Kathy fish

Creativity & Connection in Grand Lake, CO: Reflections on Our Fourth Flash Fiction Retreat

“This retreat provided such a great learning experience with innovative lessons from some of the industry’s finest writers in a beautiful setting, and surrounded by a supportive bunch of friendly, like-minded people. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will remember fondly.” ~Ryan Stone, Melbourne, Australia

Hard to believe it was just over a week ago that Nancy and I were in Grand Lake, with a fabulous group of writers from both coasts of the U.S. and in between, and as far away as Canada and Australia. It truly was, as participant Ryan Stone put it, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” for us too!

Maybe it was the setting: Grand Lake, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the prettiest places in an already gorgeous state. And Shadowcliff Lodge is so perfectly rustic and homey. Maybe it was the staff: Friendly, youthful, and energetic, from all over the country, most of them living and working at the lodge for the summer. So eager to help us out and answer questions or just chat about their favorite fictional characters. 

Mostly though, I have to say, it was the writers who carved out this time in their busy lives to come to Colorado and write with us. There was such easy camaraderie amongst this group of 13 plus Nancy and me. It’s what happens when writer/artist types “find their tribe” but especially when you get a bunch of flash fiction writers all in one place (I’m thinking, too, of the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol last June–same feeling)!

Highlights: The pre-retreat F-Bomb reading in Denver, featuring Randall Brown. All the wildlife: fox, moose, lots of cute chipmunks, hummingbirds flitting around the feeders and…one notable (but safe) encounter with a black bear. Thursday evening around the campfire on The Point, overlooking the town of Grand Lake and the lake itself, nestled amongst the mountain peaks. Talking and laughing and watching the sun go down and the full moon rise, illuminating the clouds. Whiskey and conversation late into the night in the top floor great room of Cliffside Lodge. The gentle sounds of water rushing over rocks in the creek that cuts through grounds of Shadowcliff. We ate and slept well, woke up to coffee brewing in the dining room of Rempel Lodge. Our writing sessions in the Chapel, with that stunning view. And our final night Salon/Reading in that same space, with everyone reading their work, champagne flowing, Nancy’s French pop songs playlist, and a cozy fire in the huge stone fireplace.

I loved that this group was so varied in their experience with flash fiction. Some had been writing and publishing it for years, some were very new to the form and excited to learn more. To a person, they were kind, warm, generous, and fun to be around. Everyone wrote their hearts out. I really believe Nancy and I get as much from these retreats as our participants. I came away feeling so inspired and grateful. 



Sound and Light: Penny Johnson on Winter Inspiration and Writing on the Road


We are delighted that Penny Johnson is going to be escaping the winter and joining us in the Blue Zone, Costa Rica, in March for some fantastic flash fiction and so much more!

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

Penny Johnson: Especially in the winter.  It takes determination to get up at 5 a.m. and put wood in the stove.  Take coffee to the computer.  Sit down and say:  I will write a sentence.  I cover up with a blanket, with slippers, with a stocking cap.   Once I can coerce my old, fat butt into the chair in front of the computer, my brain eases into the words, the sentences and I am not old, and I do not hurt.  By 8 a.m. the dark is shrinking off the snow and I need to go feed the horses, the goats but I want to write one more sentence…

Nancy: That sounds romantically amazing! And yes, you will definitely get to escape winter for a moment in Costa Rica! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Penny: Before there were blogs or WiFi I was an over the road truck driver with my husband.  In the truck stops I unplugged the phone at the drivers’ tables.  I plugged in my laptop.  I used HTML to put photos in.  I used my former son-in-law’s server.  We started a truck driving blog that was called “Penny’s Windshield.”  The connection was really unreliable.  My husband fended off the truck stop waitress.  I would hold my breath until I got connected, typed the entry, sent the photo and it intertwined and posted.  Most of the time I’d loose the connection once, sometimes six times.  I wrote from hand written notes.  I started dropping every possible word.  I aimed for cryptic, concise.  Every word had to work….

Nancy: Wow–I bet you have some amazing pieces from that time–how unique! So what is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Penny: Drop all passive words!  This isn’t really the advice but it is what it morphed into.

Nancy: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Penny: “Memories of a Female Truck Driver” is a fictional memoir.  It is the long version of the no longer available “Penny’s Windshield”.  I put it on Amazon for ninety nine cents.

Nancy: Have you ever been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?

Penny: Costa Rica is new to me.  I crave new.  I love discovery.  I need adventure.  And then:  yoga, good food, writing, company, sunsets and dawns, bird calls I do not recognize!

Nancy: You will definitely get all of that! Maybe howler monkeys too–ha! So finally: tell us something we don’t know about you?

Penny: I struggle with sounds and lights.  I have as long as I can remember.  Teeth scraping on a fork.  Mushy words like “mug.”  Sounds that hurt.  I turn off lights.  All the years I worked as a psychiatric nurse I turned off lights.  There was always somebody asking, “who turned all the lights off.”  When I got old, my co-workers would give each other a knowing glance but wouldn’t say a word because I was in the old-age category now!

Nancy: Wow. Amazing, and such a potent metaphor for writing, too! Kathy and I are looking forward to getting to know you better in March! 

Penny Johnson’s bio is like a wheel; all the images whirring together.  This far in life, maybe it’s the same for most of us.  We try things, some work out longer than others.  We learn to deal with problems.  There are concrete achievements that work as punctuation:  HS, marriage license, Haight Ashbury, children, AA degree, dissolution decree, RN, motorcycle license, marriage license, BA, dissolution decree,  truck driver license, marriage license, MFA, sales certificate for a thoroughbred failed-racehorse and then, from that one mare: she and I join up.  I lead my mare and she shows me the way… and on top of the wheel, blurring all the edges, all the colors, are the people who have come and gone, who entered in and saw fit to jump the hell back out!