Writing Workshops, Retreats, Mentoring

Sanctuary for a Stress Addict by Fred Ford

Article by Fred Ford

– originally printed in the 2007 September/ October edition of the WordWeaver

Nothing stresses me out more than relaxation exercises. On-the-spot writing isn’t for me either: I need at least an hour’s worth of agonizing before I can put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I’ve done some novel marathons, but they don’t count because I arrive pre-agonized. You can guess that I don’t often indulge in the tranquility of writing retreats.

Well, not any more. I’d been hearing good things about the Sanctuary Sundays conducted by Sue Reynolds at her Uplands Writing Retreat. I’d also been finding excuses lately to work on everything else in the world but writing, so I decided to go. I needed to get away from the distractions of my normal “comfort zones.” I was even willing to brave some relaxation exercises.

The drive up to Port Perry is therapeutic in itself, especially on the last weekend of April. The horses grazing on new green grass were a vision from the peaceable kingdom. The first wildflowers by the side of the dirt road warmed my winter-weary heart. The Uplands Writing Center is a welcoming green bungalow hidden behind a row of fir trees.

Sue Reynolds ensured the atmosphere was casual and welcoming. She covered us off on some basic principles for the day: When it came to writing, we should just write. If it was junk, that was OK. We were there to embrace our inner garbage. “Don’t let the hand stop moving,” she admonished. Response to each others work was to be equally relaxed. Forget editing and critical feedback: speak about immediate impact and what in the writing goes straight to the heart.

Sue provides new exercises for each Sunday, so I’m not giving anything away by describing April’s writing activities.

    First the dreaded relaxation exercise: concentrating on my breathing confirms what I’ve always suspected: I don’t know how to breathe right.

    Next visualize a door: any door, what lies beyond, and then write about it.

    Extract three lines from the poem “Some Questions You Might Ask” by Mary Oliver, and then use those lines as a starting point for a new piece.

    Write a new poem reproducing the rhythmic structure of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. We were allowed to let the hand stop moving for this one as we pondered the meter of the original.

    Choose an image from a selection of M.C. Escher prints, and let it inspire some writing.

    Select a portrait from a sheaf of photographs and, using that visual aid, write about some character we have created.

Perhaps the spring weather wove some magic, or maybe the number of exercises involving poetry had something to do with it, but a number of us responded to the exercises with poems of our own. When we turned to prose, we found new characters coming to us unbidden. Spontaneity allowed us to explore beyond the edges of our normal creativity.

After a fabulous lunch, the afternoon was silent. We were left to our own devices: go for a walk, meditate and, hopefully, write. And write we did. In my case, the morning geared me up to work on a novel where I have been floundering for a long time. For the M.C. Escher exercise, I wrote an essay concerning a problem character. The artist’s pyramid of triangles transmuting into birds became a symbol not only of this character, but of the whole book. While I had been thinking of combining two other characters, when I saw the amalgamated character’s face staring at me from Sue’s portfolio of photographs, the long-postponed decision was made in an instant. By the time I tackled the opening pages of the novel, I was free from my inner-editor. Unnecessary scenes were thrown into the void and what remained was rewritten with a new verve.

So, despite Adrian Michael Kelly’s warning at the May 2007 breakfast about workshops and retreats sometimes being an appealing way to part people from their money, for me Sanctuary Sunday is well worth the cost. My experience at the Uplands Writing Retreat was not just a nice chance to get away. I took the experience home, and I have since found that the inner elation and the sense of freedom have remained. Instead of allowing myself to be blocked, I improvise solutions. They may not be perfect, but they’ll do for the time being. Yes, I’ll go back. Even if it does mean more relaxation exercises!

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