An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part V: alone time, communal festivities, and speaking the lingua franca

la-muse-signage

Today is the last installment of my multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. Kerry and John were kind enough — or foolish enough, depending upon how one chooses to regard the time commitment involved — to agree to sit down and answer all of the questions I thought my readers might have about the ins and outs of running an artists’ retreat.

As will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, I did not suffer from an inability to come up with trenchant questions, or a whole lot of ‘em.

I did, however, forget to ask a rather important one until the interview was nearly over — an omission that I’m kind of surprised, frankly, none of you fine readers has left a comment pointing out. Let’s rejoin the conversation already in progress to see just how gracefully I covered for this little oversight.

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Anne: There’s one question that I know will have been preying on the minds of literally every English-speaking reader of my blog since I first mentioned that I was going to travel to France for a writing retreat: How much French would someone actually have to speak to get by at La Muse?

To be blunt about it, all of the travel guides say that this is the part of France where the fewest people speak the least English. do you think that someone who didn’t speak any French at all could do well here?

Kerry: No French is necessary. We are bilingual, so we can provide assistance there. And we do arrange for the French lessons for those who’d like to have the basics or improve more advanced French.

John: Hand gestures work well, too. The locals are very friendly and helpful.

Anne: That’s true, but in my limited experience, very few of them have English as a second language, even in Carcassonne (the nearest city). Traveling in packs helps; since there were a couple of my fellow residents who spoke no French at all, mine certainly improved by leaps and bounds while I was in residence.

One thing that seemed to bring villagers and retreatants together was the daily walk to get water at La Source.

Kerry: It’s a great daily outing, a natural ritual that makes people connected to the land and to the rhythm of this place.

Anne: For those of you who have never been to the village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque, La Source is a famous local mountain spring. (Sorry, campers; I seem to have neglected to take a photograph of it.) Many La Muse residents choose to take the not inconsiderable walk every day to obtain their drinking water from it, something that 21rst-century Westerners don’t do all that often. What’s the attraction, do you think?

Kerry: Charm, exercise and free spring water. It’s healthier, more economical and more environmentally sound than either tap water or bottled spring water. People have been getting drinking water from that spot for centuries, and come from miles around to fill up on water for the week. They claim it’s why there are so many old, old people here!

John: We encourage people to go to the source so that they can get out of the house and refresh themselves. That way. they can get more work done instead of staying in their rooms burning themselves out.

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Anne: Which is a genuine danger at a good artists’ retreat, I’ve noticed, especially for writers. A lot of us become so excited at the idea of having an entire 24 hours per day free to write that we actually try to spend every waking hour doing it. It’s important to establish reasonable expectations, so you don’t end up writing for three days straight, then collapsing for a week.

John: Everyone has a different process. Some writers are like Auden and get up at the crack of dawn and others are like Dostoyevsky, they write all night…

Anne: And some are like Graham Greene, and write 147 words per day until they get a book done.

John: We feel that whichever you are, you really need to get away from your laptop or canvass during the day, to have a ritual, that allows you to get out of your own head so that you can be even more lucid when you get back to your work.

Anne: Speaking of daily rituals, although e-mail and web surfing is now a constant part of most writers’ lives, artists’ retreats have been very slow to jump on the internet bandwagon. It’s still not all that uncommon to have to travel to the nearest town to get online. I can understand wanting to render too-easy access less of a temptation, since e-mail and the web can be so distracting and time-consuming, but I frequently meet writers — and other artists, for that matter — who say that being completely cut off is a deal-breaker on a long retreat. I hate to admit it, but as both a blogger and a freelance editor with ever-clamoring (charmingly, of course) clients, I wouldn’t have been able to stay as long at La Muse had the internet connection not been available.

You’ve recently expanded the internet connection, so it may be used all over the La Muse, rather than in a dedicated internet space. How has that been working out?

Kerry: We have WIFI. We used to not have any because we used dial-up — ADSL has only been possible in this village for two years.

John: People usually don’t use the Internet much at all. They just need to know it’s available to them. Bloggers use it a lot, obviously, but most of the time people use it after quiet hours because they are really into finishing or moving forward with their projects.

Anne: Since the walls are so thick (note: since it began life as a medieval structure, La Muse’s external walls are a meter deep; see next set of photos), I’m not sure there’s any way of knowing for sure who is doing what, or when, in the various rooms. The privacy level’s awfully high.

La Muse's kitchen window, as seen from without...

La Muse’s kitchen window, as seen from without…

...and from within.

…and from within.

Anne: What I was really asking was do you think that a retreat with easy internet access is different from one that doesn’t have it?

Kerry: It has changed the vibe. The monastic nature of a retreat is sort of interrupted by daily emails, the odd job offer, the business of swapping favorite music and movies, Skype… pop culture and the stress of life back home has more openings through which to seep into a person’s experience here and to interrupt their flow, which is too bad.

That said, many people use the Net for research, and we found it actually alleviated stress just to make it available for everyone. So, we remind people to try to stay focused on their projects, and I think they do.

Anne: Which leads me to a delicate subject, something that writers who have been on retreat talk about a lot amongst themselves, but retreat organizations tend to downplay as a possibility. Do you get writers or artists who come to La Muse and just don’t work?

Kerry: People who come here are just dying for the time to focus on their work. Sometimes we have people who read and research and unwind, and that’s fine. We just ask that they not interfere with other people’s work. If they do interfere, we have a talk. It has very rarely happened.

Anne: That’s encouraging to hear, since it’s such a common retreat phenomenon; it’s rare to meet a writer freshly back from any retreat, anywhere, who doesn’t complain about another resident’s loafing around, being a distraction. Not out of spite or anything, but just because the sole unoccupied person in the midst of a dozen with their noses to the grindstone is bound to stand out.

Maybe the fact that many of your attendees travel so far to get here minimizes the temptation to use the time for non-artistic pursuits. Or that so many of your residents are already professional artists of one sort or another, and thus already have good work habits.

John: Lots of established writers who come actually use the retreat to decompress from their writing life back home. They come here to read and eat good food. They come to be around other creative people but without the pressure of their home office. They are researching, but more importantly they are retreating from their lives back home so that they can think about their writing, so that they can be inspired about what they are working on.

As we say all the time, every one has their own process. Once that process is not getting in the way of other attendees. we are happy.

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Anne: Okay, let’s flip the scenario around, then: do you get attendees who just disappear into their rooms and are never heard from again?

John: Like I just said, everyone has their own process. Everyone is at different stages of their projects, careers, and lives, so that affects what their process is. If someone needs to stay in their room all day, that’s their choice. We accept and respect a person’s process.

Kerry: If they want seclusion, that’s their call. We check on people when we haven’t seen them in awhile to make sure they’re okay, but that’s about it.

Anne: Retreats can be rather lonely experiences for a writer, especially the first time around. No matter how long one longs to be absolutely alone with one’s book, the actual fact of it can be a bit overwhelming.

John: The writing life is by its nature lonely. You sit in a room with four walls with the door closed. You do the same at La Muse, but without having to worry about the telephone ringing, changing nappies, answering the mail, going out.

Also, La Muse allows you to go through this with people on the same wavelength as you. How many times in your normal life can you be surrounded by other creative people all day for three weeks? Attendees really love this aspect of a retreat, being able to talk about what they’ve done at the end of a day over a glass of wine on the terrace.

Kerry: Basically, we gave the house a structure: a time to work and a time to eat. So most people eat together, which makes for structured social time.

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Anne: I guess that brings us back to your earlier point: La Muse gives retreaters more options to personalize their retreat experiences than most artists’ colonies do. In my first cohort, for instance, most of the retreatants left after the originally-planned three-week session, but two of us were able to remain for another couple of weeks in order to complete our projects.

Kerry: We do accept shorter stays, but when possible we ask that people arrive on the first day of each retreat so everyone can settle in at the same time. There’s less upheaval in the house that way.

For 2010, we plan to have a different calendar that will offer two-week retreats, three week retreats – those who wish to stay for a month or more can come for two consecutive retreats.

Anne: That’s great. Much, much more flexible than the vast majority of retreats.

Kerry: We will also have two periods of the year (probably two months in the fall and two months in early spring) when people can come and go on whichever dates they please, to stay for however long. The calendar in 2011 will reflect how well that works.

Anne: So La Muse is still evolving.

John: We have been keeping notes on the genesis of La Muse and all the crazy things that have happened to us over the years in La France Profonde. An editor friend thinks it would make a great book and has told us we need to pitch a part of it to The New Yorker or somewhere like that, but we are pretty busy right now.

Anne: No kidding!

John: We have our attendees and kids and other writing to take care of first but would love to eventually get that book out there. There’d be a huge market for it.

Anne: I suspect it’s not an uncommon writerly fantasy: move someplace beautiful, peaceful, and exotic to write, with another space to be able to welcome other writers who want to do the same.

Not to mention doing it in the company of someone you love. How is collaborating on running a retreat different than working on any other kind of project together?

Kerry: It’s alive and 3-D. Much more multi-tasking involved.

John: It’s everything at the same time. To use the cliché, you wear many hats and a lot of them are funny ones.

Anne: But in the face of all that it takes to keep an artists’ retreat running — more than a full-time job, by anyone’s standards –how on earth do you have time to write yourselves?

Kerry: Late at night or in the wee hours… just like when we had full-time jobs in NYC.

John: I write a lot at the train station waiting for people to arrive or when I bring people down to Carcassonne for the weekly ride package. The collection of short stories I’ve been writing this year have been mostly written in cafes and in our old Chrysler Voyager. I usually type my stuff up in the dead of night.

Anne: I suppose this question should have topped the interview, but please tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what each of you writes. Kerry, why don’t you go first?

Kerry: I come from a military family, and lived in Europe for part of my childhood and it was probably back then that I fell in love with tiny old villages with their little stone houses with big gardens. I always wanted to be a writer, but these days I wish I were a painter. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and received a BA in Comparative Literature, and had a concentration in creative writing. My focus then was poetry.

During and after university, I lived in Paris for three years, where I did an internship at the French ELLE magazine, and the Paris office of 60 Minutes/CBS News. After that, I landed an editorial and news assistant job at the Paris bureau of The New York Times. When my visa ran out, I moved to NYC. There, I worked as the assistant to the Editorial Director of Conde Nast Publications, then went on to write and edit for various glossies and dailies, ghostwrite alternative health books, a coffee table book, and two screenplays. I am currently turning back to pitching article ideas, and have two novels in progress.

Anne: What about you, John?

John: I’m the eldest of seven kids. I was born in rural Ireland. My Dad worked in farming as an agricultural advisor for the Irish government. My jobs have included working on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse – my first paycheck – selling windows door to door, managing a bar in Camden Town in London, working in a coffee shop in New York’s East Village, writing marketing materials, travel guides and fact-checking. I most recently worked as a researcher/reporter for Vanity Fair in New York City.

I’m primarily a novelist, but I’ve written short stories, screenplays and plays. My master’s degree was in modern European Drama. My fourth novel, A Brave Man Dead, is currently being sent out by my agent, Angharad Kowal at Writers’ House in London, and my fifth, A Murder of Crows, is being read. I’m working on a collection of short stories right now based around the Stations of the Cross and I’m really enjoying the process.

picnic-in-montolieu

Anne: Okay, one last question, then I’ll let the two of you get back to running the retreat. If you could wave a magic wand and the perfect La Muse attendee would appear before you, what would that writer be like.

You’ll notice that I’m assuming it would be a writer!

Kerry: Either someone who loves everything we do, or someone who can tell us what they don’t love about what we do so we can do it better for that person.

Anne: I’ll let my readers guess into which category I tended to fall on any given day.

Kerry: Also, someone who refers La Muse to their peers, and who returns to La Muse with their peers, someone who respects the guidelines we provide, and someone with the patience to understand that in the South of France it can take awhile to fix something that’s broken.

Anne: Which can come as a surprise to a big city person born and bred.

John: Plumbers and electricians, etc., down here are as laid back as everyone else. They could give a dam about making money. They want their two-hour lunch breaks and they will not do overtime. It’s a joke to them. People need to understand that. Everything down here is very relaxed and very slow.

That’s why people choose to come here. To get away from the frenzy of life back home. So, attendees that can understand this way of life and that not only accept but fall in love with that relaxed ethos tend to be the ones that get the most out of a retreat at La Muse. They tend to be the attendees that get the most work done.

Anne: I would imagine that would be true with small retreats in general, wouldn’t it? I mean, a retreater who wanted something closer to a big-city atmosphere could always seek out one of the massive artists’ colonies like the Vermont Studio Center, where there are 50 people at every meal. When I was in residence, there were so many New Yorkers that a good third of my fellow retreaters met for brunch a month later in Brooklyn. It’s not really my idea of retreating, but it’s a lot of people’s proverbial cup of tea.

Since places like VSC do tend to boast about what their former residents have gone on to do, let me ask: how does retreating at La Muse seem to affect attendees’ careers?

John: We have many writers and artists that have acknowledged La Muse in their books and shows.

Anne: I guess that speaks for itself. I also noticed that you seem to have a much higher returning resident rate than most artists’ retreats, which also says something.

Okay, I lied: I have one more question. If you could tell potential attendees only one thing about La Muse before they got here, what would it be?

Kerry: That La Muse is a retreat. They are retreating from their lives back home so that they can finally get done what they need to get done. It’s as simple as that.

Anne: That’s a great place to end the interview, I think. Thanks, Kerry and John, for being generous enough to answer all of my questions and give writers out there curious about formal writing retreats so much insight into what they’re like behind the scenes.

