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May 032018
 

I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts about writing retreats, conferences and workshops. What can you expect? How do you choose the right one? Here are a few ideas.

Last week I spent five glorious days in California at Sonoma County Writers Camp (SCWC). Run by New York Times bestselling author Ellen Sussman, and writer Elizabeth Stark, SCWC offers workshops and master classes suitable for writers at every level, plus tons of private writing time! This was my second time attending SCWC and I loved every minute!

Elizabeth, center, and Ellen, right, at the opening night wine tasting. Photo by Angie Powers.

Photo by Angie Powers.

Held at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, SCWC truly has a camp feel, with stories told round the fire and frogs croaking all through the night — but with comfy beds and indoor plumbing. Check out the compostable toilets!¬† ūüėÜ The food is all fresh and healthy vegetarian, much of it grown on site, but because it’s Sonoma County, the long weekend kicked off with a local wine tasting, hosted by Eric Kent Winery. Cheers!

One thing I love about SCWC is that the sessions led by Elizabeth and Ellen are generative. The means you write during the classes vs. presenting polished work from home for critique. Generative workshops are perfect for beginners, because you simply dive in and write, with a little support. The generative approach also works well for experienced writers who want to break out of a rut or bust past a block and get that creativity flowing!

Other fantastic conferences I’ve attended that offer generative workshops include Vortext (for women only) on Whidbey Island, Washington. Writing By Writers, founded by writer Pam Houston, puts on conferences all over the world,¬† and often includes generative workshops in the mix. I’ve attended both these conferences multiple times as well, and I highly recommend them!

But what if you have a piece of writing you’ve been laboring over? You’ve taken it as far as it can go on your own but you know it still needs work? A critique workshop may be what you need. For this type of conference, you submit a writing sample in advance, and receive pages from other writers to review. During the conference, each writer’s work is discussed in depth by the group and you leave with a ton of feedback from everyone. Critique workshops can feel a little bruising if you’re not used to the approach, but a good instructor should ensure that comments stay productive. Writing by Writers offers critique workshops, as does the magnificent Sirenland, offered by Dani Shapiro and Hannah Tinti in Positano, Italy.

At a retreat or a residency, everything revolves around writing time, though guidance may be offered. At Linda Sivertsen’s amazing Carmel Writing Retreats, attendees discuss their projects together, brainstorm, set goals and then spend hours quietly working. Linda also meets one-on-one with each attendee and helps with everything from editing, to pep talks, to advice on finding an agent. For myself, I’ve learned that events with lots of writing time with built in accountability to other writers works really well for me, which is what Linda offers, but you can create the same productive atmosphere with friends at a DIY retreat.

Industry or pitch conferences are a great way to learn about the business of publishing and how to market your work. I’ll be speaking on a panel later this month at the American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference in New York. Rudri Bhatt Patel, Jenn Morson, Jen Simon and I will offer tips on pitching essays and articles to magazines. Our May 19 presentation is part of non-members day at the conference, geared to writers just starting out. If you have a book idea, industry conferences offer a the chance to find out what agents and editors are looking for, and to get feedback from pros on your project if you’re ready.

Sometimes the lines at conferences and workshops get blurred. Craft may mix with industry, and a retreat might include critique workshops. For example, Sonoma County Writers Camp always includes a publishing industry panel, to give attendees a taste of what agents, editors and booksellers do.¬† The important thing when choosing a conference or event is to figure out what YOUR objective is in participating. Do you need writing time? Instruction? Feedback? Inspiration? Are you looking to network and make publishing industry connections? Read the conference description carefully to be sure you understand what’s on offer, try to get feedback from past attendees, and then go for what you need.

Have you attended a really great writer’s conference or retreat? Have you created a conference? Feel free to share info and tips in the comments.

 

 Posted by at 1:58 am
Jan 012018
 

2017 wasn’t an easy year for many of us. Professionally, I felt distracted by the national news AND I struggled with health problems. Honestly, I felt¬† kinda stuck at times — yet last week, a colleague congratulated me on all my “successes” during the year. Her comment made me do a spit take. I might have been feeling unproductive, but actually I did make a lot of progress in 2017. By focusing on the challenges and failures¬† (including the fact that I’ve been a terrible blogger!) I was just inviting more disappointment. Time for an attitude adjustment and year-in-review post!

I kicked off 2017 with a post for Daily Worth about charities that support education for girls, a subject dear to my heart. I also spent a January week in one of my favorite spots on the planet, Carmel-by-the-Sea. I treated myself to one of Linda Sivertsen’s incredible writing retreats, where I made wonderful new friends and moved the needle on my memoir. A perfect start to the year.

Fellow Carmel retreater Norma Rubio snapped this photo during our beach walk. She’s now teaching folks about mindfulness!

 

In February, I jetted off to Mardi Gras for my first-ever press trip, courtesy of the nice people at Zatarains. I hadn’t been to New Orleans since my twenties, and it was an emotional reunion that I wrote about for The Kitchn, in my first-ever travel essay.

In March, I took off for a long writing weekend in Seabright, Washington, with my friends Kira Jane Buxton and Jennifer Fliss. Write those names down, ya’ll, because you’ll be hearing a lot more about these talented women in the future. Kira sold her first novel, Hollow Kingdom, last summer to Grand Central, and Jennifer was just nominated for not one but TWO Pushcart Prizes.

I wasn’t feeling great during the weekend — I was sick and didn’t know it —¬† and yet I still had a breakthrough on my memoir proposal that was badly needed. I realized I needed to take my chapter summaries apart and start over, which ended up being an excruciating, eight-month process. That’s where most of my creative energy went this year. I ended up essentially writing an abridged version of my book, which is making completion of the final draft go much more smoothly. Proof that getting away even for a few days can yield big dividends.

