22,517 words

written by Laura McCune-Poplin

I arrived in France with 60 pages of an awkward first draft, which felt like pulling teeth to write. Because I didn’t know my character yet. Because I didn’t understand her world. Because I felt harassed and overwhelmed by my real life. Although I typically shun a self-centered approach to the universe, I’ve become convinced there are forces out there determined to see me fail as a writer, forces which hurl obstacles at me every time I sit down at the computer. Even soft and furry ones like my cat, who normally shuns physical affection, but who magically appears on my keyboard while I’m trying to take advantage of the 45 minutes bought by my husband taking my son on a scoot and skate expedition, which took endless energy and at least 45 minutes to make happen (sunscreen? shoes? helmets?) but which lasted only 15 minutes anyway because someone who refused to use the bathroom before he left the house now has an immediate and life-threatening need to do so.

Writing at home means writing in spurts and starts, which means I can make progress on a manuscript (words do add up) but not in significant doses. And I mean that in multiple senses of the word. I never got to know my main character simply because I couldn’t spend time with her. I never got a sense of what 1915 Boston really smelled like, or how I would feel waking up in a darkened alley behind the newsboys club on Tremont St. because I couldn’t spend the mental energy required to imagine it. Mental energy that gets spent on necessary but constant and tedious concerns like making sure we don’t run out of bananas, which seem to turn brown after 10 minutes on the shelf.

But I’ve learned, the deliciously easy way (and I use the word delicious very deliberately, since every bite of every meal at L’Atelier was among the best I’ve ever eaten) that those evil forces keeping me from my writerly dreams don’t have international passports. In France, I was able to write every morning. Uninterrupted, except by me climbing spiral stairs to get a cup of tea in a room full of books and windows overlooking roses growing on rock walls. In France, I learned to see Boston clearly. I made discoveries about plot and character that still surprise me. I became so involved in my character’s life that I cried when she lost her first friend, and I realized her biggest fear wasn’t being seen for who she was, it was not being seen at all.

The 22,517 words I wrote at L’Atelier are some of the best I’ve ever written, not because they don’t need revision (they do) or because I’m such an amazing writer (I’m not) but because they were written with my undivided attention, my whole self. While in France I found the momentum and the depth I needed to keep going. To complete my first draft amid a summer of no childcare and multiple distractions. Now when I write in spurts and starts I can do so with integrity, because I was able to devote a week’s worth of energy to my story’s creation.

And words really do add up. My rough draft, completed today, clocks in at a healthy 67,068.

The Fall Out

We all knew going in to it that community was going to be important. We didn't expect that we would connect so quickly, so deeply. We didn't expect to find friendships and professional support that would cross oceans and reach back into our daily lives. 

A manuscript due by July 11th for a final read through. Daily word count check-ins. Shared social media tips and publishing advice. A meet-up for a day of uninterrupted writing. Character research in the form of boxing classes. Achievement of a 5:00 a.m. wake-up-to-write goal. 

It can be lonely back here at the desk. But when you have a strong community, you are never alone. 

 

 

 

The peer group

We are learning fast that community is everything. The people with whom we eat, stay up late, wake each other up early enough to get something done, share our characters' secrets, and share our best survival tricks for facing the novel-- that is our community. It is hard to find, easier to keep, and above all things: precious. 

Anatomy of a space

In preparation for our workshop "Setting as Character" on Wednesday, please take some photos of spaces you come across in the next few days in your travels.

You can take one photo or several. We will use them to dissect the elements of a setting and to think about what lies beneath the obvious. 

Here are a few photos of my "place": Town Wharf, Ipswich, Mass. Home to four centuries of backwater trade, rising tides, eternal tension between blue collar clammers and weekend boaters, site of late night parties and early morning fishing expeditions.  

 


 

The secret

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

                                    — Neil Gaiman

The Schedule

 

 LʼATELIER WRITERSʼ RETREAT AND WORKSHOP 2015 

_____________________________________________________ 

Sunday, June 14

Arrival to Villeferry in the afternoon 

19h30: Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic and Goals powwow 

Mini workshop: Intentional Reading to Inspire One’s Writing (Michelle) 

Monday June 15

Unscheduled Writing Morning 

Mid-day meal with Progress discussions and sharing of work 

3pm: Craft Seminar: Screenwriting with Laura McCune Poplin 

Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic: Independent Publishing (Everyone) 

Readings 

Tuesday June 16

Unscheduled Writing Morning 

Mid-day meal with Progress discussions and sharing of work 

3pm: Craft Seminar: Writing the Novel with Michelle Bailat Jones 

Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic: Strategies for Longer Works (Michelle) 

Readings 

Wednesday, June 17

Unscheduled Writing Morning 

Mid-day meal with Progress discussions and sharing of work 

3pm: Craft Seminar: Setting as Character with Sara Johnson Allen 

Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic: Pushing Extremes (Sara) 

Readings 

Thursday, June 18

Unscheduled Writing Morning 

Mid-day meal with Progress discussions and sharing of work 

3pm: Craft Seminar: Revision Strategies (Everyone) 

Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic: YA fiction (Laura) 

Readings 

Friday, June 19

Unscheduled Writing Morning 

Mid-day meal with Progress discussions and sharing of work 

3pm: Optional One-on-One critiquing sessions / Feedback powwow 

Evening meal w/ Discussion Topic: Using Poetry for Prose (Michelle) 

Readings 

Saturday, June 20

Breakfast and Goodbyes

This manuscript is France-bound

These pages are to be delivered to a caring group of writers, who will read them, think about them, and then with the kindest of hearts, tell me what to rip out and leave dead on the floor, and what to hold carefully in my cupped palms, before I kiss them goodbye and let them out into the world. Really this time. Goodbye. 