And, as I always say to my readers, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part IV: the most practical of practicalities

chambres-dhote

Welcome back to my ongoing multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. For the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about the financial aspects of getting to a writing retreat, so this time around, we’re going to get even more practical in our focus: what occurs at a formal retreat on a day-to-day basis?

We join the conversation already in progress.

Anne: Having been in residence at La Muse for two different three-week residency sessions, basically because I was being so productive that I refused to leave when the first one ended, I got to see first-hand the ENORMOUS amount of work involved in getting the retreat ready for new residents. Having arrived to find everything in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott liked to say, I was genuinely stunned at the flurry of activity.

Over and above intersession clean-up and prep, what’s actually involved in keeping a writing retreat going on a quotidian basis?

Kerry: Enough so that after all that dreaming, we work more hours here than we did in NYC and still have very little time to write!

Anne: What’s a day of running an artists’ retreat like?

Kerry: Processing applications takes about two hours a day. Once people are accepted and committed to coming, helping them get here can represent a lot of time. The barter residency has its application process and schedule; running barter projects underway takes three full days a week.

We are daily involved in marketing, advertising and outreach to get our name out there, including the blog, our website, our Facebook page, YouTube, MySpace, Shelfari, Good Reads, LinkedIn

Anne: Heavens.

Kerry: We host and enjoy current attendees at La Muse. We take care of people’s wishes and needs daily.

John: We offer a limited local transportation service, so there’s a lot of driving around.

Anne: That’s something that many first-time retreatants don’t consider, but artists’ retreat tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That’s part of their charm, of course, but if a writer doesn’t plan on bringing a car — which can drive up the cost of a retreat by quite a bit, if it’s a rental — getting around can be pretty problematic. I sprained my ankle fairly soon after I arrived, so I never made the hour-long trek down the mountain to the nearest village with a grocery store, but other residents did. So I, for one, was very grateful that you did offer a transportation service, so I could do my shopping while I wasn’t walking so well.

Kerry: Most months, we work on hosting an art show or some other cultural event for our attendees and our neighbors; in 2008, we hosted 8 events. We hope to host two this year, at least.

John: The house is 450 square meters on three levels with two gardens, the maintenance of which is a full-time job.

shutters-at-la-muse

Because at times we don’t have enough room in the house, we coordinate rentals of neighboring cottages to attendees, sometimesl who want to come with their families. When families come with their children, we arrange for childcare during their stay.

Kerry: And then, there’s all that cleaning… and gathering wood once a week from the forest for our four wood burning stoves which burn around the clock from October through April. So, we are busy.

John: You can say that again.

Anne: Not to mention organizing book swaps amongst the residents, taking us on the occasional field trip, and organizing other bits of occasional communal jollity.

I’m very interested in the practicalities, since the day-to-day business of getting fed, obtaining good sleep, and dealing with all of the million other concrete details involved in being comfortable can make an immense difference in how productive a writer is on retreat. A beautiful environment and/or adequate physical facilities are helpful, of course, but not always enough, in my experience.

But we’re talking about your experience here, not mine. What else is involved to encourage writers and other artists to be productive on retreat?

Kerry: There’s general maintenance (replacing blown light bulbs or the odd repairs or computer help, and doing what we can to help people be more comfortable and productive—whether they want to move their desk closer to the window or have a different chair.

Anne: I have distinct recollections of having made both requests. In fact, I’m relatively certain that I asked John to rearrange a fair amount of furniture.

John: Usually, in the first week, attendees have a lot of needs but after a couple of days, after the jet lag, they really start to settle in and then talk comes around to their projects and how they’re doing as opposed to blown light bulbs or where to get eggs from the locals.

Anne: Yes, let’s talk eggs for a moment, since I have some very pleasurable recollections of scrambling some of your neighbor’s freshly-laid duck eggs. Some retreats provide food for attendees, but La Muse does not. How do attendees feed themselves? How well does the communal kitchen work out?

Kerry: People cook and eat for themselves. 98% of people love it like that as it makes their retreat more of a communal one. Some people like other people to make food for them and some people like to do that for them, but again, we are not an institution.

Anne: I notice that you have a clothesline — which attendees also use. How on earth do you do all of the laundry between retreat sessions when the weather’s not nice?

Kerry: We have been very lucky to have mostly dry weather between stays and when it’s not nice, we drape sheets and towels over every radiator in the house. Worst case scenario, we use our dryer.

Anne: I was there in both spring and summer weather, and everyone got their laundry done just fine. But while we’re on the subject of weather, what’s it like at La Muse in the fall and winter?

Kerry: Fall is sunny and warm but with colder nights. Winter is mild but manages to feel cold. It never really goes below 7 degrees Celsius. That said, the weather has seemed totally unpredictable, so I hate to put anything out there in terms of expectations. I’ll just say we have four seasons, and it’s beautiful here no matter what, and the house is comfortable no matter what.

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Anne: I’m sensing that I may have diverted the conversation before you finished telling me about a retreat-running day.

Kerry: We also have conversations with most attendees about their projects at least once during a retreat. Sometimes people have personal issues they struggle with, so we do what we can to provide support. We also meet with everyone socially at least once a week.

This daily interaction is one of our greatest pleasures. It can be very time-intensive, depending on the group. We try to arrange introductions with local artists when there may be the potential for an exchange of some kind. We arrange for French lessons, or just conversation exchange. Everyone needs something, most days.

Anne: Even in the face of that frankly daunting list of tasks you’ve just mentioned, my impression is that, if anything, you’ve been expanding your efforts on behalf of La Muse and the larger artists’ community over time. Is that accurate? How has your vision evolved in the years since you first opened the retreat?

Kerry: We’ve stayed very true to the original concept but have developed a community-based angle as well. We started our non-profit for local cultural activities, and to be able to create more fellowships — another development since the beginning.

Anne: That ties into the dream you were telling us about last time: trying to bring La Muse to the point where writers and artists can attend for free. It’s such a beautiful idea; I hope to see you realize it.

Tell us more about La Muse’s nonprofit. People can deduct contributions to it, right?

John: Basically, any donations made to the non-profit — it’s called “L’Association ‘La Muse’ pour la creation et la culture en Montagne Noire et Cabardes” — are completely tax deductable. An association in France functions much like a 501(c)(3) in the States. It’s due to a convention that was passed on the first of July all the way back in 1901, where two or more people operating a non-profit-making organization call themselves an “Association Loi 1901”.

Anne: You’ve got to hand it to the French when it comes to naming things straightforwardly. I was forever asking the locals what that group of crumbling medieval towers was called, and the name would turn out to be something like Las Tours.

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John: It took a lot of time to get it up and running due to all the paperwork, which is par for the course in La France, but we really foresee it having great benefits for La Muse, as ideally we would like every attendee that comes here to come for free. We haven’t employed a fundraiser yet but we are a member of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Rhode Island and are doing what we can to get our mission out there to potential donors so that we can make La Muse a free retreat, much like foundations like Yaddo.

Like I said earlier. ideally we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or residency attached to an institution or donor so they don’t feel weighed down by the financial weight of getting away. Our mission has always been to make a space for creative people and the best way to do that would to be to offer it for free. Also, it isn’t just now that we’re doing this. Students and graduates have been coming to us from Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States for years.

We want to grow that side of La Muse, but we need help to do so. We need the donations to get people here.

Kerry: We’re also reaching out more to our community not just because we love our neighbors and are grateful to have been welcomed by them, but also because many of them are artists and writers. Our attendees appreciate having a taste of local life, and we try to facilitate exchanges between our neighbors whenever possible, whether by inviting attendees to local events, or sending them to the neighbors for fresh eggs, or for a massage or a hiking guide—you name it.

Anne: We were talking about that earlier: although so many artists’ retreats are located in beautiful environments, they tend to be isolated enough from their neighbors that, other than the weather and the types of trees, spending a month at one might not be all that different than spending a month at another. Experienced retreaters compare amenities, of course, but as someone who has attended many retreats, a lot of them blur together in retrospect.

I find it rather hard to imagine that happening with La Muse, though. Where else, for instance, was I going to see the locals playing giant bagpipes made our of goats?

la-fete-de-ciba

Kerry: On an internal level, we’ve streamlined things since the beginning too, when it was more informal. We added the art studios. We are working on a new retreat calendar; rather than focus solely on longer retreats we’re trying to accommodate people who can only get away for two weeks.

Anne: Really? Not a lot of retreats offer stays that short; that would be helpful for working writers. Not to mention ones with kids!

Kerry: The 2010 calendar will have two-week retreats during months when there are university breaks, as well as our current three-week retreats. That way, people can come for two weeks, three weeks, two two-week retreats, a three-week retreat, etc. Some people stay for up to six months. In other words, people can tailor the length of their stay but keep to an arrival and departure schedule that won’t create a lot of upheaval for other attendees.

Anne: But the normal retreat time is three weeks, right? At many retreats, it’s a month. Why did you settle on three weeks?

Kerry: Our focus is to provide a place in which people can really crank on their projects, make some real progress. We believe that with the time it takes to settle in and with the inevitable socializing and days to read and relax, a person really needs about three weeks in order to get any real work done.

Anne: That’s true, but I know that in my case, it takes me a few days to settle in at the beginning, as well as a few days to get back to real-world mode at the end. So I had always assumed that most retreats arrange month-long (or longer) residencies, assuming that the three weeks you mentioned will fall somewhere in the middle of it.

Kerry: We used to have four-week retreats, and the last week seemed to be a listless one. As well, people often just can’t get away for four weeks. So we changed it to three.

John: Previous attendees told us three weeks would be better than four as they found it hard to get four weeks off from their day jobs or away from the kids or other responsibilities.

Anne: Speaking of time away from other responsibilities, I don’t want to run over-long, so let’s break here for the day.

Happy weekend, everyone, and keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part III: did someone mention fellowships?

library-door-at-la-muse

For the last week or so, I’ve been talking about the pros, cons, ins, outs, and finances of grabbing one’s manuscript, computer, and what Chaucer described for posterity as a bag of needments and trundling off to a formal writing retreat. You know, the impressive kind that they advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine: artists’ colonies where you have to write (or paint, or sculpt, or photograph) your way in; for the rest of your professional life, agents, editors, and other literati take a gander at your bio or query letter and exclaim, “Oh, you were at Retreat X?”

Oh, and one generally gets time to work on one’s manuscript, too.

Because both the decision to take time off work and the application process can be intimidating, confusing, or even downright scary, I have devoted the last couple of days to chatting about practicalities with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, owners, operators, and writers-in-residence at La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France. If you gaze carefully into the windows in the picture above, you’ll catch a glimpse of the magnificent view I enjoyed every time I cast my laptop from me last month and stared out the window, mulling over dialogue.

What — not enough detail in that image? Well, if you’re very nice, I’ll treat you to some clearer landscape photos throughout today’s post.

But wait, there’s more: as an additional treat, I’m also going to be continuing the extremely practical bent of yesterday’s post (an excellent behind-the-scenes glimpse into what a retreat application looks like from the other side of the submission desk) by sticking to the nitty-gritty. Specifically, to the financial nitty-gritty, to address the most pressing question on many would-be retreating writers’ minds:

How on earth do writers afford to stay at a retreat like this?

If a writer happens to be independently wealthy, obviously, the answer is simple: there are plenty of perfectly marvelous artists’ hideaways out there for thems as can pay for ‘em. Those of lesser means often save up for them, get a paper route, or blandish kith and kin into donating toward them as birthday presents, in much the same way as anyone else who wants something out of his price range.

However, the answer for most of us who do it on a semi-regular basis, as I mentioned on Monday, is to apply for fellowships, grants, and barter arrangements at the retreats whose facilities we covet.

Fair warning: very, very few formal retreats can afford to offer more than a small handful of fellowships; the vast majority of residents in even the top-flight retreats are paying their own way, at least in part. Not all artists’ colonies offer outright free stays — and remember when you’re budgeting, even those that do seldom offer assistance with travel to reach their often far-flung doorsteps — and those that do tend to see hundreds of applications for each available spot. Barter arrangements are sometimes possible, but rare.

The fact is, though, most retreats do offer a chance to win at least a break on the cost of residency, if not a free ride, to those willing to jump through a few extra hoops. Since you’re going to be submitting an application to a selective retreat, anyway, what are a few extra hoops? It never hurts to try.

Where might one start trying? Well, word of mouth is best; I’ve found some great grants, as well as some fabulous retreat spots, by the simple expedient of asking writers I admire where they go to get away from it all and who paid for it. You can also engage in a web search, but like anything else you shop for online, it’s prudent to double-check a granting foundation’s credibility before you put your John Hancock on a application fee check. Like literary contests, not all of the fellowship opportunities advertised are legit; like literary contests, sometimes the primary goal of a fellowship competition is apparently to collect all of those application fees, rather than to reward, say, compositional excellence. Many a retreat, like many a contest-running organization, depends heavily on funds raised from the fees of unsuccessful applicants.

Please tell me that none of that was news to you. Or that if it was, you haven’t been wildly sending off entries and application fees to every contest, fellowship, and grant program out there. Or that if you have, you will solemnly swear to set aside time to read through the CONTESTS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME TO ENTER category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Hey, I’m only trying to save you some money. And chagrin.

As is the case with so very many other aspects of getting started as a writer, it pays to do your homework before you actually pay for anything. A good place to start looking for fellowships that actually are what they appear to be is Poets & Writers magazine, whose staff tend to keep a sharp eye out for those out to scam writers.

