Writing Retreat in Sayulita, PostScript

To the Wandering Writers who I now call friends, may we continue to wander, write about it and share our words with each other.

I returned home yesterday from a six day trip I signed up for with little information and a lot of impulsiveness and I’m so thankful I did. I was on my way home from my 50th high school reunion, breaking up my driving trip into two days instead of one, because I was only one month out from getting a knee replacement. Because I follow writers on social media, my feed is filled with anything and everything that has to do with writers and writing, including workshops, retreats, Zoom classes and sadly, sites that will give you the coveted information on how to write a book in a matter of days and get it published in even less time, at a cost that likely ends in a .99. I’ll humbly admit that, yes, I looked at the site with the same frame of mind that had me contemplating the purchase of a small bottle of oil that was “guaranteed to heal the pain of bone on bone joints.” I did not send money for the writing secret or the knee pain cure. I saw Jessica’s post while seated at the bar at a restaurant in Salina, Kansas (it feels less obvious to eat alone at a bar than at a table, eliminating the awkwardness of the hostess quickly removing one place setting before being seated). Halfway into a plate of gluten-free pasta and trying to enjoy a not very good glass of the house red, I saw the words “Sayulita, Mexico” and “memoir.” I was hooked with Sayulita, a place I had been to multiple times, but the hook was set when I saw “memoir.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor — a team of one, where the writer is the coach, the player, the audience and the cheerleader. While in the process of writing, whether a page or a chapter, there is no one but me to look over my shoulder and say “good work, strong metaphor, don’t go there and definitely not there, but I liked the circuitous route you took, or what all writers wait to hear themselves say, “stand up and dance, because you, my friend, just nailed it!” It’s difficult to be the cheerleader who says “keep writing, you’ve got this” when there are days when you can’t find the right words and everything reads like the voices of the adults in the Charlie Brown shows, “Mwa, Mwa, Mwa.” A writing group, I thought, as I entered my credit card numbers onto the form in-between bites of pasta, was exactly what I needed. A writing group would be able to tell me to keep the words, change the words or maybe write about something else entirely. Actually, short of the two writing workshops I have attended in person and five via Zoom, each only lasting a day or two, I had no idea what six days at a writing retreat would be like, but I did know Sayulita and that seemed like a good enough start.

Insecurities crept in, as they so often do when faced with something new — what if my writing is not good enough? My subject not tragic enough? What if don’t like the other women? Or worse, what if they don’t like me? What if I’m the oldest? The least creative? And finally, for the lightening round, what if no one cares about the pages I’ve written? I can’t speak for the entire group, but can confirm I heard several going through a similar zig zag of emotions.

As I was driving home the next day, my feelings swung from I can’t believe I signed up for a memoir workshop in Mexico, to I can’t wait. Fortunately, the “I can’t wait” stuck and I began preparing pages to share with Jessica Hill, the facilitator, and diving into the two books we would have discussions on while at the retreat. Jessica went above and beyond in preparing us for what to expect with two Zoom meetings to meet the group beforehand and two individual Zoom meetings to dive deeper into our goals and expectations with her.

Yesterday, we said our goodbyes to each other, with hugs and promises of staying in contact. Half the group left for earlier flights, while the remainder of us gathered in the seating area outside of the reception and played with the in-house kitten. We said our goodbyes again when we arrived at the airport in Puerta Vallarta, then again while some of us spotted each another in the long security line that snaked itself around what felt like half the airport. Then finally, yet again, when some of us found each other at our designated gates, where we exchanged our final final on the hugs and goodbyes. Hardly the Irish goodbye of sneaking out the backdoor without notice, we did the opposite and let it linger until we had to finally let go and line up at our respective gates for the flights that would take us home.

Mary, a brilliant writer who had us leaning in when she read, followed by uninhibited laughter at her uninhibited words, found me at gate 10, shortly before boarding and gave me a beautiful pair of silver earrings she bought for me. She told me she saw them and remembered I wore silver. It may have been the night you tucked in early, Mary, and didn’t hear all the pieces that were read that night, but “remembered I wore silver” was a line from one of the chapters I read, touching me even more. After all the hugs followed by more hugs, Mary’s gift to me was what brought on the tears. I let them fall down my cheeks, not really caring about the couple in front of me who was also going to Denver and appeared to be a lot more anxious about leaving than I was. The tears were the kind of tears I wanted to remember and save — tears of support, friendship, love and a connection with our words. Moments I’d be reminded of when hunched over my computer in the early morning hours, wearing a bathrobe with beautiful silver earrings dangling from my earlobes. Moments I will recall while wondering if what I’m typing is good or readable or enough.

Showing off one of my earrings from Mary. I think they’re magic.

