Posts Tagged ‘Rainforest Writers Retreat’

When you have a lot on your mind, going to the Rainforest Writers Retreat is a pretty great thing to do.

There’s something so freeing about having no cell reception. No one can reach you. NO ONE. Even the internet is unreliable and spotty, and by Saturday it sputtered out almost completely.

Without the internet and my cell phone, the world grows large once more. Large, and quiet. There is extra space around myself and every action I take. I can relax into myself and really listen. I care about depth, and with more space I can sink in and take a look at the heart of things. I can see what I feel, and why I feel, and what has happened, and where I might go next.

Also I write. I write and write, and then I write some more. I write until my characters and their stories feel almost as real as everything else around me. I become intoxicated on writing, and my brain feels slippery, and the words rise up from where they’ve been coiled inside me, and I emerge feeling dazed and virtuous and a little bit raw around the edges.

Also I spend time with my friends. We talk about what’s going on with our lives, and we listen to and support each other, and we laugh until our diaphragms hurt, and we eat a lot of salmon and soup, and they drink lots of Scotch and whiskey while I have my signature drink. When we aren’t talking about other things, we are talking about writing, and it is such a grand relief to talk to people who understand what it is to have writing inhabit such an integral role in life.

I live, I write. I overflow with happiness, I write. Everything goes to shit, I write. I’m done with so…many…things, just done, I write. And when I don’t write, that’s when I fear the most. Writing isn’t like breathing, not really, but when there are no words, when they’ve all dried up and I feel as fragile as spun sugar, it’s never a good thing.

And sharing this backbone with other people, it makes me feel more known.


You never know in advance which decisions are going to prove to be particularly good ones. But going to Rainforest for the first time was definitely one of them.

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I’m back from the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and what a lovely five days I had! After all the hullaballoo of looking for a place to live, I was even more ready than normal to have time away from my cell phone and the logistics of my life. Whenever stress would intrude (say, from an e-mail from my current landlord), I’d go outside and look at the lake–sometimes rippling in the wind, sometimes a perfect mirror of the clouds overhead–and I’d feel much, much better.

It's hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

It’s hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

While my writing focus has been much improved this year compared to last year, I’ve been noticing as February progressed and the house search continued its grim plod that it was gradually worsening. It was taking me longer to get started writing every day, and I was taking more and more breaks. By the time I actually found my soon-to-be home at the beginning of last week, my focus was so shaky I had lowered my daily word count goal. So I went into Rainforest this year worried about my ability to produce.

I’m happy to say I was as productive as I hoped to be, which gave me food for thought. Why, I’ve been wondering, am I so much more productive and focused at Rainforest than at home? And is there any way to replicate any of Rainforest’s effects?

Factors that make Rainforest work so well for my productivity:

1. It’s remote, with no phones or cell reception, and very spotty internet connection. Without much communication from the outside world, it’s much easier to focus.

2. I clear the decks for the trip, which means for the most part I don’t have real world concerns intruding on my time or focus either. (Real concerns can range from daily dog care to doing my taxes to planning this social activity to going to appointments to doing chores.)

3. The word count board builds in accountability to my peers. This works better than an announcement on Twitter would because there’s a more tangible feeling of community and that we’re all in this together. I see people writing constantly, and conversation often revolves around how the writing is going that day.

4. I have extra motivation because of the resources used to take the trip, which ends up giving me the feeling that I’d better make this time count.

5. Because I have lofty (for me) daily word count goals, I tend to engage in less general shilly-shallying while ostensibly writing.

6. My writing day is more structured with meals and activities than it often is at home.

Some of these factors are hard to duplicate at home, most notably #2. I have to spend a certain amount of time each day dealing with life stuff, and sometimes that amount of time is much higher than I would ideally want it to be. So it goes.

Today, though, my first day back writing at home, I experimented with #5, otherwise known as the Shilly-shallying problem. And lo and behold, since I am now less accustomed to shilly-shally after a few days of better writing habits, I was able to cut down a great deal on the procrastinating that can accompany writing. And this on a day when I had a great many stressful life concerns piled up and demanding attention. Key to this, I think, was encouraging the belief that I could write my words in spite of what life was throwing at me, as well as remembering what it felt like to take those concerns and put them off to one side for a while and very deliberately doing that during my writing time.

