Writing Combat


I’m not afraid of mountain lions in the abstract. But when I saw the handout over the sink outdoors with a list of “How-tos” in the event of meeting a mountain lion, say, at the sink outdoors, it gave me pause.

mount madonna

As a city girl, I battle the urban jungle every day—the would-be muggers hiding in the parking lot of the BART station, the aggressive panhandlers lurking near the espresso cart on Market street, the crazed driver who doesn’t look for pedestrians as she zooms down my street and onto Highway 24—but I don’t have a lot of contact with animals (other than my own children) until I go away on a quiet writing retreat.

I’m no stranger when it comes to battling with wild animals. In Squaw Valley two summers ago I learned how to shame a bear into leaving the property (You say, “Bad bear! Bad bear!”) The bear I saw was actually a baby bear. (I thought it was a monkey at first but I figured it out.)

In Wisconsin last winter I learned what to do when there are hornets coming out of the walls in the dead of winter. (You leave the room). That was at Faith’s Lodge at Kate Hopper’s winter Motherhood & Words retreat.

Last summer on Madeline Island (at Kate’s summer retreat) I learned how to pick wood ticks off your jeans. And today I’ve learned that the best thing to do when approached by a mountain lion is to make yourself as big as possible, pick up small children, and if the mountain lion attacks, fight back.

All writing retreats. So it turns out that writing can be a dangerous endeavor. And not just to your ego and your 401k plan. Wish me luck this weekend. I’m going to need it.

(I’m happy to report that I didn’t see any wild animals at Green Gulch unless you count those Zen Buddhists who are always frothing at the mouth. And none at Lit Camp other than the those party animals in the hot tub. But those guys were harmless.)


Bring Your Best


What’s Lit Camp? It’s a fantastic juried writers’ conference in wine country. Thinking about applying to Lit Camp? Well, you should. Deadline to apply is January 15th. Here’s the blog post I wrote about my application process, a post which first appeared on the Lit Camp blog

When I saw the cover photo on the Lit Camp website last year—the one with six lawn chairs overlooking green countryside—I started salivating. Four days in wine country. Stellar faculty. Rustic cabins. Pool, hot tub, and organic meals. A “Yoga for Writers” class.  This was the writers’ retreat for me!

But then I read, “Only 40 spots,” and my shoulders slumped.

“You’ll never get in,” my inner critic said. Lit Camp was the kind of place for “capital-L” literature, not the stuff I wrote. I wrote mommy memoir, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t the sort of thing the judges were looking for.

In spite of my doubt, I dusted off an essay I’d written the previous year and started revising.

I’d written the essay for a contest. The theme was “unforeseen challenges of parenthood.” I wrote about my high-risk twin pregnancy that ended in an emergency Cesarean section when I was just six months pregnant and my babies who spent three months in the newborn intensive care unit where they had breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and even surgery for their heart murmurs.

The essay didn’t get any traction—not in the contest, not in the motherhood magazine that sent a request for original childbirth stories, not in the spoken-word Mother’s Day event that I auditioned for. Apparently it wasn’t the sort of story anyone was looking for.

But I liked my essay. And each time I gave it to my writing group for feedback I remembered something else about those early months in my boys’ life. Instead of trying to shock with provocative phrase such as “weaned from his baby morphine-drip” I began to explore out why I was writing about this in the first place—why I couldn’t let go of vivid images such as the eerie green glow of the hospital equipment at 3 a.m. or the plaster cast of the boys’ footprints that were barely bigger than my thumbprint.

With each revision, the cranky old critic on my shoulder muttered, “People don’t want to read this stuff. You’re not going to get in.” But it mattered less and less. Maybe nobody else wanted to read that story, but I did. I needed to figure out why this story still tugged at me three years later and I worried that if I didn’t use the Lit Camp deadline as motivation to write and revise, I’d never figure it out.

This time I was writing for me, not for what I thought other people wanted to read.

So I kept writing. I revised the final paragraph over and over—the scene in which I held my 26-day-old twins for the first time. I wanted to capture in words the warmth and weight of holding a newborn who’d just had surgery three days earlier. Each rewrite got a tiny bit closer to that sensation, rooting my memories in concrete phrases.

Nineteen drafts later, I uploaded my essay into “Submittable.” Maybe it wasn’t some great literary work of genius, but I knew it was the best work I could do. More importantly, the essay that had started out as 800 words was now over 3000 words and my writing had a more authentic voice.


photo copyright Chris Hardy

Of course, you know how the story ends. I got accepted to Lit Camp. I went to Lit Camp. Lit Camp rocks.

And wouldn’t you know? During the four fabulous days of discussions, panels and hot-tubbing there was one concept repeated over and over. Sometimes it was dispensed as advice, other times it was given as testimony: “Don’t try to write you think agents/critics/Oprah’s book clubs want to read. Just write the best book you can write at this time.”

Who said it first? Was it Jane Ciabattari? T. J. Stiles? Amy Williams? Janis Cooke Newman?

I can’t remember. But every time that critic on my shoulder starts doubting, I repeat it to myself.

“I’m just going to write the best book that I can write at this time.”