Yes, yes, I heard that massive collective sigh: tracking down a fellowship and applying for it can be quite a bit of work, yet another demand upon your precious writing time, along with querying, going to conferences to pitch, going to conferences not to pitch, submitting, entering contests, attending classes, keeping up with the new releases in your chosen book category, and, oh yeah, writing your manuscript. But listen: while all of these efforts can result in some pretty happy outcomes for a writer, from landing an agent to learning how to present your work professionally to making some pretty terrific fellow writers, applying for a retreat fellowship or writing grant is one of the very few standard writerly activities that can actually give you more time to write.

All right, that’s enough cautionary preamble for one day. Let’s take a gander at another nice, soothing picture of a lovely landscape in France — and get back to our ongoing conversation with some folks who are, in part, in the fellowship- and barter-granting business. And had I mentioned that La Muse is one of the relatively few fellowship-offering retreats out there that doesn’t charge an application fee?

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Anne: I hear that you offer fellowships to stay at La Muse, which must be awfully difficult to pull off in the current global economy. Since you could fill the retreat entirely with writers and other artists paying their own way, why offer fellowships?

Kerry: We want people to be able to come for free. We want everyone to be able to come. We need people’s help to make that happen though because we are only two people so far with amazing barter attendees nearly every second month but we need more.

Anne: I’ll want to get back to barter residencies in a bit, since that’s so unusual, but let’s stick with the fellowships for the moment. How many fellowships are you offering these days?

John: We have four fellowships a year with separate application procedures, and seek partnerships to extend that to at least twelve fellowships.

Anne: Meaning that you sponsor visiting writers and artists from a number of different institutions.

John: Ideally, we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or on a residency attached to a university, publishing house, organization, or patron so that writers and artists don’t feel burdened by the financial weight of getting time off from work without pay or worrying about the costs of flights, etc.

Anne: I would love to see more retreats run on that basis, but so few of them are. I’ve met literally thousands of writers just in the last five years to whom such a retreat opportunity would have made a phenomenal difference.

John: Our vision has always been to provide a space for creative people who need to get away from life back home to get a project going or finished so inevitably we would like to make that transition much easier and less costly, as even the bare minimum costs we charge to offset our operating costs, can stop people from coming.

view-from-la-muse-window
Anne: So is that how you see La Muse operating ten years from now?

John: In ten years, although we would really love to see it happening a lot sooner, we foresee everyone that comes as being a fellow. We’ve already started this process with Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States, over and above the Wildcard residency every year.

Anne: And everyone’s eligible for the Wildcard residency. I know that you subsidize the Wildcard residency yourselves, out of the goodness of your collective heart. Do the universities pay to send their fellows?

John: The Iowa and Madison fellowships are not underwritten by the universities.

Anne: Wow. So more goodness-of-your-heart stuff.

John: We donate them to the graduates there because we believe in those courses. The University of Iowa brought a load of students here a few years ago under the guidance of Robin Hemley and David Hamilton. We were really impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Robin and David, but more importantly by the students and their potential. That’s why we offer them two fellowships a year.

Anne: Iowa has a great writing program. Was the high quality of the writing programs what prompted you to offer fellowships to students from the other two as well?

John: Madison is where Kerry went to university so she had first-hand experience of how good their creative writing department was, and I went to Maynooth University. which is a member of Foras Feasa. It all felt organic. However, we would love to have fellows from every country, but this takes time and energy and help.

Kerry: And in the future we will have it. We’re definitely going to need another really big house, too (there’s one we love right here in Labastide). Or two. And a support staff. And a recording studio for musicians, a piano, a movie room for screenings and cinema nights, an oven for ceramicists, a big room with a wooden floor for dancers, a full-time on-site yoga instructor, a coop-type organic vegetable garden for attendees, and a sizable gift from a lover-of-the-arts that will have made it all possible without any more debt, plus enough funding for every artist to come to La Muse on a full fellowship.

Anne: From your mouth to Whomever’s ear.

Kerry: I envision nirvana. And an office, so we don’t have to run all of this from our kitchen anymore and John’s small office upstairs.

windows-at-la-muse
Anne: But even now, not all of your fellowships are devoted to people affiliated with specific programs, right?

John: True to our non-affiliated roots, we also offer a Wildcard Residency to a visual artist and a writer every November.

Anne: I imagine that the Wildcard is the one that will interest most of my readers. How does one apply for a fellowship to La Muse?

Kerry: Whether for the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship, the University of Iowa Creative Non-fiction Fellowship, or our own unaffiliated Wildcard Fellowship, the process is the same as for a regular retreat stay:

a CV
2 references (one personal and one professional)
a description of the project one hopes to work on at La Muse,
and a sample of work

Anne: That’s unusual, not to require extra paperwork for fellowship applicants.

Kerry: The deadlines are on our website. Foras Feasa in Ireland elects their Fellow every year, in March.

We have also barters almost every month of the year. We would love to have a barter attendee here every month of the year, but the operating costs of La Muse don’t allow for it yet.

view-near-church

Anne: Okay, let’s talk about the barters. If I may quote from your website:

We welcome writers and artists to apply to come to La Muse as barters on work exchange stays. Writers and artists receive a complimentary room in exchange for approximately 3 days of work per week, that is, two days of work and one hour a day of daily tasks.

The kind of work depends on the season and the number of other guests at the house, but would include anything from building stone walls and gardening to home improvement, grant research for the owners, or organizational/administrative assistance.

Barter rooms are not available during the summer. We review applications one to two months in advance. Application

Anne: Your barter arrangements are unusually generous, I’ve noticed. Usually, the work exchange results in a discount for the retreater, but this is the room for an entire three-week session.

Kerry: We try to have barters for most of the year. They apply more or less the same way as other attendees, though it’s a good idea to highlight in the application any specific skills that could help us, such as grant-writing knowledge, fundraising or marketing or PR, or house-painting or construction or gardening experience. All barter projects are for La Muse improvements only, i.e., they don’t do our laundry!

Anne: I get it: the barter attendees are helping you two build the La Muse of ten years hence both physically and financially. That’s a great idea. If any of you readers out there are financial wizards, I hope you’ll think about going on a bartered retreat to help move La Muse toward the dream of an entirely subsidized artists’ community!

Before I get too carried away with the idea, I should ask: do barterers get to stay the same length of time as paying retreatants? How is their work/retreat time differentiated so both they and you can get the most out of both?

Kerry: Once barters arrive, they work for three days a week in exchange for their room. They arrive on the last day of the outgoing retreat so that they can help us get the house ready. Either they work on one intensive project for the whole stay, or they essentially help us on whatever comes up. It depends on the time of the year they come and what we happen to be working on. We work with them on most projects.

John: Barters get a lot out of their stays here, too, because they are really aware of their creative time apart from their barter time. They always get a lot of their own work done because they are really aware of how precious their time here is.

It’s great, because they love to get out of the house to clear their creative desktops. That way, they start fresh after three days. We love having barters and from what they’ve wrote to us over the years they love the experience, too.

Anne: While we’re on the subject of unusual arrangements for a formal retreat, you mentioned last time that sometimes your writer and artist residents collaborate on projects; during my stay, a fellow resident and I happened to be writing books set in the 1980s — she nonfiction, I fiction — so we had amazing brainstorming sessions. Perhaps as a result, I kept thinking while I was in residence, if I ever was working on a collaborative project with another writer, I’d definitely drag him/her/it to La Muse for some intensive co-work.

Which leads me to ask about other types of groups. Do couples ever come together to La Muse, or groups of friends? A writing group, perhaps? Could you accommodate a writer with children and/or a significant other in tow?

Kerry: Yes, all of the above. Spouses who want to come and stay in the house with an artist have to apply with a project proposal etc; if they’re coming to be a tourist, we recommend renting a cottage. Families stay in cottages.

Anne: That makes sense. That way, the family can have its own space, distinct from the other residents.

Kerry: We’ve had creativity/yoga retreats, workshop retreats. It’s all possible. We envision and would welcome proposals for cooking/writing retreats, art/well-being retreats, etc.

Anne: And academics, too, right? A couple of my fellow attendees were graduate students, which I found interesting, as academic writers tend not to go on retreat as much as I think they should. Is La Muse a good place to, say, write up a dissertation? Or, to put it another way, what might be the benefits for an academic to live and work amongst artists for a while?

Kerry: A creative approach to structure and voice would be marvelous for dissertations, and that often comes from the conversations we and other attendees have with Ph.D. attendees. They see structure and approach in a whole new light when they see it from a more commercial or creative standpoint.

Anne: That definitely seemed to happen in my retreat group. I can tell you from experience that few dissertation-writers ever get asked on a college campus, “So, what story are you telling in your book?”

John: Yes, it makes them see beyond the footnotes and cross analysis to where the story of what it is they are writing about lies. Where is the story of my subject? A lot of academics that have been here have found that really refreshing and inspiring.

Anne: John, I hear that you’re planning to go on a writing retreat yourself. What are you looking for in a retreat experience?

John: I’m looking for La Muse!

Anne: On that note, I’m going to sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John, for filling us in about fellowships and barters!

If some of you found today’s talk of finances a bit prosaic for your daydreaming-about-retreating-in-France pleasure, never fear: more mouth-watering details follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part II: the application process

a-view-from-behind-the-writing-desk

Yesterday, I began an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, the brave souls responsible for running the remote writing retreat from which I have recently returned, La Muse. Since I utterly forgot to run a basic description of the place yesterday, here are the basics:

La Muse Writers’ and Artists’ retreat in Southern France is located in an ancient village perche called Labastide Esparbairenque, in the historic Aude department of Languedoc. We provide a space where artists and writers can work in a peaceful, isolated and inspiring setting. We have hosted poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters, painters, visual artists, photographers, chefs, composers, directors, healers and more. Rooms are available to barters, recipients of fellowships and grants, and to individuals who apply directly through La Muse.

The house overlooks its own intimate valley and river. Enjoy magnificent views from every room as well as from our terrace and gardens. On breaks from work, go wine tasting, visit local markets, swim in the nearby lake or just enjoy nature. We are located in the midst of the French national walks system, where well-marked trails scribble the countryside.

What we offer is quite specific: time and space to create among peers, and access to nature, culture and good food. The retreats create a rewarding environment for attendees as well as our ever-growing artistic community. So come create and participate in a growing creative community, one that encourages artistic diversity as well as an exchange between cultures from all over the world.

Something I also neglected to mention yesterday: you’ll find the application here. Even if you are not in the market for a retreat experience, you might want to take a quick gander at the application requirements, as they are relevant to what I’ve been talking about for a week now — and speak very directly to our topic du jour, which is all about how people write their way into someplace like La Muse.

Why veer away from the daydream-worthy retreat experience to talk about something as practical as what makes a winning application? While I could post for weeks on what day-to-day life is like at La Muse and similar artists’ retreats — I could, for instance, have blogged about it on a daily basis while I was there — my first priority in this interview series is to glean as much practical information as possible for those of you who might be considering investing in some serious retreat time.

So for this part of the interview, I ruthlessly turned the conversation toward a topic we pursued a few days ago: residency applications, fellowships, and just how writers’ retreats decide should and should not come.

Did I just hear a gasp of disbelief from those of you who have never tried to gain acceptance to a formal writers’ retreat? Almost universally, it’s not enough to show up on with the requisite fee, a burning desire to write, and the time to do it: very few artists’ colonies are willing to take everyone who applies. As I mentioned on Monday, serious retreats require an application packet that demonstrates not only the potential applicant’s willingness to retreat, but talent and professional acumen.

Knowing how I love you people, was I going to allow a rare opportunity to grill folks who evaluate writers’ retreat applications on a regular basis?

Of course not. Let’s join the conversation already in progress — and to humanize the potentially fearsome souls on the other side of the application envelope, here’s a snapshot I took of Kerry and John at a moment of retreat conviviality. (Those two homemade vegetable pizzas were fresh out of the oven, incidentally.)

john-and-kerry-serve-dinner-at-la-muse

Anne: Something I’ve noticed that we have in common is our strong belief that writers should help one another. Since you are so supportive of writers at every stage of their careers, why did you decide to establish an application process, rather than just accepting anyone who wanted to come?

John: People need to know what it is they are coming here for. It helps them and us to know exactly what they are going to be working on. Otherwise they get frustrated and annoyed with themselves for wasting their own time.

Kerry: We wanted to make sure people didn’t expect Club Med.

Anne: Oh, I know that kind of retreater: ostensibly getting away from everything to write, but outraged to learn that there isn’t round-the-clock room service and a shopping mall with a movie theatre next door to the retreat.

Kerry: We really want people who are going to benefit from La Muse in the way we intended, people who are coming to work on a creative project. We charge significantly less than a B&B of comparable quality. If we wanted people on vacation, we’d run a hotel.

We also want to make sure that interested writers and artists know that the house isn’t by aim social (though conviviality is a nice boon), and that everyone else here at any given time is here to be absorbed in a solitary, creative activity.

The best way to convey all that is to make it official, ask them why they’re coming, and help them get organized before they come.

Anne: I’m going to toss tact to the four winds and come right and ask what every writer who applies for a residency most wants to know: what do you like to see in an application? In general, what separates a strong packet from a weak one?

Kerry: First and foremost, I respond well to someone who is both professional and personable. I like a polite, formal but warm address, something respectful but not rigid—good attributes in a small community setting.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense; it’s the same note an aspiring writer should strike in a query letter or pitch. Since capturing that tone puzzles many writers, do you have any pointers on how to achieve that balance in a first approach or application?