I unexpectedly connected with 11 women, who I now call friends, on a level far deeper than I could have imagined possible in six short days and I did it near the place where I took my first trip after my divorce to an all girls surf camp with my sisters. It felt very cyclical in the timing as I thought back to the night eating dinner at the bar in Salina, Kansas. I was supposed to be at La Joya Resort, gathered with these women, sharing my work and being inspired by theirs, while recognizing the journey I had been on since finding my courage on a surf board so many years ago. And inspired I was. I heard words from memoir chapters that made me cry, both for the experience the writer went through and the tremendous bravery she had to share it. I held my new writing friends’ words like the precious gifts they were as I made my way back to my bungalow every night on the the cobble stone paths in the dark, the memory of their words mingling with the sounds of the ocean as I fell asleep. Mornings were spent workshopping various aspects of memoir writing and writing from prompts we shared or kept to ourselves. In the evenings, after afternoons of writing, we shared our words and our hearts in the process.

There were so many places to write and although it was a small resort, we all were able to find our spots and our privacy, whether in lounge chairs by the pool or on the beach, or on my little balcony with views of the ocean or in the lounge area of the dining room. At night, our proximity to the ocean became my sound machine, so loud the first night, coupled with the breeze from the ceiling fan, that I woke up in the middle of the night wondering where I was and if I should take cover given the roar of the waves. I’m a midwest and a mountain girl. The ocean sounds are a novelty, albeit one I embrace. Last night, while having a hard time falling asleep, I tried to replicate the sounds that had lulled me to sleep for the past several nights with an “ocean sounds” app. After 15 minutes it became annoying. It was not the same. One of my new “sisters in writing” (thank you, E. J. ) sent us all a recording she made of the ocean before we left. It was one more reminder for me. I hope the reminders will continue.

When 10 open-hearted women opened their notebooks or computers, and were willing to embrace their most vulnerable selves, magic happened. Beautiful, inspiring, magic. To those women who listened to my words, gently rubbed my back when they came out shaky and gave me the push and the inspiration to keep on writing when it felt uncomfortable and even painful, thank you from the bottom of my very full heart. To say the experience was life-changing sounds overly dramatic, but it truly did change my life, so I’ll go with the dramatic. The words I’m sharing have barely scratched the surface. We ended our time together with a bonfire on the beach where we burned our resistances. It was the perfect ending to new beginnings.

Our resistances, road blocks and fears, up in flames then gone.

Finally, to you, Jessica, who created and orchestrated these past 6 days so beautifully, I’m forever grateful. The alignment of the stars, Devine intervention, manifesting or perhaps a committee of all three, came together for me that night when your post made its way to my instagram account while eating pasta at a bar in Salina, Kansas. As my writing mentor, you’d likely tell me write stream of consciousness about my experience. And so I did. Thank you.

10 Year Anniversary

Ten years ago next month, I started this blog.  Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years and I’ve kept it up.  Like a lot of my projects, it’s waxed and waned throughout the years, but it’s remained and I’m proud that over 152 posts later, I’m still at it.  I’ve been spending time the past few days rereading some of my earlier posts, with equal amounts of pride and embarrassment.  I have my favorites and others I wished had never been published, but they were and I won’t delete them (perhaps an edit or two) as they are as relevant and important as the ones that I hold dear.  There are some posts that still make me cry because I can remember how vulnerable and even broken I was when I wrote them and others that make me laugh or shake my head or cringe at how often I used adverbs, the bane of any writing teacher’s existence.  

So, what was the inspiration, the impetus, the drive or the idea that started this whole posting on a blog thing anyway?  Well, I’ll tell you and it wasn’t my idea.  It was my dear friend Susie’s,  who I’ve called my best friend since we were 15 years old, who came up with the idea.  I would write essays and send them to her periodically because I loved to write and loved to share what I had written even more.  She suggested I start a blog.  I thought she was crazy.  I told her I didn’t think anyone would want to read my essays and by putting them out there, it felt too much like bragging.  She told me I had one reader.  She would read them.  She added that having a blog would be a great way to store all of my writing.  Everything all in one place.  And so I took her idea and ran with it, well, not exactly ran, but walked fast, but with hesitancy.  My son, Grant, did the technical work and the design and I started writing.  I was in Frisco, Colorado when I started making posts and I wrote like a mad woman, finally with a place to put all of my words, although I became very picky about what I’d share, ( thankfully), only publishing my favorites. 

I remember sitting in what had become my writing chair, with beautiful views of Buffalo Mountain as my vista while I typed my thoughts into my new, not yet named, blog.  When I read my first few posts a few days ago, it took me right back to the time, the place, the view and even the chair I was sitting in. I finally had an outlet for the essays I had been writing for decades.  It was like an artist at long last procuring a studio with natural light pouring in through the windows.  I was beyond thrilled. I had a space, a platform and a view of the mountains to boot.  I certainly didn’t think that 10 years later and no longer living part time in the mountains of Frisco, Colorado, with a views so beautiful it seemed like they are just showing off, that I’d still be adding to the site that was started with so much reluctance and trepidation.  I still have the chair, but have added a desk to the mix where I sit and do most of my writing. The chair has become more of a contemplation station, a compliment to the desk.

