What I Learned from my Writing Retreat

December 3, 2014 | By | 42 Replies More

KVP7520_CFacing my empty nest and a ticking clock, I finally decided to plunge into the writing life. Writing more seemed too obvious so I searched for conferences or classes. I came across a “retreat” offered by the author of a bestselling memoir I’d recently read. Though I hadn’t done anything like this before, I was intrigued. I sent in my deposit, booked my flight and then sat in front of my new laptop, confused.

What now? Try writing something new? Wait three months to “discover my true voice?” What if I wasn’t writing right? What if the retreat leader read my work and recommended I take up quilting?

The months leading up to the retreat gave me time to list all the reasons I was unqualified to attend: only one thing nationally published, no submissions for years, a novel abandoned after 100 pages. My inner critic had weeks to dance in the meadow of my wild inadequacies.
The ranch was nestled in a mountain valley and was billed as a safe place to discover, hone and share our true writer’s voice.

Writers of all backgrounds attended, but I feared “real” writers would resent an interloper without an MFA or three-book deal. The author welcomed us into the rustic great room addressing us as “sisters in voice,” yet I imagined the word “amateur” tattooed on my forehead.

During the first afternoon, surrounded by pristine lakes and soaring trees, I wrestled my inner critic into submission and tried to breathe. Everyone else was breathing. The mountain air was supposed to be good. Maybe I wasn’t the most experienced or talented. But I could learn. Improve. Breathe.

Opening ceremonies unfolded in a glass-walled yoga studio (Yoga? This was so not me!). Sitting on cushions in a circle, we wrote statements of intent for attending the retreat. We took turns reading them aloud without preamble or apology. On my turn, I began crying. Maybe it was nerves, or the long cross-country flight. Maybe I was mourning the many years I wasn’t writing.

Everyone took my tears in stride. Not a snarky look from anyone. Our leader smiled and in a soothing voice told us that writing from the heart evoked strong emotions and I wouldn’t be the only one. She slid a box of tissues my way and went on to the next person, unruffled. That evening we gathered around the flagstone fireplace in the cozy main house. Enjoying wine and locally-grown, vegan appetizers, we shared more writing, discussed upcoming sessions and settled into our home for the next four days.

Following breakfast the next morning, we snuggled under quilts on bean bag chairs, rockers and a well-used sofa in the adjoining sunroom. We dug out our notebooks and followed the leader in a warm-up prompt. Each morning began the same. Then, a longer prompt, more sharing. No critiquing. No apologizing. Just exercising our writing muscles. Later, a longer, collaborative exercise with a partner. More practice. The results, and the women, were extraordinary.

Among us was a full-time author writing a memoir about her adoption, a Hollywood singer-songwriter, a surgeon practicing patient kindness, a funny psychologist writing science fiction, a woman supporting her brother and treating herself to this gift, a creative, courageous Montana realtor, a serene New York accountant, a recent college graduate contemplating an MFA, a dog-lover from the wild islands of Canada, and me.

Stories shared included futuristic scientists, violent episodes from the past, reunions with lost relatives, and lives enriched by furry friends. Some were fact. Some were fiction. All showed our imaginations, desires and fears. Our words and revelations were treated with reverence by the leader, and therefore, each other. It was creative therapy, a license to share our hearts and minds.

Occasionally, my urge to earn the proverbial gold star rose up and I resisted it. I wanted to learn from the wisdom and authenticity surrounding me. I aimed for honesty instead of angling for validation. Mostly, I succeeded. I was enriched by these unique women, not excluded.
Afternoons were free for naps (optional writing prompts provided in our bedrooms) or activities (yoga, hiking, horse therapy). Everyone participated in a private, one-on-one talk with the author receiving invaluable feedback on our writing. We reconvened for social hour before dinner and afterwards, some shared additional, outside writing around the fire.

During meals, the author encouraged questions about the business of writing, our surroundings or her writing routine. What’s it like to get a call from the Oprah show? Have you seen any bears? How do you handle rejection? When can I call myself a writer? She welcomed our curiosity and shared first-hand knowledge.

On the last day, we hugged goodbye and I cried again. Heightened emotions post-retreat were the norm and she cautioned us not to make hasty decisions. As the green mountains and turquoise lakes disappeared from view, I settled in for the long flight home.

The author was right. I needed almost a month to let the lessons, stories, and people wash over and through me. My family sacrificed for this trip and they hoped it was worth it. I’d sipped from the souls of others and tasted tidbits of a life I’d been afraid to bite into. How could I explain that?

