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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How I Finished my Book at The Writing Pad Retreat

by Amy Robinson

Ojai Writing Pad Retreat in a gorgeous craftsman home
My carpool of three women drove to the Writing Pad Retreat in the misty Ojai mountains on a cool Friday afternoon. As we pulled up to the beautiful, eco-lodge property, I could feel the work and city stress start to drain away.  Recent heavy rains had brought every tree and plant to a vibrant green and the scent of pine and lavender filled the air.  

Once inside I settled down with a cup of tea next to a cozy fire, got out my notebook and readied myself for the Friday bonus class. While we waited, I met a few of my retreat-mates including Jim Gillett, winner of the Writing Pad scholarship to attend the retreat. (Jim has since sold the piece he wrote at the retreat to Spirit, the Southwest Airline in-flight magazine which will be published in October. Congrats, Jim!)
Adel's famous chilaquiles!

Thaisa Frank, author of Heideger’s Glasses and Finding Your Writer's Voice, was Friday’s featured teacher. She led two fun writing exercises and taught us the difference between an anecdote and a story.  After an amazing breakfast of chilaquiles the next morning, I took class with NPR news anchor, Alex Cohen, author of Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby. Alex talked about keeping writing straightforward and led us through cool exercises to help us interview our characters.

After a yummy lunch, several of us went on an imagination-charging hike into Ojai National Forest, which surrounded the property. We carefully hopped across the babbling river, it was swollen from all the recent rains and charged about a mile into the beautiful Ojai wilderness.

Saturday afternoon was free-writing time and time for one-on-one consultations. The lodge had ample space for everyone. I grabbed a blanket, my laptop, a freshly baked snicker-doodle cookie that made the house smell like Christmas and planted myself in an Adirondack chair on a patio overlooking the river. Glancing though my notes from that morning’s class, I realized that I could use a piece of what I had written in Alex Cohen’s class in my book.  My memoir about cancer and loss was in first draft form and had yet to find an ending.  I had been struggling with it for several months until this moment.  With only the swirl of the river and the trees brushing against each other in the wind as a soundtrack, I lost myself in my story and the ending to my book grew on the screen.

Good times!
My one-on-one meeting with Marilyn Friedman, Writing Pad Founder,was next. I had submitted ten pages of my book for her to review before the retreat. She gave me a lot of postive feedback as well as many helpful suggestions. In particular, she said that I should add a few flashback sequences between myself and my Dad into the book to help the reader get to know the characters through specific scenes. Before I knew it, the sun was setting, the steaks were being grilled, my book had its final chapter, and I had a list of helpful suggestions for making the next draft of my book more complex and compelling! I hit the save button and went to dinner.  Wine flowed, we made s'mores, and several of my retreat-mates, who I had just met yesterday, told stories, laughed loudly, and became my writing family. 
Delicious frittatas

The next morning, after amazing caramel baked French toast (I had 2 helpings, but don’t tell anybody. . .) we headed off to our final class with Marilyn. My class in the advanced track had an assignment to read a piece we had worked on at the retreat for balanced feedback. Since the Writing Pad rule is: what we read and write stays in the group, I can’t give you specifics, but MAN there was so much amazing writing! I shared the ending to my book, which I’d crafted and edited the day before. I felt so supported! Also, someone in the group asked me a question about the ending which later helped me expand and deepen what I had written.

I was so sad to leave Ojai. I came away with some terrific, new friends, some new writing tools, a full belly, and a finished book. I can’t wait for the High Desert Retreat, so I can get away from my daily hubbub with a bunch of writers and award-wining instructors, and get my creativity on!

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