The Porches

I’ve never been on a writing retreat. I mean, when I retired three and a half years ago, I figured the rest of my life would be one, long writing retreat, but life intervenes. Yes, I’ve been extremely productive in that time, but one thing or another threw up speed bumps along my writing journey.

So, I watched vicariously on Facebook as author friend after author friend went to writing or artist retreats. I studied the possibilities in Poets&Writers Magazine, but I still wondered if that was for me. I need contact with human beings. Shut me up in a writer’s garret somewhere and leave me to my own devices, and I’ll give stir crazy a bad name.

Still, on this journey to publication, I want to give everything writerly a try, so I signed up to go to a week-long retreat at a place recommended by Mel Walsh Jones–The Porches. PorchesSummer500pxThe Porches is the kind of house I grew up in–antebellum, quirky, and with character. I loved it the minute I saw it–minus the shrieking cicadas and the ubiquitous stink bugs. The whole house and the writers rooms are charmingly eclectic with wonderful artwork, intriguing knickknacks, and an amazing collection of books. It is, literally, in the middle of nowhere in Nelson County, Virginia, surrounded by hills and trees. The web page says “on the James River,” but “near” it might be more accurate. However, the foliage is thick enough the James could be out the back door but you couldn’t see it. It is incredibly quiet (even the trains seem subdued) and incredibly inspiring.

Take a look at the web site (link above), and see how Trudy Hale started this place, and you’ll be tempted. Give in to the temptation because it’s also incredibly affordable. Though you do bring and cook your own food–which I like–the nightly cost is well less than a stay at a decent hotel, and the more writers in the house, the price goes down. And it’s not necessarily for locals. In addition to me and a writer friend from the Richmond area, there was a poet from Iowa and a novelist from Alaska!

“Quiet time” for writing reigns from early morning until about 1730, when writers gather in the kitchen to make dinner or in the parlor to watch DVDs–and to talk writing in both places. Most often after those evening get-togethers, we go back to our rooms and write some more.

The view from the window of my room at The Porches.

The view from the window of my room at The Porches.

And that quiet time goes fast. In five days and four nights here, I did a read-through of a novel rough draft to identify the plot holes. Got that done on the first day. I worked on the draft of a short story for a contest–editing it from 1,600 words down to the required 1,200 words–and submitted it. I drafted three completely new short stories, between 2,000 and 3,500 words each, as well as several new scenes for the novel, not to mention editing the first twenty pages of it so that was in good enough shape to submit to the workshop I’m going to attend at Tinker Mountain.

The down side? Well, as I said, you are in the middle of nowhere–a half hour to the nearest grocery store–and I was concerned about how long it would take an ambulance to get here if needed (not to mention navigating the narrow road and driveway). Yes, when you get to be my age, you focus on such things. By Thursday when someone needed a ride to Charlottesville to catch transportation to DC, I jumped to volunteer for the drive. I needed to be around people. The quiet time rules are pretty inviolate, and I missed being able to go knock on someone’s door just to chat or bounce ideas off. I had also thought we’d do some readings of our work, but that didn’t come together, because, as I said, after dinner we often went back to writing.

Also, though The Porches has Internet, it is satellite Internet with a minutes limit. Twice we exceeded it and lost Internet access just when I wanted to research, say, condoms in World War II. I think that’s something that needs to be addressed to make a stay here close to perfect. Yes, social media can be distracting, but when you write fiction, which draws a great deal from history, as I do, you need Internet access to research. And, yes, I know such things can wait until I’m back home with my high-speed Wi-Fi, but sometimes when you get the need to know something and can’t get to it, that is just as much a distraction.

Would I do it again? Yes, probably in the fall, because the foliage would be incredible and the humidity way less. It was an incredibly productive week for me, and I accomplished much more than I expected. Going to The Porches was an excellent investment in advancing the publishing journey.