Kerry: Write the email like a good old-fashioned cover letter. Answer the points and include the documents we request on the how-to-apply page of our website. Show us you’ve done some research, and have at least read the website.

Anne: I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard agents say precisely the same thing about querying. Queries, pitches, and applications that seem unsuited to the recipient tend not to go over well.
view-from-library-at-la-muse

Anne: Anything else?

Kerry: I love an application that doesn’t have any parts missing. That said, if something’s missing in an otherwise good application, I ask for it; I point out errors.

Anne: That’s incredibly nice of you, considering the volume of applications you must receive. I’m constantly regaling my readers with horror stories about how Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge just toss back queries, submissions, and entries that don’t follow the rules.

Kerry: I lost a great job due to an error on my resume; it was a good lesson that I can gently pass on by pointing their mistakes out to applicants. No matter how good the writing, I will not forward an application to John with typos.

John: Typos. That’s a good example! That gets me going. All right, with an artist I can understand this to an extent in an email, but a writer. That’s your job! As Stephen King would put it, it’s part of the toolbox you carry around with you everywhere.

Anne: They’re a pet peeve of mine, too, and most of us who read manuscripts for a living. Nothing says, “I didn’t bother to proofread this before I submitted it,” like a bouquet of typos.

John: Spell-check is not only important, I feel, but mandatory. If you can’t spell-check an application, then that’s a red flag.

Anne: Hear that, readers? Is this where I get to say I told you so?

John: An electrician doesn’t go to work without a screwdriver. Why would a writer go to work without a tool as simple as spell-check?

It’s the little things that tell you so much about an applicant. It’s just like with title pages for screenplays or books. You don’t do massive block capitals on a front page. It’s done a certain way and if you don’t do it that way then you get onto the slush pile with all the rest of the unprofessionally presented things. Like, you don’t say that a ms. is copy written, it’s just understood.

Anne: That’s a hard one to get writers brand-new to the biz to understand. They think that it looks more professional if a title page or footer contains © Neophyte McWriterly, but to the pros, it’s just the opposite.

John: You are a professional. You copy write everything before you even send it to a friend, never mind an agent or house. It works the same way with a retreat. Give what you’re asked for. Don’t give what you imagine someone wants and be professional about it.

artists-on-the-terrace-at-la-muse

Anne: What other kinds of things really turn you off in an application?

John: ?Actually, we don’t really get that many problematic applications and when we do, we see the red flags straight away. They are the type of application that draws attention to themselves very quickly.

Kerry: Honestly, unless it has something to do with the project (and in that instance it’s perfectly acceptable), I don’t want to know about someone’s political, religious, or sexual orientation in their introductory email or application—again, unless it’s related to their project.

Anne: That’s interesting — that’s another one I hear from agents and contest judges quite often. Aspiring writers often seem to assume that the person reading their applications, query letters, or entries will be exactly like them. The world’s just a whole lot more diverse than that.

Kerry: I like opinionated people, but in retreat settings it’s good to have people who are able to be discreet when in the company of other religions, political and sexual leanings, or in a professional exchange. It’s best for a person not to assume that everyone will jump aboard his or her bandwagon. I believe it’s best for that information to come out over dinner (where it always does, we can bash Bush till the sun rises) than in an application.

As well, I don’t want my opinion to get in the way of accepting a talented artist with a perfectly acceptable application. We’re fortunate to have very high quality applications most of the time.

Anne: Let me turn the question around: what would your dream applicant be like?

Kerry: Talented.

Anne: I like that. Is that orientation how you end up welcoming such a broad range of ages and levels of professional accomplishment? In the two groups of retreaters when I was in residence, I was struck by the diversity of personalities and ages: in my first cohort, there was 26-year-old and a 74-year-old. And both were indeed very talented writers.

John: The range of ages, cultures, the diversity, is what makes La Muse so great, I feel. The last retreat, we had an Irishman, an English couple, a South African who lives in Grenoble, a New Zealand couple, a Canadian who lives in California, and the previous retreat there were Americans and…it goes on. We love the diversity and so do the people that come here. It’s fun to find out about other cultures and ways of thinking and living and what they read and love. It informs and elaborates your experience here.

Anne: Was there something about our applications that told you that all of our personalities would mesh well?

Kerry: People usually get along. The odd time there is some kind of tension, people are grown-up about it. After all, they all came here for other reasons, anyway.

Anne: So applicants not good at dealing with others tend not to be looking for this kind of retreat? Or is it that the artists who are drawn to a place with a communal kitchen are expecting to make friends?

Kerry: People who come here have a lot in common, no matter their age or art form. They’re smart, interesting and creative. They like to travel. They like nature. They like France and its food, language, history and architecture. They’re serious about what they’re here for. They want to work alone in their room with the option to see a friendly face, ask for advice, to walk or cook with another person.

Anne: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I suspect that many gifted aspiring writers who might hugely enjoy a formal retreat are fearful of spending a great big chunk of time alone, staring at a computer screen. But I’ve met some of my best friends at retreats; if everyone is serious about working, it’s definitely possible to get a lot done and still have social contact. And that’s great, because retreaters tend to be such interesting people.

I also suspect that most aspiring writers don’t know that being admitted to a serious retreat is a respected professional credential, something to catch an editorial or agent’s eye in a bio or query letter.

John: It’s just another thing that says I take what I do seriously and am willing to commit time out of my life back home to that end.

Anne: Has it been your experience that Musers use having attended as a writing credential later on?

Kerry: Yes. They also use each other as references for jobs or other opportunities; they use each other as readers for manuscripts, and have collaborated with each other on all kinds of projects. We get a lot of writers who at La Muse find illustrators for their books!

John: Not only that, but we put new Musers in touch with previous ones. We’ll get people to send their work to other attendees that have been here before who are editors of reviews or heads of writing programs or to agents or editors at publishing houses. The most important thing that attendees get, though, is the reward of knowing that they’ve attended a retreat and because of that they will put it down on their CV/resume because to people like agents, editors, marketing departments, it shows a broader outreach of your potential readership or buyers.

Anne: I’ve noticed over the years that going on a formal retreat can do a great deal toward helping a writer think of herself as a professional — as in, “Hey, these people who screen residency applications all the time think I’m talented enough to take seriously; maybe I should be thinking of this as my life’s work.”

But since this is an interview, I suppose I should be asking questions, rather than making statements. So I’ll ask you: speaking as people who get to see many attendees grow and change over the course of their retreats, what seem to be the greatest benefits?

Kerry: It’s deep immersion, which makes room for inspiration. It’s genuinely exhilarating and puts people back in touch with why they became artists, why they do what they do. When in your real life do you really get a chance to have uninterrupted focus on your work?

John: Exactly, it’s a gift to yourself to go on a retreat. The vast majority of attendees leave La Muse revitalized and re-inspired.

Anne: That’s a good thought to leave my readers pondering, so I’m going to break here for today. Thanks, John and Kerry, for sharing your experience with all of us here at Author! Author!

I’d also like to throw the question to all of you out there: what is actually necessary for you to take your writing seriously as your art, rather than as just a hobby? Most of the successful authors of my acquaintance can point to a specific event, level of recognition, or decision on their part — what is it, or will it be, for you?

As always, keep up the good work!

An inside view of a formal writing retreat: an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse

la-muse-full-side

Since I had been contemplating quite a few posts on the joys, trials, and logistics of formal writing retreats for, well, the entirety of my most recent writing retreat, I have been busily jotting down questions I wanted to address for a couple of months now. After I returned, it occurred to me: instead of attacking the resulting raft of issues entirely from the retreater’s perspective — which, let’s face it, has been my approach every time I have blogged about retreats in the past — why not hand this excellent list to some kind people who actually RUN an artists’ retreat, so my readers could have the benefit of a less-often-heard perspective?

So although I am not much in the habit of packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and handing it to other people, I instantly got busy blandishing my favorite retreat organizers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse in Labastide Esparbaïrenque, in the remote Montagne Noir of southwestern France.

If that sounds pretty far off the beaten path, that’s because it is. La Muse is concealed in a miniscule village nestled onto a mountainside far, far away from both the madding crowd and anyplace that it would even occur for a tourist to visit, despite the fact that you can’t drive for fifteen minutes in any direction without stumbling upon some ruined castle so picturesque that I kept walking up to touch the stonework to reassure myself that it wasn’t just a painted backdrop for a romantic film about the Knights Templar.

It is, in other words, the material embodiment of the concept of getting away from it all. When my phone is ringing off the hook while I’m trying to polish off that last chapter of a novel, I automatically start looking for a place like La Muse.

So Kerry and John don’t just operate a retreat; they operate a retreat.

Who better, then, to ask to enlighten us on the ins and outs of serious writers’ retreats, or to answer my questions pertinent and impertinent? Or, to continue yesterday’s discussion, to enlighten us on what differentiates a successful fellowship application from an unsuccessful one.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are now or ever intend to apply for a residency, you’re going to want to take some notes on this extended interview.

Welcome, John and Kerry, to Author! Author!, and thanks so much for agreeing to share your insights with us!

kerry-eielson-and-john-fanning

Anne: Let’s start with the basics. What made you want to open La Muse in the first place?

Kerry: The first reason we started La Muse was because WE needed a retreat to go to, as did other writers like us: young people with full-time jobs that didn’t allow much time for writing.

Anne: Oh, I know so many aspiring and established writers who fall into that category.

Kerry: We were not all that connected, not all that pedigreed, not established in the world of creative writing. We were “writers” working in stimulating and exciting jobs but without time or space for our own creative writing projects and ambitions. There was nothing out there in terms of retreats that was simple and affordable, that focused on the process of writing without lots of talks and readings and workshops, without the groupie-vibe of some conferences.

We just needed a place to go to be able to write: La Muse!

Anne: It’s astonishing how seldom time to write seems to be built into workshops. I often come away all excited about my writing, but too exhausted to do any of it for the foreseeable future.

But enough about me: why not pursue the standard great big institutional artist colony route?

Kerry: We also felt the Catch-22 of not being established writers, and so not being able to benefit from grant-funded institutions or retreats that are more accessible to established writers or writers in the MFA system or cottage industry. We weren’t on “the track” and, believe it or not, it is mighty difficult for two full-time staffers at relatively high-powered magazine jobs in NYC to get on it.

We were lucky to have great jobs, which we appreciated and took seriously, were working more than that great American standard of 60 hours a week. I got up at 4:30 AM to have two hours of my own writing, and time to jog every day. John did the opposite, staying up until about that time to get his writing done. We didn’t sleep, didn’t see each other and though we were happy, motivated and exhilarated, we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.

We wanted to write. We wanted to have a family life with the kids we hoped to have some day, AND we wanted to own our home–not an option with our low publishing salaries in New York City.

Anne: I see; you wanted to write AND have a life.

Kerry: And so, two newly-weds, we were talking about how we could make it all work. We decided to leave NYC and in dreaming about where we might go from there, we went online and found La Muse, then a huge run-down old manor house for next-to-nothing. We started dreaming out loud, planning this hypothetical life and next thing we knew; it was ours!

Anne: Wait — you bought a retreat online?

John: Kerry pretty much summed it up there, except for the fact that we did it all on credit cards. We also stripped layers of wallpaper from the ceilings, threw out about ten truckloads of junk — I mean truck truckloads, not van loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in here.

Anne: For the benefit of those who have not yet been there, I should point out that I’ve lived in towns with smaller courthouses than La Muse’s main building. Some of the rooms are immense. And didn’t you lay the stones of the patio yourselves?

la-muse-writing-roomthalia-at-la-muse

John: Let’s just say the renovation process was an experience.

Anne: Given how beautiful both the building and the locale are, I’m sure that it wasn’t easy at first to establish La Muse as an artists’ retreat, rather than just a gorgeous vacation spot. Just to nip in the bud any possible misconceptions, how is a residency at La Muse different from a vacation?

Kerry: The focus of a stay at a writers’ retreat is on writing, not tourism.

John: Exactly. A writer’s retreat is just that, a retreat. You retreat from all the bustle of telephone calls, email, appointments, work etc. to connect with whatever it is you need to connect with to get your project finished, started, researched.

Anne: That last is why La Muse has wireless internet access, presumably. As much as I love a get-away-from-everything retreat, I actually couldn’t have done the necessary research on my novel without the occasional web crawl.

Since you’re both writers yourselves, I understand the impetus to create a writers’ retreat. So why does La Muse welcome many kinds of artist, instead of just writers?

Kerry: We saw no reason to limit our attendee to one kind of artist, and it happened organically. Visual artists asked if they could come. I love painting and drawing, and this place, with its rich light, is a heaven to visual artists. In fact, I’m more often inspired to draw here than write.

Anne: Having run a mixed retreat for a while now, what do you think different kinds of artists get from retreating together? Or, perhaps more to the point for my readership, what do writers gain from sharing retreat time and space with other types of artist?

Kerry: There is a nice exchange between the visual artists, composers and writers; a lot of artists are multidisciplinary-talented and they come away from conversations with artists in other mediums feeling inspired.

John: Artists generally regard the world around them more than writers. They have to concentrate on the colors, the shapes, on the lines all around them, not the ones inside their heads, so both groups really add to each other’s process.

Anne: Is that why you have been expanding the studio space?

Kerry: The same kind of informal, small-scale retreat seemed to be missing for visual artists. So, we made a studio, and then another studio.

