Sunday, September 4, 2011

EMWP Writing Retreat 2011

By Ellen Daniel,
with Kris Gedeon and Angela Knight

A mixture of confusion and curiosity was the most common reaction people had when they learned that I was going to be “up north” for a “writing retreat” with some colleagues from the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. Questions that followed generally addressed two items: “What do you DO on a writing retreat?” and “What are you going to be writing?” Answering these questions was difficult for me because at first, I didn’t really know what people DO on a writing retreat either. I imagined it to be an extended version of a Writing Marathon which is quite familiar to EMWP alumni. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off the mark in that respect. I know that when I received the email inviting me to attend a Writing Retreat at Lake Ann featuring four days devoted to writing I immediately checked my calendar and fired off a response indicating that I would love to attend. Little did I know how true that would be. ~ Ellen Daniel

The Parsons Center, owned by Eastern Michigan University is an amazing place nestled deep in the woods near Lake Ann. Far removed from distraction, it provides a tranquil setting in which writers can both be alone with their thinking and their writing and in the company of other writers. We each brought books and magazines devoted to writing to consult and to share.

We talked about our goals for our allocated time. One person wanted to work on pieces to use with her students and finish/polish some work from a recent writing class, one wanted to move a novel into its final stages, and another wanted to explore some ideas for a new magical realism young adult novel that just started knocking around in her head.

Since we were not too far from Traverse City and Interlochen, we took day trips that resembled mini-Writing Marathons in that we spent some time writing on location and some time participating in activities to fuel our writing. We started our first day at a beach a few miles down the road where we spent some time talking about our goals. Stating aloud what we hoped to accomplish, would, we hoped, help us to actually keep ourselves accountable for our time. We proceeded to spend time writing in the cool, quiet morning before the rest of the world got out to the water.

Writers at Taylor Beach, Long Lake

Next we continued to a location chosen because it offered unique cheesecake possibilities. We had no idea what a goldmine we would stumble upon. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons represents the redevelopment of dozens of historic buildings of the former state hospital facility in Traverse City, Michigan. The Underground Cheesecake Company was one of several interesting stories we discovered. The cafe was a former vegetable peeling building for the state hospital. Lovingly and beautifully renovated, it was an excellent site for us to begin our journey. Just imagining the stories that collection of buildings could tell was enough to provide inspiration for all kinds of writing. In various stages of renovation, the former insane asylum is getting a new life as a destination for shopping, a home for professional offices and exquisitely restored spaces now developed as condominiums.

The evening featured a jaunt to Interlochen for a faculty reading. Two poets and a short story writer presented their work to an audience of campers and members of the general public. We bought books and took some pictures, explored the camp and headed to a local spot for a quick bite. It was becoming apparent that the Writing Retreat was taking form as a time devoted to exploring those things that we found interesting. We had a lovely evening meal on the porch of a local restaurant, and discussed plans for the day ahead.

The Writing House at Interlochen
Friday we returned to Grand Traverse Commons eager to learn more about its history and its current redevelopment. There were many interesting areas that were off limits but there were still plenty of spots available to serve as fuel for the imagination. After lunch at the commons we sailed aboard the tall ship Manitou.

Kris as volunteer deckhand aboard the Manitou
We listened for other people’s stories: Captain Dave explained how he came to own the Manitou, how he hires his crew, and what he loves about life on a ship. A Californian crew member shared his adventures in the Bahamas that led to his Michigan summer aboard the boat. (Driving across the country he was a couch surfer and took his first Bikram yoga class with a woman who had lent him her couch the night before.) These people will undoubtedly appear in some form in something that we write (in addition to this article). One of the women on board with a workplace group became a prototype for a character the next day for one of the writers. Overheard snippets of conversation are great fodder for storytellers, and we heard great conversations aboard the Manitou.

On Saturday, a pair of attendees decided to go parasailing while another chose to investigate the activities at the National Cherry Festival. Parasailing is much like writing after all - it’s perfectly safe, but it can still be terrifying, especially for a writer with a fear of heights.

On the way back to the Parsons Center, we stopped for ice cream at Moomers, a local creamery that had won a “best scoops” contest on Good Morning America Weekend. Sharing meals seems to be another crucial aspect of a successful writer’s retreat. Our was organized so that each person would take responsibility for preparing dinner one evening.

Parsons Center Dining Hall

Breakfast was determined individually and we did not designate a “start time” which proved to be extremely beneficial. One writer is definitely a night owl and does her best work between 10 and 2. Another is an early bird who is always up and writing by 8:30. Recognizing the individual needs of the writers was vitally important and really not difficult. Being able to be flexible, willing to offer suggestions and possessing a genuine willingness to be cooperative is essential to a fun-filled and productive writing adventure.

The freedom to pursue what is interesting without knowing exactly how it fits into particular pieces to be written or specific goals was critical to the success of our retreat. Each one of us had an unexpected discovery. One writer had goals that were a bit all over the place and seemed to struggle to focus during writing time. Yet when it was time to share, she had discovered that a piece she had written at the beach was perfect for a character in a story she had outlined on day one. Things were starting to fall together without deliberate orchestration on her part.

On our last evening, we sat and shared what we had accomplished. Kris finished editing her 2009 NaNoWriMo novel and submitted it for formatting and publication. The weekend retreat activities led her to discover the kernel of an idea for her 2011 NaNoWriMo novel. Angela shared a poem inspired by the former insane asylum and some of the 5000 words of her magical realism novel. She also wrote several mentor text pieces to share with students at Creative Inklings summer writing camp as well as her classroom students in the fall. Ellen wrote and shared several character sketches which will become part of a young adult novel that has been brewing in her head since the spring. Ellen has also written her first article and submitted it for publication.

Watch for invitations to the next Parsons Center Writing Retreat. We hope you can join us.


Natalie said...

Thanks for the report and photos...It all sounds grand! I would love to go next year.

Angela said...

Yay! We'd love to have you join us, Natalie. :)

Sarah Soebbing said...

Okay, I am totally sold now, and must find a way to attend one of these years!!! Fabulous writing and pictures!

Angel K said...

Any year now, Sarah! :)

Sarah S said...

Hahaha :)
I'm back in the state now, so next time...really! :)