Sarah Selecky http://www.sarahselecky.com Write What You Want To Read. Fri, 30 Jan 2015 03:43:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What I’ve learned so far about how to write a novel http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/what-ive-learned-so-far-about-how-to-write-a-novel/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/what-ive-learned-so-far-about-how-to-write-a-novel/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 12:00:57 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=9086 I’m not finished writing this novel yet. I’m almost at… the middle? Hard to say. I’m on strict, personally enforced orders to not talk about the story until it’s finished. That’s because I don’t know what this story really is, yet. Such is the mystery of writing it. I’ll know more in six months or so.

Until then, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far about how to write a novel.

1. Can’t work with an outline; can’t work without an outline.
I spent four months studying story structure and plotting out everything about my story on a detailed timeline. I outlined my whole book before I wrote it. By the end of all of that hard work and plotting, I was bored by my own story. There was no reason to write it anymore, because when I outlined it I’d already decided on all the twists and turns, and I wasn’t curious anymore.

I felt deflated for a little bit. Then I went back to the drawing board. I spent more than a year writing freely this time, starting at the beginning and building the story as I went. Got to about 50 pages this way (twice) — and burnt out both times. I see now that I was approaching the novel as a short story: I was attempting to run a marathon by sprinting the whole way. Exhausting.

Finally, I discovered the elegance of a loose outline.

 
I chose a few milestones to hit throughout the story — scenes that had some energy that I liked turning over and over in my head. I invited these scenes to come at the beginning, middle and end. I didn’t force them this time — I just wrote a lot of boring notes and questions in my notebooks until something interesting happened on the page. I saved the interesting bits, highlighted them, and wrote them in general terms on Post-It notes and called them “milestones.” I’m writing to these milestones now, a little at a time. And still, things change! And when they do, I simply adjust the outline as I go. It’s an approach that mixes the joy of freewriting with the comfort of an outline.

Nabokov's index cards2. Use index cards instead of tiny notebooks.
If I ever do this again, (i.e. write another novel), I might start by writing down those first salient images and scenes on index cards instead of using highlighters and Post-It notes in all of my little notebooks.

The thing is, I love writing in my little books. But once the images are written down in there, it’s harder to work with them. The highlighters and sticky notes are okay, but I confuse myself with my own colour codes. The process of writing a first draft is inherently messy, and honestly, I no longer remember what I meant by pink vs. yellow. I am resisting the urge to rip out the pages and arrange them on the floor to get a picture of where they all fit in the story. And besides, I wrote on both sides of the paper, so that might not even work. I guess I haven’t figured this part out yet. I might still have to rip my books apart — this stage of the process is still TBA.

Next time, I’m using index cards, and keeping them in a neat little box like Liz Gilbert does.

3. Some days, track by word count.
I aim for 1000 words a day. Some days I only get to 600 words, and some days I hit 2000. It averages out in a satisfying way, and you know what? The pages add up! It feels incredible to have all of those pages behind me. It’s a confidence booster. It helps me feel like less of a fraud. So what if I don’t reread them? Onward!

4. Some days, track by insights.
(Jill Margo taught me this, via Susan Swan.) On those days that a word count doesn’t happen, I write down my insights each day in my notebook instead. Lo and behold, I really am writing, even when I’m not writing! Thinking about my characters is important, not to be overlooked. So what if I don’t have a word count? Onward!

5. We’re all on the hero’s journey.
We all live in story. This has been a powerful revelation. Probably annoying for my family and friends, who are all now aware of where they are on the hero’s journey, because I can’t stop pointing it out. Ditto for episodes of Nashville and The Good Wife, etc. Also, myself. But once I saw how we all hear the call to action, feel resistance, experience false victory, suffering, surrender, I can’t un-see it! Joseph Campbell was so right.

6. Your story is smarter than you are.
My job is to be curious. Images and scenes come up and I have to trust that they’re there for a reason, otherwise the act of writing feels hostile.

There’s so much faith and trust involved in this process.

 
It’s humbling and beautiful. I have to honour and respect my subconscious every day, like it’s a wise elder, even though I might not understand what it’s doing.

7. Write the story from the beginning to the end.
I’m keeping it in order, writing from scene to scene, lily pad to lily pad, as things happen in the book I am writing. My story wants to be told in a linear fashion. So even if I have a flashback, I wait until I get to the place it appears in the story before I write it. That’s been helpful. Any time I’ve tried writing a scene out of order, it has confused me later.

8. Let yourself write it badly.
Giving yourself permission to write crappy stuff really does make it possible to write something interesting. I learn this every single day as if for the first time.

9. Nothing is ever wasted.
Who’s to say that spending three years on false starts wasn’t utterly necessary for what I’m working on, now? Who’s to say that writing in the little notebooks — not index cards — hasn’t been essential to this story as it develops? Creation is not tidy and efficient. It’s exploratory and random. It only feels inefficient when you compare it to washing and drying dishes, or packing bags of produce. There are no rules for this.

crystal block10. Everybody is different.
Please take all of the above with a big crystal of salt. These are just my thoughts on how I’m writing my first novel. I’m learning as I go. I feel like a little baby beginner. I’m definitely not an expert! Everybody will have a different process. What’s more, my own process changes, depending on the day! My best advice: listen to yourself, be curious, and be open — try whatever works, and pay attention to how you feel.

