Nancy and I were delighted to meet up with Christopher Allen in Casperia when we were there for our Creative Renaissance Retreat at Palazzo Forani. Interested in what we’re doing with Flash Fiction Retreats, Chris kindly interviewed us for Smokelong Quarterly. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:
Your latest retreat was at Palazzo Forani in Casperia, Italy. I just happened to be in the area on your free day, so I popped by and had lunch with you and your keen participants. We did a lot of eating and drinking. But what does a typical retreat day entail?
(Nancy): “Well, in Italy every day involved a lot of eating and drinking! But seriously, every location and every retreat has its own personality. The things that stay consistent is the general workshop schedule—most days we have a morning session with Kathy that is mostly generative and an afternoon session with me (Nancy) that focuses on revision and workshopping. We also have a final night “salon” where we all dress up and drink (more) wine and read our work. The salon ends up being one of our favorite parts and to prep for that I’ve been offering a performance class on the last day instead of a regular workshop session. So ideally by the end of the retreat participants write some new stuff, revise some old stuff, and read their work in public. You came on our free day (normally we will only have free half days) where participants can explore, take an extra long nap or dive more deeply into their writing. It IS a retreat after all—we want people resting and rejuvenating, not exhausted from classes all day.
But within that framework each retreat develops its own flavor. In Costa Rica we used the metaphor of the jungle as we designed our classes: “wild” writing, birdsong repetition, taking a machete to the overgrowth, etc. Last year in the high mountains of Colorado we were “mining” for silver and gold in our work; in Italy were drawing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. We want our retreats to reflect and engage with the location. In Italy we were staying in a very old palace (palazzo) with all its creepy/romantic charm and Kathy did a special “ghost writing” session. In Costa Rica we were/will be staying in screened cabinas open to the tropical air and all the sounds of nature. In Grand Lake we will be in a big mountain lodge (think wood burning stove) overlooking a mountain lake.
One thing that remains consistent is that by the end of the week we have all bonded in a special way—writing partners and friendships that will last a lifetime.”
Sometimes we’ve nitpicked and tinkered our work to death and it still isn’t right. Anaïs Nin says, “Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy.”
Once our editing starts to feel like an autopsy, like a Frankenstein of parts stuck together (particularly if we have been working on it for a long time), then the best and quickest way to tackle revision is to write it over, from scratch, without looking.
If that sounds like a huge waste of time, then be grateful you’re writing flash fiction! I give this same advice to all writers, and I have rewritten entire novels from scratch. For real.
Rewriting without looking, while initially infuriating, works wonders, especially if you are stuck. Why? Because all the good stuff from that first draft will make it into the second draft. And all the stuff that was just so-so will improve in the rewrite. Almost magically.
Consider how it works in the visual arts There are often dozens of pre-sketches, studies, and “running starts” at an idea, maybe second, third and fourth attempts at a famous painting. In the Dali museum there are multiple renditions of the melting clocks, for instance; rather than obsessing over one single canvas he made dozens of attempts and filled dozens of canvases until he hit on the famous versions we recognize today.
I remember the first time I had to rewrite without looking. I had a creative writing teacher in college who liked us to compose drafts by hand in class, and then at the end of the class we had to rip out those pages in our notebooks, turn them in, go home and write it over again!
But because we had no choice, we’d all go home and rewrite our drafts from scratch. Surprisingly, the second version was almost always better. Once we quit resisting the process, we discovered that the rewritten drafts were an organic improvement, a maturation of our original ideas, containing all the best parts of the first draft. And all the stuff that was initially weak would automatically improve in the rewrite.
This process works especially well for flash because you can usually rewrite a draft in one sitting. But the process works for everything—poems, novel chapters, scenes, essays, as I said even a whole book at its most extreme. Jack Kerouac rewrote his book On the Road from scratch three times before he hit on the version we read today. A photographer will shoot the same subject hundreds of times to get just one perfect shot.
And as a bonus, when rewritten all at once, the narrative voice of a story will have a natural cohesion, something that may have been missing in a previous version, particularly if it was composed over a long stretch of time or at various intervals.
So for this reason, I suggest closing that document, opening a new one, and rewrite it from scratch, without looking or reading the first draft.
When Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times, he said, “To get the words right.”
Kathy Fish and I are excited to work with Jeff Burd this summer at our High Altitude Inspiration retreat in Grand Lake, Colorado. Jeff and I chatted with me about teaching, hybrids, and baseball as a metaphor for writing.
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?
