Blog

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. 

 

Uncategorized

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

IMG_2753

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!

Interviews

Poetry & Journaling One’s Way into Story: A Conversation with Lisa Trigg

Nancy and I are delighted that Lisa Trigg will be joining us for our Writing in the Blue Zone retreat in Costa Rica this March. I enjoyed Lisa’s responses to my questions below:

Lisa, thanks for your time! Have you ever visited Costa Rica before? And what attracts you to Costa Rica?

Never been to Costa Rica but it’s been on my list for years.  I’m attracted to the geography, the people and their politics.  If I can learn Spanish,  I will consider retiring there. If I retire.

What are you most looking forward to in our upcoming retreat?

Learning something new about writing/flash.  Getting inspiration, tips. Sight seeing/R & R, meeting new and interesting people.

What do you find yourself writing about? What themes and/or writerly obsessions? 

I’m presently engaged in planning/writing a series of “cycle stories” in the fashion of Ellen Gilchrist about the life and times of a young to elderly lesbian named Hazel Currie whom I’ve been collecting notes about since I was about 20.  I have drafts of 2 stories from that series and notes on more.  I think there might actually be 2 books worth of short stories, but one never knows how these things turn out.   I dictate notes on Hazel in a Day One journal throughout the day as I have thoughts about her.

I have a small series of flash stories that come to me as I do my work with people with serious mental illness in crisis.  These have social justice themes and are about hurt, broken people making their way in this world.   I’m very careful about writing these stories because I do not want to turn their lives in to entertainment, and because some of the stories are so distinctive that I have to be careful about violating HIPAA laws.  I work with a writer/writing coach who is also a trauma expert/therapist, Kay Morgan, PhD, to help me navigate these issues. So far, I’m more worried about it than she is. The best of those stories, “A Day’s Work,” I had published in a little ezine junoesq which is  now defunct, It’s about a homeless mentally ill man, Janik Muro, who works various strategies to get off the street for a few days because someone is killing homeless people in the camps around the city.  It has morphed into a not bad short story that needs more work and gave me ideas for a novel based on the main character in the story. That project is fermenting and I’m not actively working on him right now except for the little notes I dictate about him into my Day One journal when thoughts occur to me.

I might be obsessed with using technology to organize my very busy thoughts about my characters.

Your works in progress sound so compelling! And I’m going to look into Day One. I’m eager to read more of it when we gather at Peace Retreat. Please respond to this quote?

“When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives-and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by the desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand.”  Dani Shapiro 

Great quote and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I hope someone says this about me someday!

Would you like to share something about yourself that is interesting, moving, weird, funny, unusual?

I’m a lifelong writer/journaler, having focused on poetry in the past, but for the last 1-2 years exploring fiction, which was my original goal.  I was derailed into poetry after a Centrum Workshop where 7 beautiful woman poets performed their work each morning back in the days when they held the performances first thing in the morning.  When I got home, I was thinking in verse and wrote poetry for many years.  I think that writing poetry improved my language and has made me a better fiction writer.  I have many pets, am an avid ballroom dancer, and my idea of camping is Motel 6.  Still wake up excited to get to my job every morning and don’t plan to ever retire.  I once had a dream where I was disembodied, out among the stars, with a spotlight on me, and a deep voice boomed “And Lisa Trigg is the Homecoming Queen of the Universe!”  I’m pretty sure that Hazel is going to have this precise dream sometime during the travails of her 20s.

Love all of this, especially that dream! And I have found that the best flash writers have some background in poetry. We’re so eager to meet you in Costa Rica, Lisa, and getting to know you and your writing better. Thanks so much for your time!

Note: Some spaces remain for our Writing in the Blue Zone retreat in Costa Rica this March! Please consider joining us. We’d love to have you!

Uncategorized

How Travel Fills Our Creative Wells

*This post originally appeared on my website in 2018, but I found the lessons learned so fitting again this year that I am re-posting!

Traveling forces us out of what is familiar and makes our brains work differently. I think that keeps us young, vital, and full of creative juice and wonder. And what I continually learn every time I travel is also about “filling the well” and restocking the creative stores. So here are some of the things I’ve learned about my own creativity through travel (and the good news is you don’t have to travel to apply most of them!):

 

  1. Meet Your Writing Colleagues in Person

It’s so so important, in the internet heavy reality of our careers, to meet colleagues in person whenever possible. There is nothing that can replace looking people in the eye, giving them a hug, or sharing a meal (or a round of karaoke!), especially if you have “known” them online for a while.