 
 

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Throwing Cotton the MOVIE! http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/throwing-cotton-the-movie/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/throwing-cotton-the-movie/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 12:00:42 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=9019  
Throwing-Cotton-Move-PosterFile under “Pinch me: surreal” — “Throwing Cotton”, one of the stories in This Cake Is For the Party, was made into a movie this year.

The film recently wrapped, and it’s scheduled to be released in 2015. I got to see the sneak preview this fall, and it’s stunning. It was almost an out of body experience for me to see my characters on a screen. The actors are all magnificent. The film casts a spell on you as you watch it.

The talented women behind this adaptation are Natalie Urquhart (producer) and Tori Larsen (writer/director). Together, these fabulous women are Same Page Productions.

I had the opportunity to ask them about how they made the movie, and they were nice enough to answer all of my nosy questions.


Sarah: The film is gorgeous — congratulations! I was surprised and delighted when you approached me about making a film out of “Throwing Cotton”. How did you know you wanted to do something with this story in particular?

Tori: The story is extremely visual. I could see it playing out before my eyes while reading it – the colours, the textures, the details. This being said, I felt that the story was a subconscious experience in which memories, meditations, and reality are all colliding in Anne’s mind and in the unpredictable, unknowable realm of her heart. Figuring out how to translate that onto the screen was a challenge that I really wanted to attempt. I also think that the themes explored in the short story lend themselves well to film and are very relatable.

Natalie: I connected to these characters immediately. Everyone is at a sort of crossroads and they are all a bit messed up and restless. The idea of having a baby to anchor yourself is something a lot of couples do — I wanted to explore that.

Throwing-Cotton-2777-500

Sarah: The story is set in a cottage by a lake, but in the film the characters are in a farmhouse (I love this shift, by the way). And in the film, Janine is at the house with everyone (in the story, she doesn’t make it). Why did you decide to make these changes? How did you choose what would stay in the film and what had to be cut out?

Tori: Early on, we decided that we would not veer from Anne’s story and would stay in the present (as much as we really wanted to shoot some of those flashbacks!). With these parameters in mind, it became clear what belonged in the script and what we had to lose. Janine is such a great character and such a spark for Anne. I wanted her to be active and a very real threat. She causes a great deal of tension and jealousy, which I think we needed to see exist in the present moment as opposed to haunting Anne from afar. The haunting works so well in the short story, but seeing Anne’s jealousy simmer at the farmhouse was needed for the film version.

Natalie: Ha — I would love to lean more on a creative explanation for the farmhouse, but to be perfectly honest my head was wrapped around practical production issues. The farmhouse was available, and worked within the budget, and within all the union considerations. Is that such a lame answer? Sigh, I promise not to say the word “budget” again.

Sarah: One of the aspects of this film that floored me when I saw it was how well the actors embodied the characters. Did you know who would be good for these roles before shooting, or did you audition actors and pick the ones who felt most in character? How did the actors prepare for their roles?

Throwing-Cotton-Headshots2

Tori: Natalie cast the film. I was traveling abroad and we needed to cast quickly. Natalie relied on her gut instincts, which definitely led her to great actors. She has a real talent for this. I think we had discussed what the characters looked like and how we thought they behaved to a degree, and then she handpicked the actors she thought would be best. And she was right! I rehearsed with the actors for two days and exchanged emails with them about their characters, motivations, and back-stories, just sharing thoughts back and forth. They all brought personal insights and ideas, really crafting their characters. They were unbelievable to work with.

Natalie: Man, they are a great cast. What talented, interesting, smart actors. We knew who we wanted pretty early on. I had seen all of them work in theatre or film before and knew that they were all exceptionally good and fit the roles well. I sort of tracked them all down individually and convinced some of them over coffee (and the others over wine… a lot of wine) to work on the short. No one auditioned. I cannot imagine anyone else in these roles. They all fit them so perfectly.

Sarah: There are so many perfect details in the film — Anne’s thin gold knot ring on the bannister, Janine’s hairy font letters, the way the remnants of the spaghetti were arranged on the dinner plates. Every single shot seemed to contain a hundred decisions. As a writer, it’s easy for me to put things in a scene — I just imagine it, and then it’s there. But in a film, you have to source everything for real. I’m so curious about your process as filmmakers, and how you make all of this attention to detail happen. Do you storyboard it, and make pictures? Make a big list? Do the actors choose parts of their wardrobe?

Keys4Tori: We had the best team surrounding us! That’s the long and short of it. The keys* broke down the film and I had conversations with them about what I was thinking, based on previous chats with Natalie, and what ideas they had. Natalie and I were continually surprised and excited about things that they brought to the table that we would never have thought to include. It was a really collaborative process, which we both love. Britt Doughty (production designer), Emily Hyde (props master), Avery Plewes (costume designer), Tricia Stanley (set designer), and Jessica Whyte (hair and makeup key) are all geniuses. Ieva Lucs, who plays Anne, was wearing the gold knot right when she arrived on set. I saw it when we were choosing Anne’s wedding band and asked her to leave it on. It fit the character. While shooting the scene in the hallway, I asked our cinematographer, Stephanie Weber-Biron, to dip the camera down and linger on Anne’s hand on the bannister as a cutting point. It seemed to be an image, a note, that completed the shot and the scene.

