Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!
Nancy and I are so excited for our upcoming “Writing Wild in Costa Rica”retreat at the stunning Peace Retreat in Playa Negra! Very grateful to owner and founder, Kevin McQuillan, for taking the time to give us some background and a sense of the place for those who will be joining us there in January.
Hi, Kevin! Can you tell us a bit about your background with Peace Retreat? How did you get into this work? What drew you to it?
I established Peace Retreat in 2011 with a dream and a commitment to create a retreat center founded on the principles of learning and wellness. The intention was, and is, to offer guests a tangible improvement in their inner and outer flexibility and strength. It’s a long way from my roots in Canada, where I had a career in civil law enforcement which ultimately led me to discover yoga. As my connection and fascination of yoga grew so did my yoga studies which ultimately led me to co-found three yoga studios in Calgary before setting my sights on Costa Rica.
I was ultimately determined to create a space in an environment inherently nurturing that would facilitate healing and well-being on all levels.
Peace Retreat serves a variety of groups. Have you had writing retreats there before?
Although we have not hosted a designated writing retreat before, we have had many writers join us for some peace and tranquility as a way to support their writing projects. We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to offer a space where many feel the environment supports ease and clarity, allowing the creative juices to flow.
We are very excited to be hosting our first ever writing retreat with you!
What is special about the area there? How is it different from other parts of Costa Rica?
Peace Retreat Costa Rica, is a holistic wellness and learning center located in Playa Negra, at the heart of Costa Rica’s extraordinary northwest Pacific coastline. Peace Retreat is an approximate 10-minute walk to the town center of Playa Negra, and an approximate 15-minute walk to the beautiful beach of Playa Negra. The black sand is what gives Playa Negra its name. With sand that glows in the sunshine and stretches far into the shallow, warm pacific water, Playa Negra is one of Costa Rica’s most celebrated beaches.
Playa Negra’s beaches are pristine, opening to unique stretches of sand and volcanic reef around each ocean-side cliff. Beaches vary with white sand, black sand and sea shells. Sandy beaches, often lined with native trees and palms are interspersed with tidal pools formed from the lava rock. The Pacific tides swing substantially, so the beaches may go as far as the eye can see at low tide, and be mostly covered at high tide.
With some of the most consistent waves and surf breaks in the region, Playa Negra is a very popular surfer beach, made famous by the movie Endless Summer II. Surfers and non-surfers alike enjoy Playa Negra’s pristine, natural, and remote landscape. Its dark-colored sand is interspersed with rocky outcroppings and tide pools for exploration. To the beach’s southern end, there are protected areas for swimming and play.
One of the best ways to explore the breathtaking scenery in Playa Negra is through the multiple adventure tours available. Getting close to nature and experiencing wildlife, the landscape and the stunning surroundings happens locally.
The simple pleasures of the quaint surfing village of Playa Negra offer a unique experience of easy relaxation and tranquility.
This amazing location is the perfect setting for Peace Retreat.
What do people generally take away from their time spent at Peace Retreat? Do you get groups that come back year after year?
Our aim is to support our guests feeling cared for and contributed to in a way that aligns with their needs and our wellness practices. We are experts at what we do and love sharing our passion for wellness, nature and the pura vida lifestyle with our guests. We have a specific focus on creating an intimate setting whereby connections are made and relationships flourish with self, others and nature. We are deeply committed to developing meaningful and long-lasting relationships, and doing so in an environment that is inherently healing. As such, many of our guests leave feeling more aware, nourished, vital and connected.
Through our approach we have had the great pleasure to build and maintain relationships with group leaders and guests in a way that brings them back year after year. We love the experience of growing together!
Could you describe the unique sights, sounds, smells, etc. that our participants can expect from their time at Peace Retreat? (I realize I’m asking you to be a “writer” here, ha…)
A Day in the Life of a Visitor
Pura Vida! Translation: Pure Life. If you are reading this, you are likely wondering what it is like to be a guest at Peace Retreat… and really, the shape of your time here is entirely up to you! Many guests at Peace Retreat fill their days with curiosity and adventure, while other guests choose to use their time at YPR to experience a true sensation relaxation and rejuvenation…
Continue reading for an outline of your most “typical” day at Peace Retreat…
Wake Up To The Sensation Of Nature
As a guest with us, you will find yourself falling asleep and waking up to the sound of nature regularly. In the mornings, as the sky begins to lighten and the soft breeze through the trees pleasantly warms the morning air, the wildlife surrounding the retreat’s location really begins to come alive. Wake up to the glistening sun beaming through your wide wooden window as the birds chirp and the monkeys howl, and enjoy the sensation of nature all around you as you slowly prepare yourself for the day ahead.
Start Your Day With Morning Yoga
Rise early and grant yourself the opportunity to attend our daily 7am yoga class. All classes at YPR are lead by knowledgeable and accredited international yoga teachers. Begin your day by connecting to your mind, body and soul, and step off of your mat and out into the world with an authentic feeling of refreshment and light-heartedness.
Feed Your Soul (And Your Belly)
Following morning yoga comes a fresh and wholesome homemade breakfast. Breakfast specialties include; fresh fruit, avocado toast, banana pancakes, chia seed pudding, vegan muffins, scrambled eggs, quiche, and gallo pinto (a specialty Costa Rican breakfast dish). Additionally, offered daily is Costa Rican coffee made from 100% sustainable Costa Rican coffee beans, and of course if you prefer, tea.
After the digestion of your delicious breakfast, choose to perhaps cool down with a dip into our quaint pool, bordered by beautiful palm trees and comfortable lounge chairs. The pool is a great place to spend the day, or if not, to reset and cool down between yoga classes and tropical adventures.
Take a walk through our marked jungle path, and find yourself within 15 minutes enjoying the dark sand and warm water of the local Playa Negra beach. Book a surf lesson, surf on your own (if you’re experienced) or take a stroll alongside the ocean’s shore to fully absorb the Guanacaste beach experience. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, adventure tours are available within the town of Los Pargos including hikes to waterfalls, zip lining, and more!
Settle Down With The Sun
As the sun begins to set, enjoy watching the beautiful colors of the sky change to nighttime as the surfers of Playa Negra catch their last few waves, or perhaps enjoy the luminescent pink and orange sky from the comfort of our property.
As a traveler of Costa Rica, you will soon learn that the jungle life here does not stop. Not even at night. Some animals actually even choose the nighttime to do their most active “living,” as of course, in Costa Rica; the nighttime is cooler than the daytime. While winding down from your day, allow the sounds of the wildlife vibrating to be the soundtrack to your night. Take a moment to gaze up and get lost in the canopy of stars that fill the beautiful and open Costa Rican sky… And for most guests, to follow this, it’s time to sleep!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I, along with our team, are very much looking forward to hosting you, being with you, and supporting a very memorable experience together.
Until soon, be well.
Thanks so much, Kevin!
NOTE: A few spaces remain for “Writing Wild in Costa Rica!” Join us? More information HERE.
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:
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!
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.