Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Write Way to Retreat


Writing retreats are for writing up a storm, gazing out at lakes, snowy mountainsides, forests … free from the demands of dirty dishes, laundry, and family. Right? For me, the “retreat” part meant sleeping in and healthy snacking. And by “healthy,” I mean my appetite. I started writing first thing in the morning (ok, late morning) and stopped at bedtime, proud of what I’d accomplished.

Then one afternoon, over the crunch of pork rinds, I overheard a critique partner say, “I can write anywhere, but I can’t go to the beach anywhere.”

Lightbulb moment!

Slipping away from my computer and into my swimsuit felt like a writing crime. But exhilaration snuffed out guilt as I ugly-bodysurfed a wave back to shore where a cute lifeguard asked if I needed help. If only I’d been sixteen instead of … older. I imagined how my teen character would have felt: both thrilled and mortified, coughing up saltwater, knees stinging, another wave crashing over her head and destroying her ’do.

My writing senses kicked into high gear. Everything around had life-bringing story potential. The fishy, briny sea air. Gritty sand in my swimsuit. Seagulls squawking over a pork rind (Oops. My bad.).

So this was the retreat part of writing! Experiencing the environment. Time to tune the brain to Radio KIDS.

First experiment—waking up early: 5:15. Yuck. Still, time has an influence on story settings. Not just dark verses light. The sleepy resort town was creepy-quiet, the air fresh—no exhaust. Yesterday’s footprints had washed away, replaced by tiny, bubbling holes where sand crabs hid. Anticipation high, fingers crossed, I hoped the ocean sunrise would crest with a green flash. A blink before the big moment, a one-winged seagull distracted me and I missed it. But self-disgust turned to elation when I spotted a southbound pod of dolphins (porpoises?). All these usable emotions! And what is the difference between dolphins and porpoises anyway? How do those teeny sand crabs survive, unseen beneath tourists’ feet? How often does a green flash happen? This retreat business was adding fodder for picture book and magazine ideas as well!

Next experiment: eat like the locals. First food: scrapple. Forcing a bite into my mouth revived long-buried childhood dread when a chicken liver quivered at the end of my fork. My stomach knotted. My heart swirled with cold. Do I swallow it whole or dare to chew? (I chewed. It tastes a bit like pork rinds.) These reactions would work great in a story! Second food: crab. Holding my breath, I tried not to watch fellow diners pulling white flesh straight from crusty red legs as I popped a piece onto my tongue. I felt my facial muscles contracting into a disgusted grimace. Chugging a glass of water, I wanted nothing more than to wipe the taste away with a napkin. A kid character would do exactly that. A plethora of writing material!

Last experiment: taking it all in. People-watching on the boardwalk. Eagerly waiting in line for a haunted house, squealing when the doors banged just because it felt right. Enacting my writer’s mind. I eyeballed interesting details, sniffed and analyzed everything from waffle cones to B.O., listened to a crowd’s cacophony of voices versus the whooshing ocean below a wave, tasted the salty air, and ran my fingers over puffy plushies and sticky taffy.

And I still got a ton of writing done.

Never underestimate the benefits of a writing retreat. Kayak at sunset. Have a snowball fight. Climb a tree. Writing can be done anywhere. Retreats reignite your senses.

Experience them!

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Breaking Barriers; Inspiring Others: Author Julia Alvarez

In early November,  I had the opportunity to hear Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (say Hoo-lia!) speak about her life and books. Julia was in Denver to celebrate her book In the Time of the Butterflies, which had been chosen as the “Big Read” for the Denver Community for 2019.

Since her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991, I have been an avid admirer of her writing. Her works are known for their vivid characters, multiple points of view, poetic language and her sharp insights into human nature.

Julia Alvarez signing her book, In the Time of the Butterflies.

Julia Alvarez is a powerful female voice in American and Hispanic literature. Her early novels became the first Latina works to find their way into the mainstream of American literature. Now, her books are regularly read as part of the American cannon in schools around the country. At 69-years old, she balances writing, teaching and public appearances with a calm grace.

Dwarfed by the Newman Center stage, Julia reminded me of Yoda: diminutive, humble and infinitely wise. She spoke about her life and her writing, while encouraging and inspiring the packed house of writers who filled the seats.

Here are some highlights from Julia’s wisdom about writing, reading and life. These were culled from a several sources, the presentation that I attended and others I searched out on the internet:

On Inspiration: Where do I get inspired? By the pebble in my shoe, by the thing that unsettles me, by the story that takes me out of myself and makes me see things differently. It’s the story that won’t let me go… the story that I feel I must tell. Curiosity is the place I begin.

On being a “Real Writer:” I used to think real writers started at the beginning and went through to the end, maybe making a change here or there. So I thought I wasn’t a real writer because what I did was so messy. But I know now that writing is messy, but that, when it is all said and done, being a writer is a great blessing. It’s such an honor to be able to do what I was put on this earth to do.

On History: History is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. What we remember is always filtered through a point of view. A novel is a lens to see a story and is the truth according to character. Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Just the facts can’t begin to tell the full human story.

On the Power of Stories: Stories have the ability to transform, encourage empathy and spur the imagination. Stories have the ability to show us our full humanity. I believe stories have the power to change the world.

On Books: I found, at the table of literature, a place where all were welcome. Here, I entered worlds, between the covers of books, that I longed to know more about. Being a reader is the beginning of being a writer. Once you become a reader, you realize that there is one story you haven’t read… it’s the story only you can tell.

On Revising: I am an endless reviser. When you begin, you write the best book you can write at that moment. Revision is part of the process of growing and improving as a writer. Through revision you read your book as your reader would and change your book for them. You become the best advocate for your reader through revision.

On Reading and Writing: Whether we are reading or writing a book, when we see with clarity all the complexity of another person, it is an amazing connection to humanity. When we walk in another’s shoes, it is a radical, transforming experience.

On Process: I am a person of ritual and I like structure. I write every single day. Sometimes the muse comes and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing is a muscle and needs to be exercised everyday. A dancer doesn’t just dance when she feels like it, she dances and practices everyday. This is the same of a writer.

On Characters: Give thanks to your characters and the stories they came to tell you. Honor them and put them to rest. The truth your characters speak is multifaceted, and what I love about a story is that it can hold all of the complexity that exists in that situation.

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