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.
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.
I met Bryan Jansing in Denver in 2001, when we began working together in a weekly writers group, but Bryan actually grew up in Italy, the son of an Italian mother and an American father. So Kathy and I are lucky that Bryan and the company he co-founded, Italy Beer Tours, will be lending a hand in Casperia next May, offering language skills, day trips to retreat participants and being, as I put it to Bryan, our “Italian best boy.” Ever good humored, he was up for the adventure!
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?
Bryan Jansing: Finding time to write, even as a full-time writer, is always the hardest task. Like most writers, I have to do other jobs to make a living while maintaining to be a writer by writing. Worse for me is that I’m not a very disciplined person. But I do find time to write; albeit, not every day as diligently as I wish. Mornings are my favorite time to write. I’m fresh, still in a dreamy state and the invigoration of waking up with a hot cup of coffee while my mind is not bogged down by the world keeps my mind loose, my emotions clear and my fingers take off. If all goes well, I will have written first thing before anybody is awake and the world clobbers me with chores, jobs, duties and responsibilities. This is hardest when I’m traveling. For this, I find having a notebook handy to at least scratch down thoughts and immediate phrases or quick snippets of stories is very helpful. But I’ve come to terms that the writing process isn’t all just about writing. Sounds like an oxymoron, or just moronic, I know. There are many moments when stepping away and just daydreaming, experiencing the world draw me deeper when I do get back to writing. In the end, if I don’t write, I’m not a very pleasant person to be around, so time will find me.
Nancy: Yes, I remember you once told me that you liked to take a nap “just so you could ‘wake up’ and write twice in one day.” I loved that. You were also the first person I knew who was writing flash fiction back in 2001, several years before I began writing it myself. Tell us about your discovery of flash fiction?
Bryan: I naturally loved the challenge of writing short-short pieces, but I loathed vignettes. What set me on my course was finding James Thomas and Robert Shapard’s Sudden Fiction American Short-Short Stories at the navy exchange while I was stationed in Norfolk, VA. I was 19 years old, but my dream to become a writer started when I was six. I think even sooner than that, to be honest. I’m a minimalist writer by nature, that also fed into becoming a flash fiction writer. While I was in college, after the navy, I was taking a creative writing course. One of my professors, Barbara Loren, who had graduated from Iowa’s writing program, told me this form of writing was called Flash Fiction. Once I understood the mechanics, that plot had to be laid into the small masterpiece, I was possessed. Unable to find professors who knew what I was talking about, I dropped out of school and set my own course by forming a writer’s group. Today, you can get an MFA in Flash Fiction, but in the early 90s, the genre was still unheard of. I used the creative writing class format taught to me by Barbara to form the critique group. I also was an early participant of Pam Casto’s online writers group. I got a lot of great feedback from her group. I eventually withdrew from Pam’s online group when Nancy made me feel guilty 🙂 She said, “Awe, you’re in another group? It’s like you’re cheating on us.” It struck a chord. Besides, at that point, we were so busy with about seven people that included Leah Roper, Kona Morris, Sally Reno, just to name a few, all working hard, diligently bringing in work every Wednesday that had to be critiqued, working on the edits you received that week as well as keeping a writing schedule. Those were amazing days, very fruitful. I’m proudest of all the accomplishments that I can say I converted Nancy Stohlman to Flash Fiction. I did the genre a great service.
Nancy: Aww, it’s the truth and I’m so grateful to YOU! You also co-founded Italy Beer Tours, which will be offering some excursions to our retreat participants. Tell us more about this endeavor?
Bryan: Once I had set upon my endeavor to become a Flash Fiction writer and having the awesome array of writers around me from my writers group (Write Club) I knew I couldn’t work a 9 to 5 job. For me, it killed my creativity. I wanted to work the least amount and make the biggest bang. I found that job working at a craft beer bar that had just opened called the Falling Rock. It was one of the first of its kind, had just opened, owned by three brothers. It was the furthest thing from real work and it paid handsomely. I only had to work three or four days a week. Nobody gave me flack when I needed time off and the setting was unorthodox. We were free to speak as we wished, drink all we wanted and above all, I was making connections, networking without realizing that it was going to pay off.
Amongst the regulars at the Falling Rock was a man named Paul Vismara. Paul is a dying breed, a professional artist and fulltime illustrator. In a time where graphic artists are taking over, Paul is definitely a dinosaur. He’s also extremely talented and open to art. He was one of the writers group’s first audience. We used to throw readings during the holidays, Paul was always present. Paul and I tried several times to find a project we could work together on. For 15 years we tried to find something. Then in 2012, I was off-handedly telling Paul that I had been in Italy visiting my parents. I grew up in Italy and my parents still live in Rome. While I was there, a friend of mine told me, since I loved craft beer, I should check out the Trastevere neighborhood. He said there I would find some interesting places that served craft beer. I was blown away. It looked just like 1997 when I had started at the Falling Rock. The next day, after our offhanded conversation, Paul called me and said, “We should write a book about the Italian craft beer movement.” After some research, we found nobody else had written this book. That’s how Italy: Beer Country was born. Here’s a lesson to you writers: books don’t make money! But, they are gigantic keys to gigantic doors. With a book, you can open many paths and avenues you wouldn’t even have a chance at without a book. We realized this, and soon after publishing Italy: Beer Country, we began working on tours. Thus, Italy Beer Tours was born in 2016. It was also a great way for me to get home to see my mother, get back home to a country I love, but couldn’t stay in because of the lack of jobs and few opportunities. Not able to return to Italy had been a large issue in my life and so had working at the bar, after 20 years. I freed myself, became a Tour Operator working with artisanal beer and food, which I am a huge believer in. It’s an industry so unique, especially in Italy, and a small historical niche. I love showing Americans an Italy they didn’t know existed. It’s not on the tourist’s beaten path, far from anything in photo albums or tour buses. We honestly sit at tables with Italians, speak Italian, eat and enjoy a day as Italians. And oh, yeah, there’s amazing artisanal beer too. In short, I have pioneered two events in my life: Flash Fiction and Italian craft beer. I might put that on my tombstone.
