Sunday, June 03, 2007

Writing in retreat

Recently, I received an online survey, from a writers/publishers consortium that I pay membership dues to belong to. More often, than not, when I receive my membership dues notice, which is about as often as they seem to contact me, other than to infrequently solicit my input, or remind me of the many wonderful benefits they are providing me for my yearly dues, I ponder exactly what those benefits I are that I’m receiving.

Now I’m not so self-centered and self-absorbed as to dismiss that some probably benefit from my dues and derive benefits that I don’t receive, so maybe this is the altruism that’s required of me to help other authors, or publishers. But the cost/benefit ratios isn’t what I came to write.

Apparently, there is a pot of money available and this particular organization is looking at the feasibility of creating a retreat center for writers in Maine. There already exists opportunities in New England for writers to “get away” from the demands of life and focus exclusively on the writing process. In Maine, there is the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, on Deer Isle. Vermont is where you’ll find the Vermont Studio Center and there are various other opportunities for writers desiring a cloistered environment to work their craft. The University of Southern Maine runs an annual conference, The Stonecoast Writer’s Conference, held in Freeport, each summer.

Apparently, there is an audience for these types of events, centered on experts imparting their word skills and transmitting their craftsmanship to participants who come to sit reverently at their feet. I’m sure many attendees leave these retreats, better able to shape their thoughts and ideas and some probably attribute one of these experiences at a writer’s event as being instrumental in pushing them to their next plateau as a writer.

I currently lack the time, as well as the means, to take a week out of my life; even a long weekend is out of the question for me, to sit around and listen to others talk about how they do what they do and write what they write, or even, where their inspiration comes from. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not pooh-poohing those that find this helpful and at one time, I personally thought this might be the way to jumpstart my own writing, when I wasn’t sure what being a writer was.

Like many who fancied seeing themselves as a writer, I had a romantic notion of wearing that mantle. It seemed to me at the time that, at least in certain circles, being a writer carried with it a mystique and even a bit of reverence. For a period of time, I scoured the events sections of the daily newspaper and the best source of goings on around town—the free weeklies—in search of upcoming book readings and author’s events. I had the good fortune of meeting some writers, many local and heard them offer some helpful hints, but more often than not, they’d offer things that I already knew—if you want to be a writer, you ultimately need to write. Now there’s a profound statement, don’t you think?

Of late, I find myself thinking about writing and ways to improve my own craft. I’ve also been giving consideration to where I’m at on the writing continuum. While I now proudly wear the badge that says, “writer,” I’m also keenly aware what it means. My understanding of the entire culture of writing has shifted, also. Gone is my neophyte’s notion that some successful writer might be able to transfer their skills, grace with words and even success, by the process of osmosis. As Stephen King and others have written, in books aimed at getting people off the sidelines and into the realm of words and sentence construction—being a writer involves spending time writing—nothing short of this will ever yield success, no matter how minimal and fleeting that success might be.

As I’ve continued to write and publish, I find my definition of success has also undergone metamorphosis. Most, if not all writers, remember seeing their first article, poem, or essay in print, no matter how obscure the publication. Mine happened to be on the pages of a publication that has long since been defunct.

Many articles, op eds, essays and even one book later (not to mention countless blog entries), I marvel at how far I’ve come and how much I enjoy the process of writing. The experience; the ideas that swirl around in my head, demanding attention until it becomes necessary to pull over to the side of the road and scribble them hurriedly, on a notebook, scrap of paper and even receipt, for fear that they’ll depart, lost forever. Or, foregoing spending time with people that you love because, if you don’t get started on that essay rattling around in your brain, you feel like you just might jump out of your skin.

While I’ve come to fully embrace the life of a writer, the shape that the writer’s life has taken for me is remarkably different than the romantic notions I once carried around in my back pocket. Interestingly, while my life is cluttered and I have to carry a full-time job that enables me to keep my membership in the writer’s club current, I’ve come to accept my place—a writer who, rather than needing to retreat from the world, in order to write, finds a way, in the midst of bills, the cacophony and sounds of daily living and the busyness that for many is their daily bread,. keeps on writing, cranking out his thoughts, for others, but mostly for himself.

There are many other writers that forego the bucolic, rural setting, instead, choosing the environment of urban chaos, even war zones, to infuse their own writing with life and vitality. I’m currently reading a book by one writer, whose very own writing experience has been filled with blood and death, regularly seeing the subjects of his stories, snatched away. One can only do this for a time, before they must, if only for a respite, return to a saner reality, although it’s always conjecture, whether any existence in our post-modern world is ever safe to classify as sane.

There will always be writing retreats, charging people money, to listen to writers talk about their own success. People will gather, as the experts talk about how they wrote their one great book, or use their summers to supplement their teaching assignments in one of the many MFA programs that keep sprouting, like weeds between the cracks of some city sidewalk.

Life has a way of helping you sort out the things that are important. It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. When you procrastinate and put off doing what you should have been doing much sooner, sometimes it becomes necessary to utilize your time more wisely, keep your head down and keep plowing forward, otherwise, you’ll never accomplish what you know you must, which for me, is to keep on writing.

I may never publish that one great book, or see my byline in a publication that others deem “big league,” but that’s no longer my goal. Granted, I’m not so disingenuous to say that I wouldn’t be happier than a pig in shit to see my name posted on some national best sellers list, or bylined in Rolling Stone, The Nation, or on the op ed page of the New York Times. It’s just that my focus is now on writing down what I feel I must communicate, to myself first and then, to others that might happen to stumble upon my writing.

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