Blissful Solitude and Wonderful Company

I treated myself to a six-day, self-designed writing retreat at the Metta Earth Institute, A Center for Contemplative Ecology. The Institute, located in Lincoln VT, is a working farm and they also offer programs in a vast range of areas: yoga and meditation, ecological leadership, beekeeping, to name a few. The co-directors, Gillian Kapteyn Comstock and Russell Comstock, and a team of young people exemplify engaged practice, meaningful work, and loving stewardship of the land.

This isn’t the typical retreat for a writer, at least not as I have experienced them or heard of from other writers. A writing retreat can be filled with distractions, starting with schedules that dictate when you have downtime or time to write.

During my retreat, I experienced blissful solitude, as well as wonderful company. Prior to arriving at Metta, I planned a list of daily activities, which included reading, writing, revising, and exercise. I also meditated, took photos, and even sketched.

My room was perfect for my needs: a sunny space with exquisite views of the garden and the mountains, shelves of books, a table to work from, and a comfortable bed. During breaks, I walked on a quiet road or in the woods. I practiced tai chi outdoors or visited the chickens, sheep, and cows.

Meals were delicious and expertly prepared by the team and co-directors (At least 80% of the food served is produced on the farm).

The idyllic setting bolstered my creativity and helped me to write and revise several essays and poems. I am so glad that I discovered this serene and inspiring place. I recommend Metta Earth Institute for anyone seeking a quiet place for an individual or small group retreat. There are rooms in the main building, and there are yurts and tents nestled in the woods. Check out their website at https://www.mettaearth.org/

If it is possible for you, plan a retreat during which you focus on your writing and other creative pursuits. Like me, I am sure you will return home refreshed, rejuvenated, and recommitted to writing, joyfully.

Your Story or Your Work

If you belong to a writing group, you probably have the pleasure of others “getting” where you are coming from. This could provide supportive energy. Everyone needs folks in their lives who wish them well and understand their values and even their stories. This knowledge could also become a detriment.

What do I mean?

Let’s say you wrote a poem about swimming in Lake Morey. Your group might know that you visited that lake many times and once had an accident. With this perspective in mind, the conversation might lean more toward your history than toward the craft of your piece. For example, instead of discussing the poem’s structure, sounds, techniques, etc., the group makes such comments as:

“I remember you telling us about that.”

“Why didn’t you also include that your brother pushed you in?”

“I thought you were with friends, not relatives.”

While it is lovely that group members know you as a person, ultimately, most of your readers will not know you personally.

Each piece should stand on its own. Most importantly, the group could be most helpful if they responded to the work.

Keep writing!

Ruth Farmer
Farmer Writing and Editing
Offering coaching, editing, and writing services
Specializing in personal essays and scholarly personal narratives
rfarmer@gmavt.net
802-377-3001

Revision: Find What’s Working

An artist’s imagination is kindled not by searching for what is wrong with the picture but by being inspired by those things worth valuing. Appreciation draws our eye toward life, stirs our feelings, sets in motion our curiosity, and inspires the envisioning mind.
(From Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change
by David. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney)

When you sit down to revise your writing, what do you notice first? What do you focus on? Grammatical errors? Gaps in logic? Some other problem that needs fixing?

Next time you read your words, spend a solid chunk of time noticing what moves you, startles you, makes you laugh, or evokes specific memories or meanings. Try this technique daily for fifteen minutes or more, over a period of one week.

Reflect on what emerges as a result of noticing what works in your prose or poetry. Have you begun to welcome imaginative leaps? Do you understand your characters better? Are you more relaxed and, therefore, more open to revisions that must be made?

Appreciating your writing isn’t a means to avoid deep revisions. On the contrary, by focusing on what is working, you may become more adept at recognizing what changes are needed.

Keep writing!

 

 

Writing Tip: Reduce to Revise

Revising an essay? Try this:

Underline the most significant sentence in each paragraph, one that evokes that section’s central meaning.

Or pick the sentence that is the most striking (in terms of imagery or ideas; you decide).

In a separate document, write the chosen sentences in order, creating paragraphs as (or if) needed.

This new piece is stark, with all the frills stripped away.

Now that you have the essence of your narrative, you can re-introduce passages that are absolutely necessary. Or, maybe this version is exactly what you were getting at all along!

In a five-minute freewrite, reflect on what emerged for you as you chose the sentences or read the stripped-down version of your original piece.

This exercise can be helpful when revising fiction or poetry, as well. 

Keep writing!

Writing With Others

Writing requires a certain amount of solitude, to conceptualize, dream, draft, and revise. And it is not accomplished solely in the vacuum of an author’s imagination and focused scribbling.

A few months ago, I decided to join a writing group. Over the years, I’ve been a member of many such groups, some more supportive and interesting than others. After the first few sessions, I remembered what I value about these gatherings:

Talking about writing offers numerous opportunities to explore what moves, challenges, bores, or puzzles me, as a reader. This provides insights when I am drafting and revising my own work.

Sharing my writing reveals what readers see in my work. What do they like, wonder about, or find funny or dull? Am I conveying what I think I am? When group members make suggestions or express confusion, I can determine how – or if – their feedback will be incorporated in subsequent revisions.

Experiencing different genres heightens my creativity: For years, I had given up writing poetry (that’s a story for another time). While my primary genre is nonfiction, recently I’ve begun writing poems again. With a few exceptions, each of us writes in multiple genres. Listening to such variety helps to tune my ear. What makes that poetry and that prose? When does repetition shift from creating an emotionally moving tone to becoming stultifying? How much detail is too much? Is the dialogue believable for that character?