Natalie: It’s because the people who worked on this film are brilliant. They interpreted the script and make it all come to life. It still blows my mind. We were working with a team of people who really care about their craft and take pride in what they bring to the screen. It was always collaborative and it’s endlessly fascinating to see how the little details pull the whole film together. We were very clear on the look and aesthetic we were hoping to achieve, but then each key really brought their own ideas and left their individual creative mark.

Sarah: So many people are involved in the making of a film — as someone who works in solitude, this boggles my mind. What is it like to share a concept with so many people? How do you make sure that you’re on the same page, so to speak?

Tori: I’m also used to working in solitude, and am a very quiet person to begin with, so working with so many people was extremely exciting and terrifying! But it was amazing and I am so grateful for all of the collaboration. I think communication is the key to making sure everyone is on the same page.

Natalie: So many emails. My phone almost blew up. You also have to trust the people you work with after a certain number of meetings and ideas exchanged; ideally you are working with a team that is collaborative but also executing the Director’s vision. We had that and we were so grateful.

Throwing-Cotton-2067-500

Sarah: Has your relationship to the story — or its meaning — changed since you produced it as a film?

Tori: Yes. I think we both found more and more in the story as the layers of the filming and editing process were added. It’s also been interesting hearing other people’s thoughts about the film and its themes as we have started showing it to friends and colleagues. We have been surprised by some interpretations, which have in turn made us look deeper and reflect more.

Natalie: I still feel the meaning is the same for me as it was at the beginning, but maybe I am more sympathetic to all the characters now. It is not just Anne’s story for me I feel like I know them all personally at this point and feel for all of them.

Sarah: Now that you’re finished shooting and editing, what’s next for “Throwing Cotton”? How can people make sure they get to see it?

Tori: Nat, do you want to handle this one?

Natalie: Right now we are in the festival submission process — which is ongoing and hurts our credit cards’ feelings. It is a wait-and-see game at this point. Until we know about festivals we cannot post the movie online, or do anything with it, really. So, likely in about a year the film will be up on the BravoFact! website and online with The National Screen Institute’s website, but fingers crossed we get into some festivals before then and we can then pop it online for more to see.


Natalie-UrquhartNatalie is from Toronto, and studied acting at USC. She wrote, produced, and acted in short films before transitioning to producing full-time. She has worked on NBC/Universal’s Suits for the past three years, stepping into the role as Assistant Production Manager in Season 4. Natalie is interested in making films about those indomitable in spirit, whose stories would otherwise go untold.
 
 
Tori-LarsenTori is a screenwriter and director. She holds an honours BFA from York University’s Film Production program. Working in film and television production for the past fifteen years, most recently she worked as the dialogue coach on NBC/Universal’s Suits. She left the production to pursue writing full-time. Tori is drawn specifically to material that explores the stories of women, stories unique, deep, difficult, complex, and beautiful alike.

 
 
 
 

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In the Spotlight: Seyward Goodhand http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/in-the-spotlight-seyward-goodhand/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2015/in-the-spotlight-seyward-goodhand/#comments Thu, 01 Jan 2015 17:13:40 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8881 I met Seyward through her writing, before I even knew her name, when I was one of the judges for The Journey Prize a few years ago. (Her story was brilliant and weird, and I loved it fiercely – you can find it in the anthology, here.) I’m pleased to say that she is now a TA for The Story Intensive. Lucky us!

Seyward’s writing can be high-concept, technically astute, and crafted with attention to literary tradition, so the tone is at once antique and modern. In her excerpt below, her sentences are savoury, compelling, sculptural — and totally enchanting. Her dairymaid is lost in a crazy reverie as she churns cream in the pasture, and Seyward spikes her story with emotional observations so sharp they can make you gasp. Take this dizzying description: “The smell of beaten cream is sweet with an undercurrent of womb.”

I adore the way she writes with her head and her heart, blending the technical with the emotive. When I read her work I think, “Wait — you can do that?”


Seyward Goodhand

Seyward Goodhand’s stories have appeared in PRISM International, Grain, echolocation, Riddle Fence, Dragnet Magazine and Journey Prize Stories 23. In 2011 she was a finalist for the Journey Prize. She is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at the University of Toronto.

 

Meet Seyward

Handwriting or computer?

Handwriting, then computer.

Page count or time count?

Time count.

First drafts or revision?

First drafts.

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Solo, then a group.

Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Quiet.

Why do I write?

I guess I started writing because I read. Even now I begin a session by reading a story. That’s how I know it’s possible. So I write because I feel compelled to join in, but there are more complicated reasons as well, some generous, others egotistical. I am not a materialist and poetic language animates dead matter by the way it uses verbs. (An example from Anne Carson: “July moonshadows stood motionless on the grass.”) That anguished state of clarified wonder is addictive. I’m bitter and depressed if I don’t write. It’s how I understand and honour certain experiences. I want to give someone the feeling of being carried away and cast in a spell. I want to write something good. A lot of I wants. Still, careful, crafty acts help us to love the world—fiercely, with joy and sorrow—by, as Flannery O’Connor says, “plunging us into reality.” Writing fits in here with planting, building, making music, tending to the sick. All in the end futile (drought, fire, uselessness, death), but awesome acts of faith. And there’s some ecstasy in it too, as with singing, or, if you’re a plant, flowering in the direction of the sun.