Thank you to my dear friend, Susie, for believing in me and being my first reader and to my family who quickly followed suit. And to all of you who have read one or all (and I hope if it was just one that it wasn’t the one that makes me cringe on the reread), thank you.  It touches me deeply when I think of people I don’t even know taking time to read what I’ve written.  

In rereading so many of my posts, I’ve decided to recycle a few for the next month or two, or until I get tired of it. I’ll call it an anniversary gift to myself, posting my favorites – the ones that highlighted a time in my life that needed to be captured, not only in photographs, but also in words. 

Enjoy.

Writing

Home.

Writing is hard. But not doing it is even harder for me. I’ve been spending the past several days going through writing notebooks, a project that coincided with the beginning of the new year. Cleaning, organizing, throwing out and re-stacking what is kept is food a Virgo’s soul, and if it falls on the beginning of a new year, it’s as good as an all you can eat buffet. There’s actually a name for being inspired by the new year, Mondays, new notebooks, the first page of a book etc. I don’t remember what it is called, but would have better luck recalling it on a Monday or the first day of the month. From desk drawers, large baskets and a trunk, I unearthed stacks upon stacks of journals, notebooks and file folders with hand written pages, typed pages, half filled pages and scraps of paper with words on them that made no sense. The scraps, I threw away. Filled journals, journals that I barely started, almost complete essays, starts on ideas to write about — so many starts, and notebooks from the many writing classes I’ve taken, are now in stacks that cover a big part of the floor in my small office. In looking at the notebooks, some with beautiful artwork on the front but the majority more utilitarian, I wondered, is this normal? Is it normal that the first item I gravitate towards in a books store or stationary store are the empty notebooks? Something I clearly don’t need but love to buy. Is it normal to want to start a fresh new notebook for every class or big idea I have because putting it into a slightly used notebook doesn’t seem fair to the new words — it feels like having to go to the flat tipped crayons with half the paper peeled off for a new project. I stepped away from the mess and went out to walk because walking is head clearing for me and it seemed to be a necessary step in my clearing out process.


While walking up towards the mountains that anchor the end of my street, I thought back to my beginnings on writing and why I picked up the pen in the first place. The random, but maybe not so random, thought about my sister, Robin’s imaginary friends came to mind. When she was 5 and I was 4, or maybe she was 4 and I was 3, she had 3 imaginary friends who lived in the window well at our home in Memphis, Missouri. They were her invisible friends, who she would tell secrets to and have conversations with, probably when she got tired of talking to me, or listening to me as the case may have been. I was jealous of the three girls so decided to join her in her imaginary fun and told her I could see them too. She let me play along but I’m sure she knew the girls couldn’t be real to me as they in her imagination, not mine. The girls names were Cathy, China and Jana. In my mind, I singled out China because she was the more exotic and interesting one whereas Cathy was bossy and Jana babyish. Apologies to your trio, Robin, if I’ve misidentified them. I thought a lot about those three girls while I approached the mountain path, wondering why Robin needed to create them in the first place. Again, apologies Robin for my conclusions here if they are far from the truth and I’m simply making stuff up. I started thinking about those window well girls and saw them as Robin’s diary. She confided in them, talked to them, and likely shared frustrations about her little sister with them. They were the listeners to her 4 or 5 year old words. The keepers that she entrusted with her secrets. All things that would have been entries in a diary if she had had a diary and knew how to write. That diary would come, in 4th grade as a Christmas gift one year. I didn’t get a diary with a tiny gold lock on the front and key that dangled from the lock. I got a watch. A Cinderella watch. I loved the watch (it was stolen off my desk a few weeks later after taking it off for recess), but I would have loved the diary even more. I was jealous that she had a place to write down her thoughts and lock them up when she was done. Since I didn’t have a diary, I did the next best thing and broke into her’s one day out of curiosity. A pulled apart bobby pin and a bit of patience and I was in. I found pages of disappointing recollections of the day such as who she played with at recess, Peggy’s new outfit and the grade she got on a spelling test. My enthusiasm for the red diary waned until sandwiched in-between the mundane I found the gold. In between sentences of day to day events I found the sentence “I like …..” (name withheld to protect what remains of Robin’s privacy). Bingo. That was all I needed to know that my life was not complete without a diary. The thought of writing my thoughts onto the pages of my Big Chief tablet instead of squeezing my words onto the small pages of the diary, never occurred to me. There was just something about that small book with the lock on the front and the tiny key that felt inspiring and magical. Diaries were a place to store all those thoughts and feelings that you weren’t ready to tell anyone else but wanted to get out. Several years later, Dad gave me a small diary with an embossed leather cover. It. didn’t have a key but didn’t need one. It was beautiful in its non-keyed cover and looked old and exotic to me. He had brought it back from Italy when he was in the war and found it, probably when going through boxes of old treasures. I’m not sure why he bought it in the first place, maybe a gift for someone that he forgot to give it to or he just thought it was pretty. I loved it and because it was so precious, I was afraid to write in it because I didn’t want to mess it up with scratched out words and ink smears. I kept it empty until 9th grade, when I started filling the pages with poetry. It was my first in a long line of emotion-keeping vessels.

