The writer’s retreat.
November 19, 2010 § 16 Comments
Because we are women, we know we are stealing these days. We justify our selfishness by staring without blinking at the page or screen in front of us. The incoming tide and the day ablaze with a yellow fall sun will not distract us from our stories, stories, stories.
It is my job as writer in residence to be an objective reader and to help with the craft of writing, but it is hard to remain detached as I am inhabited by the other womens’ stories.
The pages Alvarez and Sue hand me are written to exorcise, or at least explain, the past. Alvarez is young. She relives the abuse of her childhood with attitude, chin out. Older, her edges less sharp, Sue wonders if the story of a loving husband who becomes addicted to prescription drugs is one she has to tell. After we talk it over at the table where we eat and write and share she decides to pick up the burden of story and begin.
I glance out the window as a squadron of pelicans glides by, and Mary Lois hands me her next chapter. Now I am in a Philadelphia tavern with Timothy O’Hara who is awaiting word from General Washington. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor, and hear the thump of fists as an argument between the local patriots and Torries heats up.
Perky, our retreat’s organizer, gets up from the sofa and stretches. She is feverishly grinding out the first three chapters of a murder mystery for a competition that must be postmarked by Monday. She has taken a writer’s dare: construct a believable world and commit it to paper in five days. She picks up her laptop and settles in again. Her mystery begins with what she has at hand—a writer’s retreat organized by a woman much like herself but cleverly disguised by the name “Gwen.” I know this dare is hard for Perky who loves to contemplate and second-guess each word she puts on the page.
After dinner we ignore the fireball sun dropping back into the sea and share excerpts from our day’s work. The usual introduction is, “This isn’t any good.” And I wonder why women always preface the most important things they say with an apology.
“This isn’t any good,” says Judy, pushing aside her dinner plate to make room for her pages. Judy doubts she has a lick of fiction in her. Like Erma Bombeck she offers the humor of everyday life–which is not chopped liver. Who knew a heart attack scare could be so funny?
Susan claims what she is writing isn’t any good either. Susan is a veteran teacher who moves with the speed of that profession. “Slow down,” I tell her. But it’s too late. She has already leapt off the short pier of real life and is swimming in the deep water of the imagined-possible. It is her great imagination that will keep her afloat.
Pat, who owns a house of her own on St. George Island, breaks my heart every time she comes on retreat. She writes breathtaking beginnings, and then not another word until we gather again. This year’s potential novel begins with the survival of a single dinner plate when a hurricane takes everything else. But this year Pat retires from a demanding job. This year I can hope to see page twenty.
Late in the retreat we hear tires on the sandy road below. Evelyna is finally joining us. Her husband is recovering from surgery–no woman is selfish enough to walk out on that. Her sister has had to drive her because her vision is failing, but there is nothing wrong with Evelyna’s heart. Her story, Someday, is an unabashed romance. Thwarted love is requited in a happy ending for which the characters have waited fifty years. As I quickly read her pages I’m impressed by the bravery of the story and the bravery of the woman who has come so far to hand them to me.
It takes courage and audacity to write, and the women on this retreat have both–along with uncertainty and self-doubt. As the hours pass courage and audacity gain the upper hand. The words keep coming.
While up at the house we dream our stories, down on the beach a million stories are being stitched in the sand by the passage of nocturnal crabs and shore birds. A million broken shells stand testament to the mute past-tense lives of creatures who exist below our demanding story threshold.
Working against the finite number of hours before we pack our cars and go home to our “real” lives, we ignore the epic story of life and death that ticks on one sandy flight of wooden steps below us. We respond to a different clock and we write.
Tagged: Adrian Fogelin, Children's Book Authors, Fiction, Fiction Among Friends, Fiction Writing, Fiction Writing Technique, Perky Granger, Persis Granger, St. George Island, Women's Writing Retreats, Writer's Retreats, Writing, Writing Retreats, Writing Technique