Anne: I suspect that most people have a pretty easy time picturing the kind of studio space that might appeal to a painter or a sculptor, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t really a strong cultural conception of what kind of space might be conducive to writing, other than a desk and a chair in someplace quiet. How do the facilities for writers differ from those for other kinds of artist at La Muse?

Kerry: Writers work in their own rooms. Artists working on drawing projects do, too. But artists working in oil paints or mediums that smell, make noise, stain or need lots of space use the studios.

John: Writers also use the library and artists will go out into the woods to paint or photograph a lot.

Anne: I know from personal experience that the weather also plays a role in where the residents choose to work. The weather was gorgeous for the last few weeks I was there, and there were hours at a time when I seemed to be the only one writing inside.

writer-on-la-muse-terrace

Anne: But as tempting as it is to dwell on the physical environment, let’s talk about the less concrete part of the retreat — or at any rate, less of what is literally set in stone. What do you think writers retreating at La Muse find there that they couldn’t possibly discover anyplace else?

Kerry: It’s a serious yet familial setting. Attendees can’t help but to get to know each other and us, and that creates a great opportunity for exchange.

John: Yes. We’re not a huge institution like Yaddo or the Doris Duke Foundation. We are small and we like it that way. It’s what people always tell us they love about La Muse.

Kerry: We are accessible, affordable, multi-disciplinary and non-institutional but also professional about what we do.

Anne: Since most of my readership lives in North America, I suspect that some of them might be surprised to hear a retreat on a remote mountain in France described as accessible. What does that mean, precisely?

Kerry: The intimate, familial setting is unique. Normally, La Muse has between four to eight attendees of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and artistic mediums, at different stages in their careers, and they have a lot to offer each other. The shared kitchen and meals allow for unique exchanges. People forge friendships and collaborations here. People help each other on their work, and support each other in other areas.

Former attendees have said that the fact La Muse is structured (due to the quiet hours) but not rigid (there’s no other structure in place) actually creates time, more time than at other retreats.

Anne: We should probably explain to everyone about the quiet hours. Technically, attendees are supposed to limit noise-making within the house — talking, playing music, Skyping — to a very limited number of hours per day, so that 9 am to noon, 1 to 5:30 pm, and 10 pm to 7 am are quiet times, designed for devotion to work or sleep.

I’ve never attended a retreat that didn’t maintain at least the pretense of quiet times or spaces, though; I don’t think they could attract writers otherwise. Because the claims are so similar — I mean, doesn’t every retreat’s website claim it’s the least distracting place on earth? — it’s really, really hard for writers honestly looking for uninterrupted writing time to tell them apart.

The difference to work time, it seems to me, usually lies less in whether such rules exist than in how they are enforced — and in how many other distractions there are. In a village like Labastide, where you might bump into perhaps three residents on a heavy traffic day, there’s not a whole lot of ambient noise or activity to interrupt one’s work. And I just loved that you didn’t clutter up residents’ weeks with a whole lot of structured events, as so many of the larger retreats do.

John: We leave people to do what it is they have come here to do as opposed to having workshops and classes, etc.

Anne: Personally, I found that very respectful of my decision to retreat in the first place. But you do occasionally host groups that come together for a workshop, right? (Note to readers: this was not an entirely fair question; I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching an intensive novel seminar there.)

John: Although we have hosted Study Abroad programs, such as Iowa University’s, we leave the teaching to the organization that comes to organize. We help set up guidelines and orientation, but most of the time we leave people to their own process.

Anne: Which can make for some pretty intriguing interactions, since every artists’ process is different. Is that why you accept writers at all stages of their careers, rather than just the established — as many of the ritzier artists’ colonies do — or only those starting out?

Kerry: We accept attendees based on the seriousness of their intent and the quality of their application. Period.

John: Yes, and it really works out well for both parties. One rubs off the other, just the way those of different disciplines help each other.

Anne: Not to mention making it more fun for everyone concerned. Although I spent the vast majority of my waking time at La Muse writing, I’ve noticed that when I talk about it now that I’m back home, I often dwell on the social aspects, the trips out into the countryside, the cherries that were in season while I was there, and the like. It’s definitely unusual for a writer’s retreat to offer as many cultural exchange opportunities for retreatants who want to take advantage of them.

Kerry: We arrange French lessons, art-hikes with a local watercolor artist. We introduce our attendees to local artists whose work may inform theirs. We bring attendees on a wine-tasting, and a visit to nearby towns. So maybe on a logistical level, too, the “extras” make us unique.

Anne: You took one of my groups (note: I was there for two retreat sessions) to a fabulous traditional book town called Montolieu, where practically every building housed a book shop, library, or museum devoted to some aspect of printing. I’ll have to do a post on that, so more traveling writers know about it; I never would have made it there as a tourist on my own.

livres

Kerry: There’s also an emphasis on well-being for those who are interested; we supply yoga mats, blocks, straps, and books, and arrange sessions for our attendees with a variety of therapists in the area.

Anne: Including massage and chiropractic for writers prone to repetitive strain injuries. Because I’m on my keyboard so much of the time on retreat — it’s not at all unusual for me to write 50 hours per week at an artists’ colony, although I think I averaged closer to 60 at La Muse — I always budget for some sort of bodywork.

It’s also kind of a fun way to meet the locals. Most of the villagers I met were very into the La Muse concept; a lot of them seemed to be artists themselves.

John: La Muse has a work ethos and a relaxed, community based structure that people have found very beneficial.

Anne: Since I’m guessing that most of my readers probably won’t have spent much time in 12th-century villages, let’s talk a bit more about Labastide Esparbaïrenque. What about it is conducive to retreating?

John: Labastide lends itself perfectly to a retreat because of its location off the main road – most villages have a main road going through them – as well as the fact that it hasn’t been tarnished by over modernization. The fact that it’s in a beautiful part of Southern France has got a lot to do with it, too.

Kerry: It’s a quiet village in a special place. The village is snuggled into a very curvy little valley, and there are no bars or cafés or boutiques to tempt people away from their work tables. With only 72 full-time habitants, there’s no noise except the elated screeching of diving swallows and a helpful rooster or two during the day and, at night, the muffled flow of the river and the rustling of leaves in the trees.

Anne: That’s such an evocative image that I’m going to leave it hanging in my readers’ minds and sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John!

Next time, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is actually involved in running a writers’ retreat like La Muse — and just what kind of application package it takes to land a spot in a retreat like this. Happy daydreaming, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Some fellowships may be expensive to win, or, how many times per week could you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

writers' retreat sign
Yes, sharper-eyed readers, that is a gnome sitting on top of the retreat sign — the famous Norcroft gnome, in fact. The Norcroft retreat has gone the way of all flesh, alas, but its basic principle lives on: no matter how well-organized a writer is, from time to time, it’s helpful to the productivity to cut oneself off from the myriad demands of quotidian life, go someplace strange, and just write.

And before any of you get your hopes up: neither your boss, coworkers, friends, nor family will understand this time to be work, rather than a vacation. No, not even if you spend 18 hours a day writing on retreat. Sorry about that.

That remains true, incidentally, no matter how thoroughly you become established as an author. As my sister-in-law put it only this weekend upon seeing me still blear-eyed from 13-hour days of writing and lingering jet lag, “Oh, five weeks in France. Hard to have much sympathy for that.”

She’s one of my more sympathetic sisters-in-law, incidentally.

Because I’ve just been on a lengthy I’ve been chattering off and on for the last couple of months about the joys and drawbacks of formal writing retreats — the group kind, organized by other people — as opposed to the informal type where you find a peaceful place and lock yourself in for a week or two along with a crate of apples, gallons of coffee, and the makings of 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While the latter type tends to be significantly less expensive, particularly if you happen to know someone who is willing to let you house-sit for a while, the former have many inherent advantages.

Not the least of which: many of them award fellowships to writers. So, perversely, a month at a formal fellowship at an artists’ colony could actually end up being less costly than a week at the Bates Motel, munching Power Bars. Not to mention making for better ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy).

A whole bunch of eyebrows just shot skyward, didn’t they? “Okay, Anne,” eager beavers everywhere shout. “What is a fellowship, and how do I go about landing me one?”

Fellowships vary quite a bit, offering everything from work space at universities (like Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which pays fellows $26,000/year, plus tuition and health insurance, to attend one 3-hour writing seminar per week for two years) to actual apartments and a living stipend (like the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown) to financial aid so writers can attend well-respected workshops (like the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshops reduced-cost or free week- or month-long residencies at artists’ colonies (too numerous to pick just one example).

A great place to look for reputable fellowship opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine. Before you start tearing through their listings, you should know that a few things are true of virtually all of them:

(1) All require fairly extensive applications, so plan to devote some serious time to filling them out prior to the deadline.

(2) Even for a residency for which you pay (or pay in part), you will almost certainly have to pass through a competitive process, known in the biz as writing your way in.

(3) Any merit-based fellowship (as most that accept previously unpublished writers are) will require a writing sample, so do burnish the first chapter of your book, a representative short story or two, or a collection of poems to a high gloss before you start applying.

(4) There will be heavy competition for any that offer serious money or substantial retreat time, so it’s generally not worth the sometimes-hefty application fee for a new writer to submit a first manuscript. Although of course some absolute beginners do win occasional fellowships, unpolished work tends to get knocked out of consideration early in the competition.

(5) Yes, I said application fee — most fellowships require them, and they’re not always cheap. (If you’re a US-based writer who files a Schedule C for your writing business, these fees may be tax-deductible, even in a year that you don’t actually make any money from your writing; consult a tax specialist familiar with writers’ — not just artists’ — returns to see if you are eligible.)

(6) Some ask for references, so if you happen to be a nodding acquaintance of a relatively well-known writer or writing teacher, you might want to be extra-nice to them right about now.

(7) Most residencies and the more prestigious fellowships look more kindly upon applicants who already have some publications (surprisingly, even if they say they are specifically looking for up-and-coming writers), previous contest wins, or have already done a residency. Think about applying for something small, then working your way up to the more prestigious and lucrative residencies.

(8) In comparing fellowships with residencies for which you would have to pay outright, be sure to factor in expenses that a fellowship would not cover. Virtually no fellowship will cover airfare or other travel expenses to get to a far-flung retreat, for instance; some feed residents and some don’t. This is why, in case any of you have been wondering, one of the first questions an experienced retreater will ask about a residency is, “Do they feed you?” (Don’t worry; more on that last part follows below.)

And remember, unless a fellowship provides a stipend, you still will be responsible for paying your bills while you’re taking time off work to go on retreat.

(9) Most mixed artists’ colonies — i.e., those that welcome both writers and other sorts of artists — will harbor at least a slight institutional bias toward a particular kind of art. Even if it is equally hard for every type of artist to win a fellowship or a residency charges every type of artist the same, the work spaces available may differ widely. So if the resources for sculptors are spectacular, triple-check that the writers aren’t just shoved in a windowless basement and told to get on with it. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen.)

I’ve been sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs as I’ve been running down that list. “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out timidly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t sound like any less work than submitting to an agent. Or to a literary contest, for that matter. Isn’t the whole point of this to gain more time for my writing, not to sap energy from it?”

Congratulations, timid question-askers: you’ve got a firm grasp of the dilemma of the fellowship-seeking writer. Well, my work here is done, so I’ll be signing off for the evening…

Just kidding. Just as when you are seeking out an agent or small press, it’s in your interest to do a bit of checking before you invest too in pursuing any individual fellowship opportunity. I’m not merely talking about entry fees here, either — it will behoove you to ask yourself while those dollar signs are dancing in your eyes, “Will applying for this fellowship take up too much of my writing time?

To assist you in making that assessment, let’s go over some of the potentially most time-devouring common requirements, shall we?

Unfortunately, there are few fellowship out there, especially lucrative ones, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece of writing, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the application fee, and slap a stamp upon it. Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form, which range from ultra-simple contact information to demands that you answer essay questions.

Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, while a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest, a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A fellowship that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front, unless the organization is so well-established that there’s no question of misuse.

As I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly common for fellowship applications (and even some contest entry forms) to ask writers to list character references — an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. Would a fellowship committee throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s application to spend a few months locked in a sunny room near a beach somewhere because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside when she was at home?

Actually, residencies often don’t actually check these references, even for fellowship winners; they usually merely ask for names and contact information, not actual letters of reference. My impression is that it’s usually a method of discouraging writers who have not yet taken many writing classes, gone to many conferences, or otherwise gotten involved in a larger writers’ community from applying, on the theory that they might not be as likely to respect other fellows’ working boundaries. I suppose it’s also possible, though, that they want to rule out people whose wins might embarrass the fellowship-granting organization, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade and a $30,000/year stipend to Ted Bundy.

I guess that’s understandable, but frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization justifiable fearful of negative publicity.

I sense that the more suspicious-minded among you have come up with yet another reason a fellowship or contest application might request references, haven’t you? “Yes, I can,” a few voices reply. “If an applicant lists someone who has already won that particular fellowship as a reference, or someone on the staff of the artists’ retreat, is the application handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?”

Only the judging committee knows for sure. But if you can legitimately manage to wrangle permission from a former winner, staff member, or Nobel laureate to use ‘em as a reference, hey, I would be the last to try to stop you.