Who are you reading for influence and why?

Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore and Deborah Eisenberg for many reasons. 1.) For their articulation of complex mental states during intimate encounters, in other words, for their wisdom, 2.) for their understanding of the social, 3.) Munro for representing entire, full decades succinctly, and 4.) for the sophisticated and nearly invisible way she navigates time.

George Saunders for voice and sentiment.

Angela Carter for 1.) her sentences, 2.) making you feel like you’re in a dream, 3.) being at once conceptual and concrete.

Italo Calvino, Karen Russell and Steven Millhauser for magic, warmth and sentences.

Denis Johnson for 1.) making you feel like you’re in a nightmare, 2.) structure, 3.) the surprising softness in the hardness.

TELL US ABOUT THE EXCERPT YOU’RE SHARING TODAY.

This story is about an affair and a break-up. It’s written as a pastoral from three alternating perspectives. Here’s a sample of the dairymaid’s.


Excerpt from “Dairymaid, Shepherd, Monk”, by Seyward Goodhand

 
Heels deep, thighs strained, palms burning, belly tense as a flexed tongue: the dairymaid churns cream on the grassy rise in the centre of the pasture. Her attention is split between learning the Psalm the monk has tasked her to know by the end of the day, and revelling in the admiration of men. Old men rinsing dye from wool, young men carrying planks of wood down the path to the stable and stopping to rest on the fence, lame men on stumps plucking feathers out of geese their wives have killed. Boys skipping down the mossy lane with their fathers’ lunches, crusts of bread and pressed cottage cheese as sectile as butter, wrapped in cloth.

She remembers the monk’s quiet intensity when he said, “This is the most beloved of Psalms.” He is so young—four months younger than her! But he has a voice one believes. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

She lifts her arms higher, for she will make merry with the sweat staining the blue cotton bodice under her breasts and soaking her frilled, white sleeves. The stone her own shepherd gave her, which he chipped from the base of the mountain’s peak and fastened to a woollen string to go around her neck, is between the dairymaid’s teeth so it doesn’t swing into her pole and crack. She imagines him bracing his sweet, round face against the wind, scanning the dark volcanic crags brushed in snow until he sees this piece, the one that glints. Oh good God.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.

No, you don’t understand, these verses are for me, she told the monk yesterday.

He tilted his beautiful face and shyly beheld her. “For us all,” he said.

Her shoulders burn with a glorious power as she plunges again and again into her barrel. The smell of beaten cream is sweet with an undercurrent of womb. It will be so light and delicious when chilled. But warm milk makes the dairymaid sick unless she gives herself over to it entirely, glories in the hot squelch, the still, golden air, the black tendrils curled around her throat, her clenched bowels, her saltiness. Her body produces miraculous fluids with which she would paint the countryside if it weren’t already so vibrantly green and yellow. Far off, out of a copse of tall, swaying maple, an exaltation of larks! Nature loves her. She imagines charming snakes out of the sand and commanding spiders to swarm her enemies. Only she is privy to their horrible ecstasy because she comes to all the loathed things with joy, as a playmate.

My cup overflows…

Almost by mistake, she looks up. There they are. Just beyond the ring of awed men, the other dairymaids are clustered together in a cool corner of someone’s porch. They have draped a sheet over their barrels of cream to keep the flies away while they twist each other’s long, auburn hair. Pink and periwinkle ribbons flutter in a basket the dairymaid stares at so the women won’t think she’s staring at them. The ribbons will be braided into all the hair so everybody knows the heads match. She is the only one not invited.


Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Seyward’s work?
  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?
  • How is your own writing practice like Seyward’s? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below.

And thank you, Seyward!


Note:

These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
 
 

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Congratulations class of 2015! http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/congratulations-class-of-2015/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/congratulations-class-of-2015/#comments Tue, 23 Dec 2014 12:00:18 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8982 Last week, eighty-five writers graduated from The Story Intensive Class of 2015. Today’s post is in their honour.

These wonderful writers, from Nanaimo to Tasmania, have been showing up for their writing practice with us since September. This month, they each wrote and completed a brand new short story! Some of them finished a story for the first time ever; some for the first time in years; some for the hundredth time. (As you know, it doesn’t really matter — there’s a racket of resistance, no matter how many times you do it.)

One of this year’s Story Intensive grads, Amanda, described the challenge of Story Is a State of Mind this way: it asks you to be courageous enough to be an absolute beginner and to be great writer, at the same time.

Courage is the operative word here.

Courage! Feeling afraid and doing the thing anyway. Every one of this year’s graduates showed up to write before they knew what they were going to write. They said no thank you to distractions, and protected their writing time, even when it was very inconvenient. They finished something, and showed it to their peers without knowing for sure if it was any good.

You know how life has a way of “getting your attention” as soon as you commit to doing something important for yourself? Well, our graduates saw a lot of that this year. They wrote even though they were on the road, moving across the country, parenting young children, changing jobs, caring for ageing parents, or experiencing illnesses.