Nancy: I love Paul Vismara’s work as well–I was so happy when you two started working together. So what piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Bryan: I have to say, I’m proud of the work I’ve published in the now defunct Monkey Puzzle as well as in the first, all flash-fiction [print] journals Fast Forward Press. Of which, the 2010 publication was a finalist for the Colorado Literary Fiction Award. That publication was managed by Leah Roper, Kona Morris and Nancy Stohlman. It was an incredible collection of master works. I loved being published in that publication. It was another major milestone, the first all flash fiction journal. It gave me a high I still feel now writing this. I am also very proud of Italy: Beer Country. I’m proud of it because I didn’t submit to writing a boring, non-fiction beer book. Blahh. I wrote it like a fictional story with the characters of the movement playing out their roles as first-time, pioneering brewers in a wine culture. It’s an exciting book to read, and I used my creativity to write it. It’s also the first and still only book that tells the Italian craft beer story.
Nancy: Ah, long live Fast Forward Press! (I’ve been told you can still buy our books for hundreds of dollars on the black market–ha!) Okay, now react to this quote by Ernest Hemingway, ” You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done.”
Bryan: Yes! Hemingway, of course, was absolutely right. Writing is a lonely job, a loner’s work. You have to be happy to have accomplished an amazing endeavor by just having sat down and written something in a world stingy with its time to artists. My professor Barbara Loren once told me, “This is the hardest art form of them all. Because everybody can write.” Not everybody plays an instrument, or paints, but very few can write well and even fewer can write at the creative caliber necessary to be a fiction writer. What I’ve learned from running Italy Beer Tours is the lessons of being an entrepreneur. You have to become a problem solver, expect fires, work alone, without pay and nobody to motivate you but you. Sound familiar? Being a writer is a business. I know it’s a nasty word, but it is. You have to accept that if you want to do this. That said, the most important part of your job then is to write. Otherwise, there’s no product to sell. And you have to write a good product or it won’t sell. And running a business, as my accountant once put it, is a competition. You have to be the best, original, creative in your work. These are the skills of entrepreneurs. And you have to do it as a writer, a skill very few have at your level. Does this mean you should throw your hands up and quit? Never!! Never, ever quit! I know way better writers than me, but they quick and nobody will know. But be honest with yourself, brutally honest. Is this good work? If you’re not sure, got back to work. And no one is going to be there to applaud your work. The only step you need to take is to get that first draft done. The real work comes in the hundreds of hours, many months, sometimes years of rehashing that work, refining it to near perfection. Then, sit down, have a good beer and make sure to be proud of yourself. You are doing the work. That is all that is asked of you
Nancy: You’ve always been “doing the work” as long as I’ve known you. Now tell us something we don’t know about you?
Bryan: Tom Hazuka baptized me ‘the Godfather of the Denver Flash Fiction scene’. But really, I am a master at undermining my own endeavors. All my life, I mean, all of my life I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer but was too afraid to do so. When I was two or three, I had received one of those Mattel car garages with the wooden, pseudo-Lego figures that were like pegs you set into small holes in the cars. At the bottom of the garage ramp was a stop sign that lifted and a bell would ding when the car reached to the bottom. I remember copying the words STOP. I was just drawing. When I showed it to my father, he was amazed, “Stop! That’s great. You wrote, Stop.” He pointed to the stop sign at the end of the ramp. I will never forget how in awe I was that he knew where it came from. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. But I was always told, “what are you going to do to make money?” That phrase deflated me. I tried to find other jobs, other prospects, but there were none. I wasted so much time searching for “what was going to make me money”. In the end, I still wanted to be a fiction writer. It’s all I love. I love it more than I can even express, nearly more than my family. Ink is the blood in my veins. The rhythm and tones of language are my oxygen. If you don’t love writing this much, you better stop now. It’s hard work with little, if any credit. But man, I wouldn’t want to be known for anything else. It’s a beautiful art, a skill that never stops challenging you. And when somebody calls you a fiction writer, you know it’s something special.
Nancy: “If you don’t love writing this much, you better stop now.” I love that. It reminds me of the Bukowski poem, “So You Want to Be a Writer?” Yes and yes. Bryan, it’s been so fun to chat with you today. Anything else you want to add?
Bryan: The great John Coltrane was not always so great. He worked very hard at it. Very hard. When he finished playing in recording studios during the day, he played clubs all night. When he got home and laid in bed, he pulled out his flute and played till he went to sleep. A recording of him playing when he was in the navy band exposes him as barely mediocre. Incredible! With music, with the love of music, he beat all odds, including beating a heroin addiction. He found spirituality and pressed it into the knobs of his instrument to create some of the finest music ever. And yet, he was not very good at it at one time. Don’t ever give up. You know you have it in you. You’re here right?
Bryan Jansing’s Flash Fiction was included in Fast Forward Vol. 3, The Mix Tape (2010), which was the finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. He has also written for Beer Advocate, Celebrator, Primo and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His book Italy: Beer Country is the first and only book available about the Italian craft beer movement. Learn more at www.italybeertours.com.