Interviews, Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

Adventures in Writing: Ruth Ann Clark on Finishing, Flash Novellas, and France!

RAC2 France

 

We are so excited to get to work with Ruth Ann Clark this June in the gorgeous French countryside! We chatted a bit here about finishing, flash novellas, and of course: France!

Nancy: 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?

Ruth Ann: I’ve been an earlier riser all my life, and I don’t require much sleep. Regardless of the day of the week, I’m awake and up by 5 a.m. I write for two hours. As I’m recently retired, I now write from 5 a.m. to late morning. I’ve found I’m pretty useless after 2 p.m. Definitely an early morning person.

Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

I’m a novice. I became aware of flash fiction at a writers’ retreat at Interlochen (Michigan) last year. Although the retreat focused on the novel, several participants had written and published flash fiction. The form piqued my curiosity. I’ve read Brevity-A Flash Fiction Handbook, FLASH! Writing the Very Short Story, and Fish Anthologies 2019. I regularly review online sites to read submissions (mastersreview.com, lost-balloon.com, kenyonreview.org, mslexia.co.uk.)

What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Two pieces of advice:

I’ve been advised to stay vigilant about overdoing descriptions. Easier said than done, but when I’m mindful of it, my writing improves.

An equally important piece of advice: read the writing aloud.

Yes! The reading aloud is key. What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

I’m not a published writer. I have been working on a novella (off and on) for ten years. It’s finally finished, at least I think a phase of it is. I’ve probably edited it more times than I’m comfortable admitting, but I’ve drawn the proverbial line in the sand: I’m on the last edit before passing it along to an editor/mentor in May.

Congratulations! So, have you ever been to France before? What are you most looking forward to?

I’ve never been to France. I’m looking forward to everything! I’m excited about meeting other writers, seeing the countryside, visiting museums in Paris and, of course, experiencing the food and wine!

Oh yes! Respond to this quote by French writer Emile Zola: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”  

Well, I’m not sure I’m an artist or that I have a gift. I’d say I have a passion. As for the work, I’m very disciplined. Working and reworking my writing has never been a problem. At the moment, the work I’m working on is to put my writing out there for criticism.

I think it’s all about the passion, truthfully. So…tell us something we don’t know about you?

Last summer I enjoyed a walking tour of Scotland. Slangevar!

Wow–I’ve never been to Scotland but it’s on my list! Anything else you want to add?

I recently acquired a small painting of a summer cottage (6” x 6”, acrylic and pencil). I asked the artist to describe the techniques she used to create it. The image itself and her description have inspired me to perhaps use them in my next writing adventure. I’m in the very early stages of possibility. I’m considering a flash fiction novella where each section begins with a different character or situation while each is informed by the same place. However, I haven’t ruled out the possibility of a longer form. To help with my thinking, I’m reading My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas in Flash and a Study of the Form.

I love this idea, and I think I might be able to help with that in France (wink!) Thanks so much for chatting with today, Ruth Ann!

Ruth Ann Clark was born in Massachusetts, and up until twenty years ago, she lived on Cape Ann. The good people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts refer to Cape Ann (located 35 miles north of Boston) as the Other Cape and Cape Cod as The Cape. Clark moved to Michigan in 2000 to be closer to her sister and her family. She still pines for the ocean, which means that she visits the Other Cape at least once a year. Clark has worked in human resources communications, regulatory affairs, and most recently fundraising. In 2018, she retired as a research analyst at Wayne State University in Detroit. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA.  In August she will rent a little cottage in Rockport, MA on the Other Cape.

FYI: Our French Connection Retreat is sold out but we still have spaces for our High Altitude Inspiration in August.

 

 

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Against Shame: On Writing Every Day – Chelsea Stickle

“Write every day.” It’s some of the most common writing advice. I was fourteen the first time someone told me that. She told me to wake up early every day before school and write before the outside world could influence me. She meant well. And while that advice may be good for some people, it is the exact opposite of what works for me. I’m a night owl who thrives late at night when everyone is asleep, and I can think without interference. I need the day to wash over me first. Whatever sticks is important.