Their stories are inspiring and, quite frankly, humbling. Any time I felt my own resistance coming up, I would think of this beautiful net of writers out there who were doing The Story Intensive, and I would feel bolstered by their company.

Congratulations are in order!

To celebrate The Story Intensive Class of 2015, I’m sharing some of my favourite commencement addresses, below.

Happy holidays, everybody.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

 
P.S. You know that amazing person in your life who is part magic? Your godmother, your best friend, your daughter, your incredible uncle? You can totally give him Story Is a State of Mind this year! Recipients can do the course whenever they want: there’s no fixed start date. They get lifelong access. And they can enrol in the next The Story Intensive for a discounted rate. Buy gift certificates here! (Note to last-minute shoppers: you can print out your gift certificate as soon as you buy it.)


What Now?

Ann Patchett

AnnPatchettCommencement2The answer to the question What now is never what you think it’s going to be, and that is the thing that every writer has to learn. I came to understand that fiction writing was like duck hunting. You go to the right place at the right time with the right dog. You get into the water before dark, wearing a little protective gear, stand behind some reeds and wait for the story to present itself. This is not to say you are passive. You choose the place and the day. You pick the gun and the dog. You have the desire to blow the duck apart for reasons that are entirely your own. But you have to be willing to accept not what you wanted to happen, but what happens. You have to write the story you find in the circumstances you’ve created, because more often than not the ducks don’t show up. The hunters in the next blind begin to argue and you realize they’re in love. You see a snake swimming in your direction. Your dog begins to shiver and whine and you start to think about this gun that belonged to your father. By the time you get out of the marsh you will have written a novel that is so devoid of ducks it will shock you. It took me a long time of standing still and being quiet to figure out what in retrospect appears to be a pretty simple lesson: writing a novel and living a life are very much the same thing. The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually comes your way.

(Listen to her commencement address here.)


The Importance of Kindness

George Saunders

GeorgeSaundersCommencement2It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things — intellectually we know better — but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we do this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

(Go here to read his full address.)


This is Water

David Foster Wallace

david_foster_wallaceAs I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.

It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”.

(Go here to listen to the address in full.)
 
 
 

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What happens on a writing retreat? http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/what-happens-on-a-writing-retreat/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/what-happens-on-a-writing-retreat/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 12:00:06 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8890 Today is a treat! I’m sharing a conversation with four writers who attended The Lemon Tree House writing retreat this past September. I’m leading my own retreat there in April, but I haven’t been to the castle yet, so there’s only so much I can tell you about what it will be like!

I have attended a writing retreat at The Banff Centre for the Arts, and I know how incredible it is to write when you’re away from real life. You write during the day, but everyone around you is also writing — so when you take breaks, you’re taking breaks with writers who have just spent a whole day in that sacred creative place. So you don’t have to adjust your state of mind to fit into normal, profane life. Everything feels suffused with magic, and it lasts. You’re still writing, even when you aren’t at your desk; everyone is. It’s magic.

The September retreat was led by Erinn Beth Langille, who I interviewed here. The four writers in the conversation below are Sofi Papamarko, Connie Rose Barnes, Danielle Daniel, and Bebban Stenborg. These women generously agreed to share their experiences with you today.

If you’ve never done a writing retreat before, or if you’re considering coming to The Lemon Tree House and you’re wondering what to expect, please read the interview, below. Sofi, Connie, Danielle, and Bebban tell it all.

xo,

Sarah Selecky


You attended The Lemon Tree House writing retreat this past September. What made you sign up? How would you describe your relationship to writing before you went on the retreat?

Sofi: The moment I read the email on a list for Toronto-based writers and editors, I said to myself, “Well…I guess I’m going to Italy.” I didn’t have the money, but it kind of didn’t matter, because I am a financially irresponsible fool. Luckily, it all worked out in the end. I’ve been a professional freelance writer for about a decade, but am a newcomer to fiction and I felt that the Lemon Tree House was exactly what I needed to prioritize short story writing. I was right.

Connie: Three days before a very large birthday I came across the Lemon Tree invite. I’d always wondered about going to a writer’s retreat AND I’ve always wanted to stay in a castle, and I’d been to Tuscany and felt I could handle another two weeks in that part of the world! So I decided to give myself a very big birthday present.

Bebban: I signed up because my once very passionate relationship to writing had been stagnant for a long time. I have always wanted to “be a writer”, and at some point that idea became an obstacle to me actually writing. I became afraid to write, not being able to finish, or wasting time on something that might not turn out to be what I really wanted to say or, even worse, something that no one needed to hear. I felt like I should hold off until I had a more or less perfect idea, a real project, good enough for me to stick by. That is obviously a stunting way to go about things, but I signed up for the retreat both because of that and in spite of it. I hoped that spending that money and physically removing myself from everything at home to go to an inspiring place with inspiring people would somehow force me to get over myself. I should have known that’s not necessarily how it works. (Especially if there’s a swimming pool where you’re going.)

Lemon Tree landscapeDanielle: I wanted to do something super special to celebrate my 40th birthday this year and when I saw this opportunity that mixed writing AND Tuscany I knew I HAD to go. Before leaving for Italy, I had recently finished a memoir that took me years to complete. I admit that I was suffering from postpartum blues after finishing this project. I missed the discipline of coming to the page every day with a clear focus. The writing retreat was a perfect opportunity for me to celebrate the ending of one manuscript and the beginning of a new one.

