The rich, chaotic transition from writing conference to real life

CC by 2.0 photo credit, top: Richard Hurd, “Black-capped Chickadee in flight” (Sept 5, 2012)

The annual denouement following my time at Centrum is always a time fraught with conflicts. I’m forced to catch up in real life, while mining the riches I’ve unearthed from the conference.

It means shifting energy away from that strange paradoxical continuum of decompression-meets-intensity toward the normal 24-7: ordinary schedules, domestic concerns, work-related commitments, family demands.

And always, health concerns. New symptoms may or may not arise, but the biggest indicator for me is fatigue, because it can be hard to know its root cause. When I make this yearly pilgrimage to the Port Townsend Writers Conference (PTWC), I come away well rested in one respect, yet exhausted.

It takes at least as many days home as I spent away to return to Normal. And my sleep. Yegads. So out of whack. I didn’t even leave the time zone and I feel jet lagged!

Yet I feel like this chickadee in flight, rising from a phoenix-like occupation after 10 days away from Real Life.

In the aftermath

Score one for hard work and tenacity

Great things emerge in the post-conference haze. For one thing, I worked intensely on an essay I started years ago in Sayantani Dasgupta‘s food writing clinic, “Witches’ Hearts,” which I then submitted while in PT.

Two weeks later, it was picked up by NonBinary Review to be included in their special theme edition focusing on “The Tales of Hans Christian Anderson.” (Forthcoming September 1, 1017)

Cherry on top: I will receive compensation for this piece of creative writing (for those who don’t broker in fiction and poetry, remuneration for this kind of writing is a rarity).

Things I didn’t do

Though I attended some of them, I did not partake in the open mics at the 262 while at Centrum.

It feels like a year for listening, for lying fallow in those fields, and the saturation and immersion of wordplay is itself enough reason to attend. One does not always need to read their work; sometimes it is all about letting others’ ideas, energy, and narrative stoke the coals you’ve already got burning.

Things I did do 

Alaskan writer and puzzler Hali Denton (L) and moi (R), 

and the last piece going in on Saturday night.

I also started what I hope will follow as a tradition in the dorms (even if I come back next year in my more normal status as camper-in-residence). The fun of a jigsaw puzzle turned out to be a muse in the making.

Think about it. A day full of words, ideas, and creative technique can leave your head spinning. Throw in social energy (for me, socializing, as much as I love it, drains my energy). Then there’s the goal tending (for some, that means homework) and processing in silence the things you’ve encountered over a full day.

Sitting down to a jigsaw puzzle at the end of the day turned out to be a way into focused processing. True, when you are working on a jigsaw puzzle, you are focused mostly on the puzzle.

But how is that different than meditation… when you might be focusing on the resonance of a singing bowl or the flame of a candle? And yet, that concentrated focus (by whatever vehicle, puzzling included) helps your brain to file and synthesize a day’s worth of input.

Mind you, a puzzle started in a common area where creative people are in residence is like turning on a light where moths abound. Most of the time, I was not alone in this endeavor.

But that did not have the expected overwhelm that many social interactions can have on me.

Chatter around the puzzle table was light at times, colorful. And then people shared what they’d learned during the day, and suddenly I was gifted more ideas and words as I worked to unite islands of puzzle pieces into a cohesive whole.

Now you see it…
…Now you don’t. Seven days to build, seven seconds to dissemble. 

Synchronicity is where you find it

This puzzling happened mostly right before bed. One thing I know with certainty as a sleep health educator is that our brains process and store information better if we acquire it right before we go to sleep.

It’s only incidental that I was at the conference this year chiefly to work on my nonfiction dream manuscript started in Pam Houston’s workshop last year. And yet, the dreams I had this year were rich and complex, no doubt due to these pre-bedtime puzzling excursions.

I took a 7-page start on dreams as memoir and turned it into a hybrid manuscript-outline of over 100 pages (not all of them filled, mind you) that can now serve as a repository for this work I plan to continue throughout the year. And I’ve worked on it since then, in little dribs and drabs.

Other lingering influences

One of the pieces to come from that hybrid manuscript-outline was a poem. One of several, actually. When I am cobbling together ideas, I don’t force them into forms but record them as they come to me. That’s where the best energy comes, and it’s really important to capture it “as is” in these seminal efforts toward a new manuscript.

I wanted to hear how it sounded, even if I didn’t necessarily feel like reading at the conference open mic.


Reading about peach jam

and dream interpretation
at the BARN, photo courtesy
M. Schoemaker

Coincidentally or not, I ran across the announcement of a local writers salon taking shape under the aegis of the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN), which just officially opened its doors in June.

The salon was hosted by my friend Martha Salinas Schoemaker, and I immediately registered for the last spot (and became a part of BARN), because it occurred to me that I have this emerging new writers’ community literally in my back door. I should be a part of it. I can literally walk there from my house in less than 10 minutes.

I read this new poem, which was about dreams, but also about peach jam, before a small audience and found joy in hearing the words alive (in front of other people, that experience is different than if I’d just read it out loud by myself).

I’m so glad I joined BARN now! And I hope to be a contributor to their programs as well as a member. (BARN is more than just writing: they offer access to a huge woodworking shop, a jewelry-making studio, a professional commercial kitchen, a print-making studio, and much more.)

Other heard words

Some of you know I have been very busy restructuring my front-yard landscape. One of the best things about this (besides the results of happy, healthy plants!) is that I have returned to listening to podcasts. This was something I did daily when I was a fast-walker, and have missed because of overriding problems that have put major limits on my walking regimen (I hope to reverse this soon).
Gardening, with the aid of my new wireless headphones, has restored this favorite pastime.

I spent one hazy afternoon updating my podcast subscriptions and added a host of new writerly ones to try out.

Just yesterday, I listened to the August 2 podcast episode from Write Now by Sarah Werner titled “Do I Need a Writing Degree?
It was a thoughtful and diplomatic discussion on a topic that has been divisive for decades.

One thing I realized (besides the fact that I am happy that I made the decisions years ago NOT to spend a ton of money on an MFA) is that, for me, the PTWC (and Centrum writing community offerings, in general) has been as useful to me as an MFA.

(I would add the community and programming at the Richard Hugo House, as well as the now-defunct Field’s End community, to this acknowledgment.)

Sarah also reminded me that it is okay to make a living as a writer, and that the proper definition of success for any writing life rests entirely on the individual writer and what they want to get out of it.

I also listened to an amazing podcast from Joanna Penn (The Creative Penn) in which she discussed the “magic bakery” of intellectual property rights with Dean Wesley Smith, which I now consider required listening for any writer who wants their work to reach the entire world and not just the limited access world that some agents and publishers (including self publishers) offer.

YAWP goes into the New Year!

Finally, I’m already signed up for the fall and winter YAWPs offered by Centrum.

The winter one happens right after the beginning of the year and is a brand-new addition to this series. Thanks to Jordan Hartt (pictured left), YAWP’s chief cook and bottle washer.

I can’t wait! Before there were YAWPs (or my new camping/writing trailer), there were my silent retreats to Whidbey Island, usually taken in January to start my year off right. I cannot wait to do this again, but via the YAWP experience.


Okay, it’s time I got back to work. Thanks for reading! See you somewhere out in the writing universe!

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