Tag Archives: creativity

Your writers’ retreat guide

quote calligraphy under cup of lemon tea

Photo by Studio 7042 on Pexels.com

For weeks, I had been counting down the days and hours to my trip down the QEW in my black Yaris, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, mounting over Lake Ontario on the Skyway bridge thankful the winds weren’t threatening and the bridge was open. I passed the usual industrial parks on my right and the Stoney Creek Furniture warehouse from where I dream to one day afford a couch. Eventually, the stores changed and I saw Magnotta Winery and signs for Niagara wine tours. I turned onto highway 55, past Trius Winery, Pillitteri Estates, Stratus Vineyard. Oh yes. I was close and I knew a glass RELAX Riesling awaited me. I envisioned the blue bottle catching the sun from the window and my shoulders relaxed. I looked at my computer bag on the passenger seat. The first printed shitty first draft of my play slept there. She’d been beckoning me to get out and run amok with her – soon, my sweet. Very soon. And then I pictured the two smart, fun women and cheerleaders I was about to spend my long weekend with, who I’m sure already had a glass in their hands. I grinned. Life was as it should be. I was ready to let go of the usual daily stuff and dive into another writing retreat. We’ve got a number under our belt now and the system is honed. I knew a great, productive weekend awaited.

So let me give you a guide to a great retreat and share some key principles we live by:

  1. Start with good snacks, food and drink. This one has never been a problem for the Restless Writers. We usually have a signature cocktail each retreat, WAAAY too many Pringles and a fridge that is still too packed by the last day. We’re slowly learning realistic quantities of food to bring, but at least we know we’ll be well fed. We are also budget and time conscious. So we share meal prep (each taking charge of one) and rarely go out because it’s expensive and takes away valuable writing time. Go with what works for you, but whether you go Skip the Dishes, potluck, or venture out for meals, plan it ahead of time, so you’re all on board.
  2. Bring your comfies. This means moccasins for me, fuzzy slippers for Sharon, an electric blanket for Beckie, and Prosecco for Maria – for that girl, comfort is defined by a glass of the bubbly in her hands, no matter the hour! Ego is left at the door for RW and you’ll find no fashion shows at our retreats.
  3. Have a kick off and write down your goals. We like starting our retreats by having an activity to shift our minds into creative mode. Keep it simple and consider a writing exercise or guided meditation, or something to open your mind and help release fears and blockages. We also always discuss and write down our goals for the weekend. It forces us to focus in and remember this isn’t just a girls’ weekend away. We’ve got work to do and we’re here to help each other get there. Writing it down makes us accountable to each other.
  4. Have your materials ready.  Bring your favourite pen, lap desks, sticky notes, markers, cue cards, extension cords, earphones, whatever you need to be productive. For us, these are precious weekends, so we don’t want to waste them not having what we need to get busy.FullSizeR001(1)
  5. Don’t over plan or over schedule. We’ve sometimes done this in the past: had a strict agenda detailing every hour, invited a yoga instructor to run a class for us, booked a few wine tours. We’ve relaxed a lot over the years and try and let each retreat flow as it needs to, which leads me to…
  6. Respect each other’s needs and be honest. Everyone’s creative process is different, and as a group you need to both recognize that and respect it. At the same time, each person needs to feel safe to be honest with what that means for them. The writing is about you in the end. So speak up for what you need, and give space to others at the same time. As an example, this past retreat, I felt in my zone and was happy in my pajamas indoors all day. Sharon needed to get herself outside and walking. We know we don’t have to do everything as a group. We are our own guides in our work and we appreciate that in each other.
  7. Be kind to yourself. The purpose of a retreat is to give you time and space for your writing project. Give yourself the freedom to explore. Let go of judgment. Don’t worry if you’re “doing it right,” nor compare what you’re doing with the others in the group. They’re slogging it out in their own way. And if you don’t meet your goal at the end, consider that maybe you set the wrong goal, or if you’re frustrated, figure out if you spent your time the way you wanted to, or were more focused on mixing drinks for everyone, procrastinating. Either way, take stock and learn from it. It’s all good.
  8. Do a postmortem. We’ve gotten better at our retreats because just before we leave, we go for coffee and do a final check in. Did we like where we stayed? Was the space good? Did we like our kick-off meeting exercise? What do we need to bring next time that we forgot? Was the price right and the time of year good? Do we want to have a more formal agenda? Take notes and learn each time how your group ticks.