Was it difficult to take two weeks out of your regular life to go on retreat? How did you justify it?

Sofi: I’m self-employed as a matchmaker, so taking time off wasn’t a problem for me. I was long overdue for a vacation, anyway.

Connie: Yes it was difficult. At the time I had four fragile elderly parents to care for and so that makes for a certain amount of uncertainty as we never know when one or more may need extra care. I justified my trip by deciding I needed a break! And being able to call it professional development helped. Also I have a daughter living in Berlin so was this was an opportunity to visit her after.

Bebban: It was not hard for me. I’m a musician and most of the guys in my band are on parental leave so we’re not touring or recording for the first time in years, and I have no kids yet so for me the timing couldn’t have been better. I had also recently sold my apartment and had money in the bank; I decided that it the most self affirming investment I could make, if, possibly, not the most lucrative.

Danielle: The most difficult part for me was letting go of the guilt I put on myself for being away from my family. I’m a mother to an 11-year-old son and a wife to a very busy partner. I also own an art business. I knew I deserved this time away to concentrate on my writing without any distractions but I had never been away that long (16 days). After sending my deposit and booking my flight, I still considered backing out. My partner Steve is the one who stopped me from cancelling the trip and told me to get on that plane already. I have no regrets.

Tell me about The Lemon Tree House! As you know, I’m going to be the writer-in-residence next April, but I’ve only seen pictures. Can you tell writers a little about how they can expect to feel, and what they can accomplish at this retreat? What are some of your highlights from the trip?

Lemon Tree SunriseSofi: It was completely amazing! We stayed at a villa in the Tuscan countryside not far from where this year’s retreat will take place, so I’m sure there will be a lot of similarities in terms of the breathtaking views, local food/wine and structures that are centuries older than my nation. I found there were just enough distractions at the retreat to keep me from ever getting bored, such as weekend trips to nearby towns and interesting company, but not enough to keep me from getting some really solid writing done. Some of the highlights for me included the incredible Tuscan sunrises, gorging myself on both writing and reading (I read two books and wrote 5000 words in two weeks. This, to me, was amazing, because I’m a pretty slow writer and reader) and, of course, eating fresh figs right off the tree.

Lemon Tree castle1Connie: The castle! I felt very privileged to stay in such a cool place. I loved the people and marvelled at how nice and kind and supportive everyone was. There was never a problem between anyone that I could see anyway. I can’t say I felt terrible immersed in Italian culture as we were pretty much confined to the castle and grounds. The day trips were tourist trips.

Bebban: If there are any future Lemon Tree writers out there like me (low self-esteem, dramatic in their outlook and not really writing), they might feel anxious and insecure when they get there. I actually panicked a little during the very first workshop, we were supposed to interview one another and I couldn’t participate, I felt so so vulnerable, like a big phony. I might only be speaking to the most fearful here, but I have NO training, I don’t even know what proper punctuation looks like in my own first language. I had to ask “What does colloquialism mean?”, “Denouement?!?”, even “What is a gerund?”. If I could manage, most will probably excel.

And I would encourage them to relax, to be open to advice from their peers and teachers but to avoid comparing themselves to anyone else in anything. I think the first thing one needs to do is to really make sure one is okay with the fact that there are different tastes, different processes and that we’re not all starting from the same place. Once I started to get that, I really loved the workshops – they were my highlights. As far as being immersed in Italian culture, I think I took on a cynic’s guarded standpoint because I felt so far off solid ground creatively.

I guess I didn’t want to embody the cliché of a woman in her late thirties seeking to find her path under the Tuscan sun. But I loved the day trips. Apparently I was fine with embodying the cliché of a woman in her late thirties playing foodie in Florence.

Lemon Tree GrapesDanielle: Having unlimited time to think and write without having to make supper or do the laundry is my idea of heaven. It took me a while to settle into this new routine but once I allowed myself to soak it up, I was able to jump into my work. The vistas are so incredibly beautiful, you can hardly believe they are real. I enjoyed visiting Siena and Florence and of course there was the day trip to the winery… Hello!

Can you share one insight or aha moment about your writing that you had while you were at The Lemon Tree House?

Sofi: Writing is legitimately like exercise. There are times when it can feel like such a struggle, but the more you do it, the stronger you get and the more you want to keep doing it. You just want to go harder and harder. Sometimes you just ache to be doing it when you’re not doing it, if that makes sense. I felt so energized and inspired after the retreat and wanted to keep up that pace of writing after we said goodbye. (Of course, this is a little more difficult to accomplish in real life when you have to do things like cook and clean and, oh I don’t know, earn money to live.)

Connie: I write best with a routine so once I established a writing time and spot or two I found I could work. The best experience for me was when I realized that I was actually feeling excited about what I was working on, or ideas that were popping up — essential feelings that seemed to be missing from my writing life of late.