I’m going to keep playing with that, and soon I’d like to experiment with #6 and see if adding a little more structure might help my productivity as well.

What has helped you become more productive?

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I am especially busy this week, I’m afraid, so you only get a short post from me today.

Speaking of busy, Cal Newport says in order to be remarkable, you should try not to be busy. Apparently the work flow of many high achieving individuals is best organized if there is flexibility to allow for times of deep thought/work/flow. Inevitably this means that when such deep work isn’t happening, down time will result. I’m thrilled with this theory, of course, as it justifies some of the work-life balance principles I’ve embraced for years now.

And apparently I haven’t been too busy to have a bit of fun.This first photo shows me giving my first lecture on social media strategy for writers. I gave it at the Rainforest Writers Retreat early in March, and I had a great time and received many interesting questions.

Photo by Patrick Swenson

This next photo shows me up onstage during my first magic show. Unfortunately, the show featured some sexist jokes and banter…but was otherwise entertaining. When I went up onstage, though, I did feel beholden to say that I felt all people had intuition, not just women. No need to either belittle intuition or make it into something it’s not. My friend and I also inadvertently messed up the magician’s trick a little bit, but it all worked out, so all’s well that ends well, right?



And this photo is from my recent visit to Valve up in Seattle, where my friend was kind enough to give me a tour.

It's adorable!

It’s adorable!

And finally, Nala looks skeptical.

Nala the Hound looking skeptical

Enjoy the rest of your week!

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Over the last months I’ve been asked a few times by wonderful people to do “The Next Big Thing,” which is a writer meme in which writers talk about their latest work. I said no because I’d already talked a lot about The Academy of Forgetting here, so it wouldn’t have been very interesting. But then my friend Amy asked me to do it this past weekend, and I thought, ooh, I can talk about the new book! So I said yes.

I’m going to post Amy’s bio here, and I’ll also tell her a little about how we met. She was in my first critique circle at my first SCBWI conference in New York, and I heard her read the first page of the YA novel she was working on, and I thought, “I want to be friends with her.” Happily, it turned out she is as kind and intelligent as she is talented.

Amy K. Nichols is a YA author from the Phoenix area. She is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary. Her first novel, Another Here, Another Now, will be published by Knopf BFYR in fall of 2014. You can read samples of her work at http://www.amywrites.com.
Blog: http://www.amyknichols.wordpress.com
Twitter: @amyknichols

But I’m not going to follow the rest of the directions. First of all, I don’t like tagging people because it reminds me of those chain letters I got in first grade that my mom wouldn’t let me do. I think she had a point. Plus, this meme has been going on for long enough that I have no idea who has done it and who hasn’t.

Second of all, I started reading through the questions, and I realized that, even talking about my new work-in-progress, my answers were mostly going to be…pretty boring. Or nonexistent. I mean, how could I possibly know what actors I’d want to play my characters when I’m still getting to know those characters? (And it’s not like I have ideas for any actors for Academy of Forgetting characters either. This is just not how I think.)

So instead I’m just going to tell you about my new book. It’s a YA murder mystery set in space, and I think I’m going to call it Nikki in Space on the blog because I have no idea what the real title is going to be yet. That’s why it’s called a work-in-progress.

I’m really excited about it for the following reasons:

1. Space! The setting is just the most fun ever to write. It’s set in the same universe as my short story Daddy’s Girl, and the beginning is set on a single family space habitation, and the rest is set on a space station. So fun.

2. Murder mystery! I’ve inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries for most of my life. (And I also really like Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries, which reminds me that I should read more of them soon.) And now I’m getting to do one myself.

3. Nikki! I’ve had Nikki’s voice in my head for over a year now, and it’s very satisfying to finally get to explore it.

I did my usual playing with index cards to outline (although I did a simpler version this time), and I’ve been working on the rough draft for the past three weeks. Last week I went up to the Rainforest Writers Village in Washington and pounded out the words. (It was lovely, the people there have become a core part of my writing family, and I feel so lucky I got to go.)

