We might have talked about the patriarchy. Just here and there.
We would like to thank our 2018 Boston Intensive participants. You brought incredible work to the table and made significant steps to further your writing career. Thank you for sharing your time, insight, and talent for a weekend that invigorated us and has us very excited about some really special projects. We can’t wait to welcome them onto our bookshelves soon.
#writetotheend #womeninboston #amwriting #amediting #amallthethings
photo by Angi Dilkes
Don't let the posh setting of Chateau des Bardons fool you. This group of women are venerable artists, albeit with diverse styles and voices, but with a singular drive to create written work that resonates.
And how it resonated. A personal narrative born from the pain of a broken heart and needles marking the flesh. A brilliant essay exposing how seeking good-girl status destroys the body. A story weaving complex theories of physics with Irish dialectic cadence and sense of humor telling the story of young woman with a grave illness. Rose petals thrown for a first draft's last line written. A revision of a novel that tells a complex family story exploring what happens when parents face a secret they kept from their only living daughter.
And there was more. Poetry. Paper scrolls that stretched across the room to show an author's thought process. Brainstorming on how to crack the opaque French literary publishing world. A piece about a tarot card reader, written "live" during an actual tarot card reading, then read out loud the next night: brilliant, provocative.
Shared knowledge about submitting to literary magazines, ways to connect after leaving, the best playlists on Spotify to evoke certain moods. An a cappella concert on the stone steps of the chateau. And of course, "taking the air."
We leave with stronger work and renewed spirits. We will return if we can, and stay in touch and accountable when we can't gather in person. Thanks to everyone who brought their ideas, opinions, and love for the art of writing.
Until L'ATELIER France 2019 . . . Happy writing!
As we pack our bags for L'ATELIER Writers France 2018, we are headed for a new destination. For the last three years, the tiny village of Villeferry welcomed our group. Some of us are ready for a new venue. Some of us are hesitant to give up our old rooms and rituals. We will all miss the common room where we first took in the view of the surrounding fields and centuries old, stone homes that surrounded our first meeting place as a community.
What will remain the same is our group of writers, spending the days committed to our work while sharing meal times and evenings with others. "Openness" is one of the key personality traits present in the highly creative mind, and so we shall be ready for this new adventure, even if we will miss our old location just a bit.
p.s. Don't forget your bathing suit. Some changes involve a beautiful, in-ground pool on the veranda.
It seems to me – in my small freezing corner of the Western Hemisphere – that the world is snowed under this winter. I won’t go into that idea as a metaphor, but at least in a literal way everyone I know is dealing with snowy sidewalks and frozen anti-freeze (I know! It isn’t supposed to happen).
The remedy is writing. But you knew I was going to say that.
This month I have been working on a translation of an art book. It’s been both a headache and a pure joy. The joy part of it has involved looking up paintings and sculptures on the internet and this gave me an idea for this month’s writing prompt:
Get your blank page or your work-in-progress ready. Now pick an art museum, any art museum – MOMA, The Tate, The Art Institute of Chicago. Think big, or think small. Go to the museum website and either do a random search or start browsing their collections. Find a painting. (Try to do this quickly if you can, otherwise you may be stuck in a glorious rabbit hole) It doesn’t have to be a painting you know or even love. It can even be a statue. But look at it.
I MEAN REALLY LOOK AT IT.
Steal something from the painting and use it to start writing, or integrate what you’ve stolen into your work-in-progress. This can be an object from the painting, or it can be an emotion. Just connect the two. However it works, however it doesn’t work. Get writing.
by Sara Johnson Allen
I was recently sitting by a pool with two friends after the Key West Literary Seminar. It was our last day before going back to Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, in other words, the deep freeze. Do you know what we chose to do on that last day?
We worked. We started new revisions, created master lists of grant and residency opportunities, and swore a pact that we would hold each other accountable to finish the work.
It is not everyone who would use their vacation time, their negotiated time away from family obligations to work on a project that requires being alone, swearing at random in front of a screen or blank piece of paper.
But it is who we are. You know the price paid. You also know the pay off. When we write, it is often the way we come closest to our true identity. The truth is, for all our loves and interests, this is where we feel most whole.
Each year at L'ATELIER we spend a lot of time talking about balancing professional lives with family lives with writing lives, and how hard this can be. A week of concentrated writing time is a rare event, and although we often leave the retreat motivated to re-center our writing within our busy lives as much as possible, months pass and writing can start to fall to the periphery.
