Writing Retreat Aftershocks


(the main room at faith’s lodge courtesy of faithslodge.org)

Ah! The luxury of a writing retreat! February’s retreat was a biggie: Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words retreat at Faith’s Lodge.

I could give you the background on the Lodge (it’s a bereavement center for families who have lost a child.)

I could give you the backstory on how I first heard of it (from my high school friend Kara Thom.)

Or how Kara and I reconnected after our 20-year high school reunion (because I discovered I was pregnant with twins and Kara is a Super Twin Mama of the highest degree).

Or how through Kara I met my dear friend Mary.

I could tell you how I write in Mary’s living room every Wednesday and how much of my stuff is born there.

Or how Mary is one of the editors of our writing group’s book Mamas Write due out in April. (Actually I should be telling you a lot about this—you know, the whole “platform-building thing.”

I could tell you how remarkable it is to write with a group of women who write and share and belt it out.

Or I could just sum up the whole weekend with a fancy emoticon.


You know, ‘cause what’s better than going to a writing retreat where you crack open your soul and scribble the stuff that leaks out and then coming home to write in symbols?

Guess it means I need another writing retreat.  🙂

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.”

Life at Our House


©DeluxePhotography2012This year I decided to do something different with our Christmas cards (in addition to actually mailing them).

You see, I just couldn’t send out a blank card with our family picture in good faith. It shows you what we look like, (sort of, it’s actually from Christmas 2012) but it doesn’t give you the faintest idea of what we’re like. See how quiet, still, and fully dressed we are? Yeah. That never happens. We cling to this one photo with the idea that we could be like the clean and quiet, fully-dressed people in the photo and you could put a card like this on your refrigerator and be fooled into thinking that we look like this, but really, this photo is a bold-faced lie. True, we do smile a lot, but we’re also a lot stickier, stinkier, and more naked than any Christmas card could (or should) convey.

So I thought I’d have our family answer the 10 questions that James Lipton asks his guests at the end of each episode of Inside the Actors Studio. If you’re a fan, you know that these questions were adapted from Bernard Pivot questionnaire. If you’re not a fan, you can either take my word for it or look it up on Wikipedia. Or you can decide you don’t care. Doesn’t matter. These 10 questions give you an idea what it’s like to be in the Kovac household in 2013 in a way that a family photo cannot.

Here goes.

1. What is your favorite word?
Michael: Yes!
Chiara: My favorite word is Oompa Loompa.
Wagner: (to Janine) Your favorite word is “Mama.”
Chiara: (to Wagner) Your favorite word is “L-o-o-o-v-e and kis-issssses.”
Michael: Can I have another bowl of cereal?
Janine: Let’s go on to the next question.

2. What is your least favorite word?
Chiara: My least favorite word is…that’s really hard. Hey, wait—what are you writing down? Why do you need our favorite words and our least favorite words?
Matt: Kumquat.

3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Chiara: What does that even mean?
Janine: It means, “what helps you be imaginative and what helps you think of God.”
Chiara: Um… my brain?
Wagner (pointing to the laptop): Are these letters of the alphabet? Is ‘W’ here? ‘W’ is a letter of the alphabet.

4. What turns you off? (Rephrased to: “What makes it hard to be creative?”)
Chiara: (in the doorway from under a blanket) People who are really loud and make it hard [for me] to think with my brain. (to brothers) Come here and be part of the dragon. Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Boys: (chanting under blankets) Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year!
Chiara: Be careful! Don’t step on the kitty!

5. What is your favorite curse word? (Rephrased to “What do you say when you are mad?”)
Michael: Stinky Face!

6. What sound or noise do you love?
At this point Janine is following her children around with a laptop, yelling questions at them. She walks in on a game of “Let’s Pretend to Cook the Cat” in which Wagner is the cat and the guest bed is the oven. Janine decides that she loves the sound of laughing children.

7. What sound or noise do you hate?
The children are still playing their delightful game, but Janine is afraid it might quickly devolve into sounds she hates: children screaming. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells” is a close second to screaming Kovac children.