Which is to say that all advice about process is bullshit. If you’re still figuring out your process, try different things until you find what works for you. If something works for you, do it. If it doesn’t work, forget it. But I did come here to give a little advice. You know what to do with it.

I have a “build it and they will come” philosophy regarding stories. You don’t have to write every day. Daniel José Older hasan excellent argument against the obligation here. In my case, writing every day is detrimental. It forces me to push out a story that may need more time to build. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” My forced stories never live.

Writing every day leads to burnout for me. Thinking about stories is just as important as the writing itself. Since rooting out bad advice and the culture of “write every day or you’re not a writer”, my writing has become more natural. I suffer less. I’m less inclined to complain about how hard writing is, though some stories are a headache no matter what. Drenching your creativity in shame is not the best way to get something out of it. Shame shuts down the creative pathways when you’re trying to open them. The time you spend beating yourself up about not writing enough can be better spent doing literally anything else.

If I run into a problem with a story, I triage. Did I start writing too soon? Am I starting in the wrong place or focusing on the wrong thing? Is there something I don’t understand about the characters and/or the story that’s necessary for the telling? Did the story inch into one of my blind spots without my noticing? Is there something I need to understand about myself? Am I too much in my own head? Do I need a break? Food? Water? Sleep? A walk? Then I get myself what I need. Even if that thing is a blockbuster starring The Rock. I know my brain is always working to solve the puzzle it created. Cutting myself some slack is sometimes the best way to trick my brain into giving me exactly what I need. I play the long game, and acknowledge that not everything is in my control. The story takes as long as it takes. And that’s okay.

If all else fails, I think back to what my Sarah Lawrence don Mary LaChapelle told me when I couldn’t figure out how to fix a project and no one seemed able to help me. She said, “Maybe you’re not ready to tell this story.” She was absolutely right. It was a relief to hear. I wasn’t ready. I quit writing for two years after that. Mostly because of burnout. When I started writing again, I finished that project.  

How does this process differ from procrastination? I’m honest with myself about what I need. I know when I’m bullshitting myself. I’ve burned out before. A lot, actually. I’ll run myself into the ground if given the chance. Ultimately, I want to write. I see my job as not just writing but making a hospitable home for the stories that show up at my door. When I start to hear a story in my head—that urgent voice demanding to be heard—that’s when I start writing. It’s my job to be open and ready to listen.

 

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Jellyfish ReviewCleaver, Pithead Chapel, Okay Donkey, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Read more stories at chelseastickle.com/stories or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Interviews, Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

On Finding Time to Write: A Conversation with Nancy Ludmerer

 

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Kathy and I are thrilled that Nancy Ludmerer (and her husband, Malcolm) will be joining us for our French Connection Retreat in June 2020! She shares some of her thoughts about writing (and some of her beautiful stories!), flash fiction, thankfulness for deadlines, and even a surprising fact below:

On Finding Time to Write and Creating a “Retreat” to Do So
For 20-plus years (beginning when I was 40) I pursued writing while I was also a single mom practicing law full-time. During that period, it was hard to find time to write. I frequently took weeklong workshops (away from home) where workshop participants would produce one or more pieces daily, whether flash fiction or the beginning of a longer work. Those workshops gave me drafts that I could then work on “in my spare time” when I returned to my life as a lawyer and single mom. When work was lighter, or my son was at summer camp or visiting his dad, I still found it hard, given the number of distractions, to sit down and write. What kept me in my chair was deadlines. Self-imposed ones worked occasionally but the best was a competition or a workshop or a deadline set by a journal (whether for a theme issue or simply “the quarterly issue”). Those deadlines forced me to carve out the time to get the work done.

Now – as of April 2018 – I have retired from the law (and my son is 33), but the need to set deadlines hasn’t really changed. I DO have more flexibility than I used to in that I can work for five uninterrupted hours if I want to – although distractions remain. (For some reason, the refrigerator has become a major one, and in our one-bedroom apartment, it is barely a few feet from where I work.) For me, developing the discipline to write every day remains my biggest challenge. I let myself “off the hook” on days when I am polishing or submitting work, or reading in order to write. But the challenge remains.

