Inspiration for the Writing Life


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Retreats, workshops, conferences and literary gatherings are everywhere today, blissfully in-person after the dark days of all-online (which doesn’t really cut it.) What’s the reason?

It’s all about inspiration.

Inspiration is to writers what thermals are to seagulls: you perch on the rock forever, or you soar into the unknown.

I learned this after being a writer (newspapers, magazines, & loving every minute) for about four decades.

It happened after my then new husband, Bud the Great Encourager, strolled into the kitchen with a scrap of paper advertising a 6-week workshop with a then little known writer named Anne Lamott.

“You should try writing stories for the grandchildren,” Bud said. “This would be a great place to start — and you’ll love the teacher.”

He did not lie.

By the end of those six weeks I had become convinced I could write anything in the world I chose, something readers of Lamott’s subsequent, wildly popular books will understand.

In those weeks I had been edited for craft, scene, dialog, you name it. I had met fellow writers who remain my friends and literary partners to this day.

And who doesn’t love Anne Lamott?

At the time (early 1990s) Lamott had published several novels and the nonfiction Operating Instructions (which I gave to every new mother I encountered for the next decade) and was at work on the widely acclaimed Bird by Bird.

Operating Instructions had to do with the birth of Lamott’s son Sam (in 1987.) After Bird by Birdcame Tender Mercies, and the books that have inspired generations of writers since.

The workshop itself inspired yours truly.

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Soon after that workshop came a two-week Napa Valley Writers’ Conference directed by the late great Jack Leggett in the mid-1990s. Leggett had retired to Napa after founding and directing the famed Iowa Writers Workshop that nurtured many of the best writers of the 20th century. I had met him briefly, soon after marrying his old friend Bud. (The two were equal encouragers.)

“You need to come to the Napa Valley Conference,” Leggett said, within moments of our being introduced. “Bud says you’re a really fine writer.”

Having never written anything much beyond newspaper and magazine articles and a few really bad books on commission when I needed the money, I said something clever like, “Uhhhh.” I had also never heard of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. But wisely I withheld that information and said, instead, “It sounds wonderful.”

It was. That literary gathering was all about craft: character development, dialog, scene, structure, language . . . Write, edit, critique, repeat.

By the end of that great adventure I had finished drafts of several short stories (Thanks, Annie workshop!) and begun work on what would be my first not-bad book, Dying Unafraid.

It was inspiration on steroids.

Well, it was also excellent teaching, a lot of advice and support from fellow conference attendees and hard work — all on the wings of inspiration.

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Thirty years later I sneaked off, one recent weekend, to A Writing Room retreat to absorb a little inspiration and miscellaneous good stuff — and okay, it was an excuse to visit some old friends in Albuquerque & Santa Fe.

Writers’ gatherings have changed little over the years, if the few I’ve attended are any indication: good opportunities to meet and mingle with potential writing partners and kindred souls, limited opportunities to hobnob with the big name speakers, plenty of mutual support and food for thought.

And all for what? Some of us want to get published, or make money (good luck with that) or be on TV; most of us just want to be better writers. Workshops and retreats (in person and ubiquitously online) inspire us to try.

The Writing Room event presented all of the above, created anew for the 21st century. Inspiration with a distinctly 21st-century flair.

Full disclosure: I paid the fee but mostly audited the course; this is only a butterfly’s-eye view.

Writerly inspiration today is low on craft, high on introspection and self-discovery. Early sessions invited attendees — there were some 350 from across the U.S. and elsewhere, plus uncounted others participating online — to dig within for what’s most important and what it will cost to achieve.

We still want to be better writers, but today’s gatherings focus on mindfulness and the creative core, vulnerability and persistence — as tools for the journey.

My arms-length participation in the recent event had a lot to do with personal push-back against the weekend rules: No outside news, no politics, no communication with problematic friends and family members, and quit with the social media. Excellent advice for a few days of serious writing; problematic for my scattershot self.

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After the event, though, I spoke with a number of attendees who had paid attention to the rules (except for the social media thing) and been far more serious about attendance and participation. They were, by and large, excited, uplifted, enthusiastic — and inspired.

Said one: “I was apprehensive about coming, but I’m going home feeling like I can achieve my goals. Yes, it’s been a memorable weekend.”

Several spoke of having gained confidence — in themselves and their future as writers. More than a few attendees were struggling with adversity, emotional distress or recent illness. (The stuff of great stories.) They’d been met with ovations.

One told me, “I have several hundred pages of a memoir, but had all but given up on ever finishing. When I shared about it this weekend, though, the response was really encouraging. It gave me the confidence I need.” She was “excited about sitting down and really getting to work on it.”

Co-hosted with author/creative guide Jacob Nordby, A Writing Room Retreat was led by artist/podcaster Sam Lamott.

For this writer, the inspiring words of the keynote speaker — Sam’s indomitable mom Anne Lamott — still rang true.

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