AWP13 – Day Three

I didn’t read the description for the first session I chose for Saturday, “A Room of Their Own: How to Make the Most of (or Create) a Writer’s Workspace.” I thought it would be about how to organize your home office or writing area, but it was far more interesting than that. The unfortunate part about it was half the panel didn’t show up and hadn’t advised the moderator. She didn’t say it outright, but she hinted they were at AWP and just hadn’t bothered to show up. She was embarrassed and apologetic, but she filled in quite ably. I’m omitting the names of all the panel so I don’t further anyone’s embarrassment, but really?

The session was about establishing a space for writers to come have a place to write in peace. The two panelists discussed the virtues of doing this as a business (profit or non-profit), as a profession, or just as a community offering. One thing is for sure, I’ll never question my $52/year membership in Charlottesville’s WriterHouse again. Writer spaces in Boston and New York rent for $300 or more per quarter. Wow!

The “Women in Crime” panel was raucous and entertaining. Moderated by St. Martin’s Press editor Toni Margarita Plummer, the panel of Sophie Littlefield, Linda Rodriguez, and Nicole Peeler explained how they each came up with their unique, “kick-ass” female protagonists. For Littlefield it was divorce and the issue of how aging women are ignored by a society fixated on youth; for Rodriguez it was to highlight the issues of mixed-race native Americans fitting in the caucasian world; and for Peeler urban fantasy was a way to write powerful statements about gender inequality and sexuality using fiction. Very thought-provoking, and the Q&A about gender equality issues in publishing topped off a good session.

Again, I needed to read the session descriptions better because a few minutes into “Career Suicide,” I realized it was about switching teaching jobs, tenure vs. non-tenure, so I opted for lunch instead.

The week before the AWP Conference, VIDA–Women in Literary Arts–had released their analysis of work published in major literary and news magazines, an analysis which showed not only were the numbers worse for women this year than last year. Then, there was buzz at the conference that twenty-three of nearly 500 panels focused on women’s literary issues, while only one focused on men’s. One man tweeted, “Don’t we have issues, too?” (Yeah, don’t get me started.)

The VIDA panel offered a detailed breakdown of the statistics from its news release. For example, the numbers of men and women submitting are almost equal, with men having a one-percent advantage. The panel members were from two literary journals and a well-known, left-leaning political magazine that also has a literary section, mostly reviews and poetry. This is another situation where I’m not listing the names of the panel because one of the literary journal editors–a man–stood up and tried to justify that it was all right to pick more men than women because of quality. That got a bit of an uproar, and the gentleman opted to sit down without finishing. He proceeded to sit at the table and not participate in any further discussion. I rest my case.

However, VIDA showed that where the disparity is minor statistically and as an amalgam, specific publications have significant problems with gender equity in submissions and acceptances. One panel member told the women in the audience, “When an editor calls an wants an op-ed piece, don’t make an excuse, e.g., kids, making dinner, etc.; find a way to do it.”

“Master of None: Surviving and Thriving Without an MFA” featured a moderator and a panel of four successful, young authors (Rebecca Makkai, Samuel Park, Ru Freeman, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Ida Hattermer-Higgins, respectively) who had not gone the MFA route. In truth, though, all accept one did have a higher degree, usually in English or literature, but not writing. Because I’ve been going back and forth on whether to get an MFA–I’m pretty certain I don’t want to teach Freshman Comp–I opted to attend this session. All five on the panel had leveraged attendance at writer conferences and workshops, and the networking done there, into procuring agents and traditional publishing contracts.

A good panel, a practical discussion, but it didn’t really help me with my decision. That is all up to me.

I decided to skip the panel on Ray Bradbury, mainly because it was another situation where the convention center security had to control how many people could be in the room. That gave me time for a final walk-through of the Bookfair, where deals could be had.

And then it was over. The Bookfair closed, people started saying goodbye, and the convention center grew quiet. A few people began to speak of AWP14 in Seattle, WA. Yes, it’s that positive an experience–you start talking about next year as this year’s conference draws to a close.