If I had to give my writing a name, I’d say “friend.” It’s my other person in the room, my roommate, my person sitting next to me that I can nudge and say “did you see that/hear that/feel that?” It’s my container for my memories, my thoughts and my emotions because juggling them around in my brain becomes difficult after a while. It’s my filing system, my keepsake box and my creative outlet.


I’ve lived by myself for the past 15 years and putting pen to journal or fingers to keyboard is my communication to others, but mostly to myself. When I go back and read pieces I wrote 20 years ago or last week, one of two things can happen. I cringe with embarrassment and want to delete or throw it away, but I never do because even though the words may be awful, the feelings still reverberate when I reread them later, terrible as they may be. Or, I’m brought to tears. Not because the words are beautiful, but because they take me back to the exact time and place I was in when I wrote them. It’s like thumbing through a photo album of emotions —the good, the bad and the blurry. All those emotions that I needed to put somewhere because leaving them inside didn’t feel right.

When I got back to my house and my messy stacks of journals and notebooks, I realized that journals may not be what other people covet, but they probably have other items that hold their emotions and memories. Those stacks of dog-eared paged notebooks are my friends. They’ve seen the best of me and the worst of me. Their pages are the essence of who I am. They are me in every sentence, paragraph and page. I’ve lost myself in those pages and if I’m lucky, I’ve found myself too. Behind my desk I have a string attached to the wall that looks like a clothesline with tiny clothes pins where I attach phrases that mean something to me —they are my inspiration as I sit at my desk and type or write in one of my many notebooks. They make me realize that my process of putting words onto the page is a necessary part of my process. Although the completion of words on a page gives me great satisfaction, the real gold for me is in the process of retrieving those words from experiences and organizing them onto the page. It’s the process for me, not the end result, at least not yet. When people hear I write, their first question is often “where can I find your book?” To which I say, I’ve not published a book, yet, which pretty much ends the talk of writing. Full stop. To me, it feels similar to telling someone you run every day and having them ask when you’re going to be in the Olympics because if you run every day, you’ve got to be good. Publishing a book is a goal for me, and a lofty one at that, but before I start eyeing the prize of a book in print, I’ve got to honor the process of getting there and for me, the rewards are in the process.

Every day I look at my pinned words above my desk and every day I have a new favorite. Today’s is “Kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” Bruce Cockburn.

I kick with my words and find glimpses of daylight then nightfalls and I start all over again. (Me)

Thanks for reading. Again.

Why don’t you ever write fiction?

After attending a weekend memoir writing workshop at UCLA, I came home and wrote. This has become my predictable side effect after sitting in a classroom or in front of a zoom screen for two or three days of writing teacher-given prompts, then humbly sharing our work. One would think the first thing I’d want to do after two or three or even four days of an intensive writing workshop, would be to put my pen down, but it’s the opposite. Feeling inspired and heeding the suggestions that came from workshopping my pieces, I always look forward to continuing the process when the class is over. On the last day of class, zoom or in person, we share our writing goals with the class and six months later, we regroup on zoom for accountability. Those first few days post class, I begin to think about increasing my daily writing time and giving more weight to my goals, but after a few months, I settle back into my newly adjusted normal as the enthusiasm of the class wanes. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the class that does this. This time when I returned to Boulder, post class, I was met with a string of cold, rainy days. Not that I need gloomy weather to inspire writing, but it sure does help. Besides, I cherish the gray, rainy, gloomy days that tell me I need to stay indoors and leave my hiking boots at the door. They are rare where I live. And so I did. I called indoor recess, got my coffee, got comfortable at my desk and started typing. It wasn’t long before I had written 5,000 words, or about ten pages. Everything about what I was doing was routine except for one very big thing. I was writing fiction, not memoir, which was new, very unexpected and not at all what I had been doing at the workshop I had just attended.

A few weeks before the workshop, my son, Grant, asked me why I never wrote fiction. It wasn’t the first time he had asked me that, but it was the first time I really paid attention to his question.

“Because I don’t know how, or more specifically, I don’t have a plot in mind,” was my answer.

He pushed.

“But you’re so good at making stuff up.”
He was right with that. I am good at making stuff up, but more in a way to skirt trouble when I was young while answering my parents ever familiar question of “where have you been, young lady?” Necessity, not creativity. Making up stories about random people I see or sometimes don’t see, is something I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember, both with my sisters and my children. Several years ago driving from LA to Ojai with my LA kids to celebrate my birthday, someone in the car (who wasn’t me) started talking about a woman named Kendra and her most recent escapade at work. It took me a few minutes to realize, oh, we’re doing that… then I joined right in adding to the comments about Kendra and the last insurance convention she attended, which was a bit of a disaster as everyone in the car recalled. Of course we all had pictures in our mind of Kendra- what she looked like, how she talked, and of course what she did at the convention to make it memorable in all of our made-up stories. Random conversations about a made up person just begin with my kids and I. There is never any rhyme or reason to any of it and I remember being especially amazed at the fine tuned ability everyone in the car had, not missing a detail. They’ve paid attention and have learned by listening. Of course the farther into the story we got, the funnier it became, which feeds all of the storytellers. Responses were seamless, as if we were reading scripts. I realized my kids had all witnessed me doing this with my sisters and without any instruction or prompts from me, had carried on the tradition proudly and passed it onto their partners. I remember a fun birthday celebration in Ojai, but remember the stories about Kendra at the convention even more.

