DIY (If You Want Something Done …)

On Thursday I wrote about getting the news that I hadn’t been awarded a writing residency I’d applied for. In their comments, Heidi from Wordsmithing and Akilah from The Englishist expressed interest in the DIY writing retreat I made for myself in 2012, and Akilah’s comment made me realize that I’d never written about it. So today I will.

In 2012, I decided to send myself away to write. In both 2010 and 2011 I’d gone to VONA and had my heart and mind and craft blown wide open. For 2012, I decided not to apply, but rather to take the money I’d spend on a VONA week and create a two-week writing vacation.

I was nervous about doing it because I’d never been particularly successful with writing on vacation in the past. I’d turned out a few pages, but mostly spent my time vacationing and maybe (maybe) writing in my journal. But those had all been vacations and not specifically writing retreats, and I wanted to believe that calling my trip something different would actually help flip whatever switch in my brain needed flipping to get me to be more productive.

So I planned.

  1. Find a place to go. I searched on Flipkey (like AirBnB) for a place to go. I searched in Mexico, in the Caribbean, in France, in Canada … Everything looked great, nothing looked right. And then I clicked to an apartment in Tulum and the first photo won me. It was a slightly fuzzy picture of a sunny kitchen table. When I saw it, the first thought I had was, “I could write there.”
  2. Figure out when to go. The retreat was going to be my birthday present to myself, so I wanted to go in the fall, as close to my birthday as possible.
  3. Make a plan for writing. I made my schedule very simple: I would write all morning and go to the beach in the afternoon (it was going to be Tulum, after all, home of one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet). I also signed up for an online writing class and planned the timing of the trip so that I’d be in the middle of the course while I was in Mexico.
  4. Make a plan for what you want to get done during the retreat. There was a story I’d been fighting with. I knew that, if I was ever going to find my way through that story, I needed to understand this one character I’d been avoiding. So I decided that I’d use my retreat to write about him, to figure out who he was so that I could make sense of what he was supposed to be doing in my story. I don’t know if this part of the equation is necessary for everyone, but having a specific project in mind before I started helped me. I wound up writing other things during the retreat, but having this clear idea already laid out in my head helped me know exactly where to begin on day one.

So I was good to go. I was still worried about whether I’d get much work done, but I figured I’d done as much planning as I could or should, and that I’d have to trust myself.

I got to Tulum, the apartment was as lovely as the photos had led me to believe, I set up my writing corner of the dining table, and went to sleep early so I’d be ready to dive in with my schedule the next morning.

My schedule didn’t work out at all. Not even a little. Here is how almost all of my days went:

I got up early and had a little something for breakfast. I sat down with a cup of coffee or tea and started working. After working for a while, I started to feel ravenously hungry and had to stop writing … which would be when I’d discover that it was somehow 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon, that I had been working all day.

Two weeks in Tulum, and I made it to the beach twice. Twice. That is actually a crime, I think.

But —

I wrote like a crazy person. I wrote more in those two weeks than I normally write in a whole year.

I have never felt more content, more perfectly at ease in my body, more perfect. I was completely exhausted at the end of every day and fast asleep before 11pm … and then up with the sun to start all over again.

A big part of the success of my retreat was signing up for that online class. It was a class with Minal Hajratwala. I’d taken an online class with her once before, so I knew what to expect. Minal is an amazing and amazingly generous instructor. The materials she prepares, the exercises she gives … always fabulous. I was taking her Blueprint Your Book class during my retreat, and I had a huge breakthrough thanks to two of the exercises she gave us. She is an entirely lovely person, and if you have the chance to take one of her classes, I enthusiastically recommend it.


It’s definitely not necessary to go to Tulum or to go away for two weeks to make a DIY retreat work. You can stay right in your town. You can:

  • Find an AirBnB place that’s not crazy expensive (my apartment in Tulum was $50 a night), rent it for as many days as you can, and go write.
  • Apartment swap with a friend who lives a short train ride or drive away, sit at her desk or at his kitchen table, and write.
  • Stay in a hotel for the weekend, order room service, tell housekeeping to leave you alone, and write.
  • Find a co-working space that will let you rent for 2, or 5, or 7 days, and let the fact that you’ve paid for the space inspire you to actually spend those 2, or 5, or 7 days writing.

The important things are to 1) set aside time to work, 2) be in a place where you can work without interruption, and 3) hold yourself accountable to giving yourself that time.

I’m looking forward to planning a retreat for myself for the end of the summer. I don’t know if I could ever be as insanely productive as I was in 2012, but I like having that bar to aim for.

