Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized

Why You Need a Writers Retreat: The Dopamine of Anticipation

Recently I was gifted the use of an empty condo in the Colorado mountains for the weekend, a glorious three days with just myself and my writing. I’d been looking forward to my own mini writers retreat for weeks!

I bet everyone here can relate: Having a retreat or vacation (of any length!) to look forward to gives you an instant dopamine hit–the body knows something is coming and it’s already happy, already excited.

Ah dopamine. It’s that chemical that makes us feel good. It’s released when we fall in love, ride a roller coaster, win a prize for that story we wrote, and it’s also the culprit in all sorts of addictions, from chocolate to sex to the constant “ping” of our text messages. When dopamine is released we get the message that “this feels good” and we keep coming back for more.

But here’s something interesting: Researchers have found that it’s the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, that gets those feel-good chemicals in our brains going. Meaning we are already feeling good BEFORE we even get the reward.

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, vacationers already “started experiencing a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of the trip because they were looking forward to the good times ahead.”

Which means looking forward to pleasurable things is as good for your overall happiness and well-being as the actual experience of them. You are already getting that “hit” of pleasure every time you think about the exciting thing that’s coming.

Stanford biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky says from his studies with monkeys that “dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than the happiness itself.”

Want to geek out on the science a bit? Check out the 5-min clip fromRobert Sapolsky’s lecture on the Science of Pleasure below:

So what’s the takeaway here? The bottom line is that the anticipation of an upcoming vacation or artistic retreat is already releasing sweet, sweet dopamine into your system. Every time we think about it, talk about it, every time we look at pictures, every time we do research and tell others about it.

So…are you excited yet?
~Nancy

P.S. Join us on an upcoming retreat!

Interviews, Nancy Stohlman

The Small Masterpiece: A Heart to Heart with Creative Entrepreneur Bryan Jansing

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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.

Want to join us in Italy in May 2019?

Nancy Stohlman, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Bribing the Muse: On Your Mark, Get Set…

Sometimes our stories fall flat, without that “pop” of tension. One great way to create urgency in a flash fiction story is by using another constraint: Time.

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For almost a decade now, all my college classes have begun with a 10-minute timed writing. Timed writing is nothing new. We know that it helps us transition us into the writing space, like stretching before a workout. We know that it forces us to stay present and dig deeper—writing past where we might have naturally given up. And we know that keeping the pen moving quickly, without crossing things out or rereading, is a great way to evade the internal critic and uncover fresh ideas.

But I discovered something else through years of this practice: 10 minutes of writing without stopping is also the perfect amount of time to draft a flash fiction story idea from start to finish.

It makes sense: Flash fiction is defined by a (word) constraint, so why not create under a time constraint? Having that clock ticking while you furiously try to reach the end of an idea gives the piece a natural sense of urgency. And writing from the beginning to the end in one sitting also creates a sense of continuity—we see the end coming as we embark on the journey.

I do most of my timed writings longhand, scribbling. But it works with typing as well. And you can use a timed writing in many ways. For instance, you can:

  • Set the timer while writing to a prompt.
  • Set the timer when you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to write about.
  • Set the timer and rewrite a “flat” story from scratch while the clock chases you to the finish line (my favorite)

And as a daily practice it’s even better.

Besides, you can do anything for 10 mins, right?

Regardless of how you use it, a 10-minute burst of writing can break you through resistance and lethargy. And creating something to push against allows inspiration to bulge and balloon in interesting and unexpected ways.

~Nancy

(How did it work for you? Share in the comments below!)

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

Where You’ve Been, What You’ve Seen: A Conversation with Gay Degani

The lovely Gay Degani is joining Nancy and me for Create in Costa Rica in January. We’re so excited to work with her and everyone! (Note: Though it’s filling up, some spaces in the Costa Rica retreat are still available.)

Hi,Gay. You’re joining us in Costa Rica in January to write, commune, rest, explore in an exotic space. We can’t wait! Can you talk a little about how you honor your writing time and your creative life in other ways? (it’s okay to talk about how you struggle with this too if that’s the case!)

2017 was a difficult year for me and I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction to the political situation, the number of shootings (my daughter was at the Las Vegas concert), and the sexual harassment revelations. Also for me, my desire to write another novel has made me come up against my own brand of angst.

However, being part of the online writing community has been a writing “life-saver” for me. It saved me in 2007 and it’s saved me in 2017. What I’ve tried to do to counter my lack of productivity last year is to make certain the same thing doesn’t happen in 2018 by signing up for classes on-line and retreats like the one you and Nancy Stohlman are putting together. With a Barrelhouse class and one with One Story completed, I’m already hard at work in 2018. It’s important, I think, to surround myself with as many like-minded people as I can, and writers make up my tribe.

Respond to this quote from Natalie Goldberg:

“Writing practice brings us back to the uniqueness of our own minds and an acceptance of it. We all have wild dreams, fantasies, and ordinary thoughts. Let us to feel the texture of them and not be afraid of them.Writing is still the wildest thing I know.”

I love Natalie Goldberg. Her books and tapes (yes, back then it was audio-tapes) gave me permission to be a writer. For so long I believed being an writer was a god-given gift and if you had that gift, you couldn’t help but write, no matter the odds.

Spending time to write always felt selfish to me. Something I would, of course, make myself do if I had that “GOD-GIVEN GIFT.”

But I always had other things on my agenda and they seemed so much more vital to my everyday life–kids, a husband, lists of errands–and I did them. The result was very little time to write, and since I didn’t feel irresistibly compelled to put words down, I thought I must not have that “GOD-GIVEN GIFT.”

But this concept is so so wrong. Yes, a person does need some amount of natural talent, but so much of developing that talent is believing you have a right to spend time honoring it, letting it breathe, and accepting that what you write doesn’t need to be perfect the first time around, and that it’s okay to let the act of writing take up chunks of your life.

Natalie Goldberg helped me see how to negotiate around my two great lacks–of confidence and of craft–by doing “morning pages.” Performing this early communion with myself allowed me to wrestle with questions on paper rather than in my mind where I could so easily push them into a dark corner. I owe as much to her as I do to the on-line writing community.

What is your favorite flash you’ve written (not “best” or “most successful” necessarily, but the one you love the most) and why?

I don’t know if I can really answer this. Each one that finds itself written is a little piece of my heart and my life. They are like children, some easily delivered and others full of pain.

And I never know what will resonate with others. Some of my pieces I feel are struggling so hard to grow up and I worry and nurture and almost give up, but then they do something to make me proud–like getting published. The ones I sense will go out there and slay dragons come back defeated. Like many mothers, I can’t pick favorites. Each feel special to me in their own way.

Is there something we probably don’t know about you that you’d like to share?

I feel as if my life is an open book. If you read my stories, you will glimpse many different aspects of “me,” though none of those are all of me. You are what you believe in, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what’s hurt you, what’s made you stronger.

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A jungle walk ends at the ocean in Costa Rica
Oh, I love that. It’s so true and wise. What are you most looking forward to in Costa Rica?

You, Kathy, and Nancy, and being with other writers on the trip. This is what I need and crave. What most writers need and crave: To be with their tribe, if only for a short period of time.

Gay Degani is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She’s had four flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Words in Place.