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.

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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

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Life in the Leyland

This picture is being shared all over the place:

refurb bus 1

First, I love that some people respond to this as if this is the most radical, crazy, hip thing they’ve ever heard … as if this is the first time they’ve heard of such a thing, as if only a young person in 2015 could think of such badassery. Yeah, not so much.

Second, I love that this bus seems only made for sleeping. There’s no kitchen, no cabinets, no bookshelves, no … anything but beds. This is an odd way to try to travel even a super tiny country!

Third, I love that this reminded me of my long-ago experience of traveling in a converted milk truck with two wonderful, usually-drunk, Englishmen and a very sweet young Dutch guy.

— Oh yes, it’s another travel story! —
(And it’s a long one!)

Back in my many-years-past youth, when I spent some time hitchhiking in Europe, I wound up in Sagres, on the Algarve in Portugal. I arrived there by bus, having temporarily thrown over my hitch after some unacceptable scariness in Spain. I had put the town on my itinerary because it has Henry the Navigator history, and was close to Cabo de Roca, a lighthouse that marks continental Europe’s furthest western edge. I liked filling my planned/unplanned trip with weightless items that left me as free as I wanted or needed to be. On paper, Sagres was an overnight stop before heading to  Spain. But Sagres turned out to be a stop-rushing-and-enjoy-the-sardinhas-asadas kind of place. That “overnight” lasted five days. Nothing to do, nowhere to be, no reason to leave. There was thick, rich cafe leche to drink, vinho verde to wash down the sardines, beautiful beaches to stretch myself out on and cultivate my first deep-in-the-skin-so-black-my-mom-didn’t-know-me-at-the-airport tan.

I did drive out to see the lighthouse on my last day. I love lighthouses, and that one didn’t disappoint. And the view, the wind, the edge-of-the-worldness of the place was fabulous. Definitely worth the spot on my trip plan.

I don’t remember when in those five days I met David and Roger. (Their real names. Because they were lovely, kind people, and maybe there’s a chance that one of them will stumble upon this all these years later and we’ll reconnect.) They arrived with cute, bespectacled, Marcel, a Dutch hitchhiker they’d picked up a while before reaching Sagres. They arrived in the Hotel Leyland, a milk truck they’d converted into a mobile home.

They were my companions for the lighthouse trip, and when they announced they were leaving Sagres the next day and heading for Spain, I happily accepted a ride. Seville is maybe a two-hour drive from Sagres, maybe a bit more. We made the trip in ten days.

We left Sagres late morning and headed into Lagos … where we found an English pub and ate English food and didn’t leave and didn’t leave and didn’t leave. At first, I was anxious — when were we going to get to Seville? Then I let that go and relaxed. What did it matter? We could stay anywhere. It wasn’t as though I had some kind of schedule to keep. (Okay, I did have plans to meet a friend in Siena for the Palio, but that was weeks away.)

Eventually we started looking for a place to stay the night. After the windswept wildness of Sagres, Lagos was too citified for us, so we drove east. On my map, we found Olhão. It was little. It was on the ocean. It would surely be fine. But when we got there, it wasn’t as fine as we’d hoped, so we drove on. A short while later as night fell, we were in an even tinier town, one we couldn’t be sure was on the map. There was no hotel, but there was a campground, so we moved in.

Sleeping arrangements, you ask? Easy. Marcel slept on the bed that folded out of the dining room. David had a one-man tent that he set up beside the Leyland. That left Roger and me … and the bigger-than-queen-sized bed that could be created at the back of the truck.

“Don’t worry about Roger,” David told me that first day. “He’s gay.”

I don’t actually know if that was true. It hardly mattered. Roger was usually so full of alcohol at the end of the night, sleep was all that could happen on his side of the bed.

We woke up that first morning to discover ourselves in a tiny paradise of a place. You could buy a big jug of vinho verde for about $5 … and get your $3 deposit back when you returned the jug … and yes, for $2 you could leave your deposit and just get a new jug of wine. There was a great farmer’s market where we bought delicious produce (Portugal is still one of the greenest, most growing-est places I’ve ever been) and where, to my horror, the guys all bought tubes of sardine paste. Yes, really. Tubes like toothpaste full of something red and fishy and “fishy” that they squeezed out onto slices of bread and called a meal.  A half-step from our campsite was a wide inlet. When the tide was out, it was full of people digging for clams. When the tide was in, you could stand on the pier opposite the campsite entrance, and someone would come by with a boat and take you across to the beach island — a miles-long stretch of empty, pristine sand.

After breakfast that first morning, Marcel, David, and I were standing on the pier just looking around and a pretty young man motored up in a skiff and asked if we wanted a ride. When he told us about the beach island, we climbed aboard. His name was João, and he ferried us across for something like a dollar and the promise to meet him in town for a drink that night.