As I reflect back on our last retreat, I guess the last lesson is: Be ready for anything. I mean anything. Because just when you think you’ve gotten used to being down from the usual four to three because one of you is across the country, that fourth girl just might shock the shit out of you and show up at your doorstep!

You just never know what a retreat will bring. Have fun and happy writing!FullSizeR

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Do you have the COURAGE?

courage-stoneWriting takes courage…

…the courage David had when he met Goliath.

Every time you sit down to write, you face the Goliaths of those who have gone before. The geniuses of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Wilde and Irving (insert any of your literary heroes.) You face the Goliath of the depth of the story you have to tell and the multitudinous words at your fingertips to express it. And you face the Goliath of your fears: Am I talented enough? Do I have anything new to say to the world? Will anyone read this?  What if this only matters to me? And on…

Writing takes courage…

…the courage Rosa Parks had when she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama bus.

When you call yourself a writer you refuse to ignore your soul’s mission for a creative existence. You face possible scorn for going against the rules of world order. You resist the laws of comfort and stability. You have the courage to live an amplified life to bring forth the precious gifts that lie within.

Writing takes courage…

…the courage of Martin Luther King Jr. when he shared his dream openly with the world.

You have courage the day you release your creation into the world where you face possible ridicule or disappointment from those you love and respect. You face possible rejection from publisher after publisher. You face possible anonymity and solitude if your work is out there with no affirmation of its worth, but you have the courage to do it anyway.

You have to be brave to be creative. You have to be daring. You have to be bold. As Jack Gilbert, former poet and teacher, said, “Without bravery, we would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of our own capacities. Without bravery, we would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, our lives would remain small—far smaller than we probably want our lives to be.”

I am reading Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I am moved and inspired by every word as she describes her creative process in a deeply personal, yet practical and humourous way. She opens by talking about Jack Gilbert, who never made great fortune and fame from his poetry (although he could have). He would ask his writing students, “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

Discovering your treasures, accepting them, and then boldly bringing them into the light for all to see are all acts of courage. Acts of courage the world needs from you.

Find your inner David, your Rosa, your Martin, and say yes…please.

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Get physical with your writing!

I’ve been working on my one-woman show project for a while now, but it’s been slow moving – and when I say “slow moving,” I mean meandering in Southern Georgia in 105ºF sun slow. I toil to find the right words; search for the right flow of the piece; strain to visualize it on stage. Some days I forget where I’m going. Some days I’ve moving so slowly I think I’m actually stepping backward.

One weekend in September, however, I had a breakthrough. I joined a group of six other women for a day coined as “Wealthy Women Master Planning.” The focus of the day was to look at personal wealth, beyond simply the financial side. What does wealth really mean? What are our individual goals around wealth building? Where in our lives do we already possess wealth? How can we use that wealth to translate into financial prosperity?  And on. And believe it or not, it was during this day, my writing breakthrough happened.

We were at was this cool office space with bright, large windows, a two-floor water feature, a foosball table, a mini putt green, and a Buddha sand garden. All features to inspire innovation and creativity. We brainstormed and talked, but half way through the day, I hit another wall. I was attempting to plan out my show on paper, but it felt as productive as trying to convince a three-year old to eat Brussel sprouts. When the facilitator came by to check in, she could see the pained expression in my eyes.

“Andrea, stop trying to write it down. Go play in the sand.”

“Huh?”

“I’m serious. Go play in the sand and build you show,” she persisted.

I shrugged. “Okay.”

It took a minute for my brain to recalibrate as I looked at the sandbox and wondered where to start, but as soon as I let go a little, physically drew out the edges of the stage, and found markers to stick in as audience members, new neurons starting firing. It was like the pilot light had been lit before, but now the flames were ignited and high!sand1

Before long, I felt like a kid again. I threw my shoes and socks onto the floor, the sand soft cool between my toes. I tore pieces of paper to lay out different parts of the show. I found rocks to place as set pieces. With every physical act, fresh ideas popped into my head: new segments to write; clarity on the flow; a deeper sense purpose. In my child-like state, my vision came alive again and I re-discovered the passion with which I had started to write this piece in the first place!

