March 22, 2013

Coming Down From The Mountain

It's been a week now since I boarded the plane in San Diego, flew to Seattle, took the light rail to downtown, and then rode for three hours on a charter bus to the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat. It's taken this entire week to process and digest all that I felt and encountered on my journey, and I'm not done yet.

I've kept in touch with retreat host and founder Theo Pauline Nestor  over the years since our first meeting. Back when I still lived in the O.C., I'd  driven the both of us to meet a mutual writer-friend for dinner. I'd long admired Theo's essays that I'd read in Brain, Child magazine (this was all prior to her publishing her terrific book) and we had one of those great, interrupting-each-other, animated conversations on the brief trip down the freeway.
So in November, when I first saw mention of her retreat on Facebook, and then checked out the website, I immediately wanted to attend, on a gut level.  I knew it would be good, and good for me -- there would be Cheryl Strayed, and Suzanne Finnamore, and Theo herself, plus other memoir writers I hadn't yet read, but whose works sounded intriguing and right up my alley. 

It wasn't quite a whim, but I registered and sent my deposit without pondering it very much.  And then it was Thanksgiving, and then the Christmas holidays, and then the husband's birthday in Vegas, and then I was hustling through those final stressful weeks of coaching Lily's Odyssey of the Mind team.

And suddenly, it was time to pack, and time to go. 
I felt a little guilty about going. I mean, the retreat and airfare weren't cheap, and I hadn't seriously sat down to write in months.  For exactly what was I spending over a thousand dollars, and risking death-by-airplane (or by bus on a mountain road) -- for my ego, my vanity, or some grandiose notion that I was still, nearly 15 years post-MFA, a writer?
I'd told myself, and a couple other people before I left, that my trip was a mere gesture -- proof  that I was still in the game, still committed to my half-full (half empty) yellow legal pad of memories that I'd scrawled out over the course of several weeks a while back.  I got that far, before I got scared at what I'd have to write down, and scared myself into stopping.
Of course, as it turns out, when one travels over 1,200 miles to reach a destination via car, plane, train and bus, it's hardly a mere gesture. Just as shouldering a monstrous pack upon one's back for hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail is hardly a mere metaphor for carrying the burden of grief.  (Here is the inspiring, wonderful Cheryl Strayed above, discussing what it took to write her best-selling memoir, Wild, as part of her keynote speech written specifically for the retreat.)
What I found over the course of the weekend was that yes, I'm still very much "in the game" as far as my writing goes. Of course I am.  I still very much have a story to tell, and feel re-committed to keep scrawling my story upon yellow legal pads to tell it, and tell it true. Scary as that might be.
What I also remembered was how good, how important it feels, to be among other like-minded souls. It's been too long since I've purposely sought the company of writers, people who care about books and words and story and history and baring it all. I was moved when Suzanne Finnamore, in both of her classes that I attended this weekend, was choked by tears recounting a memory, and by reading the work of another writer. That she can get so easily worked up by familiar memories and readings, and remain unashamed -- I loved that. I too am just as easily moved to tears by memories and words, except that I've always resented my sensitivity. And yet there was Suzanne, in her boots and bangs and great big heart up in front of the class, living proof that you can be sensitive and cry easily and still be a total bad-ass.
Since returning home, I've felt so lazy, in terms of leaving my desk. Beds have stayed unmade and I've barely mustered a couple loads of laundry and figuring out what kind of take-out to feed the family.

 On the other hand, I'm re-energized. I've been transcribing my legal-pad scrawls into my laptop (it's not really "writing" and boy-howdy is it ever not-great, but it's a start). I've been following links left on the retreat's Facebook page, and stalking finding out more about the writers and attendees online, and reading suggested essays and looking up books and researching markets and...yeah.  Back in the game. 
Already, I miss finding my tribe. Except for my mom (whom I called to assure I'd returned in one piece), no other friend or family has inquired about my trip. That's mostly my fault, for keeping my "writing life" so annexed from my "real life" that it hardly seems worth mentioning. And I don't mention that out of self-pity or hoping to prompt anyone to call me.  Frankly, they wouldn't quite understand, unless they've undertaken something similar.  It's hard to explain the magic that happens  when you travel a long way into the unfamiliar, and find not just like-minded souls, but that other, elusive friend who's been waiting all along.
Yourself. (In a big poufy parka.)


  1. I'm so glad you took that leap. Just like I'm glad I pushed myself out on a limb and jumped too. We're birds of a feather, you and I.

    Loved this post. Awesome pictures, too.

    Keep in touch, my friend. And keep on writing. You're too good of writer not to.

    1. Thank you, Jenn, for all your sweet words. Yes, birds of a feather. And yes, I will of course keep in touch.

  2. Yes, writing is scary. I find writing blog posts about my house really easy, I find writing blog posts about my real thoughts and feelings very scary, and I find writing on a professional basis (I used to be a law professor, one of the things holding me back from getting a job is the lack of publication) nearly paralyzing. I go to the occasional conference and come back energized to Get Started...and then I run up against my wall of self doubt. So good for you for going, and taking steps toward doing the big scary thing. Woot woot.

    So its nearly the end of March and we have not gotten together....and now my oldest is on spring break for three weeks (joy). I could do a Monday or a thursday morning (that's when my sitter doesn't have class). Will you be going to the Craft Cabinet?

    1. Hi Lisa! Yep, design posts are the easiest -- "hey, look at my new pillow!" Trying not to let myself slam too hard into the self-doubt wall this time. It comes, it passes.

      On another note: 3 weeks for spring break?? Holy hell. Thought we had a lot with two. I'll email you about getting together. :)


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