But my relationship to the weekend escape known as the retreat is more like a "Sam and Diane" connection (think TV show "Cheers") rather than a hand-in-glove love affair. I'm a writer in passion, talent and career, but I tend to resist the meta — the bird's-eye view of writing.
This ambivalence is rooted in two precepts common to many writers — fear and procrastination. What if I find out that my writing sucks, that everyone else is better than me? Am I just stalling by getting away from it all, when what I really need is to get my butt in the chair?
"A writer writes, right? How could attending a veritable break get more words on the page," I thought?
Last fall, I decided to drop all of this psychological baggage to attend Write Doe Bay, a writer's mecca in Washington state that dubs itself, "an intimate artists' retreat and multi-workshop event..." Now that the dust has settled, I can say this three-day weekend (Oct. 6-8, 2017) gave me ...
Situated in a warm, cozy retreat house, more than two dozen participants mostly from the PNW settled into comfortable couches and chairs to begin the weekend. After brief introductions, a history of the retreat and a little story about the magic of Doe Bay, we started with "Morning Pages," Julia Cameron's worthwhile daily ritual. The idea is to handwrite three pages first thing each morning. It's stream of consciousness, whatever comes out. Consider it a brain dump, and by using pen and paper rather than software and keyboard, we give ourselves a writer's workout. I loved this and have since picked up Cameron's book "The Artist's Way." (FYI: Cameron was not in attendance. We relied on her writing exercise, which is considered a classic in literary circles.)
I've always shunned these types of ceremonial goals, hitting a word count every day or getting up at the crack of dawn to get pages down before the rest of world stirs. I am a self-described "slow writer" and rarely work on a schedule. But since we started these Morning Pages together, I am happy to say that I have kept up the ritual. I roll out of bed, brush my teeth and grab my journal. I generate my three pages even before drinking coffee, reading emails or getting fixated on the smartphone. The content of the Morning Pages isn't so important; it's the muscle memory, the habit and, most of all, the respect that I give to my writing practice by honoring it every morning.
A little background about Write Doe Bay: the retreat is held at Doe Bay Resort, located on the southeast tip of Orcas Island, one of hundreds of tiny islands known as the San Juans off the coast of Washington about 100 miles north of Seattle. Here, I was treated to amazing sunrises, sunsets and ocean views.
If you attend, a few friendly reminders: bring your bathing suit (for the polar plunge), warm cabin socks or slippers for the retreat house and a headlamp or flashlight for a nighttime exploratory walk (ask about "the moon").
"A writer writes, right? How could attending a veritable break from my writing
get more words on the page, I thought?"
- (Friend) "How did this retreat challenge you, Jennifer?"
(JK): I have always resisted writing exercises because they seem irrelevant to the kind of writing I do (journalism). How can doing an exercise writing about my most embarrassing moment help me flesh out a well-reported and researched article? I know it's silly, but it's a notion I've held for a long time.
At Write Doe Bay, I pushed those beliefs aside. On the opening day, author Sonora Jha, also a journalist, and professor at Seattle University, had us explore character through a shared reading we dissected. How can non-fiction writers employ character when it's a fiction writing technique, I countered. Now, Sonora guided us through a writing exercise that made me reconsider. Am I, a journalist who's telling a story, a character myself? What about my sources? Is each a character, in need of development, just as they would be if they were planted in a novel or short story? Sonora, author of the novel Foreign, is a versatile writer having written a memoir as well. Thanks to the way she had us explore character, I looked at my nonfiction writing with new eyes.
- "How was this retreat structured?"
Doe Bay is home to the Doe Bay Resort, which has small cabins, yurts and camping spaces on 38 acres. It's open to the public year round so even if you don't pursue Write Doe Bay (which you should), it's a place worth visiting. Twice a year, about two dozen writers converge for the long Write Doe Bay weekend. In October 2017, I bunked with three other women and gathered in the retreat house — the cozy space with big windows and comfy couches. This is where they held six writing workshops, each in two-hour blocks.
The food was hearty, generous and amazing. Two women from nearby Friday Harbor (Juelianna Freeauf Killick and Natalia Lawrence-Pedersen of Salmonberry Catering) prepared meals with delicious local ingredients. Check this out: the first breakfast was cardamom coffee cake and a spinach and goat cheese frittata. Lunchtime was roasted pumpkin soup, chicken apple sausage and millet veggie salad. Dinner was curried coconut salmon soup, an island greens salad with ginger dressing and fresh sourdough bread. For dessert, we were treated to a pear apple crisp with fresh whipped cream. They kept us well fed, and with a steady stream of hot coffee and tea.
I should say too that a retreat and a residency are two different things. Write Doe Bay is a retreat. You fill out an application and pay to attend. There are limited slots and some scholarships available. A residency, on the other hand, is typically more competitive and can entail a lengthy application process requiring writing samples, references and sometimes an artist's statement. A residency can run from a week or two to a few months.