That beach! Sagres was where I discovered that I am a beach person (shocking that it took me 22 years to make that discovery), and our little unnamed paradise was where I was glad to have made that discovery. It was a skinny strip of sand that went on and on. The three of us wandered together and separately for some indeterminate, sunny time then made our way to the pier and found a ride back across the inlet.

It was on that glorious beach where I read my first Dick Francis mysteries. The bookshelf in the camper was full of them — I forget if he was David or Roger’s favorite — and they were quick, fun reads. I went through at least five of them before leaving the Leyland.

We kept saying we’d go to Spain the next day, and then something would come up — the chance to drive into the hills and visit an lemon farm (random and excellent), a celebration one night that meant everyone dragged their dining tables into the street and cooked and fed everyone else (including us) — or just the pleasure of staying a little longer.

After seeing the men’s fascination with sardine paste, I decided to use some of the hotel cash I was saving to cook breakfasts for us. I am more surprised by this turn than you may be. As much as I love cooking, and as much as I love taking care of people, these are loves I’ve grown into, cultivated over time. Back then, I was definitely not a happy homemaker type, eager to please my man men.

But, clearly, I was. Manic Hostess Girl was lurking under my surface even then. I agonized over what I’d make and the fact that I didn’t have my favorite recipes handy. What (of course) turned out to be true was it didn’t matter what I cooked or how well I cooked it. When you’re cooking for men who’ve been eating sardine paste on stale bread, anything you cook is going to taste like heaven.

After our long, delicious sojourn, we were ready to head for Spain. We made the drive in no time, seeing as we were practically at the border already. We stayed together a couple of days in Seville, but by then I needed to be getting my meandering self to Siena. I forget where Marcel was headed, but he left first. Roger and David drove me to the train station (no more hitching in Spain, thank you), and then drove to Morocco. I’ve always regretted not going with them, but my friend was waiting in Italy (and I could feel that, without Marcel, the dynamic in the truck would have gotten weird fast).

We said our goodbyes, and I watched my Englishmen and their milk truck drive away. And thus ended my stay in the Leyland.

__________

Roadtripping with your friends in a converted bus is a fabulous idea, but even 30 years ago, I knew it wasn’t an idea we’d made up. And, when you decide to let that photo inspire you, remember to build more creature comforts into your bus. You’ll want more than beds!


 So that was shamefully long-winded! If you’ve made it this far, you’re a kind and special person. You deserve a treat, and here it is:

It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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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

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

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

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

natpoetrymonth1

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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:

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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.

Voyager

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

Ride.
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.
Watch.
Don’t blink.
Don’t miss it.
Stay on, ready,
always set to jump.

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

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

natpoetrymonth1

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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.

Change

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:

P1060123

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.

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

SOL image 2014

The one about me and Elvis.

(Not that Elvis.)

There have been a few slices this month about music and memory, songs that take us back to some particular place, time, person. I’ve written a few posts like that, too.  (My favorite is the one about Prague and She’s Crafty.) These new posts are inspiring me to dip back into that well.

There are so many songs, right?  So many memories tied to music.  The first workshop we did for Girls Write Now was “Music Memoir,” and I wrote a piece about a song that called up sadness over the loss of my father.  And then there’s the one about When Doves Cry and the memory of falling in love in Ljubljana.  So many songs.  So many memories.

The one that keeps tapping my shoulder tonight is from the same trip that gave me the Beastie Boys memories of Marek.

I spent a lot of time walking during that trip to Prague.  And a lot of time alone.  My friends all had school or jobs, so their days were spent in their lives and we would meet up after dinner.  So during the day I walked, from one end of the city to the other, through tiny cobbled streets, in and out of parks, up to the castle, back and forth across the bridges over the Vltava.  I listened to music most of the time because it was a way to put up a wall. (Hmm … that probably needs explaining, but that’s a longer story.  Maybe tomorrow.)  And although I listened to a lot of different music — Jimi Hendrix, Joe Jackson, Joni Mitchell — the song that is locked to the city for me is Elvis Costello’s (The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes.

I hear the opening beats and I’m sitting on a bench by the river, writing in my journal, trying to find the words that will make the golden light and the smell of lilacs stay alive on the page, trying to keep track of the few words I was learning in Czech, starting to work on a story that would grow into the first long story with a fully completed arc I’d ever written. I hear that song and I’m riding the tram, and I’m walking, walking, walking … up to the castle, back down through the gardens, around the Old Town, around the Kampa, stopping for coffee or ice cream (two of the three kinds of “food” I knew how to say in my first days in the city), and then starting over again.  I remember the gorgeous garden I discovered on some side street, the gate open and the ivied stone benches too inviting to pass up.  I have no idea if that was someone’s private home, a school, a business.  There was no one around for the whole time I sat there dreaming.

I haven’t been back to Prague since that trip. I imagine it is hugely different now (that visit was in the mid-80s, after all).  I hope I would still find it magical, still find at least some of the tiny corners of loveliness I found on those long walking days.

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Find all of today’s slices on Two Writing Teachers.

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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.