Highlights 2020 Workshops

IMG_2108Just the other day, I was thinking fondly of the Highlights workshop I led in Honesdale, PA, with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Sean Petrie, all of  two years ago!

This year, the Highlights Foundation’s offering yet another terrific roundup of workshops, retreats, and symposiums for writers across genres, forms, and experience levels.A handy filtering tool has been added to the site to help you sort through the list and find the one that’s right for you.

Here are just a few examples:

Be sure to make time to walk in the woods as well.

Marion Dane Bauer on”Writer Air” and Mentoring

ph_smMDB01_150dpi.jpgIt's my great delight to talk once again with Marion Dane Bauer. Marion is a beloved writer and teacher. Her blog is a source of inspiration for many. She's a founding mother of the mother of all MFA programs in writing for children and young adults, a Newbery Honor author and a woman of humor and heart.  I got to talk to her about a new mentoring program she's launching.

[Uma] You’re offering something new just for women writers, Marion. You describe it as “occasional brief—Monday through Friday—one-on-one writing retreats for women in my St. Paul, Minnesota home.” It’s nothing less than the gift of your time, mind, and presence. I remember being at a writing retreat years ago and freezing up in the first few days, experiencing an unexpected terror at the solitude and the work ahead. But the presence of a mentor dedicated to me and my project, dedicated to meeting me where I am…it’s astonishing. Just the thought of such an experience makes me focus and take my own work more seriously.

So can you tell me what led you to this?

[Marion] It’s been a winding journey, and the destination turned out to be both inevitable and surprising, as the ending of any good story should be.  I have taught writing all my writing life, and I love teaching.  Having the opportunity to be one of the founding faculty and then the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults was, for me, the pinnacle of a long teaching career.  I loved the college.  I loved the faculty.  I loved my students.  I loved Vermont.  And of course, I loved teaching!  But the day came when it was all a bit too much  . . . too many students to keep track of, too much travel, too much of a struggle to hear in group conversations, too much time away from home and away from my own work.  So I retired with both regret and relief and settled into simply being a writer, which I’ve always held first anyway.  I told myself I didn’t miss teaching.  When people approached me, asking me to critique a manuscript, I turned them away.

But one day something curious happened.  A friend came to visit bringing a couple of picture book manuscripts she was working on.  She settled into my guest room, and we spent the next few days alternating between work and critique and occasional breaks for play.  And I found myself filling my lungs with what I can only call “writer air.”  It was like getting an extra dose of oxygen.

A few days after she left, another friend, a former student, came to town.  We met for breakfast and she told me about her struggle to get a new novel under control.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world to say, “Come home with me.  I have a room waiting for you.”  And she did.  We spent several days talking through and straightening her too-complex story line.

It was during one of those conversations that I found myself thinking, This is fun!  And then, I’d like to do this more often!  And the idea of mentoring writers in my home sprang to life.

[Uma] As you begin working with writers in this new and very intentional way, what are you finding out? About the process? About yourself?

[Marion] First, I’ve found out some things I already knew.  That I love teaching, that I do my best teaching one on one, and that my ability to pull a clear trajectory out of a story can get a mired manuscript moving again.

Second, in the intensity of this one-on-one exchange I have come to be especially aware how important it is never to intrude on another writer’s work.  I’m learning that I am most effective when I listen hardest and hear most clearly what the writer intends.

And third, I’ve discovered what a deep pleasure it is to have so much of my career behind me.  I’m still writing, of course, but I no longer have anything to prove, even to myself.  Being in that place opens me to real rejoicing over the success that comes to others and that rejoicing gives me energy to help propel those others forward.

[Uma] Can the intention itself be a changeable thing? Can the work sometimes take its own direction and outgrow the writer's original vision for it? Often we need to shed both ego and intention to follow the story's path rather than our own. How does the mentoring context foster honest engagement with a work in progress?

[Marion] My experience is that our stories, if they come from our deepest, most hidden places as our best stories do, speak a truth we are struggling to apprehend.  Sometimes we can get in our own way, in the way of our stories, as we work because we are trying to impose a truth rather than discover it.  A discerning reader, standing outside the story, can often see more clearly than the writer herself the truth she is reaching for.   And that is the moment when working with a mentor becomes gold.

A good editor can be that mentor, of course, but these days for most writers a manuscript has to be almost perfectly executed before that editor will come on board.  And so it can help enormously to have access to a source of objective and committed insight before a manuscript ever seeks an editor.

[Uma] No one knows better than you how teaching and writing can be mutually strengthening, and also how one can get in the way of the other. How do you see the mentoring retreats fitting in with your own writing life?

[Marion] I make it clear to my retreatants that I will be available but still going on with my own life and my own work while they are here, and I do just that.  I also limit the number of retreatants I invite into my home.

But beyond that it’s all gain for me.  Clarifying someone else’s story brings new clarity to my own, and simply talking, day after intensive day, in writer-speak—plot, point of view, voice, motivation—renews both the clarity and the energy I bring to my own pages.  When I live in isolation from other writers, my work begins to lose its legitimacy in my own eyes.  It doesn’t matter how many books I have published, some of the sense that what I’m doing matters slips away.  Talking to another writer, I find the significance of my own work again.  It’s that easy.

That I can do all this without leaving my home couldn’t be more perfect.  Gathering someone into my nest, nurturing her, building a new friendship or renewing an old one, all while helping a fellow writer’s work grow . . .  what better way could I spend the golden years of my career?