In 2018 one of my resolutions was to integrate lots of different art into my writing world, and to use those experiences to broaden my writing and inspire me to write more, even if that writing isn’t directly connected to my current novel-in-progress. To do this I’m using writing prompts, something I've never really done before—and much to my surprise, I am finding these prompts really helpful. Obviously not all of them, and there is no magic formula for sitting down at my desk and getting up an hour later with 1000 words drafted. But I do find there is a wonderful freedom in approaching my writing from different angles, from finding different pathways into my work, and even branching out into new kinds of writing, depending on where the prompt takes me.
So, without further ado, I’ll be posting a writing prompt at the blog here each month. Like the prompts I'm using for my own practice, these will be varied: images, ideas, directives, revision-based, musical, and anything else. The idea is to spark creative practice, however possible. I'll try to make these applicable to writers who are going in and out of longer works, but also applicable for those who may be generating new material.
And the first one is:
Take a book off your shelf (preferably fiction, but anything with dialogue should work). Leaf through and find a line of dialogue. Now take the character you are working on in your own novel or story and give that character the line of random dialogue. Work from there to expand a scene or start a scene.
Post written by Gabrielle Yetter, 2017 L'ATELIER community member
When I signed up for L'ATELIER, I was looking for an experience that would enrich me and improve my writing (not to mention provide me with a week in the gorgeous French countryside). I knew none of the other participants, but had great faith I'd find something special. That feeling came from three sources: Sara, Laura, and Michelle, the course-leaders.
From the moment I made contact with Sara on Facebook and started barraging her with questions, she, Laura and Michelle answered all my questions and explained exactly what I could expect. They gave me professional, personal, detailed, and informative answers that inspired me to respond with two words: "I'm in!"
"The silence.The beauty.
The absence of anything else to do other than eat, talk, walk and write."
Did I make the right decision? One hundred percent yes. What did I love about it? This: Getting up every morning to a French buffet breakfast followed by four glorious hours writing; just writing. Sitting alone with nothing more than a laptop and a mind brimming over with ideas, and having the luxury of time to explore them, think about them, and put them on paper (or computer). Sharing three delicious gourmet meals with a small group of serious writers who shared ideas and provided valuable feedback. Getting to know those people and learning from them--both through personal interaction and during daily interactive workshops. Spending evenings together, reading from our work, and becoming inspired to write better, create better, produce better. The silence. The beauty. The absence of anything else to do other than eat, talk, walk and write.
Not only did L'ATELIER inspire me, it set me on a different course. I'd arrived with the intent of self-publishing and left committed to finding an agent and publisher. Three months later, I completed the first draft of my first novel, in line with the goal I set in France. Was it the wine, the cheese, the tranquility, or the company of other good writers that influenced me? I believe it's all of the above.
Gabrielle Yetter is a British born writer who worked as a journalist in South Africa before moving to the U.S. In 2010, she and her husband, Skip, travelled to Cambodia where she authored The Definitive Guide to Living in Southeast Asia: Cambodia, and The Sweet Tastes of Cambodia (about traditional Cambodian desserts) in addition to dozens of freelance articles and her blog The Meanderthals. In 2015, she and Skip published Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure and she later authored two childrens' books, Ogden the Fish Who Couldn't Swim Straight and Martha the Blue Sheep (all available on Amazon)
Thank you to our community of writers for another meaningful, productive week in Villeferry, France. It was a pleasure to share our writerly struggles, triumphs, idiosyncrasies, and, of course, a great deal of Époisses de Bourgogne with you all. Until 2018, happy writing!
Today at our third annual L'ATELIER Writers' retreat and workshop, we welcome back people from past years along with some new folks. After the onslaught of travel (crazy taxi drivers, custom lines, jet lag), we arrive to this place that is undeniably special. Is it the way the sun hits the fields or the sounds of the stream in the background or the Eppoises or the bunnies or the eclectic tapestries used as bedspreads?
We suspect it is not just one thing. It is the combination of people and place that makes this week so productive and rejuvenating. Welcome, everyone.
Rejection is tough. Every writer will tell you that. Sometimes, somehow, it gets a little bit easier, but not always. No matter how you handle rejection, it will always be a part of the writing life. Which is why it can be useful to remember that, like many difficult situations, rejection can offer a chance for learning.
Nancy Freund, a L'ATELIER writer, did something very brave recently, participating in a "game" that is almost completely about rejection. The event involved having the first page of a novel or story read aloud to a panel of agents and editors and then waiting for the panel members to buzz the writer "out" at the point s/he would have stopped reading had the page come from the slush pile. The experience was TOUGH, as anyone can well imagine, but it was also really interesting and we learned a lot from Nancy Freund's account of her experience, so we wanted to share some of it here.