The retreat promised tools and insight into discovering my voice and it delivered. Secretly, I’d hoped for Elizabeth Gilbert’s home phone number and a satin sash with “Real Writer” embroidered in purple. Still, the souvenir I treasure most is the courage to decide I’m a writer because I write.

No stamp of approval or membership card required. I’m a writer and I believe it. Finally.

Suzanne M. Brazil is a freelance writer and editor living in a recently empty nest in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has been featured in Writer’s Digest and many local publications. She is a frequent blog contributor and recently finished her first novel.

Follow her on twitter https://twitter.com/SuzanneBrazil or visit her facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/suzanne.m.brazil

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Category: On Writing

Comments (42)

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  1. Lovely, honest piece, Suzanne. I’m tweeting.

  2. Kathy Weyer says:

    Suzanne, this was so perfect – great timing for me, and so well done. Exactly what I felt. Thanks for sharing. I just found it on Twitter (new to me, I’m getting on the horse).

    Thanks so much!

    • Thank you, Kathy! So glad it was useful for you. Personally, I’ve found many useful things on Twitter – links that lead to great info, etc. Be sure and checkout #amwriting and other useful hashtags. You may have to wade through a lot of book promos but finding a gem makes it worthwhile. Best of luck to you and thanks again for taking time to read and comment!

  3. Mary Latela says:

    Suzanne, what an inspiring reflection! As I read through the comments, I recalled a realization that came out of a women’s group I belonged a while ago. We noticed that there was too much apologizing going on. Whether for lack of education or brief resume, or personal issues with “putting my story out there,” we decided,
    “I will not apologize for myself. Oh, if I accidentally step on your foot, I might say “sorry,” but I will not begin any comment with “I’m sorry but I think …. ” Much healthier! Thanks so much!

    • Well said, Mary, and great example of our apologizing nature. Reminds me of a wonderful language arts teacher I had in junior high, Mrs. Bloom. She told us that when someone compliments you, it’s not right to say “this old thing? I’ve had it for ages” or “anyone could do what I did” or “really? you like it? I think it’s awful”…the only acceptable response is “thank you.” Women are so deferential in so many ways. To paraphrase: our playing small (apologizing all the time) does not serve the world! Thanks for taking the time to comment!!

  4. Suzanne Brazil, thank you for so eloquently describing your experience at one of Laura Munson’s Haven retreats. I especially liked your statement, “I wanted to learn from the wisdom and authenticity surrounding me.” You reminded me of the last writers workshop I attended in which the leader read some of our essays and stories. I remember thinking about one of my fellow attendees, “That woman can write.” The same is true of you.

    • Thank you for reading, Barbara! I try to focus on being inspired instead of intimidated. The bounty of talented people (women and men) is staggering. Your kind words have made my day. Happy Writing 🙂

  5. Jan Myhre says:

    Dear Susanne, Though I have ever been a lover of words, fully describing my experience of Haven (twice) is difficult. I can say I came away forever changed in many ways. Some I have not even determined. To say I grew is an understatement. With Laura’s constant care, I soared. Fear and doubt were left behind and replaced with courage and confidence. Since my mission was to get feedback on writing my memoir for my sons, I was stunned to realize Haven was far more than I bargained for. I came away a new person with a new purpose. It’s trite and a bit overdone, but I found I “wanted to be the best that I could be.” It will not happen all at once, it will take time and work. I’m ready to risk it in order to continue to grow as a writer and a poet. Granted the journey will always continue. I’m so grateful to Laura for pointing me in the right direction. For those of you who hesitate to give yourselves this gift of self discovery, let me assure you, YOU ARE WORTH IT.

  6. amber says:

    Suzanne, this is so darned happy-making to read. It lovingly take me back to my own Haven Retreat experience with Laura last February. Invaluable shifts that have carried with me & my writing. So grateful, indeed.

  7. Hi Suzanne! It was a great honor to meet you and read your work at Laura Munson’s Haven Writing Retreat (http://www.lauramunson.com/retreats/) in September. Wow! That was lightyears away. Reading your post brings back and evokes the serenity of the retreat center, and the time our group shared together. Ah, what a joy. And I am reminded of how you left the retreat, went home and started writing your piece for Chicken Soup. And how you were brave enough to reach out to the fellow writers you met at Haven to ask for support and feedback on your story about your mother and you. Thank you for trusting me with your work. And thank you for attending the Haven Writing Retreat with Laura Munson. By doing so, I now have more sister writers like you in my life. It’s an honor. Thank you for writing this brave and heart-warming blog. Oh, and thank you for referring to me above as a full-time author. Helped me to continuously remind myself that I’m a writer too.