This has happened at airports, restaurants, hikes and stores with my sisters and with quick lightning rounds while waiting next to a car at a stop light. I have no idea where this odd game of ours originated, but we’ve all got it and we all love doing it. People outside of our storytelling family have reacted in one of two ways — they joined right in without explanations as to what we are doing or why, or they look puzzled and confused and explaining the odd behavior that we’ve taken to such ridiculous lengths is never easy.
“I guess I just don’t know how to start,” I told Grant.
“Just make up a character and write stuff that happens to that character every day—like the stuff we make up. You already know how to do this, mom.”

And so taking Grant’s challenge, I started writing. I wrote about a girl I’ve thought about for a long time, not really knowing why and definitely not realizing she would become the heroine in my book. Situations started unfolding for my 10-year-old, made up heroine. Things I hadn’t predicted. Things that surprised me. It felt like the book started writing itself and although I was behind every word, every paragraph, every page, Tink, my heroine, was guiding me.

I remember once hearing an author tell an interviewer that she was so surprised when the main character in the book she had written, died. The interviewer said, “but you were the one writing the book… you were the one that killed her!” Her response was that the book started writing itself, leading her down unexpected pathways with unexpected consequences. I’ve thought about that interview a lot, believing the author, but not understanding what she was saying. I got a glimpse of that while I wrote, not knowing what was going to happen to my heroine or how the book would end. 5,000 words turned to 10,000 then 20,000 and finally my short story grew to a novel with 75,000 pages. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened but it did and almost two months to the date of Grant asking me why I never wrote fiction, my answer to that was, “I do now.”

I loved the freedom of being able to write down what came to mind, making things up without a thought to whether or not my memory was serving me correctly. Using characters to show, not tell, that were formed with my words —families and friends, the loved and the not so loved, all with the stroke of my keyboard. It was a blank canvas ready for paint, instead of finding the puzzle pieces of memories that would lead to other memories once I started piecing them together. It was exhilarating and energizing and made all day stretches at my desk not only tolerable, but enjoyable. And the rain kept coming. Maybe my book’s dedication needs to not only be to my son, Grant, who put me on this journey in the first place, but also to the rainy May weather in Boulder. I’m not sure I would have been motivated had it been sunny outside, which may sound ridiculous, but anyone who knows me well understands the motivation that gray days bring me. Ironically, I live in a state that claims to have 300 sunny days a year and believe me, people who live here keep track.

Once I put the final period on the last sentence, I took my work to Office Depot to be printed. I wanted to hold the weight of 75,000 words in my hands. While I stood at the copy machine, watching the pages come out of the printer and stack themselves onto the tray, I could’t help but think of the hours I sat at my computer in my office looking at the 3 mini-clothes lines that hang on the wall above my desk. Using tiny clothes pins, I’ve hung phrases or words that inspire me or remind me (“enough of the adverbs”… or… “keep your butt in the chair”…). These two are the ones that I kept looking at and eventually moved to the center of the twine.

Creativity is a combination of discipline and child-like spirt.” Robert Greene


“The job of the novelist is to invent: to embroider, to color, to embellish, to make things up.
” – Donna Tart

I don’t know where the two inch stack of paper sitting on the side of my desk will end up, but right now, just looking at it and picking it up and feeling its weight is enough. There was a freedom that came from creating something from nothing that I’m relishing in. To create people and stories and histories where they didn’t exist before feels like pure magic to me and after spending 75,000 words with my main characters, it’s not surprising that they have woven themselves into my day to day life. The other day I said something to a clerk in the grocery store and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I hesitated and the thought that it was exactly what Tink, my protagonist, would have said. I have made up a world of imaginary friends who evidently are still hanging around.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more about this book later, but for now, just this page:


Dedicated to Grant, who asked me why I never write fiction. I do now.

Indoor recess.

Writing is hard. UCLA writing workshop.