8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”)
Michael: A fireman!
Chiara: A teacher who teaches ballet!
Wagner: I want to be a arch-ee-ol-oh-gist.
Michael: Yeah, I want to be that, too.

9. What profession would you not like to do?
Chiara: A sea diver! It seems dangerous.
Michael: A fireman!

10. What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Chiara: Welcome, Chiara!
Michael: Welcome, Michael!
Wagner: You mean Jesus?
Janine: Yes, Jesus. What do you think Jesus will say when you go to Heaven?
Michael: Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel! I made it out of clay!
Wagner: I don’t know what Jesus will say but I think it will be something not what I think Jesus will say.

That pretty much sums it up. Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy New Year! See you in 2014.

The Story Behind Violet and Ruby


Three weeks ago on a lovely Wednesday afternoon, my daughter Violet_and_Ruby_Cover_for_Kindleand I were sitting in a cafe in our neighborhood, doing what we always do on Wednesday afternoons: sip hot chocolate while we finish the homework that’s due the next day. This Wednesday was different because the cafe was buzzing with a boatload of 10 and 11-year-olds with green books that must have been somehow connected to the green bus parked across the street.

It turned out that the bus was a promotional tour bus for Jeff Kinney’s newest book from the middle-grade series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. According to the buzz in the cafe, Jeff Kinney himself was signing copies at the bookstore next door.

Chiara has never read any of the Wimpy Kid books. As a first-grader, those books are little over her head. But of course it didn’t stop her from wanting one. And because I help organize author events in my daytime life, of course I had to indulge her.

“How come the bookstore doesn’t have books written by kids?” Chiara wanted to know as she emerged from the store with her own signed copy.

In retrospect I could have just told her that only professional writers get to be in bookstores, the same way only professional firefighters get to drive the fire trucks. But instead I gave her a brief history of traditional publishing.

“Well, it’s not so easy to publish a book,” I began. Then I listed all the droves of people involved with publishing a book who aren’t directly involved with the writing of said book.

“Then an agent—that’s a person who helps you get your book printed by the companies who print books—talks to a bunch of people. Some say, ‘No, thank you. We already have books about that.’ But maybe one will say, ‘I love that story!’ That person is an editor. And then maybe they’ll look at the book and say, ‘But we think you need to change that one part at the end.’ And then there’s another person who calls up the bookstores and says, ‘Hey! I’ve got this book that I think is really great! Want to have it in your store?’ It takes a lot of work.”

“But you’re publishing a book,” she said. Which was partly true. I’m editing an anthology of essays from my writing group. We intend to self publish.

“Why can’t little kids self-publish?” Chiara wanted to know. I didn’t have a good answer for that one.

And that’s how we found ourselves at the same cafe two days later. I typed while Chiara dictated one of the stories she tells herself at night when she is trying to go to sleep. From time to time I’d ask a question such as “How can a wheelbarrow fit in a backpack?” and she’d clarify (“It folds up, of course!”) Or I’d say, how old is Violet? How do we know? But for the most part, I just typed what she told me to type. Occasionally she’d ask me to read back to her what she’d written. Sometimes she’d even correct my dictation. (“That’s not a period there. I want it to sound really fast.”)

I kept waiting for her to lose interest. But each day she’d say, “Can we work on my book today?” Sometimes she’d even decide to revise. “I don’t think that chapter title tells you what’s going on anymore. I wrote about something else. Can I change it?”

She drew pictures for each chapter. I scanned them into the computer.

“Can I give a copy to my cousins for Christmas?” she wanted to know.

So I went to the website for Amazon’s Create Space and opened an account. We bought an ISBN number ($10). I found a template cover and uploaded a photo from the Create Space library. We even invented our own imprint (Noelle & Noelle) after our middle names. I clicked through the screens, filling in the blanks. And then, voila! We submitted the book. An actual book. 44 pages. For sale on Amazon and everything.

Doesn’t that sound like a great stocking stuffer? Not convinced? Check it out for yourself.