Here's one of Nancy's very big take-aways that bears repeating:
"So learn every lesson where you can, and don’t forget the reason for one rejection may not match another agent or publisher or reader’s perspective. You have to be willing to keep seeking the rejections. It’s not personal, even if your writing is, or maybe it is personal, but don’t take umbrage. Keep asking. Keep at it."
Read about Nancy's entire experience on her blog here:
It’s only January and there is ice on the ground, but I’m already dreaming about the food I will eat come June. I’ve found that if I close my eyes and imagine myself in a glass room filled with sunlight, suspended above the treetops, I can almost taste the warm and slightly oozing Epoisses slathered on a fresh baguette. Almost.
Never in my life have I enjoyed eating as much as I do at L’ATELIER, partly because the food is local, abundant, and sumptuously prepared, and partly because I don’t have to make a single bite of it. Rather, I can devote myself wholeheartedly to my writing, knowing that the food will magically take care of itself. Although my use of the word “magically” is a bit misleading—there is a lot of planning and work and thoughtfulness that goes into every meal—it’s just I don’t have to do any of it. I have happily renounced all responsibility and control.
Yet, as a teetotaling vegetarian of more than twenty years who eats the occasional fish—and yes, snail—giving up control of what I eat is not easy. But it is precisely the planning and work and thoughtfulness that enables me to do so. As an American in France, I willfully submit to the local customs and foods, and while I’m not always able to eat every course placed in front of me, I always leave the table fully satiated—deliciously so. Most of the time, the miracle workers at Le Verger sous les Vignes are able to accommodate my dietary needs, with a Roquefort soufflé or a goat-cheese and artichoke omelette in place of the roast duck or the coq au vin for example. But even were I to sit out a course completely, I could easily subsist on the salad alone. And let’s be honest, my waistline would probably thank me for it.
But that’s the biggest miracle of all, really—that after an entire week of three and four course meals, I’m not rolling my way back onto the airplane. Maybe it’s because the food is fresh and whole and sourced locally. Or maybe it’s because I’m burning so many calories writing in my room for hours on end. Creativity is hard work—don’t let anyone tell you differently. But I don’t question it. Rather, I simply sigh contentedly as I reach for a second helping of cherry clafoutis and gaze out the floor to ceiling windows to watch the sun set over the green hills, surrounded by friends.
And so we came together.
Some of us knew one other person. Some of us a few. None of us knew everyone. We worked on short stories, new novels, stubborn novels that just wouldn't die, essays, and poetry collections.
We didn't share our work with each other except for snippets given at evening readings, but we did share our creative problems. The flat character no one likes. The first page that needs to be written over again. How do you tell a story about addiction in a broken family? About a murder in pre-colonial Africa? About a marriage that has survived? A marriage that is failing? About a lost girl in a biker bar?
Can I get away with this drug smuggling? Should I leave the body in the hotel room? What if there was no car accident? What is of greater significance, her mechanical heart or the fact that she is girl?
We talked about the realities life throws creative thinkers. We don't have a space to write. We have family demands. Our day jobs demand almost everything. How on earth can we remain productive when not alone in a room with shutters that open onto a view of a pasture?
There were suggestions, solutions, debates, anecdotes, career planning, and slightly inappropriate literary parlor games. There was French food and wine, natural beauty, friendship, and solitude.
There are no guarantees that by this time next year anything will have changed. Will she finish the first draft? Will she get an agent? Will she finally get through a reading without tearing up? Will she have the guts to quit her job? Will she win the contest she entered while she was here? Will she finish?
Of course there are never guarantees in life. But for our week together, we felt incredible promise. We made each other believe that the secret hopes of our writerly hearts are completely, unequivocally possible.
And so we carry that forward.
-Sara Johnson Allen
For many of us soon-to-be-Villerferry-bound, we must pass through Paris. Occasionally, every writer must make sacrifices. So be it, Friends. So be it.
If I had to choose between trying to sell a novel or writing a new one, I would choose writing a new one. Hands down. Every time. And yet the insecure part of me (the deep down critic that insists I’m not a real writer unless I’m published) and the practical part of me (the academic who knows I won’t get that tenure track position with my MFA unless I have a traditionally published novel) push me towards publication very much in spite of myself.
This is where my L’Atelier community comes in. Yes, I have instant, year-round access to insightful feedback on my work. Yes, I can ask for advice or names of agents and publishers and conferences and receive it. But what I treasure most about my friendships with the L’Atelier writers is the total assurance that I’m not alone in the world. That someone else has experienced the same insecurities and doubts that I experience every time I hit send on an email query. And because I deeply admire the work of these writers, I can harbor a secret hope that I’m a good writer too. That my increasing pile of rejections will result in an eventual acceptance. Because on some level, perhaps the most important level, I’ve already been accepted.