A curiosity outside of our classroom. No phones though. It could have been a great writing prompt though…

The first day of school for me was always a day that gave me a knot in my stomach, even though I was returning to most of the same kids I had been in school with the year before and the year before that and several I had played with over the summer. This morning, I had my first day at school, a weekend workshop, on the UCLA campus, and the knot returned. I had had the teacher for three other classes, but all of them from home, sitting in front of my computer on Zoom, pajamas on the bottom and looking more put together on the top. Today, I finally got to meet the woman who has become a writing mentor for me, face to face and in person. Just like six months ago when I participated in a writing workshop in Santa Monica, my son, Grant took me to class, or actually to the hotel where I spent the weekend. We enjoyed dinner before at Flavors From Afar located in the Little Ethiopia section of LA. It’s an interesting restaurant that changes its menu monthly to feature dishes from the homeland of a refugee or immigrant chef. This month’s menu was Guatemala, a place my kids and I all traveled to several years ago. The food was excellent and because of the delicious food as well as their commitment to help refugees, it will go on my “must eat there” for future LA visits. I have to admit though, I was more focused on my upcoming classroom time than tamales or tilapia. My nerves of insecurity were making themselves known.

Grant dropped me off at the hotel, conveniently located in the UCLA campus, and told me he’d wait to make sure I got in OK. He told me “good luck,” adding words of encouragement, a shift in roles as I used to be the one in the driver’s seat offering up words of encouragement. However, he forgot to tell me to make sure I had everything, which in my excitement, I didn’t. He texted me later and told me I had forgotten my jacket and my water bottle. Fortunately, it was a warm and sunny in LA. He suggested buying a UCLA water bottle to show school spirit, in jest, of course, but at this point, I’ve taken enough classes at UCLA — close to 100 hours of contact hours, to justify a water bottle and maybe even a sweatshirt. My son, who forgot homework most days, texting me to tell me I left my jacket and water behind was great fodder for writing if I needed a prompt over the weekend.

When you’ve only known each other from a small square in a page of squares of faces on Zoom that can’t help me think of Hollywood Squares, seeing each other in person took my teacher, Amy and I a minute before we embraced in a hug that felt long overdue. The classroom was nothing special — four walls with a chalk board on two of them, no windows and a horseshoe of desks that were on wheels, which at first I thought was strange, but by the end of the day, we had all scooted ourselves around while trying to find our best spot. I could see and hear what wasn’t possible on Zoom — the emotions in the eyes, the body language, the audible sighs on a well-crafted or heart wrenching sentence. I was in a classroom of 15 talented, authentic and very brave souls who at the end of day one, felt like I knew with a level of intimacy that doesn’t usually come with initial meetings. And we’ve only begun.

After class, I walked into Westwood Village, a few miles from my hotel room, and cobbled together some food to take back and enjoy on the small patio outside of my room. I bought a sandwich bigger than my head, a bag of chips and a single sized serving of rose. I don’t normally eat huge sandwiches, but I worked up an appetite by writing from 9 to 5 so made the indulgent splurge. On my walk home, a man stopped and asked me if I’d like a ride. Flattered by the offer while knowing I’d say no, I turned around to get a closer look of who was either hitting on me, being a creep or simply a nice guy. I said no, but thanks, to the man behind the wheel who not only looked suspiciously too old to drive, but a bit like my Dad. I have silver hair. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Amy, our teacher, told us at the end of day one to take the evening off, relax and get a good night’s sleep because it would be far more exhausting mentally than we’d realize. Pouring your heart out onto the page, as soulfully fulfilling as it is for me, is also exhausting in a way that catches up to you later and always as such a surprise when I find myself tucking into my bed at 8:30 or 9:00. Regardless of what we were told, I’m sure most people in my class were doing the exact same thing I was doing…writing, rewriting and contemplating what we want to share. There is no rest for the weary. At least not for this weekend.

On the last day, our second day, we each had 10 minutes of sharing time with the class and because I’ve taken Amy’s memoir classes before, I knew what that 10 minutes would probably look like — 20 minutes or even 30 and our class wouldn’t end at 5:00, but closer to 5:30 and even that would be a stretch. We could use the time for anything we wanted, whether that was reading a piece or talking about book plans or writing plans or anything else we wanted to share. I chose an essay I wrote about a woman I knew for a matter of months during my year of living in Phoenix. I wrote it many years ago, decades actually, but have gone in and made edits and changes over the years. I’m hoping it will become a part of something else I’m working on but as per the methodology that Amy adheres to, I’m not going to share much about those plans.

Amy gave us prompts, where we have 5 to 10 minutes to write then could go back and tweak during free time, which was not much. On the first day, we chose a piece we had written in the prompts for the class to workshop. The class would ask questions in areas where they wanted more information written, such as “how old were you when this happened?” Or “Where were you?” Usually the questions were pretty basic. The hard part was we weren’t allowed to answer the questions because Amy didn’t want the writer to be influenced. Rather, the questions were written down and we could decide later if we wanted to address them in our piece. It was a strategy that had been used in all of the classes I’ve taken with Amy, so I was familiar with the drill.

We spent all afternoon on the last day with our “10 minutes of sharing,” which predictably was more like 30 minutes. I was so moved by the bravery of some of the stories I heard and stunned by the tragedies many in our class had suffered as children and young adults. Amy had told us on our first day that we’d connect with one or more of the students and would form life long bonds and we’d be surprised by how close we would become with only 16 hours of being with one another. She was right. It happened twice with her classes on Zoom and it happened even more so in person. We’ve already been emailing and there will be a few who I will try and connect with on future trips to LA. Most, by the way, were from the area but one girl was from Dallas, another from Seattle and one from San Francisco. The remainder lived in the LA area.