  8. Diane Fraser says:

    This was a lovely article on your experience of a writing retreat- and of your doubts, which I am certain all of us can relate to having had at one point or another. If not with writing, then something else.
    The beauty of writing retreats and workshops is the community, and sharing very fresh and raw writing with others who are doing the same. It’s always amazing to hear other people’s voices and writing for the first time in a workshop! In a way, it helps you hear your own voice freshly too – a delightful shock.

    Glad you continue to write and share your experience!

    • “A delightful shock…” I love that Diane. Thanks for your kind words.At times, I think it’s easier for us to believe the doubts. Saw a beautiful sign in a shop this week it said “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”
      A great reminder!

  9. Ariel says:

    I hope you never stop feeling like a writer because this wonderful post shows that you are a talented one! That retreat sounds amazing.

  10. Sara Connell says:

    I love this piece! I am an early fan of Suzanne Brazil- the writing and woman. Thank you for giving this inside look at a retreat- especially for those of us with 3 year olds who are love to “travel” vicariously!

  11. Suzanne,

    Great article. I attended Laura Munson’s Haven Writing Retreat (http://www.lauramunson.com/retreats/) recently. I signed up with few expectations and probably a few reservations. The experience was energized, creative, caring and alive. It was unedited. I particularly loved the messiness of the written words in our notebooks and beautiful expressions that poured out in such distinctively different ways. Writing on a laptop doesn’t have the same feel as pen to paper. I met really wonderful writers and fabulous readers. I won’t forget everyone’s individual intonations, which made the experience ours and a sensory delight. Good for you for reaching out to your grander self.

  12. Sharley Bryce says:

    Reading your description put me right in the same place
    I was at the Retreat and I find it comforting to know that
    Haven is always there for me and in particular reading
    that going back a second time is even better than the
    first. After some time, and to see what is happening
    with me and my writing, it would be a good thing to
    go back to Haven in Montana with Laura Munson.

  13. Deborah Chavez says:

    You are Absolutely a writer! Your words are sincere and straight from the heart. You are an inspiration and will definitely encourage someone that needs that extra push, to just do it! I’m ready for your next novel!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’ve been encouraged by so many wonderful writers and sites like this. I hope to give someone else a nudge to pursue their dream, whatever that might be.

  14. Kathy says:

    Thank you Suzanne, your words brought life to this experience!
    No real growth comes from a place of comfort.
    This was the soul lesson from my first Haven writing retreat in September of 2012. I attended as a seeker, a newfound lover of words. I ditched my long term partner, numbers, for a new life, one that oozed with creativity and not constraint. Was I a writer? I wasn’t sure. Did I yearn for change? Yes. Those four days living with and interacting with kindred spirits opened my eyes to a world of different possibilities. So I dug in as deep. Well, as deep as I could. Was I the best at this? Not by a long shot! Did I pick up tidbits of knowledge about the writing life and writing as a craft? I sure did.
    Yearning for more I returned to Haven in September of 2014. Had I written anything of significance? No. Did I want to learn more, create more on the page? Yes. So I returned once again as a seeker, not a writer. That is the beauty of this retreat. You are met on the page exactly where you are. Of course I wanted to combine thoughts into strings of words that sang across the page and touched the reader’s heart. I listened as others accomplished this. Could I? Maybe not at that moment but I learned from my fellow retreaters as they unselfishly shared.
    For those of you, who have a notion about writing and a desire to do so, book a trip to Haven. Laura will hold your heart as your expose yourself on the page. You do not have to be polished or the best you simply need to possess the desire to learn. Suzanne described the retreat experience fully. I walked the Haven grounds alongside of her. Many times she buoyed me and I did my best to support her. There is a sisterhood in this craft. Join in and find your joy. http://lauramunson.com/retreats/

    • I miss you, Kathy! Thank you for reading. I feel lucky to have found another group of encouraging writers on this website. So happy to hear you are writing – it was so clear to me that your voice would bring joy to anyone fortunate enough to hear it.

  15. Tracey Yokas says:

    I attended Laura Munson’s Haven retreat, the FIRST time, in February 2013. It was a very difficult time in my personal life, but that didn’t scare Laura! Or the other attendees. As the below author did, I cried and I wasn’t the only one. That’s what happens when someone holds your heart in their hands and helps you allow the walls you’ve built to melt away. I attended Laura’s retreat, the SECOND time, two short months ago in September. I was joined by two fellow retreaters who were with me the first time.

