Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

Why You Need a Writers Retreat: The Dopamine of Anticipation

Recently I was gifted the use of an empty condo in the Colorado mountains for the weekend, a glorious three days with just myself and my writing. I’d been looking forward to my own mini writers retreat for weeks!

I bet everyone here can relate: Having a retreat or vacation (of any length!) to look forward to gives you an instant dopamine hit–the body knows something is coming and it’s already happy, already excited.

Ah dopamine. It’s that chemical that makes us feel good. It’s released when we fall in love, ride a roller coaster, win a prize for that story we wrote, and it’s also the culprit in all sorts of addictions, from chocolate to sex to the constant “ping” of our text messages. When dopamine is released we get the message that “this feels good” and we keep coming back for more.

But here’s something interesting: Researchers have found that it’s the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, that gets those feel-good chemicals in our brains going. Meaning we are already feeling good BEFORE we even get the reward.

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, vacationers already “started experiencing a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of the trip because they were looking forward to the good times ahead.”

Which means looking forward to pleasurable things is as good for your overall happiness and well-being as the actual experience of them. You are already getting that “hit” of pleasure every time you think about the exciting thing that’s coming.

Stanford biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky says from his studies with monkeys that “dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than the happiness itself.”

Want to geek out on the science a bit? Check out the 5-min clip fromRobert Sapolsky’s lecture on the Science of Pleasure below:

So what’s the takeaway here? The bottom line is that the anticipation of an upcoming vacation or artistic retreat is already releasing sweet, sweet dopamine into your system. Every time we think about it, talk about it, every time we look at pictures, every time we do research and tell others about it.

So…are you excited yet?
~Nancy

P.S. Join us on an upcoming retreat!

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

To Segment or Not to Segment + An Exercise for Creating a Flash Mosaic

Increasingly employed in flash fiction, the mosaic or fragmented form makes effective use of white space. It asks the reader to collaborate in a sense, filling in the gaps or making connections. There are jumps in time, jumps in point of view. It’s a story told in pieces that somehow form a cohesive whole. It’s useful when attempting to tell a larger story, rather than a moment in time. I love this structure because it feels the closest to how my mind works. Memories in snapshots. My own brain’s attempt to make sense of only particles, spread out over time.

So imagine a series of fragments or pieces that are loosely connected (by theme, character, image, story, etc.). The notion of time is very fluid. I believe that the mosaic is an even looser form than segmentation as the individual pieces in a mosaic can be, well, anything. A letter or list or a poem. Think of mosaics in the visual arts, how they often use different materials and textures.

But does segmenting always work? What is lost and what is gained by employing this structure in flash fiction?

The structure suits flash fiction very well in that it eliminates the use of transitions, bridges from scene to scene, and therefore results in fewer words–a goal of flash fiction.

The absence of transitions creates a snapshot effect. The reader has to engage with the writer to create story within the white space. The writer is playing with the reader’s subconscious, which of course differs from reader to reader. This, to me, is what makes flash so exciting to read and to write. The individual snapshots carry more weight, or ought to carry more weight, if they’re to be effective.

Also, segmented structure allows a flash to cover a broader expanse of time. See how masterfully Jeff Landon employs this structure in a tender/funny/sad story of a relationship spanning many years in “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace” published in Smokelong Quarterly. 

But what is lost when we write in fragments? I would say a gentle flow or build. Flash fiction doesn’t always need to be “punchy” or “sharp” (many would disagree with me on this!). There are times when you want something smoother, slower even. Or you want to stay in one particular moment or scene. Segmenting in this case would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should ever be diffused.

Here is a quick way to create your own flash mosaic:

First, write down 3 of your most vivid dreams. If you aren’t a person who remembers your dreams, switch this out for 3 quick descriptions of photographs (real or made up).

Now, write 3 real or made up incidents from your life (or a character’s life), from 3 different decades of their life.

You now have 6 brief vignettes. Take these and weave them, alternating dreams (or photographs) and memories.

See what happens if you write them all in present tense, effectively suspending all sense of the passage of time.

See what happens if you don’t identify the dreams as dreams, but write them “straight.” This will give your mosaic a sense of surreality.

See what happens if you give each vignette its own subtitle.

As an example of what can be achieved with this exercise, here is a piece of my own, published in Threadcount:

“A Room with Many Small Beds”

The result may be flash memoir or you may completely fictionalize your piece. If this gets your  pen flowing, keep going with it. See where it takes you!