It’s such an opportunity for me, with regards to both my writing as a whole and my soul to be able to spend a few weekends a year with other like-minded adults who on a gorgeous day in LA would choose to be in a window-less classroom writing about memories, many of them painful. It will take a few days or even weeks for me to totally absorb the time I spent with this incredible and brave, group of writers. I couldn’t have been in better company.

On Sunday, early evening, Grant picked me up and asked me how my class had gone and although it had only been a few days since he dropped me off, it felt like it had been at least a week. Time spent in that drab classroom went fast but also at times painfully slow. I can’t articulate specifically what I learned to do or undo because those elements will come in drips and drabs while I write, but I know from past experience that there will be a time while I’m writing when something that Amy or one of the other classmates said will be exactly what I need to hear and I’ll add that word or sentence or chapter that I was too afraid to include before and I’ll see the face of the person who shared the wisdom, clear as day, as if they are standing over my desk with raised eyebrows saying, “what are you REALLY trying to say?” I’ll give their invisible self a nod and continue to type, or write in spiral notebooks that sit in stacks in a basket by my desk.

I know every one of us in that weekend workshop came away with something different from our time in that classroom, but there was one thing we could all agree with without exception. Writing is hard. No explanation, and no need to go deeper with those words — hard and as necessary as oxygen for each and everyone of us who sat in the windowless room in desks on wheels. I need to be reminded of that while I sit in front of the ever familiar blank page, while I try to find my words or the meaning or even the purpose behind those words.

Writing is hard and laborious and emotional and frustrating but it’s also one of the purest forms of creativity and making sense of my world that I’ve found, beginning with discoveries through awful poetry in my teens. While back at my desk, where I have a tiny clothesline attached to the wall with 3×5 cards pinned to it with saved words on them, there are two cards I’m drawn to today.

“Authenticity only comes when you take risks.”

“But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” (*Lover’s in a Dangerous Time,” by Bruce Cockburn).

Tomorrow, it will be a different card with different words, but for today, on the heels of inspiration and some deep soul searching, those are my words.

Writing Prompts in Santa Monica

Last weekend, I took part in a one day, memoir writing workshop in Santa Monica, California. I was walking the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland with my sister, Susan, when I saw the email about the workshop. I read it, thought about it, mentally set it aside, then thought about it some more. I later mentioned it to Susan with the caveat that I most likely wouldn’t sign up because…well..you know… this and that and all the other things that I mentally began to stack up excuse by excuse, forming a wall.  Susan’s response was, “Why wouldn’t you?  You could stay with Grant and Katie (my son and daughter-in- law who live in LA) while you’re there.  Again, why not?”  
Her words echoed in my mind for the rest of the day while I quietly paced off the kilometers to our next stay. Later that evening, while seated at a pub in O’Connor’s Guesthouse in Cloghane, Ireland, I venmo’d the money to the facilitator and thanked my sister because she was right.  Why wouldn’t I?  

On the morning of the workshop, Grant drove me to the house in Santa Monica where the workshop was held. We arrived early, something Blackman’s are known for, so drove around the block a few times, something we are also known for, then sat out in front of the house until my watch said straight up 9:00, knowing that I’d likely still be the first one there, which of course I was.

On the way over, Grant had mentioned how cool it would be if there was someone from one of the Zoom UCLA writing classes I had taken. I agreed. It would be very cool and although I had taken four Zoom weekend intensive classes with two different teachers, it was highly unlikely. The UCLA Writer’s Extension Program is big and so is Los Angeles, but I liked that he was thinking about it.
“If that happened, and it won’t, I can guarantee you that I’d remember the writing but not the writer’s name,” I told him.

I turned around to wave goodbye and Grant gave me a “thumbs up, you can do it” gesture. It was wonderfully familiar, only I had been the one to say goodbye in my memories and he was the one leaving with the backpack slung over one shoulder.

We met in a small guest house in the back of one of the participant’s house. As we were finding our places, a woman seated across from me got my attention and said,
“I know you! I was in a writing class with you last February on Zoom.”
I instantly knew who she was. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered what she wrote.
“You wrote about your dad dying, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,” I said.
She told me her name and remembered some of the work I had shared, but also not my name.

Once the facilitator began, giving us an overview on the day’s events, the woman seated next to me said something and I was so struck by the familiarity of her voice that I looked at her and mentally cropped her from the shoulders up — the size of the Zoom screen I looked at for eight hours a day, for four consecutive days, and realized I knew her. And just like the other woman who I had made a connection with, I also didn’t remember her name, but I remembered what she had written because it was so memorable. I was dying to say something to her but the workshop had began and I realized I’d have to wait until our first break. I thought about sending her a note, but thankfully set that idea aside. To be called out in a memoir workshop for note writing would not be something I’d want share with my son when he picked me up and asked how my day went.

