Interviews

Writing & Striving for a Happier, Healthier Lifestyle: A Chat with Lucy Merklee

Lucy Merklee will be joining Nancy and me (along with her husband, Bill) for Writing Wild in Costa Rica! Lucy comes from a corporate background and looks to explore creative writing, particularly the flash fiction form, with us this January.
Hi Lucy! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Have you ever visited Costa Rica before? What interests/fascinates you about that part of the world?
I have never visited Costa Rica, but I have heard so many wonderful things from friends and family that have been. It is supposedly gorgeous and has wonderful weather year-round, so I am very excited to travel there with my husband for the retreat.
You are relatively new to creative writing. What got you interested? What do you enjoy writing about?
What interests me as a writer is anything that helps me grow as a person and enables me to get inside and really feel whatever the character is experiencing.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “retreat”? And how do you find ways to make time for yourself and your own creativity in your day to day life?
Two years ago as I was approaching my 50th birthday, I decided that I wanted to make healthier choices and live a happier lifestyle. So I engaged a life coach and he really helped me see things from a different perspective. I have lost 70 pounds and have never felt better. I still do have some weight to lose before I get to my goal, however my clothes fit and I feel great.
I really enjoy coaching other people on how to change the way they look at things, because then things change the way they look. I also love to give unsolicited advice, but no longer take it personally if people aren’t open at that moment to what I’m saying. Sometimes all it takes is the right person, saying something in exactly the right way, at the right time when you are ready to hear it. I strive to be that for everyone I encounter.
Now that my kids are grown, I am able to focus on what I want my second chapter to look like. I volunteer every week for two hours at the local animal shelter working with the dogs and the cats, and I absolutely love it. It’s incredibly fulfilling. I also mentor at risk high school students via a program through work, and I have received the president’s volunteer service award for the past three years because I volunteer over 100 hours a year.
Most of the writing I have done has been corporate in nature, as I have a Masters Degree in corporate communication. I also dabble in shorter stories and have an idea for something I want to work on while at the retreat in terms of flash fiction.
Oh, I’m excited to see your flash idea come to fruition in Costa Rica, Lucy! Can you share something about yourself (a memory, anecdote, coincidence, special/weird talent, etc.) you’d like to share with us?
I enjoy all forms of exercise including swimming (we have a pool, so I usually swim about a half a mile every day at lunch), walking, running (in the cooler weather I usually do about two miles a day), yoga, tennis, pickle ball, you name it, I am up for it! I also enjoy needlepoint, Reading, gardening, and can hold my own with the best of them on most TV shows.
Thanks so much, Lucy!
BIO: Lucy Merklee is a full-time working mother of two amazing adult children. She has worked at AT&T for 28 years in a multitude of roles and will stay as long as they’ll have her. Lucy lives in Wanaque, NJ with her wonderful husband Bill and two awesome cats. If anyone is looking for three hermit crabs, she would be very happy to rehome them with all supplies, as they were left behind by her daughter when she moved out.
Note: Does Writing Wild in Costa Rica this January sound appealing to you? A very few spaces remain! Find more information HERE.
Interviews

Pura Vida! A Closer Look at Peace Retreat in Costa Rica with Owner, Kevin McQuillan

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.Kevin smile

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-fzDVWhm-MI 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.

P1120255LRPlaya 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…costa rica hammock

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.

costa rica yoga spaceStart 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.

Cool Down!

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.Peace Retreat

Venture Wildly!

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.

Starry Nights

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.

Interviews

The Zen of Writing, Literary Pilgrimages, & Retreating in Costa Rica: A Chat with Bill Merklee

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.

NOTE: A few spaces remain for our Create in Costa Rica retreat in January, 2019. Get more info HERE. Hope you can join us!

Interviews

Strange Beauty & Writing Rituals: A Conversation with K.C. Mead-Brewer

Katie Author Photo (3)Hi K.C.! Nancy and I are so excited that you will be 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?

This is turning out to be a big workshop year for me. Before this year, I’ve participated in a couple Hedgebrook Master Classes and a residency through the Vermont Studio Center (not to mention regular meetings with my writing group!), but I’d never attended an actual workshop until the Tin House Winter Workshop this past January. And then, this summer, I’ll also be fortunate enough to participate in the Clarion Workshop. (!

Day-by-day, I engage in a lot of small rituals for my writing. (See question 5!) For example, I draw a tarot card for the day to help focus me, I light a candle, fix a cup of tea, eat a piece of chocolate, read something new, etc. I’m a worshipper of the goddess Ritual.

Please respond to this quote by Krystal Sutherland: “Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.”
Veins in a rose petal / veins in a bat’s wing. The rippling of a skirt / the rippling of a serpent. The moaning of a lover / the moaning of the wind. The suppleness of flesh / the suppleness of flesh. A memory / a ghost. A beauty mark / a mole. Laughter / screams. Relaxation / vulnerability. Musk / sweat. Catharsis / The End. 

All beauty is strange. It’s just that not all strangeness is beautiful.

Oh that’s gorgeous. I love that response. Thank you. 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? 

Probably my short story “Chameleons”. It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written (anymore), but at the time it felt incredibly freeing for me–like I’d finally figured out the kind of stories I wanted to write. The kind I was good at writing. It’s the story that showed me I might actually really a little bit sorta kinda maybe possibly be pretty good at this.