Later this week, an interview with me about my AWP experience will appear on writer Jan Bowman’s blog. I’ll post a link to it under the About Me tab at the top of the page.

Whither to Write?

In the tiny townhouse in Northern Virginia where I lived before I retired, for years I was tethered to a single place to write–an upstairs “bedroom,” which I declared my office, with a chunky, Dell desktop. I think prisoners in SuperMax have a bigger cell than that 10′ x 10′ space, but, boy, was I productive there. With my stereo blasting whatever music I was into at the time, I wrote a trilogy and the somewhat fleshed-out skeletons of three more novels.

When I purchased a laptop, I became rather bohemian–at least what passed for that in the Yuppie Capital of the Free World–and could write in book-store cafes (loved Olssen’s in Old Town) and coffee shops, not to mention any room in the house, on the road for work, on vacation, etc. Re the latter: It helps to have a supportive partner, and I did. He got that I needed space to write and didn’t begrudge it.

I’m happy to say I can write almost anywhere, whether using a laptop, a Moleskine reporter’s notepad, or a spiral notebook. Sometimes a notebook is good, especially when you’re people-watching to get ideas for characters. You could be writing a grocery list and no one knows you’re jotting down what’s being said or how someone acts.

There comes a time, though, in any writer’s life where you need to focus on a particular writing project to the exclusion of all else. When that time comes for me, it can’t be in a coffee shop or working in the gift shop at the R. R. Smith Center in Staunton. I have to be in seclusion. On the Myers-Briggs scale, I’m a very high (as in off-the-scale) E, meaning I’m energized most and best by external stimulus. When I need to focus on a writing project, the latent I, meaning I prefer to do a Greta Garbo, emerges.

I’m lucky in the house I bought after retirement to have a primary and a secondary writing area, which I use alternately depending on how strong the “I” becomes.

The primary area is my home office, which you can see here (above):

It has a lot of advantages–actually, it has the most advantages. You see my bookcase of reference books (U.S. history, world history, writing), which are at hand. (And, yes, you see the odd juxtapositions in my life: my NASCAR collection next to my Star Trek collectibles.) It has my really powerful iMac and my comfy ergonomic chair. Just to the left, out of the picture, is my satellite radio, which can bring me a constant stream of inspirational music. That, too, can be an interesting and eclectic mix–from heavy metal (Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails) to Celtic (Irish Rovers and Tommy Makem) to opera.

As many advantages as this wonderful room has, it has a major distraction–this amazing view of the Blue Ridge Mountains (below). And, yes, I took the shot through the window for verisimilitude. I can be in the middle of something and glance out the window and get completely lost in the wonderful place where I chose to live.

Curtains, you suggest? Uh, why would I cover that up? The tiny office in the old townhouse looked out onto the parking area in the cul-de-sac, so that was rarely a distraction. The view above can figuratively or literally pull me out of my chair to go outside.

Which can be good for clearing the cobwebs with a nice walk, but it happens too often.

On many occasions, then, I retire to my secondary writing area, well away from any commanding views.

This area (above) is a nook in my bedroom, where I can’t be distracted by the outdoors. The view is the wall, or the nice artwork above, but that’s hardly as alluring as the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is a television in that room, but my back is to it, and it has a decent selection of music channels. I have to have some background noise–always have, much to the consternation of parents who couldn’t understand that homework could be done while singing along with the Beatles.

The disadvantage of this writing area is that if I need something from one of the reference books, that means a trek across the house (oh, horrors) to obtain it. Of course, there’s always The Google. (What toys were popular among pre-teens in 1989? Why, I’ll Google it.)

Wow, what a dilemma, you say, voice torqued by sarcasm. I know. But the secondary writing area, where I am, as I write this, is the least distracting. I often end up here, like a troglodyte in a dim cave, but the productivity is welcome.

Keeping track of versions of the same work on two computers? That’s a whole, other issue.

In the meantime, find your writing place, the one where you’re most productive, where the words come unbidden, and live there.

(Note: I used my two favorite words ever in this post. Can you find them?)