Bebban: I had a weird moment, when I overheard one of the writers say something like: “I’m surprised there are no poets here, the closest we have to one is Bebban.” I don’t think he meant that as a compliment to me, because he said it in a dismissive tone, like “how pathetic is that.” But it still opened my eyes a little to the way I write now, compared to how I wrote back when writing first started to feel so difficult for me. I’ve become shorter, choppier, and I can’t stand my adjectives unless they’re very basic, like green or angry. It was interesting, maybe in part because I was the only one there not writing in my mother tongue, and I was initially worried that people would assume I just lacked the vocabulary to be more elaborate. Whenever someone says they think I write well I’m always prepared for “…for a non-English speaker”, to the point where I’ll probably add it myself if no one else does.

I was surrounded by these great writers and minds, all super-skilled and able to express themselves very freely, in the most romantic setting possible, and I wrote a haiku about a monkey. That was the only thing I wrote at Lemon Tree House that I liked, and for me that was helpful to know for some reason. That poetry remark, regardless of its intention, made me look at my choices differently, it made me feel like I should just own them.

Lemon Tree poolAlso, reading. I had been afraid to read too much of the things I love while I aim to write, because I don’t want to accidentally mimic someone else. But the day I decided to treat myself to reading Doctor Jack O’Lantern by Richard Yates (yes, by the swimming pool) was the day I kicked that sneaky feeling that writing is kind of self-indulgent unless it’s political, educational or about growing as a human being. So, read.

Danielle: When you invest in your writing you are telling yourself (and the world) that your work is important. It is of value. It matters.

Many writers are serious introverts, and work alone — but isolation kills the creative process. As writers, what are your thoughts on community vs. solitude? In other words, why did you go on a writing retreat with fourteen other writers? Can’t writers just write on their own?

Lemon Tree deskSofi: Alone time is so important to me. I sometimes found the social aspect of the retreat to be a little overwhelming. I would often escape dinners or workshops early just to be alone with my thoughts and to have more time for books and writing. That said, it was lovely to have company whenever I felt like having it. Talking about the process of writing and its frustrations with those who actually understood what I was talking about was such a privilege.

Connie: I do write on my own but it’s true that I feel more like a writer when in the company of others. There’s more of a sense of validation. Or permission perhaps, for taking the time to pursue art. It’s the same with a writer’s group or any workshop. More pressure and deadlines always help!

Lemon Tree dinnerBebban: I work alone, but it’s really great to have the option of sharing what you’ve done and/or getting to read someone else’s work. A daily workshop is what I miss the most about Lemon Tree House, instant inspiration with just enough pressure, and if one is a bit of an undisciplined procrastinator it’s the perfect freebie. Also, it’s nice to have dinner with a bunch of lovely people after the day, whatever you’ve managed to do with it.

Danielle: For the last five years I have been working alone from home. I don’t have a writing community in Northern Ontario and this can be extremely isolating, especially in the depths of winter. Signing up for the Lemon Tree Writing Residency was a way for me to connect with people who love the written word as much as I do. It makes you feel like you’re not the only one who is pursuing this difficult life of putting words on the page. I like being alone. I need to write alone. But I cannot be alone all the time. Once in a while, I need to connect with people who get it. It’s a lifeline.

What are you working on now? What are your next steps? Do you have plans to go on another writing retreat in the future?

Sofi: I’m about halfway through a short story collection. I have five or six stories that I’m really happy with — two of them were written or started at the Lemon Tree House. I’m applying for the Banff Centre and have been researching other retreats that are closer to home. You just can’t maximize your writing time in quite the same way in your regular day-to-day life.

Lemon Tree hammockConnie: I’m working on the same project I began long before the retreat, but have also been working on one or two of the pieces I started in Tuscany. One of those stories will go into my next collection of linked stories, so I’m happy about that. The Lemon Tree House experience was such a treat for me (and let’s not forget the vacation value of it too!) So I would like to attend another retreat but have no plans for the next while.

Bebban: I am still struggling to just get up and write, to be honest. But I’m not scared of it anymore, now I’m just lazy. But I will get to it someday, and when I do I would definitely consider going to another residency. I would love that.

Danielle: I am hovering between doing research for my novel, sending out my memoir to possible publishers for publication and counting the days until my children’s book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox comes out (Groundwood, fall of 2015). I still make supper and do the laundry, but in between all of this I know I’m not alone in this writing life. I know this because just last week I Skyped with a fellow Lemon Tree House writer. Also, through emails, we remind each other why we do this and why it matters. I went all the way to Italy to meet a fellow writer who lives in Toronto. Sometimes the long way there is the best way there.

 

Find out more about my retreat at the Lemon Tree House this April.

 
 
Sofi PapamarkoSofi Papamarko is a writer and matchmaker who is hard at work on a debut collection of short stories. Her writing has appeared in The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, The National Post, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest, and Taddle Creek, among others.
 
 
 
Connie Barnes RoseConnie Barnes Rose, originally from Nova Scotia, is the author of a collection of linked stories entitled Getting Out of Town (Cormorant Press), and a novel, Road to Thunder Hill (Inanna Publications). She has taught Creative Writing at Concordia University and The Quebec Writer’s Federation. She lives in Montreal and considers herself to be equally Montrealer and Maritimer.
 
Bebban StenborgBebban Stenborg is a Swedish writer and musician who spent the past 13 years on a bus touring around the world with her band.
 
 
 
 
 
Danielle DanielDanielle Daniel writes and paints in Northern Ontario Canada. She teaches both online and in person.
 