(Read K.C.’s story here: Chameleons)

Have you been 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 before, but I’m very excited about visiting. I’m usually more of a cloudy person, preferring places that are dark and rainy and stark. Really, I’m looking forward to being somewhere so different from what I know and might’ve chosen for myself. And of course the animals! I’m hoping to see a new reptile every day.

Tell us something we don’t know about you that you are happy to share. : )

I don’t talk about this often, though you might’ve guessed it about me: I’m oddly superstitious. I believe in signs, symbols, talismans, omens, and ghosts. I’m a pretty shy and private person, so I don’t mention this much, but it’s always there.

That’s so fascinating. Thanks so much, K.C.! We are so looking forward to retreating with you this January in Costa Rica!

Note: A few spaces are still available for Create in Costa Rica. Join us!

K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Carve Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. As an author and reader, she loves everything weird—SFF, horror, magical realism, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible but inevitable. She’s participated in residencies, classes, and/or workshops through Tin House, Hedgebrook, and The Vermont Studio Center. She’s thrilled to be participating in this year’s Clarion Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her on Twitter @meadwriter.

Interviews, Kathy fish, Nancy Stohlman

On Returning to My First Love: “Words.” A Conversation with Traci Mullins

Photo - Traci Mullins

We’re so excited that Traci Mullins is going to be joining us in Costa Rica this coming January! Here Traci talks candidly about honoring the 8-year-old little girl inside of her that loved to play with words and how she is finally allowing HER to take the lead again.

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?

Traci Mullins: ​I have a taxing day job, so this is definitely a challenge. ​In order to stay on task as a self-employed person, I have to set office hours and stick to them lest I give in to the temptation to goof off all day! Therefore, writing in the mornings, as many people do, doesn’t work for me. Evenings are usually family time, so I’ve been setting aside an hour or two at the end of my workday to change environments (usually to a coffee shop) and give dedicated attention to my writing. I have to admit I don’t always  write, but I at least do something related to writing, whether it’s taking an on-line class, reading others’ writing, or brainstorming story ideas. At this point, only a few months into writing my own stories, I’m trying not to be too black and white by telling myself that only the time I’m producing is “real” writing time. For me, anything I can do to fuel my creativity counts and will hopefully pay off over the long haul.
Nancy: Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?
Traci: ​I stumbled upon this genre in January, quite by accident, when I was poking around on the internet, looking for fiction writing resources. I help other people write books for a living, so unfortunately I abandoned my own creative writing efforts decades ago. Over Christmas I had a slow period at work and decided that it was time to reengage the young girl in me who loved to write little stories. When I read about Flash, it seemed like a perfect place to start because it didn’t intimidate me like writing something longer did. I’ve since discovered that it’s more challenging than I anticipated, but I love it! I like taking one moment or event and unpacking it with just the right amount of detail, and I especially like being able to finish a story fairly quickly. Certainly not every story I write is good, but once in a while I come up with something that makes me happy, the way writing stories did when I was a child.
 
Nancy: What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Traci: I’d like to say that I follow the advice I hear most often: “Write something every day.” But I actually value most what I read in your interview with Gay Degani (thank you, Gay!): “You are what you believe in, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what’s hurt you, what’s made you stronger.” I have tried using other people’s writing prompts, but the stories I’m most pleased with are those that feel authentically mine. So I try to dig into my own life and trust that there are story seeds to be found. Coming up with story ideas is by far my greatest challenge as a writer, so I have to practice patience and hone my skill at listening to my own life and heart.
 
Nancy: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Traci: ​Since I only started writing a few months ago, I don’t have a lot to show for myself–haha! But the first two stories I submitted did get accepted​, at Flash Fiction Magazine. The first, called “Saved,” was posted on line on 3/10/18. READ IT HERE
The one that means the most to me, however, is “Animal Pancakes,” and they haven’t given me the publication date for that one yet.
Nancy: React to this quote: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”–Diane Ackerman
 
​​Traci: You couldn’t have given me a better quote to ponder because the ONLY reason I started writing again was to honor the 8-year-old in me who used to write prolifically, as pure play. I still have all the stories I wrote back then. It saddens me that I abandoned that girl, for many different reasons, so as I begin to pick up the pen again, it’s critical that I honor her and allow her to lead the way. As a professional non-fiction writer, it’s hard not to take everything I write seriously; but I am committed to creating space for the young creative in me to experiment and goof off with words, which have always been my favorite playthings. As I’ve been doing this over the past few months, I have indeed learned a lot about the craft, but that is a secondary benefit.
Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Traci: I have helped hundreds of authors write books, doing a lot of writing as well as being published myself in the process, but writing fiction requires a completely new type of risk. Going from expert to novice is scary, but with the support of other writers I hope to create a safe space for my own creativity to be nurtured.
A random fact: at age 45, I went to nursing school and practiced as an oncology and hospice nurse until recently, when I returned to my first love: words.
 
Traci Mullins has more than three decades of experience in coaching, editing, book doctoring, and collaborating on hundreds of non-fiction books, helping authors and speakers to formulate and convey messages close to their hearts in an accessible and compelling style. She has helped launch the careers of many first-time writers as well as developed long-term coaching relationships with veterans of the trade. She specializes in developing titles on topics of spirituality, psychology, relationships, health & wellness, and memoir and considers it a privilege to shepherd authors through the concept-shaping and writing process.  For more detailed information on her projects, see her profile on LinkedIn.