Interlochen Writer’s Retreat: Lessons Learned

Being “artistic director” of a retreat sure is fun. The way I see it, if I do my job right all winter and spring, by the time June rolls around I can spend most of the retreat running small errands and helping folks move smoothly from one scheduled event to the next. So far, this week has cruised along. The participants are joyful and have begun to create community. There’s no ego here. No one-upping or out-doing. It’s just a small group of 30+ writing their hearts out and engaging in craft conversations along the way…each person willing to dig deeper and stay in touch after the week’s close.

The perk is, I get to attend the craft talks and introduce authors who I respect and love. I’m not in the trenches of the classroom, doing the hardest and most rewarding work, but I do catch bits here and there in conversations between sessions. It’s a pleasure to hear about what other folks are learning. I especially love spending late dinners and long evenings with the faculty in our shared lakeside lodge, nibbling on chocolate and talking about favorite books that shaped us as children and as adults.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve picked up from the pros:

From Patty Ann McNair I’ve learned about dedication to students. About knowing when a craft suggestion might be mistaken for a “rule,” and when too much of a good thing might turn an aspiring student on her heels. I’ve also seen how a truly selfless and inspired teacher will repeatedly go above and beyond, because she knows the causes and conditions are present for a teachable moment. Time and again, she helps her students get there.

Patty Ann also had a few things to say this week about place and process. She agrees that “out of place comes story” and that “everything we write is useful, even if it’s not used.” In other words, we need to ponder, observe, and conjure the places we’re writing about–be them real or imagined–with such openness and thoroughness that we could live in them ourselves. Even if we don’t write every detail that we can see in our mind’s eye into our stories, just knowing those details will help us write with authority.

From Anne-Marie Oomen I’ve learned about remembering a child’s inner sense of vitality, time, and emotion. The way children experience time isn’t necessarily as logical or wedded to the clock as it is in our adult lives. And the way moving experiences impact them isn’t nearly as conceptual as it is in our adult lives. Anne-Marie’s work helps us get right to the heart of a child’s formative moments, then peels away from those moments in smooth sentences of reflection and insight. As a teacher, she demonstrates this (she can’t help herself!) through her process- and memory-oriented prompts that help us access memories with fresh, authenticity.

From James Arthur I’ve been reminded about the power of repetition and pattern as driving forces in poetry. As a prose writer, I always latch onto narrative, time, and place. It’s a crutch. If I can’t land something or someone in one of these three things, I’m lost. But James’ poetry helps me get over this, as the words beat their lovely patterns across the page–and then, as those patterns are broken and the unexpected zaps us. For me–a novice poetry reader–his patterns are subtle, but powerful. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of them, in fact. But having heard James recite his poetry by memory to an entranced audience yesterday afternoon, I can say whole-heartedly that his is the work of a master poet. He’s on the fast track, though every inch of it has been hard-earned. James, my friends, is an author to keep your eye on.

He reminds us that “if form is managed skillfully, the poem can successfully stay ahead of the reader’s expectations.” He also insists that “even if we know something is coming, that doesn’t mean we are prepared for the experience of its arrival.” In other words, the way in which we present something–all the underpinnings of the arrival of a word on the page and the context of that arrival–is just as important (if not more so), than the content of those words themselves. Apply this thinking to plot or narrative arc for prose writers, and you’ve got a pretty cool way of re-thinking predicatbility, presentation of details, and the order of events.

And last but certainly not least is author Louise Hawes. I might be “most proud” of this faculty member’s presence this year because I played a direct hand in bringing her (at least moreso than the others). We’d met at a residency and stayed in touch enough that when I extended the invitation, she trusted my description of what Interlochen had to offer and confidently accepted. I’ve learned a lot about the audience that young adult writers need to keep in mind as they create their stories, and the challenges that come with that. Going on six hours of sleep this morning, I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase…suffice it to say this is an author whose teaching and life go hand in hand, and whose stories are moving to any reader. My eyes have been opened to the YA world of literature and I’m better for it.

Next week, my role as Creative Writing Faculty for Interlochen Summer Arts Camp kicks in, and I’ll be teaching teens for 4 hours a day…then hopefully revising the novel and book touring for Flashes each night. But in the 72 hours before that, I’ve got a radio interview, a wedding, a book signing, and a ferry ride across Lake Michigan to get though first. Summer has arrived!

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