It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices


Poetry in Motion

Heh. I got jokes.

I’m the one in motion — I’ve left own for a conference in Cincinnati.   It remains to be seen whether the poetry has gone on the road with me.

The Poetic Asides prompt for today is a double prompt, offering up both violence and peace. I’m not sure I’m feeling either prompt today. But we’ll see where this goes. I had the strange experience of walking down the street tonight to find some dinner and finding — in addition to dinner — a distressing series of drunk and angry twenty-something men, several of whom spoke to me — but not really to me, but to whatever person they happened to career into.  So I wanted to write about them — I suppose there’s some violence and peace in there after all.

Vine Street, 9pm

men — boys
really — stalk
my path. Drunk, sad,
one curses, complains.
has left him
bare and in pain.
One misses his mom,
to call
but fears her
many questions,
stinging rejection.

freshly inked,
boasting manhood,
craving touch, comfort.
in their
sharp sadnesses,
they see only hurts.
calls me.
Says, “Mama,
you hold me back.
You leave, I’m nothing.”

hands want
to hold them,
to offer balm,
but I know better.
words call,
but their eyes
are empty, flat,
rage too near the surface.
walk fast,
trust the bright,
silver glow-light —
DANGER! — down my spine.


SOL image 2014


Ever since I’ve known about this conference, I haven’t been able to get the theme song from WKRP out of my head.  I wouldn’t have thought that I remembered that song, and yet … Maybe a few days in Ohio will chase it out.  It’s not all bad, though.  It also reminded me of that Thanksgiving episode:


An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.


Naima has taken up the challenge of writing a poem a day, and we’ve decided to email or text them to each other each night.  That’s great inspiration for me to make time to get my poem written!

Also, I followed a link from Minal Hajratwala and found myself taking on yet another challenge for the month. At Writer’s Digest, the Poetic Asides blog is offering up daily poem prompts and asking folks to post their poems in the comments.  The best poems from each day will be selected by daily guest judges and collected in an anthology by Words Dance Publishing. Fun times, yes?  Today’s prompt is to write a voyage poem.  That prompt coupled with the fact that reading Vanessa Veselka’s chilling essay “Highway of Lost Girls” this morning has had me thinking about my own experiences with hitch hiking led me to today’s Arun.

I went for something different, writing Arun stanzas for a longer poem. My jury’s still out.  I’m finding the form to be a bit awkward.  When I was writing Zeno poems two years ago, I found it fairly easy to work my way down from many syllables to one (the Zeno syllable count is 8/4/2/1/4/2/1/4/2/1). I find it much more difficult to start with only one syllable.  It feels more forced, contrived.  In any case, here’s today’s Arun, a voyage poem:

Here Alone

Lean back.
Watch the road.
Watch the driver.
Hold your bag. Smile. Talk.
Safe —
for now.
Be ready.
You’re here alone.
Climate changes, shifts.
Don’t blink.
Don’t miss it.
Stay on, ready,
always set to jump.

Hear silence,
weight in non-words.
Hold the door handle.
Watch him,
smile and nod.
He’s a good one.
Still: stay on, ready.
Lean back.
Hold on tight.
Eyes on his hands.
Keep your smile bright.

I rode
months. Alone
with strangers, men
I did … didn’t trust.
from home, from
family. Trusted
strangers, gave myself
unknown hands.
Luck riding close
down every long mile.



An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.


Happy first day of spring! It’s felt so long in coming this year. I know winter might have one last breath to blow our way, but I’m not worrying about that now. I’m thinking about warm breezes, bright green new leaves unfurling, and the blooming of the forsythia — always my favorite sign of spring.

I’m also thinking about this:


I was looking through photos from my last Jamaica trip, and came across this guy and realized I never posted many (any?!) of my pictures from that trip.   This is from Falmouth, where I stayed for just a couple of days at the end of my trip.  I was sitting on the verandah of my little shack on the beach writing, saw something out of the corner of my eye … and there he was.  Slow-slow-slowly, I reached for my camera, hoping not to scare him off.  Not only did I not scare him away, I got to watch his excellent little show:

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And I thought about the ways in which we are often required to change so completely to fit our environments, the times when we wish we could change that completely, the times when blending in with the background is anything but desirable.  And I wondered what the lizard feels when he’s changing, how he knows he’s changed enough.  And I tried to remember how I’ve felt in those times when I’ve made a conscious effort to step out of the wallpaper and become visible.