Jeff Burd: I’m fortunate enough to be a high school teacher, and I’ve taught a creative writing class for the past 13 years. I am many times writing along with my students, and sometimes use their insights in the editing process. I am frequently surprised by what they come up with. So that helps me find time somewhat consistently. Otherwise, I keep a writing date for myself at a certain time and in a certain place throughout the summer. Beyond that, it’s catch as catch can.
Nancy: I can relate–sometimes being a teacher is the best way to also be a writer! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?
Jeff: I’d start with my relationship with poetry. I’ve spent countless hours over the last fifteen years studying poetry, writing poems, transcribing poems, none of which is to say that I’m a particularly good poet (or even average). But the skills I’ve developed feed directly into my writing of flash. The two genres share a lot of common ground, and I’ve found a lot of joy in working in a hybrid form. I’ve been working lately on transforming old poems into prose poems and microfictions.
Nancy: Yes, there is a lot of crossover, which is so exciting! What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Jeff: Two pieces, actually: 1. Ray Bradbury said to have fun writing your first draft, because drafts 2-11 are going to be hell; and 2. Jack Ridl says you have to love practice if you’re a writer, the same way a basketball player loves to be in the gym or merely shooting baskets in the driveway. Everything you write is but practice anyhow, so if you’re not loving it, why do it?
Nancy: I especially love that quote by Bradbury–perfect. What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Jeff: I wouldn’t say it’s the one I’m most proud of, but this microfiction is one that is probably most significant since it opened a door for me and got the ball rolling with some very nice success I’ve experienced in the last two years. I purposely wrote one of the most obnoxious things I could think of and was going to chalk it up to fun and practice when the final image came to me in yoga class the morning after I had written the first draft. I sent it off to a handful of publications on a whim, thinking “fuck it if they don’t like it, I had fun with it!” It was picked up for publication within 12 hours. You can find it here:
Nancy: Congratulations! Now since I know you are a baseball fan, react to this quote by Babe Ruth as it pertains to your writing : “Never allow the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game!”
Jeff: Krikey, I’ve “struck out” 95% of the time with my writing! If I was in fear of that, I could never write. But there are reasons to play the game other than publication. My goal has always been to be the best writer I can be, so even the strike outs get me closer to that goal I can never really reach.
Nancy: Have you ever been to Grand Lake before? What are you most looking forward to?
Jeff: I haven’t been to Colorado for a long time, so I look forward to returning and spending some time there and enjoying the beauties of nature. I will be stand-up paddle boarding the titular lake at Grand Lake a few times, and probably head to Red Rocks for a concert one night. I hope I find the time to write!
Nancy: Oh there will be time to write, I promise! Last thing: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Jeff: I won The New Yorker cartoon caption contest #377, waaaaaay back in 2013.
Nancy: Ha! Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jeff! We are looking forward to retreating with you in Colorado this summer!
Jeff Burd is a graduate of the Northwestern University writing program. His publications include The Baseball Research Journal, Imitation Fruit, BULL: Men’s Fiction, KYSO:Flash, Mount Hope, Soliloquies Anthology, Third Wednesday, and Dislocate. He was judged a winner of the First Memorial George Dila Flash Fiction Contest, and his nonfiction writing A Familiar Problem, a Familiar Face was recognized by Mensa as Best Unpublished Novel. Mr. Burd lives in Gurnee, IL, where he spends his time exercising, reading, writing, working in the kitchen, cheering for the Chicago Cubs, and watching Tottenham Hotspur. He works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.
UPDATE: There are 4 spaces left for our High Altitude Inspiration in Grand Lake retreat! Find out more
Here in Colorado, the Rocky Mountains are still covered in what feels like endless snow, but underneath all that snow the spring flowers are actually stirring…we just can’t see them yet.
This “stirring” is a potent metaphor for our own creativity: Sometimes we cannot see the fruits of our labor yet, but underneath the surface new life is growing still. And just like spring, one day we will look around and ask: Where did all these flowers come from all of a sudden?
But the artist knows that it never happens all of a sudden.
I love this quote by Cynthia Occelli: “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
So hang on! The rupture of your best work may be working its way to the surface right now!
That also means that now is the perfect time to start planting your creative seeds for the spring/summer: What creative flowers do you want to bloom this year? Do you want to send out more submissions? Enter a contest? Finish a manuscript? Maybe you want to get into a daily writing routine? Try a new form (like flash fiction!)? Get your website going? Network with other writers or go on a writing retreat with us?
Whatever your goals are, now is the time to put those seeds in the ground and let them stir–invisible but moving–towards fruition.
