Thursday, May 08, 2014

Retreat (and counterattack!)

I'm a big fan of retreats. No matter how brief, I always manage to come out energized and ready to embark in something new.

In the middle ages, the word "retreat" was used to mean "a step backward" in a military context; to withdraw from battle; to give up.  It wasn't until the 15th century that the word acquired the meaning of a "place of seclusion."  Both coexist in the Catholic tradition of the spiritual retreat as a temporary withdrawal from the secular in order to tend to the divine.

Franciscan Retreat Center, Colorado Springs

I signed up for the SCBWI Summer Retreat in Colorado Springs this past weekend hoping for clarity in my writing practice. Late last year, my middle grade book, Letters from Heaven, was picked up by Arte Público and ever since I've been adrift. I tried focusing on academic writing for a while, dabbled in the personal essay, wrote a few verses... but the writing (both the act and the product) felt flat. It lacked a sense of direction. I lacked a sense of direction.

The focus of this year's retreat was how to refresh your creative life. Creativity coach Cynthia Morris led a series of workshops designed to reconnect us with whatever it was that led us to writing in the first place.

Cynthia speaks of "devotion" rather than "discipline." Discipline has echoes of nuns with rulers, of being made to do something we really don't want to do. Whereas "devotion," she explains, is something we are moved to do, from the heart.

This was my epiphany: for the past six months I had shown up for writing, "butt in chair," as I was supposed to. Yet, I'd somehow forgotten why I was there. It was all discipline and no devotion.

We shared the retreat space with another group, the Colorado Celtic Harp Society, a group of women devoted to this enchanting instrument. They told us about the storytelling tradition for  the harp and how sound can enhance a story. When telling a story, the harpist creates a signature sound for a recurrent word or character and assigns different combinations to highlight tension, action and resolution. Not all stories are suitable for accompaniment, they explained, as the harp must enhance and not compete with the story. But children's stories tend to be perfect for this: most are brief, action driven, and with a clear arc.

The harpists asked our group for a few short stories to perform during their recital. So that evening, in addition to Irish classics and a fabulous Billy Joel medley for harp, we heard Todd Tuell's delightful Ninja, Ninja, Never Stop! and Carrie Seidel's Blame it on the Baby

This impromptu performance manifested the importance of rhythm and repetition in early children's writing that is so hammered in craft workshops. . .  Another epiphany!

We were asked to bring colored pencils, markers, watercolors, scissors, glue and whatever images or texts were significant to our writing practice. I borrowed most of these items from my daughter and packed them at the bottom of my bag, secretly hoping I wouldn't have to take them out. You see, I hadn't attempted to draw anything since grade school. And even then, it wasn't pretty.

Cynthia shared with us her artist journals, visual recollections of trips, cafe conversations, and everyday revelations in full color. 

Check out some of Cynthia's journal pages

She then invited us to do the same, in the privacy of a journal... No one had to see it. Ever.

If drawing is not your thing, attempting to draw an object will take an enormous amount of observation. You'll struggle with proportion, shade and light, texture and by the time you're ready to give up, that cup of coffee may still look more very much like a toilet bowl, but that's not the point. If then, you move away from the image and describe the object with words, that mundane cup of coffee will materialize from your writing like an incantation. (Shhh! It really works!)

I've been back a few days and my writing practice already feels very different.

At least, while I wait for clarity, I'm having fun!


Mario Acevedo said...

Great post. True, sometimes butt in chair is not enough. I wasn't a fan of writer retreats but now find them inspiring and productive.

Anonymous said...

In the right setting, a writers retreat is great. I wish I'd signed up to go with you, Lydia. Great report. Keep the heart and the devotion,

Manuel Ramos said...

A lot of helpful info and guidance in this post, Lydia. Gracias.