I’ve been focusing on change for a while now, since I made the decision to have my knee surgery, since I began to recover.  Not just the “simple” change of learning my life with this new joint, but deeper and more complex changes to who and how I am and what I want for and from myself.  I’ve been stumbling with a whole lot of one step forward, three steps back, letting fear hobble me.  I’m looking to do the lizard in reverse, step finally and fully away from the wallpaper and embrace my technicolor.  Yes, it means the birds will be better able to see me.  I say: Bring it.


All the other slicers are hanging out over at Two Writing Teachers!

SOL image 2014

Welcome Me (30 Stories – 4)

Um, yeah.  A story a day?  Right.  Maybe I’ll catch up tomorrow …  No matter.  As I said to a friend the other day: if I write 20 stories this month or 5, it’s still more than I’d have written if I hadn’t challenged myself. I was kind of wonderfully productive last week: in addition to what I posted here, I submitted two writing residency applications! It feels good to have done that for myself.  I always want to apply for things and then don’t follow through.  Not this time.  I have three more deadlines coming up over the next five weeks.  And wouldn’t it be beyond fabulous if I got one of these?

For tonight, let’s just keep our feet on the ground, shall me?  At the end of the month, I’ll be reading at Big Words, Etc. again.  The theme for this month is “bon voyage.”  Seriously, how could I resist, me with my trove of travel stories and such like? Of course, the moment I started thinking about writing, I had nothing to say.  Of course.

Happily, today started my month of writing prompts from the lovely and talented Lisa. That gives me a gentle push to get something going.  And so … tonight.


I wake up in a new body and, as usual, with a blinding headache.  Never mind the stress of figuring out where and who I am.  Never mind not knowing what language will come out of my mouth when I speak.  Never mind the discomfort of already feeling that this time I am a man.  The real concern: what if I’m white?  It’s always the biggest struggle.  I’ve woken up in so many bodies, but none are as difficult as the bodies of white people.  In all these years, you’d think I’d have figured it out, but no.  It’s a skill I don’t seem able to build.

I lie several moments longer, staring up at the ceiling, certain now that I am male, feeling the awkward weight in my groin, the emptiness in my chest.  But I am reluctant to raise my hands, see my skin.

I focus instead on the throbbing behind my eyes. My changes are always met with pain that borders on migraine-strength. I close my eyes and press hard into the points above my lids, right against the bone. Some woman I was in Turkey learned that. I force myself to breathe slowly, deeply. I picture the pain — a white-hot fireball of glass and razors — shrinking and fading, from biting white to pale blue to quiet indigo, smaller and smoother, smaller still, gone.

At least I am alone.  Many times I come awake to find someone breathing gently beside me in the bed, or sitting watching me sleep.  It’s crazy, coming to consciousness and having to know how to be with another person when I don’t know what person I am. 

I fell asleep in a small town in western Connecticut, next to a man I hadn’t come to love, but who was okay.  I’d been with him for two months — she’d been with him since high school — and in that time I could see that he was kind if not exciting or intelligent.  He’d been genuinely concerned for her when I first showed up, even when I’d frightened him by acting in all kinds of non-standard ways.  Genuinely concerned — not thinking about how a problem of hers would impact him and how he could minimize his own discomfort.  That’s pretty rare.  Most wives and husbands just get angry when they get me.

I can’t put it off any longer.  I need information.  Obviously, I’m used to this.  I know I always manage.  Even as a man.  Even as a white man.  Still.  Knowing I’ll manage never makes this moment easier.  I lift my right hand. The relief at seeing my dark skin warms through my body. The sun on the back of my hand glints off of a wedding ring. So that’s a little more information. And the skin is old, a sketching of fine lines traces down my muscular forearm.  Just as I start to wonder where is the partner who attaches to my ring, I register that it’s on my right hand.  Am I a widower? A priest?

An alarm sounds beside me, and I fumble to shut it off. I knock several small things to the floor, one that keeps skittering away for a long minute.

The clock says 7:30 — it’s a beautiful, old-style clock, not some flashy digital thing. The time means there is something I’m expected to be doing. Why else set an alarm, why else get up early? If I’m a priest, maybe someone is waiting for me to hear their confession.  

I like the strength in this body, its deep blackness.  I refocus on the man I’ve become.  I can feel the lingering idea of him rippling under my skin — because it is mine now, and neither of us can do anything about that.  It’s time, now, for me to find my way out into this old man’s world, decide if I will acquiesce to or avoid whatever havoc I’ll be expected to create.   