In my everyday life, I like to think I’m a strong person. I’m a professor. A mother. A savvy city-dweller. I can deliver conference presentations at prestigious academic institutions. I can bandage a head wound and perform triage on a daily basis. I can cycle through downtown Boston with a six-year-old hanging on the back of my cargo bike for dear life. So after the unadulterated bliss of last year’s retreat, I had no idea how much I would crave the support and understanding of other writers. But the past year has taught me the importance of finding a group of like-minded people to motivate and console me when I am at my most vulnerable. And somehow, I find the courage to keep submitting.
Here’s my list. I make a list almost every year, which I almost never look at again. But this year, I’m determined to make my resolutions come true.
1. Write a book.
3. Eat local.
4. Go for long walks. Or maybe even runs.
5. Make new friends who inspire me.
6. Keep in better touch with old friends who inspire me.
7. Surround myself with a supportive network of positive, intelligent people.
8. Take a class.
9. Laugh more.
The best part about my list is that I already know how I’m going to accomplish everything on it. In one fell swoop. L’ATELIER 2016. It will happen. I know it will.
I've already bought my plane tickets.
Why did you decide to go to L'ATELIER 2015?
Attending L'ATELIER was an ultimatum that I issued to myself. A line I drew in the sands of a tense internal dialogue about who I am and what impact I will make with my life for myself, for my family and in the world.
Is this dramatic? Probably. But sometimes that happens when you have spent more than a decade avoiding making a commitment to try hard, really hard, at the one thing you know should be doing. So initially L'ATELIER was my no more excuses, no children, no work, no distractions.
It was just me, my computer and a very likely chance of failure. But it ended up being the people, the space and the experience that has proven to me everything of which I am capable and has ultimately changed the course of my life. So ya, L'ATELIER was awesome.
On what kind of project were you working?
I came to L'ATELIER with the first chapter of a book I had been thinking about for two years. I had an outline, I had ideas and I had 800 words. I left L'ATELIER with a fully formed story brewing, over 10,000 words and a commitment to getting it done. 3 months later I hit the 40,000 word mark. Working full-time with a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old, this is only something I accomplished because of the ongoing encouragement of my L'ATELIER community.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
The most rewarding part of the L'ATELIER experience was finding this community of writers. Yes, I accomplished goals I set for myself and wrote, but even more empowering for me as a writer was being able to help my fellow writer friends unstick themselves and move their own work along.
It is awesome to watch other writers discover new things about their characters and their stories, to be surprised by how suddenly a key plot point rises out of the waters of a dull chapter they were about to cut. It is fun and inspiring and helps you charge your own work ahead at a much faster rate than you would be able to alone.
What was the most challenging part of the experience?
For me the challenging parts of L'ATELIER were all unrelated to the writing because that part was all magical (Important to note: I am a glutton for feedback. I love it, so that part wasn't a challenge).
My L'ATELIER challenges were 1. Not stuffing my face every day with the AMAZING food. 2. Pulling myself away from these writers and our discussions each night so I could go to sleep and of course (3) having to go home.
What are you most looking forward to about L'ATELIER 2016?
I am counting down the days to L'ATELIER 2016. It will be coming home to my writerly self and the people who know best how to nurture this part me. The people who know me as Caitlin the writer, not Caitlin the Mom or Caitlin the Professional. And to all of the work that will pour out of me as a result.
The below interview was conducted via e-mail with Nancy Freund, poet, editor, reviewer, novelist, and L'ATELIER 2015 (and 2016!) attendee.
Why did you decide to go to L'ATELIER 2015?
The promise of time and creative space was an insistent call, and L'ATELIER delivered both of those, big time. But more than just time and space, it delivered inspiration and connection, every day -- several times a day.
A quick breakfast and check-in with fellow participants set me on a productive path for the morning, after which I was eager to share new work over lunch, and again before dinner and evening readings. The gentle pressure of the workshop environment and craft sessions led to more than one break-through on my work-in-progress.
It was unlike any retreat I've experienced before, and I will eagerly return. Also, the ongoing connection with wonderful new writer friends from L'ATELIER has easily been as valuable as the actual week in France.
On what kind of project were you working?
My main project is a literary novel that I've been writing for several years. The best thing is how easily I got past some troubling speed bumps with that work. Also, I learned loads of new things about structure, craft, screenwriting, technology, social media, and the French countryside.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
It's hard not to say it's the new friendships I made at L'ATELIER, which I consider invaluable, but I suppose the reason I went was to get my mojo back on my novel, and I did. Very rewarding indeed.