When we feel stagnant and stuck in what to write next or how to fix a piece that’s not working, it’s time to get physical and play. Imagination is a child to be set free. Assume she’s four and let her explore, touch, grasp, feel everything in her world.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein

Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So, go have some fun. Go outside. Pick up a leaf or a rock. Or stay inside and explore your surroundings. Pick up something where you are. What happens when you move it in your hands?  What does it feel like – its texture, its temperature, its weight? Play with it. Now bring your story in. Think about your characters, your story line, imagery you’ve been using. Just be present, be curious and open up your mind.

Get physical with your writing. Play in the sandbox like I did and see what happens.

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Look out the window: An evening with Lawrence Hill

“Writers – and artists in general – need time and space to look out the window.”

This is only one piece of wisdom Maria and I heard from Lawrence Hill about a month ago. Author of the best-selling Book of Negroes (and a friend of mine from many years ago), Larry spoke of creativity, finding voice, research, injecting humour in serious subjects, and my favourite – needing time to stare into space.

I’m staring at my fireplace right now to craft this post. The comforting flame. The glowing logs. The soft heat they exude. I am mesmerized by their gloaming. My thoughts are centred on creativity and opening the mind to the possibilities. When he stared into space, Larry created in Aminata Diallo, a protagonist with the most to lose– a black midwife, stolen from her village as a child, later to bring new life into a world that beat her, abused her, hated her and every other like her. Larry found the voice of a teenage girl out his window. He reached far outside himself to imagine her – what she looked like, sounded like and how she felt. He imagined what she saw when she looked across the ocean toward her home. He imagined the questions she would ask; the anger she would carry; whom she would meet along her way and what they would mean to her. Much of his story was sparked by researched, yes, but he fleshed it out in his mind while he looked across his back yard or the lake at his friend’s cottage he sometimes borrowed for a week or two to write.

I stare at the flames and feel my mind quiet as I type. It is tonight’s window. I imagine my next installment to the Messy Art of Motherhood. So much more to come. I will return and find my creativity out the window. Maybe out their windows, Maria will create new creepy witches; Beckie new tormented teens; and Sharon new spirited children.

There is no limit to what lays beyond our windows or within the fire. We just need to let go and look.

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My writing albatross

Why can’t I write this blog post? It’s been pressing on my shoulders for three weeks now. Coleridge’s damn albatross. The emails from my fellow Restless Writers were initially gentle reminders, but have now become electrified prods like I’m a cow to be herded back to my quarters. (OK, they’re not that mean, but I am feeling the pressure.)

Every time I sit down in hopes the “grand inspiration” will come, the screen sits in silence. The keys remain idle. My fingers await their commands.

And alas, when a few words do splatter on the screen they are out of focus, blurry like a…like a…what? The simile alludes me. My muse is clearly on vacation enjoying steamy weather and sunlight, while I freeze in this record cold winter, surrounded by greying snow and the greying sky out my window that reflects the current grey in my brain.

fireplace

Where is the light in my thoughts? Where is just a spark of an idea? I’m sitting beside a fire for God’s sake! Nothing?

Have I left it too long? Have the distractions of my life stolen my ability to create something new? Perhaps I have starved Calliope for too long and she has found refuge in another writer’s home.

What’s a writer to do when a fog has descended on her creativity? Here are some ideas:

  • Try a writing prompt to start you off and help focus your brain.
  • Write something, anything every day – even if it’s crap – at least you’re writing.
  • Read. Read anything – about writing, a novel, a blog, poetry. Read…a lot.
  • Schedule your writing time and be disciplined to make it happen with no distractions.
  • Take a step back for a moment and set some goals. Maybe it’s time to regroup and figure out what you want to achieve with your writing. Check in to ensure you are heading in the direction you want to be with your writing. Maybe it’s time for a left-hand turn to stir things up.
  • Stop and have a good look at your life recently.  What needs to shift? Where are you out of balance? (This one’s mine. My life’s been spazzy these last months and my writing has suffered because of it.)

Writing takes persistence, perseverance and patience, and each ‘p’ word comes in waves. Sadly my surf board has been stuck behind my snow shovel lately. I know I have to dig it out…once I dig my car out of the driveway. The worst ‘p’ for me is the third one. Damn that patience thing. It’s the new albatross around my neck now that this blog post is done.