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

At this point, I’m very close to finishing Act 1 of the novel. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, hopefully I already have. This means I’m theoretically about 25% through the rough draft.

So that’s what I’m working on right now, and hence that’s where a lot of my brain is going. What about you? Working on any cool projects?

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I returned from Washington late Sunday night, only to find I had brought a bad cold back with me. This is the kind of cold that makes me feel like the distance between my neurons has doubled, so that any thinking I might wish to do happens… very… slowly. So even though I don’t usually talk about events much on the blog, because I think maybe that is very boring for anyone who wasn’t at said event, that’s all I’ve got in me today.

First, a few pictures. The location was truly gorgeous, right on a lake that tended to get misty in the mornings, with the rain forest on the hills behind the buildings. It rained a lot, not surprisingly, which was fine since I was supposed to be writing.

Beautiful Quinault Lake: what a view!

And here's the lake again through the trees.


There was lots of moss in the rain forest.

I was pleased with how much I wrote and found I was able to be more productive than my usual. I wrote until my outline broke. Of course, now I have to fix it before I can start again, and aforementioned neuron difficulties aren’t helping matters any. But figuring out how to fix broken outlines is actually one of the parts of writing I like best, even though I also enjoy complaining about it.

But really the best part of the trip was the people. No big surprise there, of course. Put me in a room full of writers, and the likelihood of me meeting someone who I find fascinating and nice increases exponentially. So do my chances of encountering a kindred spirit, and really, there isn’t much in this world that makes me more happy than making contact with that elusive breed. Except perhaps spending even more time with them. And writing.

I wonder if it’s a matter of depth, a trait all the kindred spirits I’ve met share. I don’t know if people who already have depth are drawn to writing, or if writing requires and develops depth in people. Or perhaps both? I don’t mean to imply that all people who aren’t writers don’t have depth (or contrariwise, that all writers automatically have it), as that is simply not true. But I do think the percentage of writers who have depth (or at least who express themselves in ways that reveal it) tends to be higher than average.

I think I’d like to write more about kindred spirits when my thought processes are in better working order. But in the meantime, I must conclude in order to consume liquids and lay on the sofa like a rag doll. Suffice it to say I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Quinault Rain Forest.


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Today I am away from home, attending the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat in Washington. Ah, the bliss of days on end in which I have no obligations except those of basic upkeep and writing, writing, writing! After which I get to converse with other writers to my heart’s content.

In other news, my husband and I are currently reading my old favorite The Phantom Tolbooth, by Norton Juster, at bedtime. This book is full of gems of word play and absurdity, as well as surprisingly profound insights on the nature of the world. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“…from here that looks like a bucket of water,” he said, pointing to a bucket of water; “but from an ant’s point of view it’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home. So, you see, the way you see things depends a great deal on where you look at them from.

This passage struck me strongly when I read it as a child, and every time I re-read it, I am reminded again of what an important insight it really is. So much of the world depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? Not only does this help me keep perspective on my own life and problems, but it’s also helpful when trying to understand other people. We all see things in our own special way, and it continues to amaze me how very different those ways can be.

When one stops to consider how mutable memory is, this train of thought gets even more interesting. Let’s say I attend a small event with three other people. Each of us will perceive the event from our own perspective to begin with. So maybe Person A is really happy because she got good news earlier today and has been really looking forward to this event. Person B is trying to be chipper but is experiencing some RSI pain in his arms and shoulders. Person C is deeply annoyed because he wanted to go to Japanese food but the group consensus was for Italian and now he’s worrying about eating too many carbs. And Person D worked really hard today and is having trouble transitioning from work mode to social mode.

Already we can expect that each person will experience the evening differently. But then ask them all about it three months later, and the stories will be even more different. Each person will have personal details they remember and others they forget. Some of them will misremember. And if they’re remembering together, one them may say, erroneously as it happens, “Didn’t Person B order gnocchi?” and then another will say, “Oh, that’s right” and in such a way the erroneous memory will spread. Each person’s perspective will shift depending on what they remember.

Norton Juster got it right. It all depends on your point of view, and many more things are subjective than we might at first realize. I often think about that bucket of water and remember that today, I might be the elephant and you might be the fish.

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