What Writers Do

Contributed by Laura McCune-Poplin

Since I’m not interesting enough to write memoir, and not scholarly enough to write non-fiction, I’ve staked my claim in the fictional world, where any daydream I have can take root if I simply put in enough effort.

Until I was twenty, I’d never written more than a handful of pages, which I would staple together and pronounce a short story. I love short stories. The best are carefully constructed masterpieces, more complex in their brevity than an epic novel with its thousand pages. I love the challenge of constructing a narrative with precision craft and limitation. And I especially love the somewhat democratic process of the un-agented and unsolicited literary magazine submission.  All of my successful publication stories have been short ones.

But my real love is the novel. I would never claim that characters in short fiction are not as round as their longer-winded cousins, but I am a selfish writer. I want to spend as much time with my characters as possible. They become as real to me as my upstairs neighbor, or my twenty-fourth cousin or even a second self. My characters live the lives I’ve never dared. They can risk everything or nothing (a risk in and of itself) and I get to sit back and watch the world work on them without fear or consequence. Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that characters have minds of their own, and the most cantankerous will refuse to comply with any plot outline. Through my characters I can travel to places I’m too scared to go on my own. Because my characters will not abandon me. I carry them with me, like the memories of real-life loved ones I’ve left behind but refuse to part with. A writer is never lonely.

What a writer is, however, is persistent. I honestly believe anyone can become a writer. Yes, talent varies. Yes, some vocabularies are more impressive than others. But I’ve seen the most skilled wordsmiths wither and die simply because they would not write. Writers need motivation and dedication as much as they need imagination. Writers have to tame their characters the way Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince tamed his fox, with time and attention and ritual. Our characters desperately need our rituals, because it’s the mind games we play with ourselves that puts pen to paper. Writers write. It’s not more complicated or pretentious than that.

The Working Soundtrack

contributed by Sara Johnson Allen

A friend and potential L'ATELIER writer (renew that passport!) and I were talking yesterday about how to invoke the kind of emotion needed to sustain a writing project. We don't stay 17 and hormonal forever, thankfully. We are not always feeling moody and dark, hopefully. But for my friend and I, the aforementioned state is where we do our best writing.

That's where the soundtrack comes in. It allows us to engineer the emotional aesthetic needed to complete a project. I have also found iTunes previews can evoke a working emotion, but next thing I know I'm binge watching HBO GO . . . so. 

Here's the working soundtrack for my current project. What's yours? 

The right lyrics also help set a mood:

"My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block
Of a falcon sedan 1969
The paper said '75
There were no survivors
None found alive

Trees break the sidewalk
And the sidewalk skins my knees
There's glass in my thermos
And blood on my jeans
Nickels and dimes of the fourth of July
Roll off in a crooked line
To the chain-link lots where the red tails dive
Oh how I forgot what it's like

"Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sisters if we say we'll watch the baby"
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything
To see you again

Go on, go on scream and cry
You're miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new, no television crew
They don't even put on the sirens
My nightgown sweeps the pavement
Please don't let him die"

-Neko Case

 

 

 

The Writing Life: a Cautionary Tale

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 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.

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 think for the most part I have stopped doing things for the wrong reasons. I am so thrilled to be hosting L’ATELIER Writers Retreat and Workshop from June 14-20 in Villeferry, France with two of the people from my core community at Emerson. We hope that L’ATELIER will live somewhere between conferences like Bread Loaf and retreats like Wellspring House. Limited programming, limited participants, limited loneliness. Just enough solitude to give us the space to create.  Just enough people to keep us connected.


 















 

Top 10 signs you need to attend a writing workshop:

This post was contributed by Mia Franco

1.     Author-Character-Narrator merge? What?

2.     Is thirty pages of exposition a bad idea?

3.     Four years = two chapters.

4.     I can’t remember the names of anyone in my writing group.

5.     Literary Journals? You mean those still exist?

6.     Can you please read this and tell me what you think?

7.     Have you read it yet?

8.     Did you ever get around to reading that chapter I sent you? Like six months ago?

9.     My last literary discussion focused on the plausibility of pigeons driving buses.

10.   I’m the only writer I know.

Patience is a virtue

3 winter storms in 3 weeks. 6 cancelled school days for winter weather, so far. 4 feet of snow and counting. When it looks like this outside. . .

. . . we dream of June at Le Verger Sous Les Vignes in Villeferry, France, gathered around this view with our writer friends. Only 18 weeks to go. We can make it.