  1. Eat Real Food

I’ve decided that’s the key to French food—it’s actual food. The dishes are deceptively simple but the ingredients are real—not processed, frozen, sugar added or factory farmed.

  1. Walk and take public transportation

Europe does this really well—whether it’s trains crisscrossing countries or metros within the cities, you can walk and take public transportation almost everywhere. I do this already in a limited capacity in Denver; not only is it ultimately cheaper, better for physical health, better for emotional health, and better for the environment, it’s also better for my creativity. My morning journals and first handwritten drafts now happen during my work commute.

  1. Dress up for no reason.

The French have this effortless chic style that I really dig—messy but beautiful and not overdone. But they put effort into looking nice for no reason. And when you look nice you feel nice.

  1. Don’t spend all day on the internet

Duh, right? But in Europe I didn’t have an international roaming plan, so I was inaccessible much of the day unless I was connected to external wifi. No surprise: I was much happier checking in with my online friends once or twice a day rather than all day long.

  1. Take more pictures

I’m a closet amateur photographer, and it was glorious to express myself visually for awhile rather than always with words. And It’s easy to take lots of pictures in an unfamiliar place. It’s good to take a break from your preferred genre and play a little.

  1. Learn another language

Seriously. It’s proven good for your brain as you age anyway, but as writers it reminds us of the plethora of new words out there. I speak mid-level Spanish already but I stared learning French on the Duolingo app in the spring and I highly recommend it. Just 10 mins a day—10 mins not on social media—and I usually did it on the train while commuting.

  1. Put away the phone.

Europeans have phones, and they will pull them out to text one another, but then they put them away. You do not see Europeans on their phones while sitting at cafes or on the metro. Even if they are alone they are watching the world go by. I felt self-conscious being on my phone in public there. I was happy putting it away.

  1. Eat slowly

I tend to eat very fast, like a starving wolf. I’ve justified this my whole life. I also burn the roof of my mouth regularly. I am now consciously slowing down, lingering and enjoying more.

  1. More cultural cross-pollination, please

Not only was I excited to read for new audiences, but I forgot the joy of also being a new audience member. Both in Paris and Bristol I discovered writers with different sensibilities, styles, and subjects. I felt for the first time ever like I was an “American” writer.

  1. Consume more art

When you visit a place like Europe there’s the unnaturally high consumption of art—daily museums, architecture, music. I consume a lot of art already but I’m lucky to get in one artistic outing a week.  Imagine how creative you would be if you did this as intentionally in your own town?

Happy end of summer! I hope to travel with you soon!
Xoxo

Nancy

Interviews

Paris, New York, Grand Lake…Taking Inspiration Where You Find It: An Interview with Jill Loomis

Nancy and I are so pleased to introduce you to Jill Loomis, who nabbed the last spot for our upcoming High Altitude Inspiration retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado. (If you missed out, but are interested in our other retreats, check out Writing in the Blue Zone, our March, 2020 retreat in Costa Rica!)

Hi Jill! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. We’re so excited for this August retreat in gorgeous Grand Lake. Have you been to Colorado before?  

I froze watching the Broncos at Mile High Stadium years ago.

Ha, sounds fun! What are you looking forward to in our time together in Grand Lake for this retreat?

Learning from experienced writers face to face.  Enjoying everyone’s company and the beauty of Grand Lake.  Gaining more confidence about my own writing.

How do you make time for writing in your life?

I wrote like a madwoman morning noon and night during two online flash workshops.  Didn’t make my bed or wash the dishes until I’d posted a piece or commented on another writer’s story.  On my own I might sit in the park and write, revising in the evening at home.    

What is the most inspiring place you’ve visited to date?

Lucky me I lived and worked in Paris, and I’m still besotted, but I love New York.  Here I get inspiration for characters when I’m riding the subway or just paying attention to what’s going on around me.

Oh wow, that IS lucky to have lived in Paris and now in New York! Both cities are beautiful and fascinating and great for people-watching. Now, I always ask this: Is there something fascinating / unusual / funny / great whatever that you’d like to share about yourself? 

 I was a ballroom dance hostess on a cruise ship.

Ah, I love that! Sounds like something that would provide tons of fodder for flash fiction writing!

Jill Loomis is a New Yorker and a newcomer to flash fiction.  She has the luxury of writing for pleasure after a long career raising funds for nonprofits.  Jill has been inspired by Meg Pokrass and the terrific writers in Meg’s online workshops, and she recently dared to submit several stories for publication.

NOTE: Our Grand Lake Retreat is now sold out, but spaces remain for our March, 2020 Writing in the Blue Zone Retreat in Costa Rica. We’d love to have you join us!