My Relationship with Flash Fiction
My relationship with flash fiction began in the mid-1990’s in a workshop taught by Pam Painter at the University of Vermont summer school. I had heard that Pam was a terrific teacher and the course she was teaching happened to be in flash fiction (and was held while my eight-year-old was at summer camp), so I said, why not? Pam was indeed a wonderful teacher and mentor and the students were engaging and smart. The next summer I followed Pam to the Kenyon College summer writing program, where I would return year after year, frequently after that to study with Nancy Zafris. The discipline of having to turn out one or two flash fictions a day was hard and exhausting but also confidence-building, as were a number of acceptances that followed. After that I would explain my affinity for flash fiction by observing that as a full-time lawyer and single mom, I could still manage to polish and perfect a piece of flash fiction, whereas this was much harder for me with a 15 or 20 page story. I love conciseness in story-telling and particularly enjoy the challenge of taking a story of however many words – 1500 or more – and reducing it to 300 or 500 or 750 words for a competition or flash fiction journal. Some of my favorite short-story writers are masters of these short forms (as well as longer works) – from Chekhov to Joyce to Kafka to Paley to Lispector to Tillie Olsen– so I take inspiration from these writers as well as my contemporaries.

Best Piece of Writing Advice
Here I must give a shout-out to Sonia Pilcer. Sonia happens to be one of only two people in the world whom both Malcolm and I knew BEFORE we knew each other. (The other is a judge in NYC.) Malcolm actually dated Sonia for a while (I did not) before becoming the godfather to her son, but both of us met her when she was teaching classes in the writing program at our local YMCA, the West Side Y. Sonia would assign weekly prompts to the students in her class and on the first day of class, write on the blackboard in huge letters: WRITE. WRITE STUPID. WRITE UGLY. WRITE. Both that advice, and the sheer volume of stories that I was required to produce in classes taught by Pam Painter, Nancy Zafris, and others (including Sonia), helped to dispel the feeling that you had to produce something “good” every time. It is still nerve-wracking to be among a new group of writers, especially writing to prompts. Will I produce anything “good”? Will they think I am “good”? But I try to cling to that advice, understanding that writing is a craft that you get better at by doing, even doing “badly” – whatever that means.

Piece(s) of Writing I Am Most Proud Of
This question is probably the single reason it has taken me so long to respond your interview questions. How can I choose? Isn’t it like asking someone to choose her favorite child? Moreover, it’s difficult to separate my own perceptions from the reactions of readers. I will answer with a few stories, and hope that’s okay. Among flash fictions, I am particularly proud of “How Are You?” (published in Vestal Review). Next might be “Learning the Trade in Tenancingo” or (most recently) “After Happiness”. I also have a special place in my heart for “Morris and Cleo” which was a runner-up for (and published by) The Brighton Prize; “Clementine,” short-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize in 2018; and “Tiffy” (Fish Anthology 2015); however, these appear only in print. It’s easier for me to answer this question for my longer stories: “A Bohemian Memoir” published both online and in print by Litro is probably the piece of writing I am most proud of that is not flash. It is told from the point of view of a wineglass. But I am so indebted to Kenyon Review for publishing “The Ham Theory” that I must mention that story as well. It was published in print and then republished by KR Online several years later. And I should mention one more story among the ones I’m proudest of.  Here it is, published on the Retreat West website as a runner-up for one of their themed competitions.

France
I’ve been to France four times: first, as an undergraduate; and then three times with Malcolm. The first two trips turn up in my fiction: my undergraduate experience is reflected (a bit) in a story coming out this month(!) in The New Guard review, a full-length story called “The Spirit of the Staircase”; and my first trip with Malcolm (to Normandy and Brittany) shows up in a flash fiction in The London Reader called “Honeymoon in Bayeux” (although in real life it wasn’t our honeymoon). I am looking forward to taking the workshop in exceptionally beautiful surroundings; to great food and wine; to finding new stories and new friends; and to exploring places in France where I haven’t been before, including Bordeaux, where we will stay for two nights before the workshop, and Arcachon, on the sea, where we will stay for two nights afterwards.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” ~ Anais Nin
Writing is definitely a way to give meaning to experiences that might otherwise seem random or meaningless. It is, as the quote suggests, a way of stopping time and turning what is hard-to-grasp and fleeting into something tangible and even permanent. Several of my stories have their genesis in my experiences as a single mom; others in the experience of caring for elderly parents. In each case, I hope to go beyond the experience itself “in the moment” to extract or uncover something deeper that, while not necessarily universal, will be relatable beyond my small sphere.