You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid fellowship applications that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an applicant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if a writer can pull together an application or contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it a reasonable investment. If an application requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

How is that possible, you cry? Because — and this should sound familiar to those of you have perused my posts on preparing a contest entry — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify applications in a large applicant pool. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of applications they can simply toss aside, largely unread: the more that they ask you to do to package your application, the more ways you can go wrong. (For a plethora of disturbingly common ways in which fellowship applications and contest entries DO go wrong, please see the CONTEST ENTRY BUGBEARS category on the archive list at right.)

I’m happy to report, though, that this weeding-out strategy is less common in fellowship applications than in literary contests. However, in a tight competition, a professionally-presented manuscript excerpt will almost always edge out one that isn’t. (If you don’t know the cosmetic differences between a professional manuscript and any other kind, please see the posts under HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED on the list at right before you even consider applying for a literary fellowship or residency in North America.)

And for the benefit of all of you who just rolled your eyes at that suggestion: I’m just trying to save you some money here. Including a writing sample that isn’t technically perfect — spell-checked, grammatically impeccable, and in standard format — is virtually always simply a waste of an application fee.

Speaking of saving some money, most fellowship- and residency-seeking writers automatically assume that a retreat that provides its residents with regular meals will automatically be less expensive to attend than one that doesn’t. However, that’s not always the case. Having been in residence at both artists’ retreats that fed their residents and those that left them to their own devices — as well as one that marched the middle ground of asking residents for a shopping list and buying us food for us to prepare ourselves — I can envision several reasons you might want to give the gift horse of three cafeteria meals per day a pretty thorough dental examination before you agree to pay extra for it.

“Wait a minute,” some of you just exclaimed. “What do you mean, pay extra for food? Aren’t we talking about retreats where meals are just included in the price — or as part of the fellowship?”

Well, it all depends upon how you choose to look at it. Retreats that provide meals usually do include them as part of a fat fee. They also tend to charge residents more per day than those that do not.

And not necessarily in cash; many artists’ colonies require residents (yes, even fellowship winners) to participate in meal preparation, serving, and clean-up in addition (or instead of) charging for food. So if you’re looking forward to a retreat as a break from cooking for your kith and kin, you will want to read the fine print in its entirety.

If you are seriously interested in a retreat with a pitching-in requirement, e-mail the retreat’s organizers and ask for an estimate of how many hours per week residents are typically expected to contribute. Since many kitchen tasks involve repetitive motion and hand strain, if you have any history whatsoever with repetitive strain injuries, you might want to ask if there are alternative tasks you could do instead, in order to reserve your hand use time for the writing you went on retreat to do.

Here’s the good news for those with aching hands: surprisingly often, residencies that require chores are open to residents buying their way out of them, provided that not everyone in residence has the same bright idea, and the price tag isn’t always particularly expensive. In fact, I’ve attended residencies where I was downright insulted at just how little the organizers evidently thought my time was worth.

How little, you ask? Well, they expected me to rearrange my writing schedule so I could be awake enough to wield a chef’s knife at 6 am four days per week for a month-long residency, regularly requesting my shift to stay on until lunch was served, so we’re talking about a half-time job. Even if they’d calculated it at minimum wage, it probably would have been worth my while to scrape the bottom of bank account to save myself the wrist strain. But in their excellent judgment, digging that deeply into my writing schedule was worth about a third of that.

I would just love to answer that question that half of you just howled at your computer screen, but it’s against my policy to use Author! Author! space for undeserved free advertising. Suffice it to say that if you ask writers who have won fellowships to this particular artists’ colony, most say that they would not consider returning, even though I understand that now the writers’ building does boast some windows, and not all of us had to buy air mattresses to render the mattresses on top of plywood bed frames possible to sleep upon. My bedroom was the only one that had an active hornet’s nest in it, but honestly, I only needed to worry about being dive-bombed when the heater was working.

But that hardly ever happened.

None of that is exaggeration; see my earlier comment about how much fellowship offerings vary. You’d have thought that the fact that it was an expensive artists’ retreat — one of the largest in the United States; it may now actually be the largest — would have dictated better conditions, but believe it or not, the competition to put up with these conditions was extremely stiff.

Incidentally, that particular retreat looked very, very good in its brochures, as well as on its website. As I recall, the food situation was described to potential fellowship applicants a little something like this: Our chef provides three meals per day. Meals feature fresh breads, homemade desserts, soups and a full salad bar. Fresh produce from local, organic farms is used whenever possible. Vegetarian main courses are offered several times a week, but not daily. Regrettably, we are not able to provide for special dietary needs.

Did those last couple of sentences startle some of you? You might want to keep an eye out for similar statements in we-feed-you residencies, but such sentiments provide a clue that been fed might prove more expensive for some attendees than others. Not only were vegetarians and vegans reduced to relying almost exclusively on a not especially exciting salad bar (the object of my early-morning chopping efforts, so I became intimately familiar with its never-changing options), but anyone with problems digesting wheat, dairy, sugar, gluten, peanuts, soy, MSG (present, as nearly as I could tell, in every soup served), or any of the other most common food allergens simply had to eat someplace else.

Why? Because when the chef assumes that anyone who can’t eat something in the entree he’s serving twice per week will simply make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, anyone with any of the first five restrictions listed is left without an option that won’t make her ill. And although the fresh bread was tasty, the chopping board was immediately adjacent to the salad bar, so the greens were continually dusted with crumbs. (If that last sentence didn’t make you instinctively clutch at your entrails, you probably neither have nor know anyone with celiac disease.)

Would you have guessed all that from a quick glance at the blurb above? Or budgeted for the necessary additional meals?

Even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions, unless a retreat is well-known for yummy food, being fed doesn’t necessarily mean being fed well. Although retreat food is almost invariably cafeteria-quality food (washed down with, alas, cafeteria-quality coffee), it may not be priced accordingly; if you are not a three-meal-per-day person or not a great lover of dry lasagna, you might actually save money by opting out of the meal plan — or by choosing a residency that doesn’t insist upon feeding you.

Feeding yourself does have its drawbacks, of course: it can be time-consuming, especially if there isn’t a well-stocked grocery store or inexpensive restaurant close to the retreat. (Since retreats are often plopped down in remote places, not having a store or café within easy walking distance is not out of the question.) Even if residents have access to a kitchen, it may not be well-equipped, so you may end up needing to import basics like a good chopping knife — I’ve never known a retreat to be home to a decent one — or a whisk.

Interestingly, good cooks can find feed-yourself retreats a bit trying. Due to some divine oversight, cooking skills are not equally distributed across the human population, so the culinary gifted often find themselves and their plates on the receiving end of puppy-like stares from fellow residents incapable of boiling water successfully. After three or four straight days of watching a nice fellow resident dine on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I usually can’t stand it anymore and start cooking vats of vegetables for communal consumption.

Time-consuming? Potentially, but at least it’s a matter of personal choice. If I don’t feel like helping the cooking-impaired stave off imminent malnutrition, I can always just walk away from the kitchen whenever the peanut butter jar is open.

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I’m not a huge fan of we-feed-you residencies: you have to eat at specific times. If you are feeding yourself, you don’t have to interrupt your work to rush to the dining hall.

To be fair, for writers who already habitually eat at the predetermined hours, this may not represent much of an interruption, but I usually find the mealtimes inconvenient. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. Although a hefty percentage of writers are at their most creative at night, for some reason beyond my ken, meals at retreats tend all to be during the daylight hours, say 8-9 am for breakfast, 12-1 for lunch, and 6-7 pm for dinner. Great if you happen to arise at the crack of dawn and hit the hay by 10 pm, but downright disruptive should you be a night owl.

The fact that I’m posting this at midnight should give you some hint into which category yours truly is likely to fall. Hoot, hoot — and what do you mean, my pitching-in shift starts at 6 am?

More on the day-to-day practicalities of life at a formal writing retreat follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly

ticker-tape-parade

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

Hansel and Gretel go on an artists’ retreat, or, that’s me in the corner

hansel-and-gretel

Jet lag does in fact go away sometime, doesn’t it? I’ve been home several days now, and I’m still a bit out of it. Of course, that may be the result of a small part of my brain’s continuing to operate in French — specifically, the part that governs what I say to people who bump into me in grocery stores — while the rest is merrily going about its business in English.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been holding off on launching into my long-promised series on the ins and outs of formal writing retreats. The spirit is willing, but the connective logic is weak.

So brace yourself for a couple of segue posts, please, to move us from craft to artists’ colonies. In the great tradition of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll try to work in writing retreat examples into my discussions of craft, and craft tips into my treatment of retreats, to ease the transition.

In yesterday’s post, I covered a broad array of topics, ranging from voice to submission strategies to the desirability of learning something about one’s subject matter before writing about it. In the midst of a blizzard of advice on that last point, I mentioned in passing that when writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up with characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader?”

In other words, the result on the page is often a stereotype. And because, let’s face it, since television and movies are the happy hunting ground of stereotypes, writers may not necessarily even notice that they’ve imbibed the odd cliché.

A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission? For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability in those first few pages: because Millicent the agency screener tends not to like it.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

I’m bringing this up today in part because yesterday’s post talked so much about the perils of writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction tome. Many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the dumb jock, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the morals-deficient lawyer, the corrupt politician, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Don’t believe me? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

Interestingly, when Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, it’s not just the common stereotypes that tend to rank high on their pet peeve lists. The annoying co-worker, however defined, crops up just as often.

Why, you ask? Well, for several reasons, chief among which is that every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another. That such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as a stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of allowing the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why. Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. (No surprise there: these scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.)

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute,” alert readers of yesterday’s post are muttering just about now, “isn’t this sort of what Edith Wharton was talking about yesterday? Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. What a remarkable coincidence that she and I should have been discussing this on consecutive days.

Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt.

More years ago than I care to recall, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. (See? I told you I was going to work in an example from a writers’ retreat!) Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, dear departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant) to my recent sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

Had I mentioned that it pays to do your homework before you apply?

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they had been assigned.

I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there. Okay, so sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned team, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Now, one classic way to deal with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. Personally, when I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the New England village retreat — or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. (Generally speaking, one of the tell-tale differences between a serious artists’ retreat and a casual one is whether you have to write, paint, sculpt, or photograph your way in; at a retreat that takes just anyone, the application will not require you to submit any of your work.)

One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. Actually, he was sort of the dining hall’s Lothario, flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin. In fairness to him, none of the residents was all that surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d seen his sculpture studio packed with representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, buttocks, and breasts, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander.

Being possessed of skin myself, I was naturally not exempt from his attentions, but generally speaking, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, the fellowship that each writer received included a rule that each of us had to do a public reading while we were in residence.

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

How much trouble, you ask with bated breath? Well, her first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, a first-person extravaganza describing Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…literarily uninteresting junk?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.”) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away?

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Gretel” or “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

If your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator.

Believe me, revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page, at least to a professional reader. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please, please join a writing group.

To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human. Which is precisely why I wasn’t writing blog posts on my most recent retreat while I was in residence. It can take some time — and in this case, distance, judging by my lingering jet lag — to gain perspective.

Keep up the good work!

Vrai et faux amis, or, the debate I would have had with Edith Wharton had she blogged

view-from-la-muse-library

For those of you who are tuning in late, I’m currently in residence at an almost mind-bogglingly beautiful artists’ retreat in Southwestern France — thus all of the photos of castles and cathedrals, in case any of you have been wondering if I’d suddenly gone mad for stonemasonry. Another major result of my being here, in case you missed my announcement earlier in the week: the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence has been extended to midnight on Monday, June 1.

You’re welcome.

Let me tell you, I’ve gotten some great entries, in both the Expressive Excellence and Junior Expressive Excellence categories. I’m really looking forward to running the winners here — and to hearing from more of you!

Okay, back to work. If I seem to be talking an unusual amount about cause and effect these days, blame it on the fact that this is my first retreat in a foreign land — at least in one that is not primarily English-speaking; I have retreated in Canada. I must say, I’ve been fascinated by the enlivening effect on the brain caused by switching languages between my writing time (somewhere between 8 and 12 hours per day, in case you’re curious) and out-and-about time (usually about an hour per day, with the occasional day of shopping and/or sightseeing).

While I must confess that one of the effects has been to unearth from the depths of my psyche the perfect word or phrase for the moment in Italian or Greek, another has been a much heightened awareness of how much people think while they’re speaking, even in their native tongue. It’s definitely affecting the way I write dialogue.

I’ve also become very conscious of what the French call faux amis (false friends), words and phrases that sound the same in another language, but mean something quite different in the one you happen to be speaking at the time. Take, for instance, actuellement — it seems as though it should translate as actually, doesn’t it? En fait (in fact, the phrase one uses when one means actually here), it means currently.

And don’t even get me started on the confusion if one refers to an ad as l’avertissement (warning sign) rather than as la publicité. Or if you speak of the book you’re working on as la nouvelle, which means short story, rather than as le roman, a novel.

Because so many English words are lifted from other languages, it is stuffed to the gills with les faux amis, of course, which is why it’s so difficult a language in which to become fluent. Something else a writer in English might want to take into account whilst constructing dialogue, perhaps?

Enough about false friends for the moment. Let’s move on to talking about true ones.

One of the great things about attending a formal writing retreat (that is, an ongoing one for which you apply) is seeing what other writers are reading. Not just the people who are in residence when you are — at La Muse, as at many retreats, that number is pretty small; actuellement, there are four writers, including myself, and two painters — but what those who have been there in the past were toting around in their bookbags.

The happy result: Boccaccio nestles next to Mary Renault and Somerset Maugham; Stan Nicholls abuts Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy. Gabriel García Márquez’ LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA stands tall next to many volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and an apparently misshelved copy of Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Bukowski jostle memoirs by Billie Holiday, Roald Dahl, and INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, WRITTEN BY HERSELF.