 

Interviews

The Zen of Writing, Literary Pilgrimages, & Retreating in Costa Rica: A Chat with Bill Merklee

Hi Bill! You’re joining us in Costa Rica in January for our retreat. What has been your writing workshop/retreat experience in the past? How do you find ways to honor your writing in your day to day life?

I’ve attended the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC and have taken some of their online workshops. Some of us from one of the online classes have stayed in touch and regularly read and critique each other’s work. I also took one of your Fast Flash classes and had a blast.

I mostly succeed at writing every day. It can be anything from a story to working on my novel to journal entries to writing exercises I set for myself. The exercises include things like sketches about ex-girlfriends, “letters never sent,” and writing down everything my dad ever told me about his life. The point is to keep writing. I’ve also slowly evolved into a morning person. I feel like I get more done in the early hours before the rest of the house wakes up.

Respond to this quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Oh I love Kurt. I think Ray Bradbury said something similar, too. To me it means don’t over-think things, just jump in. I have to remind myself of that every time I start a new story. It also speaks to my going off to Costa Rica. I’ve never done anything like this, which seems as good a reason as any to do it.

What is your favorite story that you yourself have written (“favorite” doesn’t have to mean “best” or more successful or whatever). And why is it your favorite?

“Currents” is a favorite longer story that I’m still honing. It has some attempts at Vonnegut-like commentary and dark humor around climate change, and is also written for my father. He served in the Navy in World War II. He got very sick at one point and his ship had to leave without him. The ship was later sunk in battle with the loss of most of the crew. He always carried around a kind of survivor’s guilt about it. So in the story I try to give him some imagined closure, some absolution.

A favorite flash of mine is called “Portugal.” It’s my attempt at writing in second person. It got honorable mention in a Glimmer Train contest, but I have yet to find a home for it.

Oh wow. What a story about your father! That’s a great idea to write a story that gives that harrowing experience closure. And congratulations on your Glimmer Train nod!

Have you traveled to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to as a writer retreating to this beautiful place?

I’ve never been to Costa Rica, but have heard wonderful things.

I’ve made literary pilgrimages to Mark Twain’s house, Carson McCuller’s house, John Steinbeck’s house, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, Walden Pond, Indianapolis (Vonnegut), and Lowell, MA (Kerouac) hoping I would have these writing epiphanies. I once took a cross-country train trip for inspiration, thinking I would get all this writing done. It wound up being more of a four-day Disney ride through America (though it did become writing fodder later). I always come back to the line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that says the only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. In other words, the location is not as important as just putting your ass in the chair wherever you are and writing.

I’m sure I will love Costa Rica, and I’m excited to be on such an extended retreat. What’s more important to me is being in the company of other writers, and the chance to work with you and Nancy.

Well, thank you! And I get that regarding: Zen. That makes a lot of sense. I think there’s something to be said for receptivity and for inspiration to line up at the confluence of the right time in the right place. I feel like the Peace Retreat in Costa Rica is such a place. Nancy and I are excited too!

Bill, your wife Lucy is joining you on this trip. How did you get her interested in flash fiction?

I talk about flash all the time, and there are collections all around the house. Oddly enough, I only read excerpts of my work to her — I never show her work in progress. She’s done a lot of corporate writing, and I said flash might be a good way to try out fiction writing. Now she’s coming to Costa Rica. Talk about jumping off cliffs…

I think that’s wonderful! We’re really looking forward to meeting you both! Tell us something we don’t know about you that you are happy to share. : )

In addition to really short stories, I also enjoy really short films and really short songs. I’ve got a collection of 3,000+ songs that are each under two minutes long. I see a lot of similarities between a well-written flash and a well-crafted song that clocks in at 1:32.

Oh I agree. I love short films too. Novellas. Art in miniature. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Bill! Here’s to Costa Rica in January!

Bill Merklee is a writer and graphic designer. His writing has appeared in Columbia, StoryBytes, New Jersey Monthly, and the HIV Here & Now project. He lives in the beautiful Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey with his wife and children and two very Zen cats. You can find some things of his at The Amber of the Moment and occasional outbursts on Twitter @bmerklee.

NOTE: A few spaces remain for our Create in Costa Rica retreat in January, 2019. Get more info HERE. Hope you can join us!