Jennifer, me and Kira outside our writing cottage. Whoever had the longest arm snapped the selfie.

 

The entire month of April was spent getting medical tests and feeling crappy. Moving on…

I feared I wasn’t going to be well enough to make it to the ASJA Conference in New York City in May, but in the end I rallied, and I’m so glad I did! People actually turned up at 8 am Saturday morning to hear the panel on Tackling Tough Topics that Dorri Olds, Rudri Bhatt Patel, Candy Arrington and I presented. I loved connecting live and in person with writer friends made through online networking. Julie Vick and I even snuck off to see Kinky Boots on Broadway!¬†¬† Outside the conference, I grabbed a reunion lunch with fellow Lemon Treehouse alum Christine Kandic Torres (also nominated for a Pushcart this year – wow!) and caught up with Sirenlander Kathryn Maughan, and heard all about her time at the Iceland Writers Retreat. I returned to Seattle full of writing inspiration and re-energized by friendship.

The labyrinth.

Summer rolled around, and I made getting my chapter summaries reconfigured by fall a goal. My family and I took a little weekend getaway to Arizona, and then I stayed behind to write for almost a week at the Franciscan Renewal Center, a Catholic retreat center located about a mile from my childhood home in Scottsdale. June in Arizona is too hot for tourists, so I got a great deal on a room with a desk and 3 meals a day.¬† (They were grandma-style meat and potatoes meals, a little short on the fruit and veggies, but at least I didn’t go hungry…)

Note: you don’t need to be Catholic to take advantage of a private retreat here! Church services are available but optional; I didn’t attend. Every morning and evening I walked the labyrinth and wandered in the gardens soaking up the desert landscape, absorbing the sound of quail cooing and the smell of creosote. Just writing this makes me long for that desert solitude.

In July, we took a family vacation in Jamaica. I snuck in some writing every morning while my teenagers slept and my husband hit the gym. By this point, I was starting to feel more like myself again physically, lamenting the fact that the year was half over and I hadn’t published much. I dug out an old essay draft, gave it another polish while on vacation, and sold it to The Washington Post. I also wrote one more piece for the Post before the month was over, about new public attitudes toward foster care…As a matter of fact, I wrote the final draft in my Volvo while my daughter was at soccer practice. I just love how sports clubs arrange for kids to practice in the middle of the day during the summer — not like parents have to work or anything, right?

By August, I was starting to feel like the end was in sight with my chapter summaries, and I was desperate to finish. I took another getaway (boy, it sounds like I’m never home! But I gotta get away from the mom duties sometimes to think.) At Sonoma County Writers Camp, I finally met my agent, Bonnie Solow, in person! Bonnie encouraged me to take my time and get the summaries right, which was reassuring. Camp might have been the best thing I did for my writing all year. The generative workshops, led by Ellen Sussman and Elizabeth Stark, were inspiring and so productive, the setting was gorgeous, the veggie meals tasty and healthy, and I met some lovely people. I’m adding this Camp to my 2018 list.

September the kids went back in school — yay! I just kept plugging away on my chapter summaries for the memoir. I honestly can’t remember exactly when I wrapped those up, but I know I felt thrilled when my agent gave them her seal of approval. We’ve both been dying to get my book out on submission… but¬† at this point, we started debating which sample chapters to show editors. I decided that a chapter I hadn’t yet written really needed to be in the submission package, and so I got cracking on that.

Several amazing opportunities came my way in October. I wrote a piece for ParentMap about Together Live, an inspirational storytelling show featuring some big names like Glennon Doyle and Luvvie Ajayi. That led to an interview with soccer legend Abby Wambach for The Washington Post on how to be a great sports parent. (I even found myself confessing to the GOAT how sad I felt when my oldest daughter quit the sport — yikes!) I’d never interviewed a celebrity before, I was nervous, and my tape recording app failed.¬† I had to rely on my notes to put the final draft together, but I made it work. I also had the chance to talk with a behind-the-scenes powerhouse of the literary world, agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, for Ruby Magazine, and how she created Together Live. Our conversation left me with inspirational tears.

Three wonderful things happened in November: 1. I completed the chapter I needed for my submission package! 2. I wrote a travel piece for Your Teen that will be out in February. 3. I got the first royalty check of my career, when a piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2016 got reprinted in¬† Japan. (Did my essay land in newspaper/magazine/ book? I’m not really sure, because some of the info¬† on the royalty statement was written in Japanese!)

One kinda sad thing happened in November: my agent and I decided to wait until 2018 to send my book proposal package out on submission to editors. We didn’t want to compete with the holidays for their attention. Even though it was right call, I felt depressed about it for a good 72 hours. I worked hard this year in spite of health issues without a lot to show for it in terms of money or publications, and I was really hoping to crown the year with that submission. Like I said, it’s so easy to get caught up in what we haven’t accomplished and ignore our achievements…Eventually I snapped out of my funk and went Christmas shopping.

I was delighted to end the year in December with my first byline at The Week, an odd little holiday travel essay I’d been tinkering with off and on for a couple of years. I’m so glad the piece is finally out in the world!

Now that I’ve written it all down, I see that 2017 was in fact a productive, if not lucrative, year. What I haven’t included so far in this blog post: details about the major assignment I fumbled when I got sick. That’s too embarrassing, but failure happens, and then you regroup. I also collected quite a few rejections, from editors at The New Yorker, O, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, and Real Simple. Those magazines remain targets for 2018.

RIP 2017. I’m more than ready to start fresh.

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 11:04 pm