Combine that with what the retreat’s organizers consider essential — here, both the complete works of both Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, as well as many bound volumes of Paris Match, as well as masses of dictionaries in four languages, an extensive array of psychological theory, and mysteriously, a guitar — and you usually find yourself presented with a pretty eclectic collection.

Trust me on this one: you’re going to find something interesting that you have never encountered before. Take a gander at just part of what’s here for the reading:

library-at-la-muse

Yummy, eh?

As a direct and happy result of this kind of ongoing book accumulation, it’s generally well worth your while at an organized writers’ retreat to budget some fairly hefty time for reading. And not just for manuscripts in the library, either — you’re probably going to meet at least one writer with whom you would like to exchange work.

Lovely and rewarding, often, but still, time-consuming. Make sure to allot some time for it.

Truth compels me to mention, however, that actuellement, my opinion on the subject may well be colored by a fellow resident’s just having walked into the library with her thumb drive so I could download her just-this-second completed novel. (And no, this is not the first time I’ve seen someone do this at an artists’ retreat; people like to share. It’s wise to keep your writing schedule flexible enough to make field trips to admire freshly-completed sculptures and canvases upon which the paint is still wet, if you catch my drift.)

At this retreat, all attendees are asked to donate at least two volumes to the library, one that represented the kind of art we would be producing while in residence and one that reflected the part of the world that had produced us. Since I happened to know that a Seattle-based novelist had attended La Muse within the year, bringing with her the works of Garth Stein and Layne Maheu, I opted to dig deeper into my past and tote along VALIS, a largely autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel that happens to contain a scene set at my childhood home, right next to the hutch where my pet rabbits resided.

So if the moppet on the cover at the bottom right looks a trifle familiar, well, there’s a reason for that:

noras-book

Yes, I’m perfectly well aware that this photo is gigantic; I wanted you to notice that glorious volume in the middle. As you may see, my contributions paled in comparison to the absolutely gorgeous hand-made book one of the painters brought, but that’s to be expected, right? (If the book-lovers out there want to see more of Nora Lee McGillivray’s astonishingly beautiful individually crafted volumes, check out her website. It will tell you which museums to visit to see them in person.)

Since I’m currently working on a novel set at my alma mater, Harvard, I also imported (literally; I had to hand-carry it through Customs) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, his paean to Princeton. A fascinating novel, if you’ve never read it, the one that catapulted him to early fame. It’s far less polished than his later work, as first novels so often are; the value of repeated revision is not always apparent to the first-time author.

Which brings me to back to my subject du jour, the writer’s true and false friends, via the small miracle of having discovered in this very library a thin volume of rare nonfiction by Edith Wharton that I had never read before.

The front cover bills THE WRITING OF FICTION as “The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel,” a contention which, if true, renders it even more surprising that I’d never even heard of it before. However, since the back cover’s incorrectly contends that THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, the novel for which our Edith won the Pulitzer Prize — the first woman to do so, incidentally — was her first, whereas if memory serves, THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY came out a good 7 years before, and the lovely THE HOUSE OF MIRTH 15, perhaps the claim of classicism is exaggeration for marketing purposes, rather than a statement of historical fact.

THE WRITING OF FICTION is very thought-provoking, however; it’s sort of what you would have expected a grande dame of letters to have blogged about the current state of literature in 1924, had blogs existed back then.

Yet quite a lot of what she has to say remains astonishingly applicable to today’s writers. Take, for instance:

The distrust of technique and the fear of being original — both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance — are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction, and one is almost tempted to say that in certain schools formlessness is now regarded as the first condition of form.

Now, the verbiage might be a bit old-fashioned, but this is a true friend. Not entirely coincidentally, it is also sentiment that agents and editors still express at writers’ conferences all the time. They’re perpetually receiving manuscripts that lack structure, either due either to deliberate authorial choice or a writer’s lack of literary experience.

Apparently structure-less scenes containing dialogue are particularly common. Proponents of slice-of-life fiction — an approach that tends to win great applause in short stories, and thus in writing classes that focus upon short works — will frequently make the mistake of trying to make dialogue in a novel absolutely reflective of how people speak in real life.

Why might that be problematic, you ask? Well, ride a bus or sit in a café sometime and eavesdrop on everyday conversation; it’s generally very dull from a non-participant’s perspective.

More to the point, it’s often deadly on the printed page. Real-life conversation is usually repetitive, cliché-ridden, and frankly, not all that character-revealing. It requires genuine artistry, then, to reproduce it well in manuscript form.

Or, as Aunt Edith might have put it, it takes technique. For some pointers on how to put that technique in action, you might want to check out the DIALOGUE THAT RINGS TRUE and DIALOGUE THE MOVES QUICKLY categories on the archive list at right.

For the moment, I want to return to what Aunt Edith was saying. Because I know that you’re all busy people, I’ll skip her comparison of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (whose WAR AND PEACE, you may be amused to hear, Henry James once called, “a loose baggy monster,” speaking of structure) and move on to the next part that deals with technique:

…the novelist who would create a given group of people or portray special social conditions must be able to identify himself with them; which is a rather long way of saying that an artist must have imagination.

Not so fast there, Edith: this analogy is a false friend. I think you’re conflating empathy with one’s characters with the ability to imagine what it would like to be them, usually related but not identical phenomena. The first involves feeling for one’s characters enough to present them, if not sympathetically, then at least with fairness; the second can be purely a matter of conjecture, without necessarily involving any actual empathy with the characters at all — or, indeed, any information about how such characters in real life might actually feel or think.

Hey, if it’s purely a matter of imagination, why not just project your own feelings and thoughts onto them? Or, to fall back on my earlier example, to a reader who is already steeped in the culture you’re describing, it’s going to make a big difference whether a character within that culture says actuellement when he actually means en fait, right?

Here, imagination could lead a writer into a fairly major mistake. Another common mistake springing from relying too heavily on imagination alone — no, make that two: characters made up out of whole cloth tend to be prone to falling into stereotypes, and if the author doesn’t care about a character enough to empathize with him, why should the reader?

Ponder that last one a moment. I’ll wait.

The stereotyping problem is particularly rampant, and not just in terms of clichés. Think about how villains, or even just plain unlikable characters, tend to be portrayed in fiction — or in memoir and creative nonfiction, for that matter. One sees quite imaginative but essentially unsympathetic approaches to bad guys all the time.

And even to not-so-bad guys. Few writerly attitudes lead so surely to two-dimensional characters as the dismissive assumption that the reader isn’t going to like ‘em, anyway.

As it happens, I have a GREAT example right at my fingertips. Not long ago, a friend from my home town alerted me to the fact that a recent bestselling account of the rise and fall of a Napa Valley wine dynasty contained a rather odd reference to my late father, Norman Mini. Not all that surprising; he was, among other things, quite a well-respected winemaker descended from centuries of winemakers; it would have been rather difficult to write about enology in Northern California without at least passing reference to someone in my family.

Yet when I looked up the actual reference, it was quite apparent that his winemaking acumen had nothing to do with why the author had mentioned him: on the page, he comes across as that paragon of writerly false friends, the straw man who is mentioned only to be knocked down.

Speaking of phrases that wouldn’t translate all that well into other languages.

The funny thing is, enough of the facts in the story she tells are correct that you might actually have had to meet the man (or interview someone who had, as her website claimed she had done in some 500 instances) in order to realize just how far from the truth the book’s account is. How is that possible, you cry? Well, although the bulk of the anecdote about him is more or less as it happened, barring some easily-corrected factual errors (which is why I am not mentioning the book or the author’s name here, in order to allow her time to correct them in the next edition), the purport of the anecdote as folks in my former neck of the woods have habitually told it for the last 30 years showed him in quite a positive light, even a charming one.

As the anecdote is re-told in this book, however, he comes across as a quite sinister character.

I’m sensing some disbelief out there. “Just a moment, Anne,” come the incredulous murmurs. “Again, how is that possible, since the book in question is nonfiction? Isn’t the whole point of objective reporting to avoid this sort of contretemps? Just the facts, ma’am.”

Well, not having written the pages in question myself, I naturally cannot be absolutely sure how an ostensibly true story ended up untrue on the printed page, but my guess would be that the author relied on a false friend or two. A lack of authorial empathy, perhaps, combined with an incomplete set of facts, with the holes filled in by imagination.

What did that look like in practice? Actually, the misrepresentation was quite skillfully done: the author simply opened the anecdote by describing my father as a Napoleonic 5’4″ of bowl haircut aspiring to be taller, thereby establishing him as self-deluded. From there, all it took was some generalities about how his outspokenness rubbed a few people the wrong way to convey the impression of an abrasive, in-your-face lecturer. (Quoth my learned and soft-spoken father: “Never trust someone whom everybody likes. He’s got to be lying to someone.”) The author then went on to bolster the impression of thwarted power selective quotes from another source, something Henry Miller wrote about my father in BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH.

Et violà! After such a set-up, what reader wouldn’t look upon the anecdote that followed with a jaundiced eye?

While I can think of any number of problems with this approach — up to and including the fact that I know from long extended-family experience that once a biographical untruth appears in print, it will be repeated elsewhere; lies are far more durable than truths, evidently — here are the three least contestable:

(1) my father was fully 6 feet tall;

(2) his hair was so curly that he could not possibly have achieved the haircut she described as integral to his character, and

(3) a full reading of even the page from which she had cherry-picked Miller quotes would have demonstrated clearly that the man I knew as Uncle Henry intended the passage she cited to create exactly the opposite impression in his book from what she was trying to convey in hers.

Since Edith Wharton was notoriously careful about checking factual details, I can’t believe that she would have approved, despite her quip above. Since neither my father nor our Edith are, alas, still around to defend their points of view, I naturally tracked down the author’s website and e-mailed her to point out — politely, I thought, given the provocation — that her book contained a few inaccuracies.

Her response was, at best, huffy. Her research for the book had been extensive, she explained to me so it was unlikely that she had made a mistake. In making her case that perhaps I was at fault, she cited by name three people known to me in my early childhood as The Nice Man Who Gave Me a Puppy, Mr. Bob, and That Woman Who Broke Up Mr. Bob’s Marriage as the most likely sources of, say, a misidentified photo, if indeed any misidentification had occurred. Although she was willing to believe that I hadn’t contacted her just to insult her, I really should have checked her book’s 800 notes before even considering contacting her, because any photo would probably (her word) have been cited there.

Yeah, I know — I seriously considered posting her answer in its entirety as the centerpiece about how NOT to respond to a question from a reader, ever. Simply thanking me for my note and telling me that she would look into it would have served precisely the same purpose — getting me off her back, me with my annoying propensity to regard things like height and incidents that occurred within my memory as matters upon which I have a right to express myself — without leaving me with an anecdote that any professional author would have expected me to pass along to at least a couple of other people.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding insulting one’s readers, in case you’re wondering, is that an author should ALWAYS be polite to anyone who approaches her about her book, even if she feels that the yahoo currently in front of her is being rude. Even if the author is in the right, bad word of mouth tends to spread much, much faster than “Gee, I met this author, and she was so nice.”

Human nature, I’m afraid. Just as an untruth in one biography tends to spawn repetitions in the next ten, a rebuffed reader can tell fifty potential book-buyers to stay away from that jerk — or 5,000, if he chooses to share the anecdote online. The rise of the Internet has made bad reputations much, much easier to establish.

In fairness to my rebuffer, I probably should have contacted her publisher directly about the quite easily verifiable factual errors, The extent of her research was something she also boasted about on her website, which should have placed me on guard that she might conceivably be touchy about it: as experienced nonfiction writers tend to assume that thoroughness is the minimum requirement for the job, not an additional selling point, it’s rare for the author of a nonfiction book on a not particularly contentious topic actually to list the number of interviews she conducted. In the bio on her website, no less.

All that being said, it would be easy just to write this situation off as poor research — I suspect what actually happened here is that she mistook someone else for my father in a photograph, and just didn’t bother to double-check. (There I go again, fact-hugging.) But let’s think about the writing strategy involved in producing the questionable impression on the page:

a) An author had a real-life character she wanted to use for a specific purpose in her book. In order to make that character come to life, she uses her imagination. I suspect all of us can identify with that, right?

b) Because that specific purpose was negative, she chose her descriptions (and, in this case, quotes) in order to bolster that effect — again, something most writers do.

c) In a search for telling details that would convey the desired impression — which, lest we forget, was necessarily a product of the writerly imagination, since the author never actually met the man she was describing — and because she was not approaching the character with empathy, she selected bits that conformed to her preconceived notion of the character. Again, this is a fairly standard writing practice.

d) Unfortunately, the research that provided those bits was insufficient, and she ran into trouble.

Obviously, this was an instance that annoyed me, as did her reaction to my pointing out the factual errors in this part of her book. (If I understood her correctly — and her response contained enough spelling and grammatical errors that I’m not sure that I did — she was trying to argue that my recollections of my father’s height were more likely to be mistaken than her research.)

But did you notice the narrative trick I employed in telling you this real-life story — one that I used to comic effect even in the last paragraph?

No? Let me be brutally honest about my writerly motivations: I was writing an anecdote about a person I have some legitimate reason to dislike, so I don’t have a lot of incentive to present her with empathy, do I? So while the facts in the anecdote are all true, my telling of them clearly reflected that dislike — and in order to make you, dear readers, dislike her, too, I used my imagination in order to create motivations for her.