[Uma] And what better way to share the love than in this beautiful space? Look what you get for the week: rides to and from the airport, gourmet meals, pampering, company and solitude in the proportions that work for you–all this and manuscript whispering, the Marion way! Lucky writers.

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From Remington to Scrivener

Today I added the Scrivener link to my web site–I’d had it on my old blog and meant to plunk it in here as well, just never got to it. Then I found this post, which I have also decided to revive, because back when I wrote it, in 2013, I meant to finish a novel I’d begun all the way back in 2006. Never did finish that novel–another novel, two picture books and a giant nonfiction project all got in the way. The picture books are published but the rest of it is still in editing. As a result, most of this post still holds up in the category of life’s ongoing to-do list. 

notestoselfOn beautiful Whidbey Island, courtesy of the Hedgebrook Foundation, I dawdled, rambled, ambled, daydreamed my way to a very drafty draft of what has now become a middle grade story. It’s peopled by a boy, ghosts and goblins, monsters, and bizarre, fairy-like winged creatures. I think they all came right out of the mists, there in the Pacific Northwest, although it’s taken me a while to understand where they might have been pointing me. The story is set on an island much like Whidbey, somewhere up here in this beautiful, waterlogged part of North America. And that’s all I know how to articulate at this time.  can say about it right now, for fear that talking too much will make the story shrivel up and die.
It’s the writer’s job to try and make sense of the chaos that presents itself in drafts. More and more, I’m coming to see that it’s not logical sense I’m after. Too much of that and the story drowns itself in commonsense and leaves nothing to the imagination. Too much logic in my plotting and I lose interest in the story. I fail to surprise myself.
But I do need a modicum of logic, and that is where Scrivener has now taken the place of the piles of notes I used to write myself and then lose.
Not that I don’t still write those notes, on post-its and paper scraps and the backs of envelopes–here are a few that are residing on my desk at this very minute.

But when I’ve collected a few, I type their contents into Scrivener, and it obligingly reminds me of them the next time I’m scrolling through the messy pages of the novel in progress.

I can manage timelines right in there as well, where previously I used to strip my walls and tape up rolls of butcher paper and draw lines all over them, or muck around with several dozen sticky notes and try to get them in some kind of order. Scrivener reminds me that my job is not to organize my novel but to recognize patterns in its disorder.

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You purists with your enduring love affairs with paper and pen and ink and graphite, listen up. I share your dysfunctional obsessions. I really do. Only my addiction is not to the pen and pencil, but to the QWERTY keyboard, because my first foray into letters was on this machine. Back at the dawn of my own literacy, I banged away on its keys and learned to spell my name.
Here’s what else I found when I went into my photo folder to retrieve that typewriter image!
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I’m saving this barfing jack o’lantern right into that Scrivener file, along with several other pictures from my 2006  Whidbey experience, a map I drew for the story in a VCFA workshop with the marvelous Julie Larios, and a Loreena McKennit music file with Yeats’s Stolen Child set to haunting music. And my pages, ready for me to reenter.become the writer I need to be for this novel.

LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat

loonsongSponsored by VCFA, from September 8-12, 2016, here is a writer’s retreat for the newly impassioned writer as well as the established writer. Held at Elbow Lake Lodge in Minnesota’s north woods, the retreat promises smoothing for everyone. A place to hone skills, find new approaches to craft, connect with other writers, seek renewal or quiet or a place to hum, make career connections in the world of writing for children and young adults.

Led by retreat faculty with an amazing array of talent and humor and heart–including the incomparable Marion Dane Bauer, who writes:

A couple of autumns ago, two Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Jane Buchanan, and I, a retired faculty member from VCFA, gathered in Debby’s cabin on an island in a lake in northern Minnesota. We went there to dream of a retreat for writers for children and young adults, those just starting out and seeking information and encouragement and those long established and looking for a community of their peers. We knew that given a long weekend in this breathtaking wilderness we could nurture one another.

Looks like a magical setting on which to imagine and reimagine yourself, your work in progress, your writing life.

Thank You, Autodidacts

I love my writers’ group. We have been talking to one another about manuscripts and life for seventeen years now. I was always the itinerant member, living too far away to attend in person, and grateful for Skype when it enabled me to attend virtually on a regular basis.

We have connected through various combinations of the following:

  • completed work
  • incomplete work
  • common readings
  • writing exercises and challenges
  • rejections
  • joys and sorrows and losses both professional and personal
  • surgeries
  • illness
  • one death among us
  • aging
  • awards
  • new books
  • reviews: good, bad, and indifferent
  • shared meals
  • and the annual retreat.

license plateOh, and the tradition of handing off this license plate to one another to celebrate new publications. The plate itself has been lost and found and lost again over the years but some facsimile of it remains around to keep on traveling.

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Stephanie Farrow, and Katherine Hauth, thank you for all you’ve done for me and my work over the years. And to relatively new members of the Autodidactic Society, Caroline Starr Rose, and Mark Karlins, thanks for being there at the other end of the Skype channel with your astute comments and questions, and for picking up so readily on the spirit of this group.

For one reason and another I have not been able to make it to the annual retreat in the last couple of years. This time I’m going. I have two major projects under contract that need revision. Once again the Autodidacts will gather (in an unpublished location in the high desert of New Mexico) to share a few days together, to write, to read, to cook, to walk, to be. And I will be there with one or the other of my revisions-in-chaos, ready to find the way forward.