    The second time was as magical and moving, if not more so, than the first. One hundred pages into a memoir I had all but given up. It wasn’t right for me. I just couldn’t do it. It was too hard and my writing was too boring. Laura held me by the hand, literally and figuratively. I returned home refueled and recharged ready to do battle with my, “I’m not good enough voice” and win!

    Man or woman. Experienced or not. I encourage you to let Laura and the Haven experience works its magic on you no matter where you are in your creative process.

    Check our her website and blog at : http://www.lauramunson.com/

    If you want to come on a Haven ‪#‎Retreat‬ but feel like you need to be a “real ‪#‎writer‬” or that it’s too much of a reach, or whatever your inner critic is serving up…READ THIS, message me, we’ll talk. Thank you for being brave, Suzanne Micele Brazil Haven loves you.

    • Tracey thank you for sharing your words and love of Haven. Us women and writers have to support one another and I feel so lucky to keep finding these groups of women (Laura with Haven and Barbara Bos with this site) who are leading the way.

  16. barb armstrong says:

    I found this article extremely inspiring! For all of us who have been terrified of starting something new, exposing our true selves and feelings, and the very deep and sincere “want to” involved with secret aspirations….this article will certainly help. Suzanne put a lump in my throat and I’ve no doubt she will achieve her goal and help some others along the way. I would be interested in reading whatever she produces.

  17. Suzanne has created a beautiful piece not only describing her experiences at Haven, by taking home with her the growth and insight it requires to call herself a writer. Haven is a place to explore yourself, while in the beauty of Montana, the talent & love of Laura Munson herself, and the written word. Words that you didn’t know you had inside, that burst forth sometimes onto the page, other times formed in tears, and still others in the support and encouragement you WILL find in the writing circle. Upon returning home, you just might find yourself surprised at how much you have grown not just as a writer, but as a person, a woman, a mother, a daughter. I too attended Haven – and my experiences afterwards have been nothing less than wonderful. I owe so much to Laura Munson whose gentle spirit is balanced with her determination to help you find your path, find your brave and believe in yourself. If you do one thing for YOU, let it be to experience Haven for yourself. LauraMunson.com/retreats I am so honored and humbled to be a sister in words with you Suzanne! Breathe Deep, Think Peace, Patty

    • I, too, attended a @LauraMunson #Haven #Retreat in beautiful Whitefish, Montana. The Flathead Valley and nearby Glacier National Park are reason enough to gift yourself with this time and attention to your writing, even in February in the clutch of one of the coldest winters on record. It was worth traveling 34 hours by train (in coach), which took 42 hours on the way home. Still, I was forever changed in all the best ways. I was going through a very difficult time in my marriage, which is why Laura’s book, “This Is Not The Story You Think It Is,” had such an impact on me. The retreat helped me to focus on myself and on my journey, and allow my husband to process in the way he needed to. We’re still here. Things are getting better, and Laura’s retreat and kind attention before, during and since is no small part of that. Do this for yourself. You will not regret it.

    • I’m still trying to breathe Patricia but the people of Haven and this great website are helping me every day! Thank you for reading. Come back to this site for some fabulous words of wisdom…so much to offer!

  18. Laura Munson says:

    Suzanne– I am so deeply happy that you took this brave stand for yourself and came to a Haven Retreat in Montana! It was an honor working with you, watching you claim your powerful voice and words, and giving yourself permission to call yourself a “writer.” Because you are. Thank you for capturing the Haven experience so perfectly. Your piece will give others permission to do what you did! Love, Laura http://lauramunson.com/retreats/

    • Now I want to come back! Thank you, Laura 🙂

    • Katie Nixon says:

      To say the Haven retreat changed my life is an understatement. I went to the retreat to process my grief as I slowly lose my mother to dementia. What happened at the retreat astounded me– I found that I have so many words deep, deep inside, not just about my mother, but about lots of life issues, and they came rushing out. And I surprised myself because I liked those words! I began to realize there is plenty more to come. The work is to organize, refine, and develop a piece so that my reader can feel it with me and say, “Ah, yes….I know what she’s talking about!” Suzanne, it was fun to go back to Haven through your piece! http://lauramunson.com/retreats/

  19. Essays like this are why I am a reader. I am a seeker of truth, of clarification, and sometimes just an escape from truth and clarification. Suzanne put me right there in the retreat with her, my heart pounding, my insecurity flag flying at full mast, and eventually, I too was transformed by the process. Thanks for sharing a great story!

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