- "Has anything changed between the time you entered the retreat and when you left?"
I tried to tune into my inner critic and drop all of the self-talk that plagues my writing — the chatter on my shoulder saying, “This isn’t good enough,” or the overwhelming feeling that gnaws: “Where do I start?” At Doe Bay, my mantra was, "Just write!"
Saturday night was open mic. Each writer was given the floor (optionally) to share a piece of writing or a story idea. Because of the large group, we limited it to about three minutes each. In some cases though, we ran long when it was apparent someone had a painful, emotional or complicated topic to tell. The stories ran the gamut – memoir, personal essay, fiction and humor.
In fact, we were all cracking up thanks to some of the comedy pieces. Because of confidentiality, I won't share specifics, but I will say we had some great laughs about law office antics and the tale of a summertime copy machine salesman. Being a part of these stories solidified for me how important it is to attend a retreat and literally hear other writer's voices. We create in isolation until we get out to venues like this, reminding ourselves that we're all just trying to bang out our drafts.
"The content of the Morning Pages isn't so important; it's the muscle memory, the habit and, most of all, the respect that I give to my writing practice by honoring it every morning."
- "What are some takeaways you got from the retreat?"
First of all, I created a new writing community. Being among like-minded individuals was refreshing for me. I bask in my independence as writer but now, I have email addresses and FB pages of fellow writers to consult.
Second, as I said, I gained a new perspective on my writing. I’ve been a reporter since 1991 when I graduated college so I've been working in the mainstream media, getting paid for my work and receiving feedback (usually negative) from editors and news directors for a long time. It's nice hearing directly from your peers that you're pretty good.
On the last day, I purchased a book written by one of the workshop presenters ("Loose Girl," by the very talented Kerry Cohen). Kerry signed my copy, “Jennifer, you don’t have to be great at this; you just have to be good enough.” Hmm...? I appreciated the note but what was this seemingly cryptic message from this published and prolific writer?
The entire ferry ride home, I wondered, "Am I good enough?" A few days later, as I finished Kerry's memoir and was reading the final passage, I got it! Thank you, Kerry. For those who are confused, I highly recommend, "Loose Girl."
- "Can you share any significant moments?"
On Saturday evening, we enjoyed a family-style meal in the Doe Bay Café. With plates of food spread out on each end of a long table, we passed around dishes serving each other like it was Thanksgiving dinner. "Pass the salt. Can I have the brussels sprouts?" We got to sit next to new people. Earlier, we had partners during some of the exercises and also bunkmates for lodging so this was a nice time to get to know some other writers. I sat across from two women who are both English teachers. We shared a few nerdy grammar rules and then talked about format and structure. What came up for me was a piece I wrote a few year's ago about a ten-day silent meditation retreat. That experience was a huge accomplishment, yet I had so much anxiety writing it. When the muse finally arrived, the piece came out in “Q&A” format, me serving as both interviewer and interviewee.
Even without reading the piece, the English teachers were mesmerized about this style I described. I was encouraged hearing this from fellow writers. I hadn't shared the piece much because I've downplayed this design. I have a hard time calling it writing. But that night, I realized, writing is writing, whether it's an email, a Q&A, a dissertation or the great American novel. As a journalist, I gravitate toward a formula, but my writing doesn't have to be cookie-cutter or an expected template, I know now.
Here is the piece on meditation I referred to: https://bloggerlite.wordpress.com/q-a/10-days-of-silent-meditation/
- "How did it end?"
On the final day, we met at the water's edge for a symbolic closing ceremony. WDB co-founder and organizer Jenn Furber presented each of us with an old-fashioned skeleton key (like you see in a black and white mystery movie). There's a story behind how she acquired the keys and what they symbolize, so you'll have to attend to get the skinny on that. Mine hangs from my desk lamp hovering over my workspace, perhaps serving as my stalwart muse.
After the key exchange, we held hands and ran into the bay for a polar plunge. I was eager to do this rite of passage because I'm a sucker for cold water. I've done the frigid dip on New Year's Day and while camping in the Oregon mountains. Giddy with excitement, I ran in, dunked my head and ran back out for my towel. Some folks decided to stay on shore and support the dippers. Afterward, we slipped into the hot tubs for one last soak and the weekend was over.
There is so much more that I haven't mentioned. The workshops were led not only by writers, but also accomplished musicians and artists. We sang, played guitar, sat on the comfy couches chatting, hiked, played hula hoops in the yard, and ate our meals together. Of course, we did many dreaded writing exercises, which I now enjoy. Most of all, we courageously shared our work.
Many thanks to Jennifer Beck Furber and the awesome team
who have created and maintain Write Doe Bay.
Thank you to all of the presenters, and kudos and respect to my
fellow writers who were in attendance at WDB October 2017.