What was the most challenging part of the experience?
This sounds ridiculous but the biggest challenge has come since leaving France. I miss that carefully protected, sacred creative space. I aim to replicate it on some small level in my own home, so I can work similarly, but I remain aware that the support of an entire like-minded community all working on exciting projects is not easily faked in one's own home. So the biggest challenge has been blending the demands of real life with that ideal retreat world.
What are you most looking forward to about L'ATELIER 2016?
See above, first and foremost, and I'll add: the bunnies, lavender, and roses, long walks with a camera, conversation, views over the French countryside, and those incredible dinners. Bliss.
contributed by Sara Johnson Allen
My entire life I have been a writer, and for my entire life I have written for the wrong reasons. In 2004, the program director at Emerson College tried to explain this to me as I demanded to transfer in more than 12 credits. He tried to explain that an MFA program is about using the time to write. Trying to get out as fast as possible is sort of missing the point.
The next semester, for all the wrong reasons, I decided to apply to “better” schools. Maria Flook, who would become my thesis advisor, agreed to write me a letter of recommendation, but said it didn’t matter where I went. I needed to find my core community of writers. That was all that mattered.
I did eventually find my core, and I never transferred. We are scattered now, but I would likely trust those people with my first-born, or even more frightening: a rough draft.
Despite my best efforts to resist it, I did grow during my MFA program at Emerson. I did learn.
After I finished the program, my focus changed. I got married. I started a freelance writing business. I had a baby. I got a job as a professor. I had another baby. I had another baby. One day I woke up and didn’t have to beat myself up for writing for the wrong reasons; I wasn’t writing at all.
In fact, I had not written in. . . wait for it. . . 6 years. Not a word.
So I started looking for a place that would give me the time and space to write again.
In 2005, I had gone to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Like many large writing conferences, it was packed with programming, helpful workshops, readings at night, parties in the barn, parties by the bonfire, meetings with agents, craft lectures by the literati, and meals with new friends. It was an amazing experience, but it wasn’t the kind of place you went to produce work.
I had heard that writing colonies were many a writer’s solution to getting away from the distractions of every day life. Most had application processes, but I get a secret thrill from seeking external validation from admissions boards, so that was no problem. However, the residency periods were incomprehensible to me. I couldn’t get five minutes to go to the bathroom alone much less set aside 6-8 weeks for my art. It was becoming increasingly unclear if there was any art left in me at all.
Then there was the week the mice invaded my home, the sewer pipe broke into the kitchen, and I sat at a restaurant holding a carton in my left hand for my middle child to vomit in while I continued to eat my dinner with my right hand.
Also during that same dark week, two of the people who I had met and liked most at Bread Loaf popped up in my Facebook feed. On the same day, I learned that one had been nominated for the National Book Award and the other had just signed a double book deal.
Of course I was happy for them, but my heart broke. I accepted that I hadn’t made it, that I wouldn’t write again, not the way that I always thought I would, not in the way that defines you as a person.
My father is fond of saying that sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. And so perhaps again for the wrong reasons, I went through an online directory of writers’ retreats, one-by-one, looking for places that didn’t have a required length of stay.
In November of 2012, I checked myself into the Wellspring House, a retreat for writers and artists, in Ashfield, Mass. I spent four nights in a stark room with a creaky twin bed and an old wooden desk. Occasionally, I walked around a pond. I researched crossing the Mexican border in El Paso. I watched videos about the murder capital of the world: Juarez. I didn’t have to make anyone dinner. Besides my dishes, I didn’t have to clean anything. I didn’t have to go to bed early knowing someone would wake me up before 6:00.
One advantage of being a full-time professor and mother of three is that four days alone can seem like an eternity. Wellspring was incredibly lonely and intentionally isolating, but I was productive.
I wrote 80 pages. I figured out the arc of my novel. I made one more trip the following June where I finished my first draft. I don’t think I wrote a single word in the 6 months that separated those two trips.
I have come to understand what the program director at Emerson was trying to say to me nearly a decade ago. Time and space are the most precious and essential commodities for any artist. Also, it doesn’t hurt to find your core community.
Take it where you can find it, and embrace it for as long as you can.
Author's note: I posted this last year before I had the pleasure of spending the week in Villeferry, France with two members of my Emerson writing community and members of the newer L'ATELIER community. That week last June gave me time to write and the connections to other writers I needed to keep working when I came back to reality. This summer, we go back.