Something you don’t know about me
I practiced law at a large NYC firm for 33 years, where I was “technically” “part-time” (ie., Mommy track instead of partnership track) but worked very long hours. The “deal” was that I would not have to travel for cases, as many lawyers were required to do for weeks at a time. That meant that even if I worked late at night, I would be there in the morning when my son, Jonah, woke up. I found this to be even more important when he was a pre-teen and teen than when he was an infant and preschooler! Although many of my clients were large corporations or other lawyers (in later years, I specialized in representing attorneys accused of legal malpractice), my most satisfying cases were often my pro bono representations: representing prisoners with mental illness or their families, victims of domestic violence, immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and even a woman politician accused (wrongly, in my view) of conflict of interest. Law was neither my first love nor my passion, but it enabled me to raise my son comfortably while meeting and helping people of many different occupations and backgrounds.

Thank you for your patience in reading the above non-flash responses and looking forward to the summer!

Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction appears in Best Small Fictions 2016, New Orleans Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Masters Review’s ‘New Voices’ Series, Sou’wester, Litro, Flash Frontier, and other journals and anthologies published in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and Argentina as well as the U.S. Her flash fiction has won prizes from Grain, Night Train, Blue Monday Review, Retreat West, and River Styx, and three of her flash fictions have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her essay ‘Kritios Boy’ (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014.   She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and their cat Sandy, a rescue from Superstorm Sandy.

Our French Connection Retreat is now full but we have space available in our March 2020 Costa Rica or our August 2020 Colorado retreats.

Interviews, Uncategorized

A Virtual Gallery Exhibition: Jeffrey Spahr-Summers interprets Grand Lake 2019

Creative people are usually creative in multiple ways. On many of our retreats, we are lucky to have amateur or even professional photographers and other visual artists sharing some of their non-word-related creations as well, and in Grand Lake we were thrilled to have the artistic eye of Jeffrey Spahr-Summers interpreting our mountain sanctuary. Below you’ll find our first “Virtual Gallery Exhibition”, which represents only a small sliver (link to more below). I find it visceral, trippy, surreal, sometimes seeming to actually vibrate, in moments channeling Van Gogh and Monet. Truthfully I can’t find an adjective that really sums it up: gorgeous, stunning, amazing…none of these do it justice.

When I asked Jeffrey if he wanted to caption the photos he said, “Let them speak for themselves.” So…without further preamble: ENJOY!

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And a slideshow!

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Check out more of Jeffrey’s work (including his amazing words!) at

 

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers Photography

And join us August 19-23, 2020 for our return to Grand Lake, Colorado!

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Know anyone who could use a half-price writers’ retreat? Special deal on Writing Wild in Costa Rica!

Limited-Time Opportunity for a Half-Price Flash Fiction Retreat in Costa Rica, March 2020!

With the purchase of one all-inclusive retreat package, get a 2nd one for half off!

Invite a friend to join you for our Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat March 21st-27th & gift them with the half-priced fee (as low as $725 all-inclusive) OR register together and split the savings! We can only extend this deep discount to the first TWO pairs of writers to register. If interested, act soon! 

Your all-inclusive fee includes:

  • Six nights accommodation 
  • Three Delicious, Ayurvedic Meals Per Day
  • ALL workshops + One on One Consultations
  • Airport Pick-Up & Drop-Off
  • Final Night Celebration & Salon Reading Under the Stars
Samadhi Suite

“This retreat EXCEEDED all my expectations. Gorgeous location, perfect weather, delicious food & friendly, accommodating staff. I’m a flash fiction writing newbie and learned so much from everyone. I will carry the knowledge and wonderful memories with me forever!” ~Lucy Merklee

More About Writing Wild in Costa Rica
All-Inclusive Fees & Accommodations
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We’ve also just opened registration for our 3rd annual Colorado Retreat. Check it out: High Altitude Inspiration in the Great American West for August 19th-23rd!