The tone of the group is supportive: Group members focus as much on what works as they do on what doesn’t. As a writer, I learn from both perspectives.

Each session, we spend a few minutes writing together, using various prompts, such as words chosen from a box or random lines from a book. We leave each session with a prompt. It’s fun listening to the different ways each writer uses the same words. Most recently, I wrote a piece that incorporates the names of paint colors found on paint sample cards.

Though each of us is at a different stage in our writing career – some of us have several publications, others a few or none – all are equal at the table.

Belonging to a writing group has been inspiring: I look forward to sharing my work and listening to others’ words. The prompts are a fun way to use my imagination. And writing with a group alleviates isolation.

If you are considering joining a writing group, think about the attributes that would be most helpful for you. Give the group a trial run, so that you can observe how members interact. For example: Do they talk about the strengths in a piece as well as offer relevant suggestions? Does each writer get equal time (or do one or two dominate the discussion)? Do they have fun with writing; for example, writing together using random and, maybe, ridiculous prompts?

Keep writing, alone and with others!

Go Play!

When I was a little girl, I used to draw in the blank pages of my mother’s books (I’m sure there is a name for those pages, but I don’t know what that is). She was an avid reader, so there were many blank canvases for my stick figures. This was a time when hardcovers were fairly inexpensive and practically given away through book clubs – 5 for $1, for example, if you signed up to receive one book a month.

Needless to say, my mother did not see this as art. I was defacing her books.

I was not a burgeoning artist. This was not a precursor to an artistic talent that grew into a career. I just liked to draw. I didn’t care if the art was beautiful by others’ standards. I just went for it.

At what point did perfection become my constant (and difficult) companion? It is likely that in school, drawing moved from a youthful pastime to an activity that was graded. I did not become an Artist.

Yet, so many years later, I still sketch and I have taken up collage. My artistic expressions have also included modern dance. After many years of comparing myself to The Real Artists, I now accept that sometimes expressing oneself is something to be done because it feels good, because not doing so makes your life feel empty. So these days, I am not concerned if the work is good. I just care that I take time to do it. As when I was a child, art emerges from my urge to create.

That urge carries over into my writing as well. The difference is that, while I never considered myself an artist or dancer or collagist, I do consider myself a writer. Naming myself this has often led to feeling that I have to measure up to standards established by someone other than me.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in conventions and quality, and creating something that can be seen as beautiful by someone other than myself. However, if I keep those external standards uppermost in my mind, as I am creating, I will never find that center, that well of imagination, that allows me to bring forth art that is Mine.

Perhaps, like me, you have always felt the urge to create. Maybe you didn’t have the materials or the support but you had the impulse. And though your creative impulses were discouraged – maybe even stamped down – by loved ones who just wanted you to Get Real, you still wrote, or painted, or danced or …

Today, you might feel that you don’t have enough education or support or money to take yourself seriously. If you did, you would ___(fill in the blank). I thought that for a long time and my creative impulses kept calling to me until I could no longer ignore them.

Maybe that is happening for you as well. Maybe you hear a sound in the distance. Like a bird or a flute or the whisper of the wind. It is your creative spirit saying, “Come out and play.”

So…

Go play.

***

Ready to work with a coach or editor to finally finish that book? Contact me at 802-377-3001 or rfarmer@gmavt.net.

Keep writing!

Ruth

 

Thoughts Like Puppies

I am not ready to write. I’m not ready to process, to put onto paper my feelings and thoughts this morning. They are my thoughts. They are my feelings. They are floating in the ozone in amorphous wonder and delight and being free to be what they are and not nailed down, categorized, prettied up, and made to dance a dance that I can understand.

Sometimes words escape me, not just when I am speaking to others or when I am writing, revising, rethinking. They escape me like a recalcitrant puppy that will not heel, come, sit, or stay. They are not at that moment ready to yield to the containment of ritual, routine, or just the inability to accept such wild energy.

My thoughts are puppies, which I love. So why can’t I love these thoughts that are not able to land in the categories that I can understand? Right now, I know they are there and I know some are wild and some are just seeking a place to settle but not that place that I think they should land on. Even as I write this I don’t know for certain what it is I am saying but I know for certain that I love that I have the courage and openness to say it, this, and that. I don’t have to have a polished thought every time I open my mouth or write in my journal or type on this computer. There is a shine to them, a glow to them whether or not the grammar and direction and argument and focus are clear. That I can get out of my own way to say anything is a sign of growth for me.

A puppy has energy and wholeness and puppyhood. There are very few people who do not like puppies. They might fear them or fear for them, but they probably like them, simply for their unbridled and curious natures. Getting curious about my thoughts, allowing my thoughts to be thoughts of curiosity is not the easiest thing for me to do. I want to say, yes, you are so cute and funny and energetic and wild and now that I’ve acknowledged those wonderful traits, it is time to get real and get focused and to make sense.

Do puppies make sense? On some level they do and yet suddenly they sprint away to do who knows what. Suddenly they bare their teeth or jump in your lap or the lap of someone whom they don’t know. Sometimes they won’t eat or they gobble up your socks and the bugs attached to your spider plants. Sometimes they just do stuff that is unpredictable and we say to ourselves, how cute at the same time that we know, we absolutely know, that we must teach the puppy not to be so terribly spontaneous. We must align the puppy with the life that will keep him safest and healthiest. That is what we tell ourselves.

How to do that without damping down this energy? That is the question that I ask myself about my wild and unfocused and totally energized and spontaneous and amorphous thoughts: How do I cultivate them without blocking the energy that keeps new unbridled and innovative and unexpected thoughts from coming and receiving my full attention and love?

How do I retain my puppy self?