Oh, all of the actions I described did in fact occur. But there is no such thing as a story that creates its own tone or word choices, is there?

Starting to get the picture?

If those of you who write memoir are shaking in your booties, you probably are. The fact is, for all of the blather about the desirability of objective distance from one’s subject, if a writer is trying to create an emotional response in the reader, objectivity is often not possible. Nor, especially in memoir, is it always desirable.

However, an ostensible just-the-facts presentation is sometimes a false friend to the reader — and to the writer as well. Yes, even in fiction: if a writer tries to scare up some empathy for even the characters the reader isn’t supposed to like, the result is usually more complex characters and better character development.

In other words, it’s a better means of creating three-dimensional characters.

Case in point: in the anecdote I told above, the characters were pretty black-and-white — the maligned late father, the unsympathetic writer. Yet had I exercised a bit more empathy toward the latter, I could have told factually the same story, yet conveyed the impression of a more well-rounded — and consequently more interesting, from the reader’s perspective — villain. Lookee:

An old friend pointed out to me that a bestselling book contained some rather odd assertions about my father. I checked, and it was true: the anecdote about him was told unsympathetically, and the physical description was so off-base that she could only have been describing someone else. She specifically said that he was eight inches shorter than he actually had been, for instance, with straight hair fashioned into a haircut that had not been fashionable since ancient Rome.

Puzzled, I contacted her and asked: was it possible that someone had misidentified a photo for her? Would she be open to correcting the factual errors in a future edition?

She responded so quickly that she must have received the message on her Blackberry. She was on a research trip for her next book, she said, and thus could not possibly check her notes to see if I was correct until she got back to her office; if my story did turn out to have merit, she would of course take steps to correct the minor errors in future editions. However, if I had troubled to check through the book’s 800 notes about her 500 interviews — a number that would have represented approximately 20% of my home town’s population at the time, incidentally — the photograph in question was doubtless referenced, so she doubted that she had any errors. She was quite sure, she concluded, that I hadn’t intended to impugn her journalistic credibility by implying that she hadn’t done her homework properly.

I was entirely mistaken about my father’s height, in other words; presumably, she had a source that had said so. Clearly, I owed her an apology for having brought any of it up at all, especially when, as the author of a single book that sold well, she is so important to the literary world that her research trips are times of well-advertised mourning in bookstores everywhere. At the very least, I should have waited until she got back.

Quite a different story, isn’t it? Yet in some ways, she’s a more effective villain in the second version than the first: by allowing some of her good points some page space, she comes across as having more complex motivations. (I also think this version is funnier, because it presents more of her response from her perspective, rather than mine.)

“Philosophy is not insensitivity,” as brilliant novelist, nonfiction writer, and inveterate fact-checker Mme. de Staël tells us. An authorial inability — or outright unwillingness — to empathize with her characters’ points of view does not always equal an admirable objectivity. Sometimes, it’s the result of a failure of imagination, rather than a surfeit of it.

But in order to create well-rounded, plausible characters, whether from scratch out of one’s imagination or lifted from real life, a good writer needs both empathy and imagination.

Okay, so maybe I wanted to tell this particular story — which, as you may be able to tell by how miffed I am about it, just transpired about a week ago — more than I wanted to engage in banter with Edith Wharton. As a writer, that’s certainly my prerogative: I have the power to focus my narrative in the direction that I find the most satisfying. And as a blogger, I also have the power to return to the debate with Edith in a future post. There honestly is a lot to talk about there.

Hey, the lady had some great insights into true and false friends.

Which brings me back to some semblance of my original point — believe it or not, I did have one throughout this long, wide-ranging post. First, it always behooves a writer to read widely, whether in doing manuscript research (cough, cough) or just to see how others have done what you’re trying so hard to do well. If you don’t have access to a thoughtfully-constructed, inspirational library like La Muse’s, start asking writers you respect for recommendations.

Most writers are book-lovers, after all. It’s a question that seldom fails to elicit a smile at a book signing, even from the most retiring author.

Second — and you’ve heard this one from me before — just because someone’s won a Nobel prize in literature (or has 800 notes in her bestseller) doesn’t automatically mean that everything she says in print is true. Use your own judgment, especially about writing advice.

Don’t be afraid to examine a gift horse’s dental hygiene before accepting it as your own, if you catch my drift.

Third, if you’re writing about real people, the false friend of ostensible objectivity is no excuse not to treat them with the empathy with which a good writer habitually approaches her fictional characters. Quadruple-check your facts before committing them to the printed page, and try to present even the characters you don’t like as well-rounded, plausible characters. You may even find that they work better as villains that way.

You also never know whose daughter is likely to blog about you, right?

Keep up the good work!

How to format a book manuscript properly, part X: I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter/and make believe it came from you…

gaudi-door

What? No Fats Waller fans out there?

I would bet a nickel that those of you who have been reading this blog for a year or more have been thinking for the last couple of weeks, My, but Anne revisits the topic of standard format frequently. She must really feel passionate about a properly put-together manuscript! And I hope that the more charitable among you at least considered adding mentally, Although that might not be an altogether common passion, I consistently find Anne’s rather peculiar taste in subject matter interesting/helpful/not very annoying yet.

I am passionate about it — as I am about any skill that helps good aspiring writers get their work the positive attention it deserves. Also, I don’t want any of you to feel that I didn’t prepare you properly for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, a competition for which adherence to standard format is the sina qua non of success.

Not to nag you, but were you aware that the deadline is Monday, May 18 (at midnight wherever you are), and that there are fabulous prizes involved, not to mention undying glory and a semi-permanent place in my good graces? For another gander at the rules (or your first, if you haven’t yet begun to contemplate your entry), please click here.

To be completely honest, though, I have had an ulterior motive for indulging this particular passion over this particular period, the best possible ulterior motive for a writer: to finagle myself some extra time to immerse myself in my current novel.

That’s right, boys and girls: it’s writing retreat time again.

And this time around, it’s somewhere pretty incredible: a tiny, magical artists’ space in a medieval village in the Montaigne Noir of southwestern France. Four writers, two painters, one nice dog, a whole lot of quiet — just what I need to plunge into a flurry of revision. So while you fine folks have been reading in daily installments about the joys of standard format and hearing weekly from guest posters, I have been wending my way up Spain’s Costa Brava on my way to the Langedoc.

I know — even I get jealous when I think about it.

So I’ll be signing off for the next few weeks. Best of luck on your submissions, and I’ll post again when I get back!

May I kid myself that at least a small handful of you believed that for a few consecutive seconds? Enough of you, say, to form an intramural softball league where the Credulous could pitch to the Easily Duped?

No? How about enough to play on a single team? Or to pull off a really good game of chess?

Okay, so my reputation for posting early, often, and long is evidently well-established. Besides, we still have some formatting business on our collective plate, a series on subtle censorship to pursue, and a contest to run here, people.

Not to mention the fact that I have scores of nifty pictures that I’m just dying to post. (That’s a side view of Gaudì’s cathedral door, in case you were wondering.)

I also have a sneaking suspicion that at least enough of you to form a truly sizzling mah johnng tournament are curious enough about how a hardcore, write-your-way-in artists’ retreat works that blogging about it while I’m actually here would be a worthwhile experiment. So in the weeks to come, I shall be talking about how a formal, intensive, artists colony-type retreat works, how to apply for such a thing (fellowships and/or work exchanges are often be available if one knows in advance that they exist), and how one prepares to go into hiding with one’s work, never fear.

Step one, in my case: hit up interesting authors to write guest posts. (We’ve got a lulu coming up on Friday, incidentally, so don’t forget to tune in this weekend to check it out.) Step two: spend a month revising posts on a well-beloved topic so I may post them later, while I’m on the road.

Because, let’s face it, I’m probably not going to be in the mood to think seriously about manuscript formatting just after staring at a street musician in Carcassonne reproduce Me and Bobby McGee phonetically, am I? (Freedom’s just another word for napping in Toulouse, apparently.)

Step three: steal a few spare moments whilst on the road to address some excellent questions from readers that honestly do deserve posts of their own — or, in this case, a shared post written while I was waiting in a train station in Figueres for an car rental clerk whose advertised 30-minute lunch break lasted a good two and a half hours.

So if what follows seems a trifle giddy at times, blame the train fumes and the concept of the siesta.

Instead of fuming, let’s turn our attention to a great formatting question inveterate commenter Dave posted some time back:

While I have your attention, it seems that some time ago you were going to mention something about manuscript format. To be exact, I think you were going to tell us how to format longer passages that a character is voicing or reading, those that in published form are often printed with wider margins, in italics, or even with a different font. As a more concrete example, I’m thinking of a letter the protagonist might receive that is presented to the reader in its entirety. To be direct, do you intend to post anything about that in the near future?

As I told Dave when he first asked this, sometime back in the Paleolithic era before I knew that I would be going on retreat, I did indeed intend to post something on the subject. In fact, I’ve been intending it for quite some time. (Hey, my to-blog list is of epic length — I get scads of provocative questions.) The time will never be riper than now, however, to address this particular question, because we’re already talking about formatting issues.

The short answer is, as it so often is in this game, it depends.

Upon what, you ask? Well, upon the length of the letter one wants to include, for one thing — but of that, more follows later. Also, if we want to get technical about it (and the masses cry, We do! We do!), it depends upon whether the manuscript in question is an academic work or not — or is a nonfiction work of the type often produced by academics.

Why on earth would it make a difference whether a professor — or someone else who aspired to that level of expertise — wrote the darned thing? Sure that you really want to know?

Okay, you asked for it: because a university press would expect any quotation longer than 3 lines of text to be offset, devoid of quotation marks, and single-spaced, PROVIDED that the quote in question is not longer than a page; quotes less than three full lines long are simply placed within quotation marks. Offsetting, for the benefit of those intrepid readers who did not automatically skip the rest of this paragraph immediately after the words university press, is achieved by skipping a line, then indenting the quoted material five spaces (or half an inch, in Word) on both the left and right margins. After the quote comes another blank line, then the text resumes normally.

In practice, then, a page featuring quotations in an academic manuscript might look a little something like this:

academic-sample2

Why mark quotes from other works so VERY well? That way, there can be absolutely no question about when a professor is borrowing material from somebody else’s published or unpublished work. (There tends to be a lot of unpublished work floating around the average university.)

“That’s all very well and good,” enough of you to get together and raise a barn are probably muttering, “but this doesn’t really address Dave’s question, does it? Or are we to conclude that a letter in a novel manuscript should be treated like a quote one academic lifted from another and stuffed wholesale into her dissertation?

Not exactly — but again, it depends.

If the letter in question is short (or the excerpt being reproduced in the narrative is), there’s no need to treat it as anything BUT a quote:

novel-letter-example1

Perfectly obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it?

Some writers prefer to use italics for short letters (probably because, as Dave pointed out, they’ve seen them used that way in books), but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it; it implies an ignorance of the fact that the editor, not the author, is ALWAYS the one who makes decisions about how text will appear in a published version. However, since some of you are undoubtedly not going to listen to me on this one, here is how to use italics properly in this context:
novel-letter-example2

I sense some of you shaking your heads. “But Anne,” note-lovers everywhere cry in protest, “that doesn’t LOOK like a letter. I like a letter to look like a letter on the page; that’s part of its charm. So how do I convey that without seeming as though I’m usurping editorial authority?”

I had a feeling I would be hearing from you folks: there’s no shortage of writers who feel very strongly that every single syllable of every note passed between characters MUST be reproduced faithfully in the text, as if the reader had never seen a letter before and thus could not even begin to imagine what one might look like. Frankly, it’s seldom actually necessary to a plot to include the parts of a letter that would be hard to squeeze within the strictures of standard format: the letterhead, if any; the date; the salutation; the signature.

But you head-shakers are not convinced by that, are you? And I’m not going to be able to convince you that the 15-page letter starting on pg. 82 might work better simply broken off into its own chapter entitled The Letter, am I?

Okay, here are the two acceptable ways of formatting a letter like a letter in a manuscript — which, not entirely coincidentally, will also work beautifully for letters that go on for pages and pages. First, unsurprisingly, it may be presented like dialogue, within quotes:
novel-letter-example-long

As with any other multi-paragraph quote, quotation marks do not appear at the end of a paragraph if the opening of the next paragraph is still part of the letter. They do, however, show up at the beginning of each paragraph within the letter, to alert the reader that this is not normal text.

The other option — and this will work with long quotes in nonfiction as well — is to offset the letter text, as one would with a long quote in an academic work. In a non-academic manuscript, however, the offset quote should be double-spaced, like the rest of the text:

novel-letter-example-long2

Although this last format does work well for long quotes, I’m not a huge fan for letters. Frankly, I don’t think it’s as distinctive, and there’s always the off chance that a rapidly-skimming reader (like, say, Millicent) might not realize that the salutation is the opening of an offset section.

But it’s really up to you. Do bear in mind, though, that the goal here is not to reproduce the letter exactly as it appeared in the story, or as you would like to see it in the published book — it’s to make it absolutely clear when the text is an excerpt from a letter and when it is not.

Like academic publishers, Millicents don’t like to leave such things open for interpretation. Don’t make her guess where a letter — or any other long quote — begins or ends.

The tardy car clerk did eventually return, you’ll be happy to hear, but she was not able to handle the necessary paperwork to exchange the faulty GPS system. Her supervisor, she said, would be able to handle that when he came back from lunch.

Keep up the good work!