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Filed under Blogging, Inspiration, Life and stuff, Motivation, Starting up, Writing ideas

A reflection on vulnerability, writing and character

TissuesI just watched a TED talk by Brené Brown about vulnerability. I love TED talks. Every time I watch one my perception about life shifts a little bit, and as a result, so does my approach to writing. In the case of Brown’s talk, I was in tears as I thought not only about my own vulnerability as an artist—clearly her message was hitting the mark with me—but also the importance of vulnerability in the characters I create.

The thing is most of us hate feeling vulnerable. We hate feeling out of control. We get paralyzed by “what if I put myself out there and I get turned down or ridiculed or end up going down a road I didn’t want to go down?” Yet, as humans we have a fundamental need to be connected to the world and to each other in order to feel truly alive. Therein lies the struggle: to feel connected, we need to be vulnerable and show who we are, but our instinct is one of protectionism. As writers we become vulnerable every day we create. It’s part of our calling. We describe and reflect the vulnerability of life, so others will be moved and their lives shifted as a result.

But vulnerability takes courage, and writers are human. We all struggle to be courageous day in and day out. I mean, how can you keep feeling courageous when a piece gets rejected or ignored over and over? How do you continue to write a story that takes you to dark places in your own life you’ve probably worked years to bury, but is needed in order to make the story authentic? Yet that journey is exactly what is necessary. As Brown even says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity.”

And what does this mean for our characters? Our characters have to reflect the same human struggle we face ourselves in the most real way. If we can effectively show a character’s struggle for connection, readers, in turn, will feel a deeper connection to our work. (Maybe this is partly what Maria was talking about in her last post about finding her character’s voice.)

So, how can you create characters that reflect this inner humanity? Well, one way, of course, is to start with yourself. Examine when you feel vulnerable. I mean, really examine it…without fear. The better you understand your own humanity, the better you can reflect the humanity of your characters. As a start, I found some ideas from Writing Through Life journaling blog.

Another way is to start with those around you and then turn what you discover onto your characters. Here are some steps:

  • Describe when they feel vulnerable and why. Is there some memory triggered?
  • What physically happens to their bodies in that state? (e.g., forehead tenses, palms become sweaty)
  • What do they say in reaction? (e.g., turn to blame someone else? Try to exert control in the situation or command that they are “right”?)
  • What do they do as a result? (e.g., many try to numb the feeling of discomfort by drinking or eating excessively or taking pills. When developing your characters, remember these actions also numb joy and love at the same time, like Brown indicates.)
  • Now, write when they feel the opposite, i.e., in control. What does that look like? You can repeat the other steps from this point of view.

As Brown concludes her talk and I’m near the end of my Kleenex box, she reminds us that what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful. So, keep your courage to be vulnerable as you write because it is fundamental to what makes your work beautiful too.

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Where does inspiration come from?

InspirationCall it passion. Call it purpose. Call it Starbucks.  

For me, inspiration comes from the same place that dreams come from. It’s a place beyond understanding, knowing, and controlling. It intersects all aspects of life, particularly my writing world.

Inspiration arrives in dreams, in music, in conversations, and even in memories. Thoughts gather subconsciously until they manifest into words. I never can predict where my ideas will come from and how long they will stay with me. So, with that, I offer the following advice to writers.

10 Tips on embracing inspiration when it strikes:

  • Spend time with your species (artists are influenced by other artists).
  • Listen. Inspiration surrounds you. Eavesdrop on life (politely).
  • Appreciate everything—the beauty in all things, moments & experiences.
  • Be wild. Stop making sense and start making nonsense!
  • Do not try to force inspiration (forced inspiration is like caffeine—it pumps you up, then you crash).
  • Stop hiding (we writers like to hide). Interaction with other human beings is an important source of inspiration.
  • Be open to change. And never lose your sense of curiosity.
  • Follow your bliss. Do what you love in some form or another.
  • Feel your pain. Sing the blues.
  • Be yourself.

This post was inspired by a recent writing workshop that we, Restless Writers, attended as part of the Quick Brown Fox series. Workshops are simply one way to inspire and inject life in your writing project(s)—and sometimes, they can even put your manuscript into the hands of a willing agent! 

We’re all seeking some form of inspiration in our lives—to feel alive, energized, engaged in meaningful creative activity. What inspires you and where does it come from? We’d love to hear from you.

Beckie

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