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The WFWA Writers Retreat 2016 (Or, The Enchanted Hotel)

A lot of conferences are held in fairly personalityless hotels that drain your energy by their very sameness to every other hotel out there.

Not so a retreat.

A retreat is meant to help you relax, rejuvenate, reconnect.

It’s not overscheduled.

It’s not attended by people you feel pressured to impress.

It’s a time to grow.

It’s about great food…

…great conversation…

…great views.

A time to nurture the friendships you already have…

…and a time to make new ones.

If you’re lucky, it is held in a place with admirable weather…

…attention to detail…

…and a sense of history.

For two years now, the WFWA Writing Retreat has been held at the marvelous Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town.

For four days I’ve lived outside — most of my meals and all of my writing time has been spent under sunny blue skies, with the occasional 2-minute sprinkling of rain, followed by soaring rainbows. But the inside’s gorgeous too.

The party may be over for 2016, but I’m not too sad.

Because I know that in one short year I will be back.

A-Writing We Will Go

 

This is a photo of a very small bit of spider web on the outside of one of my office windows. I think it once held an egg sack. It’s been there a long time. I don’t clean my windows often.

As I was looking at it today I really noticed the points at which it attached to the glass. They made me think of synapses in the brain or a wild session of mind-mapping or brainstorming. They made me think of connections — the connections I’ve made and will strengthen with fellow members of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association as I pack my bags for our second annual writers retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which starts later this week!

Spider silk is incredibly strong, and the connections writers can make with each other as we discuss the craft, share business strategies, and just have a great time together are strong. They make what can be a solitary pursuit into the best kind of party — one with great food and drink, great company, and no pressure. You want to sit in a corner and just observe? Great! You want to have a deep one-on-one conversation? You got it! You want to bare your soul in a small group of sympathetic listeners? Go right ahead! You want to dance on the table? Er, fine…but you do realize you’re in a room full of writers, right? You don’t really want to end up in everyone’s next novel. Not that way.

When I got on the plane home last year, I was so happy to be coming back home to my boys, but I wasn’t really ready for that amazing retreat to end either. So I am thrilled to be going back again this year. Lists are being made, bags are being packed, rides are being secured…and I’d appreciate your prayers for good health (after battling food poisoning this weekend) and safe travels.

Can’t wait to share my trip with you in the coming weeks!

The Time Given to Us

Fifteen years ago, on a morning much like this morning — cool, clear blue sky — the world changed forever. I have never during those fifteen years been able to think about September 11, 2001, without tears, never been able to talk about it without a catch in my throat.

There are many people alive today who don’t remember the helpless confusion and fear of those first hours, those first days. And I find myself wondering, what will be that event for my son? What will be his #NeverForget moment? For my grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor. For my parents, it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For me and my generation, it was watching those towers collapse.

What will my son’s great paradigm-shifting tragedy be? What will be the thing that brings tears to his beautiful hazel eyes? What event will divide his life into before and after?

Three months after September 11, these lines were spoken by Gandalf in the movie version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring after Frodo says that he wished none of it had happened:

“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

There are so many things I would change about our time. So many things all of us would change.

But we have only the time that has been given to us.

What shall we do with it?

Despair? Give up? Fall into bitterness and hate?

Friends, we’ve no time for that. We must work. And hope. And love. And pray that God would change hearts.

I do not doubt that there will be a breathtaking tragedy that will someday divide my son’s life into before and after. Neither do I doubt that there will be an after. And that after is what defines us.

So, as we limp to the inevitable close of a contentious and mind-boggling political season, I want each of you to know that I see the image of God in you, and because of that, I have love for you. No matter who you vote for or against, no matter your color of skin, no matter how you got here, no matter what you’ve done, left undone, or will do in the future. And the reason I can love you is because He first loved me.

With the time that has been given to me, I will try to work for the good and fight against the darkness. And when I fail, I will look for forgiveness.

The Next Thing

Minute by minute, another August is ending. September whispers at the edges of leaves. It’s time for bats in the house and flocks of blackbirds lifting as one from fields and lighting like raindrops on telephone wires. Young woodpeckers sit on my windowsill and peck at their reflections. Hummingbirds hover at my morning glories and anise hyssop. The bees and wasps get more aggressive, the chipmunks get cheekier, and my pantry shelves fill up with jars to see us through another year of toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

It’s the time of big clouds and dramatic sunsets and morning rain. It’s the time when the squirrels steal my almost-ripe tomatoes and I vow yet again not to plant them next year. The weeds I should have pulled are spreading their seeds all over the garden to be sure I’ll have weeds to pull next year as well. I did manage one big day in the dirt recently when the humidity dropped a bit and the temperature was only in the low 80s. But by and large I’ve been a neglectful gardener this year.

And as others finish up their trips and put away their luggage, we find that there are still places to go. San Antonio for him, Albuquerque for me, and smaller jaunts around the state for conferences and book events and hiking trips. There are books to write and books to revise. In the evenings after the boy goes to bed, we sit in the Cigar Room pursuing our shared passion.

Soon the goldfinches will be lending their color to the trees and the nights will be cool enough for fires in the fire pit outside. Soon we’ll be able to give our poor overworked air conditioner a nice long break. They’re predicting a snowy winter for the Great Lakes Region this year. I hope they’re right. In the meantime, I look forward to fall and bid this summer a fond farewell. It’s been marvelous. But I’m ready for the next thing.

