Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writer's Retreat

My wife has for some time been arranging writing retreats for me. It all started a couple of years ago when I was debating taking in the writer's retreat at the Banff center, balancing the $3500 price tag against what I was likely to get out of it. Several writers of my acquaintance had praised the Banff retreats headed by Robert Sawyer, and Sawyer definitely struck me as the kind of writer from whom one could learn a lot. (I've attend his self-marketing seminars for writers, for example, and they are brilliant!) Sawyer is first and foremost a story teller. Working on my first novel, I was primarily preoccupied with the basic elements of plot, pacing, setting and dialog, all of which Sawyer could certainly help with. But the workshop leader for the year I was contemplating was instead a leading Canadian poet. I considered that a poet might not be quite what I needed. My stereotype of poets led me to suspect that he would more into examining manuscripts for symbolism and allusion and, above all, word choice. All fine things to be sure, but not my current interest. I needed to make sure I had a story that worked before worrying too much about the literary value or the quality of the writing. That could come later -- about book four, I figure.

So I was already ambivalent about the retreat when I broached the topic with my wife. Mary was very supportive of the idea of my going away to write, but pointed out that at the price, she could put me on a deluxe cruise far cheaper.

And then it occurred us, well, why not? Mary went into travel agent mode (her chief hobby activity), went online, and immediately found me a 7-day cruise to Alaska for $700. It was perfect!

Now to get an Alaskan cruise for $700 dollars, you have to know how to find the best deals, book early, and take whatever cabin they assign you. So the joke was that Mary had booked me in the worst cabin on the ship. Not only was it an inside cabin (i.e., no window), but the reviews (thanks to the Internet, you can actually find reviews of your specific cabin, believe it or not) had complained about the engine noise and constant vibration. But here's the thing: The novel I happened to be writing was about a group stuck on a starship for a year, and one of the elements I happened to struggling with was getting the atmosphere of shipboard life. So a cabin next to the engine room was exactly what I needed, the various clanks and thumps working their way into the novel for my hero to experience exactly as I was.

The Alaskan cruise gave me the same or slightly more majestic scenery (e.g., the Mendenhall glacier) as the Banff Center, and an equally quiet place to write, but at one-fifth the price and with the advantage of way better food.

I'd write in my cabin for most of the day (or night -- with no window, there was no light to disturb me, so I wrote when inspired, slept when I wasn't) come out for meals (or sent down for room service if it happened to be late) and for exercise. Blocked on some scene, I would walk the promenade deck, or hike through town or forest if we happened to be docked. It was fabulous.

That first trip, Mary also arranged for a 'behind the scenes' tour of the ship -- bridge, kitchens, environmental and so on -- which was just what I needed to flesh out the background details for my starship. As it happened, I was the only one who signed up for the tour that trip, so I was able to ask questions nonstop about the navigation systems, officer training, and so on, all of which triggered analogous details in the novel.

On the whole, the experience was a great success.

So, Mary has booked me into a couple of writing cruises since. It's been great, and I'm just now approaching the total of what that one Banff workshop would have cost.

Mary tried to book me onto a couple of more interesting cruises, notably the 21 day Panama Canal cruise before they widen the canal, but I had to turn those down as too potentially interesting. To work, I need a cruise that won't be too distracting. (The Alaskan cruise is great, but I'd already done it twice previously with family, so didn't feel I was missing anything by not doing the excursions or watching every passing conifer or going to the shipboard entertainments.) I am also not allowed to take the repositioning cruise from LA to Hawaii, as my kids have made it clear they will plot to kill me if I ever try to go to Hawaii without them.

I have therefore been contemplating organizing writing retreats around specific writing projects, and inviting 10 or 12 or more other writers to join me. The advantage for the writers, in addition to the obvious opportunity to go on retreat, is that they could get a tax deductible cruise out of the deal. I am not much interested in having other writers critique my work, or vise versa (see Stephen King quote on workshops here) but I do like the idea of being on a ship with a table load of writers who could intelligently discuss the writing life, etc. at lunch and supper. The two barriers to this project are that most of the writers I see as potential participants are either too broke to participate, or have day-job schedules that conflict with the timing of the cruises. (Not going during high season, is of course, the first principle of achieving affordable cruise-retreats.)

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