One of my favorite things about writing – both fiction and nonfiction – is that you never know where you’ll end up. When the four of us met in David Ronka’s Evening Fiction workshop at WriterHouse two years ago, I’m certain that all we expected was a writing class. But now we are BACCA Literary: Bethany, Anne, Carolyn, Claire – aspiring authors, already-writers. After responding to Bethany’s emailed invitation, we’ve spent the past two years honing our skills in monthly critique sessions.
We’re honored that our writing group was the first – as far as we know – Virginia Festival of the Book session by writers-in-progress, for writers-in-progress. We presented on Saturday morning, March 23, 2013, at a Publishing Day event called “Creating a Great Writing Group.” We were excited – maybe even a little nervous – and wanted things to go well. To prepare for the session, we decided to spend a late-winter weekend at a nearby retreat.
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Like walking into a new class for the first time or sharing your work with strangers, spending an entire weekend writing with people you normally see once per month is an “uncertainty situation.” It’s hard to know what to expect. The pay-off could be huge – or not. And the weekend got off to a rocky start. Two days before the retreat, Carolyn was forced to drive herself to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Her husband was out of town and she began to bleed heavily from a recent cancer-related surgery. When we heard the news over our private Facebook page, we went from preparing for the weekend in excitement to worrying about Carolyn and wondering if the retreat would work out after all.
While Carolyn was in the hospital, I realized how much I wanted all four of us there. We are yin and yang: two fantasy writers, two reality-based writers. Two Baby Boomers, two Gen X-ers. Like a table with four legs, BACCA would wobble if one of us were missing.
Carolyn’s condition turned out to be caused by loose stitches. Though she needed a blood transfusion, her doctor still gave her the green light to leave town. Her husband, a true “knight in shining armor,” drove her out and unpacked all her things. After they arrived, I asked Anne, “Do you think this is pushing it?” Anne checked with Carolyn, who reassured us that if anything should happen, we were only 40 minutes from the nearest hospital. Luckily, we never had to test that drive.
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After the novelty of settling in, I could appreciate our beautiful surroundings. The retreat had one space for meeting and another for resting, dining, and socializing. Internet was limited. By chance, we were the only group on the grounds. Though the air was chill and the skies cloudy, the land cradled us in rich earth tones of straw and bark, red clay, and spring-green grass in spots. Just beyond were the Rapidan River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, timeless reminders to relax and let our creative energies flow.
We began the weekend with a writing prompt, plucked from a paper bag at 5pm. The instructions were simple, based on our composer Anne’s experience with a music retreat: choose one prompt, then take 24 hours to write a short piece. The next day, read your work to the group.
The others seemed game, but I was initially skeptical. Our writing group routine is to share, one week before meeting, material that we’ve polished for months. What could we possibly produce in 24 hours? Especially without knowing the topic in advance?
The prompts were:
- Write about an object you love dearly – something besides photo albums – that you’d save in a house fire.
- You’re convinced that your best friend’s son plans to bring a gun to school.
- You’re sorting through your childhood things and a stuffed animal suddenly begins talking to you.
- You have a near-death experience. When you awaken, the only person you remember seeing is Adolf Hitler.
After choosing our prompts, we rested or brainstormed in solitude. Then we made dinner and chatted. By sheer coincidence, Anne and I are both on gluten-free, dairy-free diets, with several other restrictions, so Anne generously volunteered to prepare entrees for both nights. Her chicken soup and tomato-free turkey chili were delicious as well as diet-appropriate. After dinner, Carolyn brought out a dog-eared “Moon Signs” book and we playfully psychoanalyzed ourselves before bed. We weren’t surprised to learn that our moon signs were compatible. It started to feel like a bona fide slumber party. That night I slept on a loft with a window to the sky. I awoke once to the moon at its peak, a shining light I could have read by.
The next morning, we prepared for our VA Book session. Then we wrote. The 5pm prompt deadline approached. At 4:50pm, I was 99% done. I needed an ending though – the piece hadn’t gelled. Then, an insight, and a hasty final sentence, which ended up the same as the first. Funny how things come full circle. But was it any good? I didn’t have time to edit.
At 5:01, I walked into the kitchen. The three others sat around the table already. Everyone looked as hesitant as I felt. Someone said, “Y’all realize this is a rough draft, right?”
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If you want to know what we wrote, you’ll have to wait until we publish our pieces. But suffice it to say that after we finished sharing, we agreed that each piece was submission-worthy, with a little tweaking. We agreed that the prompt activity had far surpassed our expectations, and that two years before, there was no way we each could have written something coherent in 24 hours.
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So was it the beautiful place, the energy of an all-but-unplugged retreat? Was it the change in scenery or the moonlight? Or was it two years of monthly meetings and regular feedback? Whatever it was, here we are. Four women, four writers, four friends. After working together, we presented at one of the country’s best book festivals – Bethany’s preparing to teach her E-publishing WriterHouse class – Anne’s consulting other writers in her small business – Carolyn won second place in The Hook’s 2013 short story contest – and I just completed my first book. Could we have accomplished what we have without each other? Possible, though unless someone invents a parallel universe, we’ll never know. But what’s certain is that without each other to lean on, cheerlead, and listen, the successes we have enjoyed so far wouldn’t be nearly as sweet.
“Uncertainty situations” are designed to stretch us, sometimes in uncomfortable directions. But perhaps that’s the point of writing, writing classes, and writing retreats. To stretch, learn, and grow. Especially in the company of friends.
– – Claire Cameron