Writing Retreat

Last weekend I went on a writing retreat with Cary Tennis and Pat Schneider, and it was amazing!

Years ago, Pat’s book Writing Alone and With Others provided a road map for me to remember a love of writing that I had nearly lost.  It was so warm and encouraging, so supportive of the value of each person’s unique voice, that it helped to undo the damage of other writing groups I had visited (and run screaming from).  These groups can be brutal places where one expert sits on high, anointed by virtue of being Published, and passes judgment on the rest.  This workshop followed Pat’s Amherst Writers and Artists Method, and was entirely different.

In fact, I found it remarkably sympathetic to playwork principles.

Every session begins with a prompt, which might be extremely open-ended or guided.  All prompts are voluntary, as is writing itself (you are free to leave or wander or take up an entirely different inspiration, whatever works for you).  When the writing time ends, you can return to the circle and share, or simply listen, or take your work to another location and keep going.

Sharing one’s work is extremely vulnerable, and something I’ve really shied away from in the past.  Even this blog was begun because, at the time, I only knew a handful of playworkers and didn’t think anyone but my folks would ever read it.  Reading out the work you’ve just written, in a flurry of passion and hand-cramps, to a room of near-total strangers, can be terrifying.

To alleviate this, the Amherst method insists that people respond with not suggestions, but instead by reflecting back the images that stuck with them.  In this way, they connect to your work personally but without judgment.  Each time someone shared there was a sigh, a sense it seemed of being simultaneously seen and protected by a frame of useful conventions.  This frame continues in how we talk about the piece of writing, deliberately separating the writer from the narrator unless we are asked to do otherwise.

The focus of this method is always on the writing itself, for its own sake.  There is an acknowledgement that the process of writing can be therapeutic, but the workshop leader emphasizes that therapy is not the point.  Sound familiar?

At any rate, here is the first thing I wrote that weekend.  I considered tidying it, editing and repurposing the phrases I liked, but in the end left it whole and untouched.  I think it’s more interesting that way, less as a piece of writing perhaps than as an artifact from someone who has forgotten how to write for pleasure, as play, slowly remembering that feeling of absorption and flow as images rise from the dark.

Funnily enough, I had thought this trip would be a break from my regular life, filled with play and playwork, and then our first prompt was to “write something in the voice of a child”.  Isn’t that the way, that as soon as we make a plan its absurdity is revealed?

This idea rolls in my brain like a marble, clean and smooth.  My brain is mud today, but the glassy surface washes clear in the rain, endless rain of the day and clicks all around me of fingers on keyboards.  Tap tap, then an emphatic TAP as someone hits return.  Maybe their marbles have clicked against others and their brain and hands are taken with Ideas, with Inspiration.  While mine…  I fear this marble is already lost.

But that seems too tidy a finish, lost marbles.  The prompt was to write in a child’s voice and I thought belch.  But as a child I loved marbles, tiny frozen galaxies.  I counted them, stored and polished them.  Once stole a huge, amtheyst-purple one because I had no money but needed it, needed the weight in my palm, the tiny bubbles inside like stars.  I did not understand why people kept expecting me to make games with them, to take these beautiful, smooth things, so surprisingly warm or cool that they felt half-alive to the touch, and hurl them against each other.   Across tarmac, black and gritted.

I hated tarmac, hated how it tore the skin from my knees whenever I fell, hated the gravel it left as a souvenir in the wound.  Hated how it chipped my marbles, hated that no one thought this was a tragedy but me.

Galaxy broken.  Stars scattered to nebulous winds.  Infinite millions perish, in the dark flannel of my pocket.


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