Friday, September 10, 2021

Will We Be Making Lanyards? By Josh Stallings

 Q: You’re organizing a writers retreat with some fellow authors. Friends, perhaps? Describe the plan, the setting, the food, the drinks, and the results. And, of course, who gets murdered…

One of my favorite writing experiences was in the creation of All The Wild Children, a Noir Memoir. It was a writing process for me like none I’d had before or since. 

It started in a two hour long summer camp class I taught on killing the inner critic and freeing the creative self. It involved a technique called word vomit, and learning to write faster than you can think. 

Me and three women who participated in the class decided we wanted to keep meeting every week. They were from vastly different disciplines, a professor of Spanish literature, a feminist art film maker, and a professional puppeteer. They were all brilliant.

Sundays we’d meet at one of our homes and do automatic writing / word vomit for 2 to 5 minutes, then find a title in that sea of nonsense. Place that title at the top of a page and for the next 20 to 25 minutes we’d write without stopping or revising. Writing so fast that it felt like running down a hill, gravity threatening to topple you at any moment. Then, pens up, we’d snack or sip and read our work to each other. It was amazing that when writing at speed we each had such clear and individual voices. 

I wound up writing thematic memoir pieces. One was called DRUGS, another was called Baby Boy Crazy. The title informed what poured out. As a young man my mother gave me her copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I love it, it was linked short stories telling the tale of a town, an American Midwestern Under Milkwood if you will. I started to see I could write an entire memoir of linked essays, each written in a twenty minute time span. 

Spoiler alert: All the Wild Children was up for an Anthony Award. It convinced my agent to sign me. The micro press that published it went out of business. It is out of print and many years later we still haven’t found it a home. BUT, I’m so damn glad I wrote it.

Honesty is my brand. So let me fess up, I first wrote this piece eyebrow arched as a cynical joke where I invited characters from my books to spend the weekend. Erika read it, and called it a “a very clever piece of marketing” not a compliment. She then asked me if I had a real answer to the question. After hemming and hawing I started thinking about what a helpful writers retreat would look like to me.

I love conventions, hanging out with my writing and reading family. I come away tank full and feeling alive to the work we do. The down side is, I spend my time talking and thinking about what I already wrote, or pitching what I intend to write. Past tense, future tense, no present. I want something with the connection to fellow travelers, but with less time in a bar, zero focus on the business end, and lots of creation going on.

An idea is forming…

Location: for this retreat it will be Cedar Dell Word Farm, Home of Hand Curated Sentences Since 2016, better known as our home in Idyllwild. Spring would be best, the adventurous could camp on one of the three decks. Food would be home made soups and chili and bread. Meals that involve serving from large communal bowls. I’d keep cool water and ice tea on tap. BYOB for the night time.

Invitees: a mix of writers, artists, musicians - hell anyone with a creative bent. Price of admission would be that each participant had to share one golden tool they use to access their creativity. And each would be required on Sunday night to share a piece, a poem, a story, a song.Doesn’t matter the form, only that it can’t have existed Thursday when they drove up the mountain. 

The schedule: wake early, the sun and our dogs insist on that. Then massive amounts of rich coffee, I insist on that, or tea or juice - dealer's choice. Then a hearty breakfast, cause we gonna be working. 

Next comes word vomit warm up, where we each find the title for our day. Then hike or sit by a creek or study the light play on the rock faces surrounding our valley. The point would be contemplation and revving the creative motor, get those tires smoking like a dragster before launch. 

Lunch, we eat and drink a lot a mile up. Then disperse and CREATE until dinner. The nights are for sharing our deepest creative secrets. And laughter. And maybe even lanyard making. In honor of Catriona and Erika there will be NO burning of marshmallows.

Then we drift off to sleep, wake and do it again. Sunday afternoon would be show and tell party time. We would sing and dance or howl and rumble until the stars fade and Orion slips away to hunt again another night.

Damn it. I’ve never been to a writing retreat, in fact I was kinda snarky about the whole idea. Now I really want to throw one.

“Wait” you say, “Who got murdered?” 

No one. But, I could murder the hell out of a plate of Erika’s turkey molĂ©. 

Come up to Cedar Dell Word Farm, where creation is the plata of the realm.


Susan C Shea said...

Now there's a writing retreat for gut-serious writers! No fooling around and bravado, just digging in deep.

Josh Stallings said...

Susan, only way to be, as long as we also get gut laughs.

Brenda Chapman said...

Sign me up!