Collected Wisps of Thought

{January 19, 2008}   Writing Retreat

People often ask if I think writing conferences and retreats are worth the money. Do you really get enough out of them to warrant the expense? Well, I just came back from a writing retreat, so I thought I’d share some of my own experience in answer to this question.

First, a little background on the retreat. This one was small — sixteen published authors (all children’s book writers) gathering at an Inn in Pennsylvania to study poetry. None of us have published poetry and most of us probably never will. The point of the retreat was to study a different aspect of our craft with no pressures to perform for a crowd or to meet anyone’s definition of success other than our own. I’d attended this same retreat once before, three years ago.

The first noticeable result of saying “yes” to this gathering was that I needed to actually read some books of poetry in order to participate. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve taken the time to read an entire book of poetry? A long time. And one of the books was an anthology where renowned poets selected their personal favorites from their collections and then wrote an essay at the end of their section discussing their writing. Do you know how long it’s been since I read an anthology? Even longer.

Of course I waited until the last minute to get started, so it ended up that I read very intensively for about four days prior to the retreat. I found myself so immersed in poetry that at times my thoughts would meander into poetic form. Soon, I noticed I was seeing the world differently — paying attention to those small details of every day life that infuse great poetry with meaning. I started wondering if I was doing enough in my fiction writing to make these small relatable details a part of each scene I create.

Then the retreat arrived, and instead of doing the same things in roughly the same order as I do all the time, I stepped out of my routine and landed some place new. Some place where my thoughts could not drift to undone chores and events written in blue ink on my calendar. Some place where there were sights and sounds and smells I was unfamiliar with. All of which will probably make it into my writing at some point or another. The clanging old fashioned radiators, the musty smell of white knotted bedspreads, the steam wafting off a too hot pool…

I knew some of the writers in attendance, but not all of them. I’d been hoping to make some new connections, and I wasn’t disappointed. I met an editor of Highlights magazine and discovered that they are based only about an hour from where I live — and here I thought there was nothing publishing related nearby! I met a woman who has published fifty-five children’s books. Fifty-five! There were several Newbery winners and it was a treat for me to listen to them and soak in their wisdom. And it was fun to listen to what my fellow writers came up with when it was time to read our poetry aloud. It was challenging for me, like a new kid trying to keep up with the older kids.

The instructor was amazing… Vivian Shipley. She was insightful and intense and taught us so generously throughout the four days. She offered to contact people in the field should we decide to submit our poetry, and to offer personal recommendations. As anyone trying to break into ANY field can tell you, these kinds of offers are golden. They come very few and far between.

On one of the nights we had a reading where each person had five minutes to share something they were working on, just for fun. I chose to read my new picture book, which is under contract but doesn’t yet have an illustrator. It’s only been seen by my family and my editor and agent. This was an opportunity to read it out loud to a crowd and see what kind of reception it got. That was fun!

And then it was time to go home, but the gifts did not end with my return to real life. I came back feeling excited about writing and immediately finished two picture books that I’d had lingering that needed revision. I’d been stuck on one of them in particular, not sure where to go with it. The other one had been lying fallow due to sheer neglect. Both have been given new life. It was easy to relate the picture book writing to poetry writing since both forms are very similar. You must choose the very best words to evoke certain images in your reader’s mind.

My other writing has also benefited from a breath of fresh air. It felt good to finish up two stagnant projects, so I’ve tried to keep that momentum rolling in other ways — writing blogs, posting on my forum, tackling the short story I’ve been trying to write, taking out the novel that’s been waiting for revision.

And soon I will get together with two of the other women from the retreat who live in the area and we will share some work, give each other feedback, do some more poetry prompts… As I drive these days I listen to audio books of poets reading their work.

So, are writing conferences and retreats worth the money? You tell me. What would YOU spend for the above results? 

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