Rebuilding Classroom Libraries

I’ve made my donation of 12 books to help rebuild these school libraries lost to flooding in Louisiana. Please consider buying a few things off their Amazon wishlists. It’s an easy way to send some help to a broken and hurting community.

Lumos Libri

destroyedbooks

I’ve been teaching middle school English for over 20 years and like other veteran educators have seen movements start, end, get repackaged, and begin again with renewed vigor.  One of the things I know for sure: nothing beats recreational reading.

It’s one thing to know this and another to know and apply classroom practices fostering a genuine love of books.  Having a robust classroom library is a must, not a luxury.  Yes, I’m lucky to be in a school with a fantastic library.  Even luckier to have a supportive, energetic librarian.  But having books right there to put in the hands of a reader at the right moment?  That’s where the magic happens.

The magic of hearing a girl tell me after reading Linda Sue Park‘s A Single Shard, “This book was so great.  I’ve never read about a character from Korea like me.”  The magic of having…

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Welcoming the End of Summer Break

MSU students are flowing back into the city. My son went back to school today. We are falling back into routine. Earlier nights, earlier mornings, tighter schedules. And I’m okay with that. Summer has always overstayed its welcome in my life, and, as every writer (or anyone who works from home) knows, summer is hard on output.

Back in June, I finally got myself from 40,000 to 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript. Each paragraph was a hard-fought victory over summer distraction, including having my son home for the summer (no day care) for the first time whilst also continuing to work full time. In July, I don’t think I wrote much of anything. I was busily working ahead in anticipation of camp and vacation, entertaining dear friends at our house, editing someone else’s novel, and then gone for two weeks, during which time I was surrounded by people and working fairly diligently on actually getting a tan.

In August, it was (intensely) back to work writing pages and pages of catalog copy for the Summer 2017 list. I began to think I’d been quite foolish to set a goal for myself of finishing the first draft of this novel before my WFWA writing retreat in late September. My yard and house had atrophied — badly — over the past two months of busyness. We’d been eating out most meals because no one had the time or energy to grocery shop or cook. The weight I’d lost in June by diligently tracking what I ate started creeping back on. And as an introvert used to working in the house alone for much of the day had about reached my limit of days-strung-together-without-a-decent-chunk-of-solitude-thrown-in-there.

Enter Guys’ Week.

My husband and my son had one glorious week of fun planned out for the end of summer, which included lots of time out of the house and two overnight trips. During Guys’ Week, they went to zoos and museums and the LEGO store. They rode carousels, water slides, and elevated trains. They ate way too many coney dogs and made it through a tornado. They drank $6 slurpees and stayed on the 50th floor of the Renaissance Center.

Me? I wrote 20,000 words. In one week.

I could have spent my non-work time that week cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and all the other stuff that needed to get done. But I chose instead to focus on writing.

When he’s an adult, I’m sure my son will have memories of a very different type of household than the pristinely clean one I grew up in. He may remember that many nights for a while there was a bag or a box on the table rather than serving bowls. Occasionally, this bothers and embarrasses me. But I’m comforted by the thought that he may also remember that his parents pursued their passions every chance they got.

In four weeks, summer will be officially over and I will be in Albuqurque, New Mexico, with ninety other writers, women (and one man) who have become dear friends and fellow sojourners in the realm of writing and publishing. We’re all at different stages of our manuscripts and our careers. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one with a messy house and an empty fridge.

And I’m willing to bet that I’ll have finished my first draft before I step on that plane.

Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.

A Lesson in Focus

Great Blue Heron, Thumb Lake

Every day at camp, this handsome great blue heron hunted for fish and frogs in the marshy shallows of the lake.

No matter how many screaming kids were around and no matter how many ridiculous games they were playing in the water within a few yards of this bird, he calmly searched for meals.

He did not allow the plans of other beings to affect his schedule.

He did not concern himself with the people who were watching him and commenting on him.

He thought only of his goal and applied himself to achieving that goal, distractions be damned.

Is this speaking to you?

It’s speaking to me.

Estate Sale Win for the Cigar Room

I am in love.

EamesChair

The cigar room continues to slowly come together with this Eames-style mid-century chair for which I got up at 6:00 AM on a Saturday. I got my name third on the sheet and should have been third in line when the sale opened, but the first two ladies were slow and apparently not too eager, so I was the first one in the door at 9:00 AM. One of the estate sale workers had already told me exactly where in the house to go for it. I snagged the tag a split second before the lady whose name was after mine on the list (and then avoided making eye contact with her).

Victory!

The lady who checked me out told me they’d gotten a lot of calls about the chair, so I bet there were a number of disappointed people out there this morning. But I’m not going to worry too much about them. Instead, I’m going to sit smugly in my awesome new chair and get back to drafting my next novel. In fact, I used the time waiting in the car this morning between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM to get more than 700 words written, so I’d say it’s been a pretty productive morning.

Now, I say Eames-style because it is not an authentic Herman Miller Eames chair. Here’s a great article on how to tell the difference. But the estate handlers advertised it and priced it accordingly. I never would have bothered going if it were authentic.