsive and empowering gifts I gave myself, and I do one every year. I'm looking forward to reading your (finished) piece again. Thanks for sharing.
June 28, 2010 01:56 PM
really beautiful rated