I was linking to posts at writer Christi Craig's blog for a while before we officially connected, in several different ways over the last few years. Now, we're staff colleagues for the literary journal, Compose, where Christi is an editorial assistant (and I'm nonfiction editor). When I heard that Christi was jetting off to a writing retreat/workshop on a sunny island last month, I was happy for her – and, you know, jealous! From the first pictures she posted on Facebook of her adventure, I knew I wanted her to write about the experience here. Christi lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she works by day as a sign language interpreter. She has stories and essays forthcoming in Hippocampus and Deep South.
Please welcome Christi Craig
Long ago over coffee with a writing friend, I uttered a half-spoken prayer that all I needed was a week away from work and life’s day-to-day to focus solely on my novel.
I had no idea those words would carry me from Wisconsin to the Bahamas.
I rarely travel such a distance from home. My discretionary income is slotted mainly for blueberry muffins and coffee. I do not have vacation time at work. Then last August, my friend and author, Rebecca Rasmussen, suggested I apply to attend the Salt Cay Writers Retreat. I thought, Ha, funny! Rebecca was serious, though. She knew I was working hard on a novel, she’d read my writing, and she thought this would be a great opportunity for me to work on my manuscript under the guidance of amazing professionals. At the same time, I learned of a private funding source for which I might qualify that would substantially lessen the financial blow.
I considered the location and how I didn’t have a passport, hadn’t traveled internationally since I was a teenager—and never alone. I studied the dates, which fell in the middle of my fall semester at work when no one dares to breathe a word of time off. I perused the list of faculty: Best-selling authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Robert Goolrick, agents from Folio Literary Management, Executive Editor Chuck Adams from Algonquin Books. Amy Einhorn!
I thought of my husband, who would have to take on my responsibilities at home along with his own for a solid week.
Crazy, I said.
Then I remembered that conversation over coffee and my mantra for the year: Fearless Writing, which meant doing things that move my writing career forward, even when those things seem impossible or frightening.
I filled out the application to Salt Cay and attached my writing sample; I applied for funding. I took a deep breath and hit send. I thought at best someone might read my work and think it decent enough to file away for another year. I mentioned the retreat to my office mate at work in a “This will never happen,” kind of way.
Less than a week later—on my birthday—I learned two things: I was admitted to Salt Cay. And, I'd gotten the funding. The bulk of the retreat would be paid for. Now, all I had to do was get there.
What happened next still amazes me, down to the last tiny detail: my boss at work made negotiating time off easy; my husband didn’t balk at the expenses we would have to cover, nor a week of handling work and life with kids solo. I found my misplaced birth certificate needed for the passport, and paid for the passport fees at the post office with the last check in my book. Everything happened quickly, easily, and, when I held my passport in my hands, I understood how writing is about taking risks. About having faith.
Two months later, I stepped out of the airport in Nassau and into the tropical sunshine, where a tall, official looking Bahamian man smiled and said, “This way, Beautiful.”
Those words—This way. Beautiful.—struck me with the same intensity as the sun and warmed my back, urging me forward.
When I climbed into the cab, I left the loose seatbelt hanging and the window open and settled in—to the winding roads and the roundabouts; the palm trees and warm breeze; the blue waters of the harbor and white sands of the beach.
I hadn’t participated in a writing conference before, but I’d read about them. I knew enough to worry how a fledgling writer like myself might fit in with the high caliber faculty and authors at Salt Cay. But the hosts from BACKSPACE, Karen Dionne and Chris Graham, designed a retreat where the typical dynamics of a conference fell to the wayside. We were not compressed in small conference rooms, nor herded in lines for one-on-one meetings; and I shared only a handful of my business cards. Networking was a big part of the retreat, yes, but it evolved in a less-structured way.
Most of the retreat events took place in an open shelter with a backdrop of palms and clear skies and ocean waters. There’s a shift in the way people relate when you’re all wearing flip-flops and swimsuits and beach hats, and the effects on me in Salt Cay were ease in conversation, plenty of laughter, and more time spent focused on the work instead of obsessing about my credentials.
I took notes in pictures and in pencil on everything: the wayward crab that clicked across the tile of the shelter in a zig-zag pattern, because he resembled me that first day, navigating the unfamiliar and the exciting; the dolphins, because they seemed so carefree and kept giving me the eye and hinted of a message I’d heard before, Relax. Take it easy. Do not struggle.
I soaked up discussions from panels and workshops. When Robert Goolrick spoke on opening pages, I wrote his words in caps: More important than clever plotting, confidence in your writing brings authenticity to your voice. Confidence and authenticity were two qualities sometimes missing in my manuscript.
On Dialogue and Sentence Structure, Michelle Brower, an agent from Folio, stressed that a good sentence—especially a good first sentence—has story written inside of it, where the who, the what, and the mood of the book are layered within a handful of words. Later, I met with Michelle for my one-on-one, and she showed me in my work where I do that well and where I could do it more. Michelle illustrated a quality of agents I hadn’t recognized before, that they know story as much as they know publishing, and they work hard to ensure an author’s manuscript reads at its best.
In daily break-out sessions, I sat with five other writers at a picnic table with Chuck Adams, who pointed out areas authors tend to ignore in first drafts and revisions, like character development. For my manuscript in particular, I’d neglected to make the antagonist relatable, and, as Chuck said, even a menacing character needs a redeemable quality. He was right, of course.
During structured writing time, I put lessons into action, working on a character interview that probed background more than physical description, a natural course of inquiry with surprising insights that only come from loose structure and trust in the process.
By the end of the week, I did not go home with twenty more pages of my manuscript. But I left with a better understanding of the craft, with more direction, and with appreciation for the time spent with professionals I might not ordinarily meet, at least not at this stage in my career. I left with sand in my shoes and hope in my story.
I could blather on. Really.
My week at Salt Cay was a gift, an experience that would be difficult to replicate. In fact, I wouldn’t even try. Because, when it comes to personal success at a writing retreat/conference, place is as important as faculty; atmosphere as critical as the number of workshops. The notebook I carried all week has become a Bible of sorts, its pages full of revelations and action steps and even a few new characters.
One half-spoken prayer, one nod from the Universe, a new perspective.
Note from Lisa: You can connect with Christi on Facebook and be sure to follow her on Twitter. You won't be sorry!
All photos by Christi.