On Writing: Writing Retreats and Inspiration

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And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Happy Easter to all!

As a teacher in Catholic institutions, certain things were a given, including annual retreats, often held during the Lenten season, which was something I actually welcomed back then. Retreats are a great way to withdraw from the rest of the world to collect your thoughts and, as a writer, retreats are a welcome time to devote to nothing but the creative process. My writing group recently took a one-day write-in, not quite the weekend retreat we take each year, but a whole day to take a break from our daily hustle-and-bustle just to write with a bunch of like-minded individuals. It’s a wonderful break that I look forward to because when I write at home, there are too many distractions. Not to mention, editing jobs that require a different type of attention. It’s wonderful to just share the creative energy that electrifies the air when 10 people are in one place all writing. It’s also wonderful to share a little bit about what you’re doing, what you think, how you write. It’s a great way to connect with fellow writers who understand your little idiosyncrasies because they also have theirs. That is why I look forward to those little writing “retreats.” They break down the stereotype of the solitary writer. What people don’t realize is that, while writers mostly write alone, they are far from solitary. Writers, like any other creative person, need a creative energy that they get from being among people. They might not necessarily interact with those people or even know them well, but it is precisely those people who feed them with ideas and inspiration to write. People are inspiring and people inspire the imagination. While poets can shoot off the most impressive and sensual combination of words and phrases at the sight of a sunset or a flower petal or a leaf floating on a slip of wind, or even a shoe lost in the mud, prose writers, especially fiction writers, need to see and experience people, life, the whole teeming humanity of it in all its splendor or ignominy. That is what writers write about. Life and everything in, about, and around it. And when we know that others also struggle in their writing, we are encouraged and inspired to continue because success does eventually come, albeit in a varying degrees.

All writing comes from life. That is the simple bare truth about it. No matter how wild your imagination, it is and will always be something about life—and yes, death is part of life because any writing about dead people is in reference to their lives, the people they left behind, the people they meet in death or the after-life or whatever you want to call it. Fantasy writing, no matter how otherworldly or fantastic is about life because your creatures and characters are personified—they speak, think, feel, and behave pretty much the way humans do; and even their inhumanity and non-human behavior is based on what you have seen, observed, read, or researched about. Armed with that knowledge, there really is nothing off limits as far as what there is for you to write about. All you need is one little nugget of truth and a lot of imagination. Sometimes, you worry about not having enough imagination or a creative enough imagination. Sometimes, all you need is the power of observation and the ability to put your ideas down in sentences. Writing, in many ways, helps you make sense of what is happening around you. Every single day, you are bombarded with information and sensory input. All you have to do is put it together like a puzzle. Your pieces can come from anywhere. You might have a character with traits from a dozen different people you actually know or just one or two. You might create a setting that’s a little bit of a dozen different places you’ve been or just a one. You might create a history and future for a single event you read about in the news or witnessed at the bus station. It might be the woman in the line-up at the supermarket checkout; it might be the stray kitten in the gutter; it might be the well-dressed man with the fedora at the bookstore; it might be odd plastic bag swirling with an eddy of dried leaves in the middle of an intersection. All you need is one little prompt, a lot of imagination, and the courage to put pen to paper and write away.

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Be like a mosquito!

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Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.

~Jack London, “Getting Into Print,” 1905

Inspiration is never the only way to start writing. If every writer depended solely on inspiration, then there would be much less literature out there. Writing starts with writing. Like any other trade, writing takes skill and practice which beget expertise. Granted, there are writers with a knack for churning out copious amounts of writing, they certainly were not born that way. They started with writing words, then sentences, then stories—simple, sophomoric ideas that became more sophisticated as they gained yet more skill, experience, and knowledge. What a writer must rather have is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, never-ending patience, and the persistence of PEI mosquitoes. With enough perseverance, a skilled writer can become a master and a bad piece of writing can be re-crafted and revised over and over again until it is so unlike the original work it can be quite the gem. No diamond ever adorned a woman so gracefully that was not cut and polished into refinement and glory by the most patient of craftsmen. That is precisely because the writer is a craftsman, cutting, refining, polishing, until the roughest work is a masterpiece worthy of inclusion in the canons of great literature.

Daring to Write

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I have always been good at expressing my thoughts in writing and never had a problem with composition and reading classes. Writing and reading were water to my fish.

Unfortunately, I was also my worst enemy.

Normally a very introverted and insecure person, I could not expose my innermost thoughts to the world, so I kept my poetry and stories to myself. Until some teachers noticed. I began confiding in some very sympathetic teachers when I was in fifth grade and the poetry was literally gushing out of me. Since then, I found greater encouragement from my English teachers. Then I found THE English teacher who really believed in me and nurtured my writing. I also found another teacher who would let me spill out the contents of my mind and heart to her and I found even more to write about. Still, the only public writing I produced were more impersonal essays. Need I say I even became an excellent public speaker because of my writing? Of course, there had always been that passion for theatre and the secret longing to become a stage actress, director, and playwright, that helped that along. But that’s a different story.

Because of my English teacher and other English teachers, plus an aunt who is a writer that I had secretly admired and wanted to be like, I dared to join a Creative Writing Fellowship at the top University in the Philippines. For two summers, I attended, first as an observer, then as a participant, where my creative writing was up for criticism. I survived and not without a lot of encouragement and some praise from my aunt for a story she didn’t know was written by me.

After several years of putting writing in the background, simply because I needed a job that gave me a steady income, I decided to write again. This time, I shared it with great trepidation to two of my dearest friends, both artists and literarily inclined. If not for them, I would never have submitted my play to the most prestigious National literary competition, the Carlos Palanca Foundation Annual Literary  Awards. Finding out that I had received the third place for full-length plays in English was a totally shocking but also totally satisfying experience.

Migrating to Canada put writing as a career on hold, especially since I eventually had to find work that was a far cry from what I went to school for, even if the plan was for me to become a full-time artist and writer.

After 4 tumultuous and emotionally draining years, I finally decided to put myself out there in the open, beginning with a solo art exhibit that feature my art and my poetry. Then I decided to plunge into National Novel Writing Month, since I had become unemployed anyway and had the time to do it. (Because of employment, I did not dare try for the Labour Day weekend novel writing competitions, and I really doubted I could finish a novel in three days.) I was determined to finally write that novel–and I did.

I still doubt myself, even after sharing parts of my novel with several other writers in the Next Best Author contest, which I was also scared to join, but which I decided I would do anyway, because I really wanted to launch my career as an author. Because of NaNoWriMo, there was no way I could hide the fact that I had completed a novel–besides, I had publicized it all over Facebook among all my friends, and they were cheering me on. Another dear friend even offered to edit my book, just so she could read it, and her words and support have been very encouraging. I have found still more friends who are also writers and am now active with not one, but two writing groups, plus a third support group made up of the other contestants! That was probably the most pleasant and rewarding surprise: that competitors were becoming friends in writing through sharing in an exclusive group just for the contestants! Now, I have writer friends around the world who are willing to talk, to listen, to share, to read, to mentor, to encourage and to support each other.

If this is the writing life, I want to stay in it! It is already much more than I had dreamed it would be.

Who knows what other dreams will come true?