Laurie Rachkus Uttich is a lecturer of creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her prose has been published in Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction; River Teeth; Brain, Child (nominated for a Pushcart Prize); Sweet: A Literary Confection; Burrow Press Review; Poets and Writers; Iron Horse (fiction recipient of the Discovered Voices Award); So To Speak (recipient of the Creative Nonfiction Award); The Writers Chronicle; The Good Men Project; and others. Recently, she began writing poetry and has been published in Rattle and The Missouri Review. She can be reached at email@example.com.
There’s no better gift for a writer than an artists’ colony where benevolent patrons provide a bed, a studio, delicious, healthy meals, the company of other artists, and time, time, time to write. I’ve had the good fortune to spend time at Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, Ragdale and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the magic generated in these places is so powerful that I sometimes tiptoe through my ordinary life afterwards, wondering what price will be exacted for such unearned blessings.
But the competition for spots in Writer Heaven is fierce, and your good deeds only get you halfway up the ladder. This year one prestigious arts center had a record number of applications (over 1200 fellowship applicants including both writing and visual arts). I’ve screened for two residency programs, and every time I am amazed and dismayed by how strong the work samples are. As one director told me, “Everybody who gets a fellowship deserves it. But so many people who don’t get a fellowship deserve one too.” All you can do is create your best work, craft your strongest artist statement, and pray. Sometimes, a miracle.
But if you share my religious education, you’ve heard that God helps those who help themselves. And even if you don’t believe that, if you’re a writer, you know how much of your life has focused on the “do-it-yourself” adventure. You often choose your own subjects and genre and set your own deadlines. You can make your own successful writing retreat with the right materials: people, place and planning.
I had a friend in college who would say she was going home for the weekend then stay two nights at a local hotel to focus on her final projects. That’s one option for the do-it-by-yourself types, but part of the pleasure of writing retreats for me has always been the company.
I’ve made many friends—including a steadfast, lifelong one—while on retreat. I love breaking bread and drinking wine with other people who understand the struggles and rewards of sitting for hours at a time in front of a screen that actually requires your most serious mental and emotional engagement. Graduate writing programs offer such regular communion before everyone scatters into jobs and families. Reach out now to one or two people you know you can live and write with for a few days. Suggest a DIY retreat for next summer and give it time to percolate.
The appeal of many established residencies is location, i.e. a studio window looking onto a river where otters play or into a wooded grove full of birds or out on the ocean, the beach a short walk away. The natural world calms, inspires, provides perspective. I recommend finding a location abundant with reminders of life outside of the mind. I’ve done DIY retreats in locations as diverse as a cabin in the Black Hills, a cottage in mid-coast Maine, and even a friend’s home in the country. In each of these places, I was able to take mind-clearing walks and find spaces to sit and read or ponder the structure of a problem story. The point of an escape is that it must feel like an escape from your normal routine. Even if your budget is very tight and your available time very short, a writing-focused weekend at someone else’s home can renew you and your work. I know a writer with a partner who sometimes takes their children to visit relatives for a long weekend so he and his writer friends can reconnect and share work. (Hint: never take for granted such a supportive partner. He returns the favor.)
Just as you’d do before heading to Yaddo or Ucross, determine what project(s) you’ll work on and bring the books, manuscript copies, etc. you need. The DIY retreat requires additional planning on the front end to make it successful. Nobody will make your breakfast everyday or pack a lunch to leave at your door, but you can buy quick foods for breakfast and lunch and work with your fellow retreaters to sort out shopping for shared meals. Every time I’ve been on a DIY, the dinner hour has been a time of joyful community after a day wrapped in my own mind. It’s also a perfect transition into an evening of reading work aloud or socializing.
Of course not everyone keeps “normal” writing hours, so when you don’t have separate studios, planning is crucial. Everyone on a DIY needs to be forthright about their writing habits and needs. Ideally, everyone has a similar schedule. If not, figure out how to accommodate differences before conflicts arise. An early-riser, I usually take the room nearest the coffee maker and furthest from the late sleepers, and we all make sure there’s work space far from the bedrooms.
How you benefit from a DIY retreat depends on the particular mix of writers and the length of the retreat. I’ve exchanged book manuscripts with writers outside my genre, tested new scenes aloud, and drafted new work from exercises assigned by my friends. While you may pay a little more for a DIY retreat, remember that Macdowell won’t let you come for only a few days, and your new friends at Jentel can’t bring your favorite brand of bourbon or explain how your writing has evolved over time.
Finally, keep applying to all of the excellent artist colonies and residencies available to you. Miracles still happen, and your DIY writer friends can serve as references, people who have actually shared work space and time with you and can verify that you’re normal. Or as normal as any other person who goes on vacation to get her work done.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Jo Scott-Coe.
Jo Scott-Coe’s first book is Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute 2010). Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Los Angeles Times, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Ruminate, The Nervous Breakdown, and Ninth Letter. In 2009 and 2010, her work received notable listings in Best American Essays. Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English at Riverside City College in Southern California, where she also teaches public writing workshops for the Inlandia Institute. Her forthcoming book, TheHoly Sacrifice of the Mass, seeks to understand the relationship between the 1966 UT Austin sniper and a friend who was a Catholic priest.
Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?
My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.
You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?
It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.
No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.
But what does this have to do with writing?
It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.
Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre and author of the award-winning memoir Still Pitching, is one of the writers-in-residence at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, where I studied. He often tells me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect.
When I revisit some of my early attempts at writing personal essays, I can see that I was able to describe the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “when” – not surprising for a former journalist. But I had trouble with the “why.” Why was my topic important? What was the point? Why had it stuck with me? What did I have to say about it? What was the best way to say it? And why should anyone else care? I hadn’t explored my topics deeply enough to tackle the demons and find the connections; I hadn’t taken the risk that writing teachers tell you to take when they say: go for the jugular.
It was when I started taking that risk that the writing came to life.
So, will I write about what it was like to sit in this house, which seemed to get hotter and hotter as I became more tense and trapped, during the manhunt after the bombings at the Boston Marathon?
I don’t know. At this point it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. The grief is all around me, as are the tales of heroism and redemption that we all cling to at times like this. And those tales are other people’s stories, not mine. I am just a witness.
Being a witness is important. Very important. But as essayists we need to do more than witness – we need to find meaning and an artful way to express it so that our readers can find it, too. And that takes time.
Superstition Review is thrilled to announce our publication of Patrick Madden in our upcoming issue, set to launch this December. Madden is a wonderful essayist who curates his own website which features classical and renowned essays from the most esteemed authors in history and currently teaches at Brigham Young University. Check out his website at www.quotidiana.org.
Patrick Madden joined the BYU English Department in 2004 after completing his Ph.D. at Ohio University. He specializes in theory and practice of the personal essay and its sister genres (travel, aphorism, etc.) in literary nonfiction. He is also interested in Latin American Literature.
His first book, Quotidiana, a collection of personal essays, was published in early 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. It was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction; it won a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book of the Year Awards for Creative Nonfiction, a bronze medal in the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards for Essay, and the Association for Mormon Letters Award for the Personal Essay. He has published individual essays in The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Portland Magazine, and many other journals, plus some of these essays have been anthologized in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 and The Best Creative Nonfiction vol. 2 or noted in the back of The Best American Essays.
He enjoys volleyball, basketball, web design, strategy games, singing, Rush, and Notre Dame football. He and his wife, Karina, have three sons and three daughters.
We are honored to have the opportunity to publish Madden’s work ourselves, and look forward to our readership enjoying his work as much as we have.