When we had a break, I blurted out to her that I remembered her from a class on Zoom over a year ago (a different class and a different teacher from the other woman I had connected with). It felt like a secret I had been holding and couldn’t wait to share. I told her I remembered her writing, but not her name. Her eyes widened and she started laughing and grabbed my arm in a gesture of friendship and connection then told me she never thought what she wrote would surface again and here we were. I reassured her that what happened in the Zoom room stayed in the Zoom room, but she had left the whole class in suspense as we never got to hear how her story ended. Her story was unique and explicit in the way she wrote it and due to privacy, even though I’ve not given her name, I’ll have to leave it at that. We’re close in age (or kind of, I think) and connected as easily in person as we had in the Zoom classroom almost two years ago. I felt like I had formed a true friendship with her by the time the workshop was over. Out of the eleven people in the workshop, including the teacher, I knew two people and was the only one who had traveled outside of the LA area. Maybe LA wasn’t as big as I thought? Grant was right about the Zoom connections and I was right about remembering their writing but not their names.

There was also a Ukrainian woman in the workshop whose family had been on vacation when the war broke out and flew to Mexico instead of going home. She and her husband and their two children ages 4 and 6, walked across Mexico and crossed into the United States at the border in Tijuana. A family in Santa Monica sponsored them and she learned about the workshop because the facilitator’s children went to the same school as her’s. She wrote her prompts in Ukrainian and when we read our writing aloud to the group, she read her pieces in Ukrainian. I was awed by the fact that none of us could understand a word of what she was saying, yet still leaned in and wanted to hear more. The content of her writing was revealed in her emotions as she read her words, none of them familiar, but the tone of her voice and her pauses were. She translated a few of her pieces that she had written, but I found I got just as much out of them hearing them in her native tongue. When asked if she would return to Ukraine, she said she didn’t know and wasn’t sure there would even be the Ukraine she knew to return to.

The first five minute prompt we were given was to write about something that we had brought with us to the workshop, metaphorically or literally. I thought for a minute then chose my backpack that carried my supplies for the day. I wrote about how the backpack that had held water, snacks and rain jacket while I walked the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland a few weeks ago, now held my lap top, a notebook, pens and a jacket. I also wrote about getting out of my son’s car, with the same backpack slung around one shoulder and seeing his thumbs up gesture as I crossed the street to the house where the workshop was being held. The reversal of roles did not go unnoticed for the both of us. I had experienced it before, many times, but I was the one driving the car and he was the one with the backpack. Remembering my writing prompt, one woman asked when the workshop was over if my son would be picking me up and told me she loved thinking about him asking his mom how her day went and if I learned anything. I told her yes, he would and I’d have the benefit of his wife, my daughter-in-law, joining him. As predicted, he asked me how my day went and if I learned anything and rather than get the answer of “it was ok…” that I got so often from him and his two siblings, I had a much better answer for him.
“You were right, Grant. I not only knew one person from my Zoom classes, I knew TWO! And I was also right. I didn’t remember their names, but I remembered what they wrote.”

I’m a participant who takes notes and follows prompts then closes my notebook or shuts down my lap top and moves back into my life as a person who writes daily and signs up for workshops, but who doesn’t call herself a writer. I call myself a gardener and amateur landscaper who gives up every August, a baker (who has logged far more failures than successes), a painter, who has worked out countless emotions with paints on a canvas and has painted over just as many, and knitter whose stacks of unfinished projects continues to grow, but never a writer. I just can’t seem to add the r and turn the verb into a noun. I’m not sure why that is. One of my Zoom connections that day came into the room empty handed — no notebook, no iPad or laptop, but only had her phone. When the writing prompts began, I noticed she wrote everything on her phone and with only her right thumb. Thinking she may have forgotten to bring a notebook, I offered her paper and a pen. She explained to me that she always writes on her phone and had written 250 pages of a memoir, all on her phone, that she transfers daily to a word document.
“But wouldn’t it be faster to write in a notebook or on a computer and a lot easier on your thumb?” I asked her.
Her response was that she didn’t consider herself a “real writer” and opening a notebook to write felt like a “real writer” to her. Opening her phone on the other hand, and sending an email to herself, rather than going the more traditional route, got her off the hook of calling herself a “real writer.” Something she wasn’t ready to claim.

“I’m just sending emails to myself. It’s not real writing in a “writerly sense,” so there are no expectations,” was her explanation to me.

Her writing, by the way, is beautiful and memorable and deserved every page in a notebook. After all, I had remembered the writing of this writer who didn’t really “write” in a traditional sense, but not her name. At the same time, I understood her logic as I never have called myself a writer, even though it is something I do daily and with the tools of a writer — pen, paper, laptop and not my phone.

When I closed my notebook at the end of the workshop, for the first time, I felt like a writer — a writer who is beginning to form a community and ready to claim the title. Also a writer whose son was waiting for me in the car and was anxious to hear about my day.