Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: Writing Retreat, Part 3

Lat fall I wrote a post called Travel Tuesdays: Writing and Reflecting. Today, I find myself circling back around to the same topic as I continue reflecting on my experiences on a writing retreat at When Words Count Retreat in Rochester, VT.

As I mentioned in my post last fall, when I reflect on my travel days, months, or even years later, I see things in a new way and learn new things about myself or the trip. While I was on the retreat, I pieced together old memories and learned new things about myself when I was a sixteen year old living in the Philippines. (My new project is set in the Philippines during the People Power Revolution of 1986).

Now that I'm back from my retreat, I've also learned more about my process as a writer. Even if you're not a writer, I hope you'll keep reading. This post will focus on my growth as a writer, but I hope there are lessons here for you, too. Maybe your next trip will lead to your growth as a painter or yogi, or you'll come to a deeper understanding of yourself.

My primary accomplishment during the retreat was the creation of a timeline for my story written on large white paper and hung on the window in my room. As I sifted through old photographs, newspaper articles and letters from my year abroad, I placed important events on the timeline. For example, the rainy season, Sinulog (a city-wide celebration in Cebu, Philippines) the election, and ultimately the downfall of the Marcos regime. I also added events that happened to sixteen-year-old me, such as the first time I ate squid, or learned a Cebuano word, or made a friend. Some came from my memory, some from letters I had written home, some from photographs I dug out.

And then I started to get worried. I'm not writing a memoir. I don't want to tell my personal story. I want to use my story to inform a fictional story about a fictional teen-aged girl. Was this timeline chaining me to the "facts" of my experience?

By the time I left the retreat, I hadn't figured it out. I was excited about how much work I had accomplished but worried I was stuck. And like many writers, self-doubt was hovering around the edges. But I decided to trust my process. (For no good reason really... I've never attempted a novel, but this method just felt right to me).

When I got home, I took a bit of a leap and shared my timeline with my husband and another writer I trust. Both of them understand what I want to accomplish. They're also both good at giving input without taking over. While sharing my timeline and plot graphs, I came to realize more of what this story is about and who my character is. While my writer friend and I discussed the characters, he rather spontaneously suggested a plot change that instantly felt right to me. And then one idea flowed from another until I had a much clearer picture of how to structure this fictional story. My husband asked me clarifying questions about my plans which helped me further refine my ideas.

So now I see exactly how I can move from memoir to fiction. I have a fictional character and fictional host families set against the very real events of that year of revolution.

And what did I learn about myself? Well, first, I need to trust my instincts and just do what feels right to me as a writer regardless of how other writers work. Second, I can share my early work with a few trusted people and I'll survive. And third- this is a big one for me-I can share my plans with people before I've worked them out.

I've been working my experiences around in my mind for years, wanting to write about them. I've been thinking of using my experiences to craft a young adult novel since last summer but hadn't told most people in my life about it until recently. Even my critique (writing) group has only heard vague references to the fact that I'm trying to work on something. Quite frankly, I've been afraid I can't pull this off, so I haven't told people what I'm working on.

But now, here's the biggest thing I learned about myself while on retreat. I CAN tell the world what I'm working on. I may or may not accomplish my goal, but now that I've told all of you, I'm even more likely to keep trying. But even if I don't reach it, I will survive. And that's what I'm going to tell my kids over dinner. I can model that for my kids.

So... what might you learn if you take a retreat? How will it impact you as a person? As a parent or teacher?

You Might Also Like:
TT: Writing Retreat
TT: Writing Retreat, Part 2
TT: Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Go On a Retreat
TT: Writing and Reflecting


  1. I can relate to the urge not to share plans/ideas early on, and the value in doing it anyway. I tend to share my early ideas with different listeners, and they never even need to be experienced writers. I often share with my 3rd graders, for example, just to get their reaction as kids. For me, the benefit is not always the direct feedback. Sometimes I just need to hear myself share the ideas out loud to figure out where they are going. Yes, I have even shared out loud in my empty office before! =)

    1. Good points, Mark. I, too, figure things out by saying them aloud. There have been times when I didn't know I felt a certain way until I said it out loud.

      I am still aware, however, that I need to closely guard my work and not share it until I feel ready. I'm more attuned to that now than I used to be.