Spending Time with Writers

by kipress

It had been a long time since I had really spent time with writers.

Sure, I have my local people whom I see at literary and social events, but I just don’t get out to those things (or anything) much in my state of advanced decrepitude. Mostly, my interaction with writer-folk is on Facebook, where I can keep up with the goings-on of writers across Canada whom I know, or am just acquainted with, or, heck, whom I’ve even just vaguely heard of. Canadian writers seemed to be early, and excellent, Facebook adopters. It’s not just about keeping up; my feed is often a delightful read. Writers: putting real care and effort into status updates since 2006. Well, okay, maybe 2007.

But once in a while, a writer just needs to hang out with others of the same persuasion for an extended period of time. Book launches and Facebook just don’t cut it. In my childless days, this meant going off to a retreat or a residency. Solitary retreats are also great for getting work done, but there’s something so stimulating about being surrounded by writers (or in some programs, writers and other artists). The conversation, support and interchange that goes on gets the cogs turning, and can be a real motivation for keeping the work moving forward. Plus, if you’re feeling a bit discouraged about your artistic vocation (and the less than enthusiastic response it gets from a lot of quarters), spending time with people who believe in what you do can have an uplifting effect–which in turn, I think, encourages you to take more artistic risks, and get better creative thinking done. You don’t have to think about how to defend art in general, and instead can move on to interrogating your specific artistic choices.

This summer, I finally felt like I could abandon my family for ten whole days and take off to hang out with writers. This time, it was a summer course at UBC. I stayed in the dorm, wrote a new short screenplay, and recharged my writerly juices through amazing conversation and quality hanging-out time with a whack of writers, most of whom I’d never before met.

In Manitoba, the best and closest option we have for hanging out with writers for ten days is the Sage Hill Writing Experience, which is held at a monastery in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley north of Regina. I went in 2000, and worked on my first manuscript there under the tutelage of workshop leader Dennis Cooley. It costs good money to go, but there are scholarships to be had, and you’ll never know if you don’t apply (I went on a full scholarship back then). Someday, I’ll go again. I’ve read in the Manitoba Writers’ Guild newsletter that there’s a committee afoot to create a similar opportunity in Manitoba. Really looking forward to such a plan coming to fruition!

At Sage Hill I first noticed one of my favourite things about hanging out with writers: the tacit acceptance of non-sequiturs. The artistic mind thrives on making long-shot connections, on making connections others wouldn’t expect, on skipping over all the intermediate logical steps that moved from A to B. Making writing both sensical and sparkly is a fine balance between get the reader to discover that connection with you, and spelling out the hidden steps for clarity. I noticed the non-sequiturs again this summer in Vancouver, as one story around the pub table reminded another writer about another story which reminded someone else about something only peripherally connected, and it didn’t take long for the stories to have leapt far away from the original topic. The use of this conversational technique among non-writers tends to get me looked at like I am Ralph Wiggum.

Seriously, though. Hang out with writers. The magic would probably wear off if you saw them 365 days a year–you’d probably need to take a break by spending your vacation with a bunch of MBAs–but for most writers, I think it’s a necessary piece of refreshing professional development.

My cat’s breath smells like cat food.