Leaving Montpelier (30 Stories – 2)

“I’m on the wrong train”

Caitlin looked at the woman beside her. She’d spoken so quietly and calmly, Caitlin almost missed the comment. Now the woman smiled.

“I was supposed to get the train to DC.”

Caitlin turned to face the woman, alarmed. “We’ve just gone through Montpelier, ” she said. “We’re on our way to Montreal.”

“Oh, I know,” the woman said. She looked past Caitlin at the Vermont countryside flashing by. “Sure is green here. “

Caitlin didn’t know how concerned she should be. The conductor had taken the woman’s ticket and said nothing. “So you’re okay with going to Montreal?”

“Oh, of course. I’ve always loved Canada. “

Caitlin nodded slowly. “But you said you were on the wrong train?”

The woman looked down at her hands, as if to keep her small, satisfied smile to herself. “There are quite a few people waiting for me in Washington right now.” She chuckled, shaking her head.

Caitlin stayed quiet. What was there to say, anyway? There were always strange people on the train, and they pretty much always sought her out. What was there to do but listen?

“I only wish I could have been there to see their faces when I didn’t show up.”

At that moment, the woman’s phone rang. She picked it up, glanced at the screen and smiled.

“You’re not going to answer?” Caitlin hated to keep it going, but couldn’t hold back the question.

The woman laughed. “If I could open that window, I’d throw this out,” she said.  “For now, I’ll just turn it off.”

She reached over and touched Caitlin’s arm.  “My name is Joan,” she said. “I’m probably going to change it once I get there. Could you just call me Joan a few times between now and then?  It’ll be nice to hear it a little before I let it go.”


And in just one day I completely forget the challenge I’ve set for myself.  Working on residency applications while I try to stick with this daily goal is clearly a bit foolish.  Let’s see if I can catch up today …

Look Away (SOLSC 12)

Today I woke up thinking about last night’s concert. One tiny bit in particular was stuck in my brain, playing on a loop. One of the choruses sang a medley of American folk songs called “Country Dances.” Deep into it, buried among harmless things such as “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and “Buffalo Gals,” I was surprised to hear: “Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland,” a relatively harmless snippet of “Dixie.”

I guess I don’t think of “Dixie” as a folk song, but I also guess that that’s a mistake on my part.  Some inside part of me bristles at hearing it in the middle of a classical music performance, sung by a chorus of college students, validated by a conductor in tails.  A quick review of the lyrics forced me to admit that they really are harmless, but my automatic reaction persisted.  And worse — thinking so much about the song put it in my head all day long!  Every thought-pause was filled with it.  Not ideal.

But then I remembered this story and had to smile:

About a thousand years ago (when I was 20), I went to London.  I was traveling with my friend Eva, and my mother had arranged for us to stay at the home of a man whose daughter she worked with.  He lived in a pretty suburb of London and had a big old house that he was rattling around in mostly alone.  Eva and I were more than happy to have free lodgings complete with a housekeeper and a cook.

The housekeeper, in my memory, was a very tall, very buxom, very blond woman with a big voice and laugh.  She was helpful with mass transit directions and ideas for how to spend our time.  As we prepared to leave for our first day out of the house, she made a big show of introducing us to the doorbell.  It was a crazy doorbell, a really large contraption that played music when you rang and had a selection of something like 50 songs to choose from.  Eva and I read through the list and set it for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” … and when we got back to the house that night, it was — yes, of course — playing “Dixie.”

We thought that was weird, but we reset it for “Twinkle Twinkle” and went on with our evening.  Same thing happened the next day.  And the day after that.  We set the bell for another song, thinking maybe there was something wrong with “Twinkle Twinkle.”  Same story.  We got back to the house that night, rang the bell and heard the tinny, anonymous wish to be in the land of cotton.

This went on for several days.  Finally, the housekeeper noticed us messing with the bell.

“I think it’s broken,” she said, waving us away.  “I keep setting it to play “Dixie,” and it keeps changing the song.”

Yeah.  We all had a laugh when we realized what had been happening, but I asked why she’d been setting it for that song in particular.  She looked truly surprised by my question.

“I wanted you to feel at home!”

Oh.  That.

Dixie.   It doesn’t go away, doesn’t get lost, keeps circling back.

And then I remembered the amazing short story by Percival Everett called “The Appropriation of Cultures.” It’s a great story. In it, Everett pushes us to take a different look at the song. (You can hear it read wonderfully on NPR’s Selected Shorts. It’s truly fabulous.)

Hearing that bit of “Dixie” last night was a push for me, a reminder that — as with all things — I need to stop looking away and unpack my own reaction.


You can read the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.