What follows are our reflections on our 2019 Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat. Spaces are available for Writing in the Blue Zone, our return to Peace Retreat in March, 2020. Please read and consider joining us in this very special place:
“I wondered about the explorers who’d sailed their ships to the end of the world. How terrified they must have been when they risked falling over the edge; how amazed to discover, instead, places they had seen only in their dreams.” ~Jodi Picoult
I thought of this quote on the flight to Costa Rica, wondering what lie ahead for us. Though Costa Rica is hardly the “end of the world,” I’d never been there before. I’d only seen pictures. Pictures and descriptions of the country and of Peace Retreat. Nancy and I took a huge leap of faith for ourselves and our participants, hoping we’d chosen well. We really wanted this 2nd outing for Flash Fiction Retreats, and indeed, our first outing outside of the U.S., to be a success.
Costa Rica is wild. And although there are resort towns and luxury hotels, Peace Retreat was neither situated in a resort town, nor was it a luxury hotel. And we didn’t want that anyway. We wanted, well, peace. We wanted to retreat somewhere that our group felt like it largely had the place to themselves (except for a handful of yoga students and teachers and some volunteers, we did). We wanted to feel immersed in a peaceful, exotic setting surrounded by nature. We got that. Each day, I woke up just before dawn, to the sound of the birds and the howler monkeys. For the first few days, the wind was powerful. We were surrounded by trees. We spotted iguanas, bright green parrots, horses along the road. A young piglet even came up to greet us on our walk to the beach.
We were lucky enough that there was a full lunar eclipse during our retreat. We stayed up late to watch it, binoculars tilted to the sky, on a beautiful windswept night. Another night, we participated in a solemn and unforgettable cacao ceremony led by a local shaman.
Definitely a slower pace. Incredibly delicious meals. Fruit so bright and juicy and sweet it was like eating candy. Fresh vegetables and salads, fish, goat-milk dairy, rice, beans, eggs, and freshly baked bread. All of the Peace Retreat staff were so wonderful and kind.
We had a pretty swimming pool with deliciously cool water. Bugs? Yes, a few. We were told “this is their home” and indeed it was. Some ants. A scorpion. A few mosquitos (but not nearly as much as we’d expected). This part of Costa Rica (the northwestern coast) is HOT and dry and a bit dusty. Certain of the trees actually defoliate this time of year, so was surprised to see these bare trees, which had their own strange beauty. But there was also a proliferation of swaying palm trees and others, lush with green foliage. Flowers and flowering bushes.
Situated on the equator, the Costa Rican sunset occurs around 5:30 year-round. The sunsets on Playa Negra were breathtaking. Walking back to Peace Retreat at dusk with a fat full moon rising and surrounded by the new writer friends I’d made felt so special, auspicious. I feel so honored to have spent time with this incredible bunch who wrote their hearts out and were so generous and encouraging with each other. I can’t wait to go back.
What a wild adventure! We saw iguanas, parrots, scorpions, hermit crabs. We heard the eerie, hard-to-describe sounds of the howler monkeys, saw a lunar eclipse, and watched the sunset on the ocean almost every evening. We got to take part in a traditional cacao ceremony, walked along the beach looking for a bonfire (didn’t find it!), and met the locals who set up a spontaneous bazaar at the Peace Retreat. We ate wholesome and fresh food 3 times a day and some us us did yoga in the mornings. I slept like a baby in my screened-in cabina, immersed in the sounds of the jungle.
Oh–and we wrote! A lot. Oh yes, we found perfect, breezy nooks for writing, reading, and in the afternoons my editing class was such a hoot. We had both brand new writers and veterans, but the synergy of the group allowed everyone to get into that perfect workshop balance–a combination of praise, useful suggestions, and inspirational group think brainstorms.
Our final night salon, under the twinkly lights and palm trees with the blessed humidity warming up our winter bodies and the staff of Peace Retreat were our perfect audience.
Eco-friendly Peace Retreat is the perfect blend of authentic Costa Rica with just enough creature comforts to make it relaxing without sacrificing the true experience for the sanitized resort version. Simple, loving, comfortable, perfect. We are so grateful!
A huge THANK YOU to everyone that took that leap of faith with us! Our writer participants were amazing, creative, genuine, and brought their full game to the Costa Rican adventure. We became like family for a week and the Peace Retreat staff became part of that family. A perfect place for some warm, tropical inspiration, meeting new writing friends, mentors, and bonding in a jungle adventure.
We loved it so much we are going it again next year!
Our Writing in the Blue Zone Retreat in Costa Rica Retreat will happen March 21-27, 2020!