 
 
 
 

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In the Spotlight: Mary Nicholson http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/in-the-spotlight-mary-nicholson/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/in-the-spotlight-mary-nicholson/#comments Tue, 02 Dec 2014 02:39:24 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8587 Mary Nicholson is one of my beloved Story Intensive TAs, and I’m delighted to put her in the Spotlight this month! I’ve admired Mary for several years now: I’m inspired by her generosity and resolve when it comes to her writing. Her relationship to writing feels like it is full of kindness and respect. I aspire to her level of compassionate presence.

What strikes me about her writing is its overall warmth and honesty, even when the content isn’t “warm” at all. In this excerpt — an “I remember” writing exercise that’s turned into a scene — you can feel the way she cares for her images and characters. This makes you care for them, too.


Mary Nicholson

A Prince Edward Island native, Mary Nicholson received her English degree at St. Francis Xavier University. She writes from her living room and various coffee shops in Toronto, where she also works as a registered social worker with youth living in the shelter system. She feels like a very lucky gal to be a part of a writing group comprised of four Story Is a State of Mind students, and also had the good fortune of being a Story Intensive TA in 2013 and 2014.

 

Meet Mary

Handwriting or computer?

Handwritten works best for me, although sometimes the draft changes as I transcribe it to the computer.

Page count or time count?

Time count.

First drafts or revision?

First drafts.

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Writing solo on first drafts, but I share my work with my writing group.

Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

I am always better with a little background noise. At home I play music by Carla Bruni, because she sings in French and doesn’t distract me. In a coffee shop the busyness of conversation is the perfect music for me.

Why do I write?

I write because I have to. It’s how I express myself, and one of the best ways to communicate the ideas and emotions I know to be authentic and true. I always keep a little notepad tucked into the back of my purse just in case an idea presents itself when I am least expecting it to. Even if I don’t write, the notepad is there as my touchstone.

What’s the best advice you would give a new writer?

Know that writing is a craft: stay true to your craft. You may not always understand it, but remaining open and receptive to your own writer’s voice will help you give writing your very best. Be brave and trust the process: don’t get caught up in being your own worst critic.

Tell us your experience of Story Is a State of Mind.

Story Is a State of Mind has been my faithful writing companion for the past couple of years. Using this program has immersed me in the writing process in a wonderful way, and has helped me to stay disciplined. I have used it alone, and with groups, and was thrilled to use it as a teaching tool when Sarah asked me to be her TA in the Fall Intensive.

I used to overthink the writing process. Now that I have worked with Story Is a State of Mind, I am seeing writing more as a craft, and know that all I have to do is show up to do the work.

TELL US ABOUT THE EXCERPT YOU’RE SHARING TODAY.

The piece I am working on came out of doing character work in Lesson Three of Story Is a State of Mind. It was a bit of a departure from how I usually work. Normally I have an idea of the setting and characters and work from there. This piece emerged out of an observation exercise, and came to me quite organically as I worked through the lesson. It’s not really related to anything I know, but at the same time it comes out of a multitude of life experiences. I really enjoyed writing it, and meeting the character as I wrote.


Excerpt from Untitled, by Mary Nicholson

I remember staring at his dark blue trench coat, Burberry I think. I remember thinking it looked so cliché.



I remember pressing the button underneath the cash, and then feeling the duct tape across it that we had put there after too many accidental presses.

I remember trying to remember the details in his face, knowing Sheila’s father couldn’t afford cameras for the store, just the fake ones. 

I remember it was rush hour, and I was alone, and no one knew. The store was half dark, over in the corner by the door. The front window still let in a bit of daylight.



“That is a nice blouse,” he said when he first entered the store. “I saw the same one in a storefront down the street.” 



He was right. I bought it at Macy’s.

I smiled.

 He spoke.

“It would be a shame to get blood on it.”



I pictured my internal organs losing their form and dissolving into loosely formed jello shapes.



I don’t remember when he left, it didn’t take too long. I remember looking at the clock like he told me to.

“Just stand right there,” he said. “When the clock says 5:05, you may turn around.”



I remember looking at the clock, the only bright light in the place. 

Below it were the shelves of leather purses Sheila and I had spent Wednesday afternoon displaying. The cherry red ones first, and then the violet. The sunshine yellow ones at the customer eye level. They were the same colour as my mother’s faux leather jacket that she fought another shopper for, and that she wore to Paris and got all the compliments on. Then the blue ones, and then the black silk ones, and below them, on the bottom shelf, the shiny black sparkly ones. I especially liked the sparkly ones.



I remember 5:04. I remember because I had to leave by 5:15 to get the L train to Williamsburg for the party at Matt’s parents house. 

I remember turning slowly, my gaze at the patterned marble floor moving slowly upward, one vertebrae at a time, like in yoga class. Except that my hands were raised in the air like he had asked, instead of by my side. My head felt heavy. 

He was gone.

The cash register was still open, empty. He had even taken the register slip. I remember the darkened store, and picking up my scarf from the floor near the clock. I remember picking up one of the sparkly purses, and running. I stopped before reaching the subway. I called Sheila, and then while she was calling her father, I called the police. 



I crumbled up the tag on the purse and threw it into the garbage as I descended the stairs to the subway entrance. Later I could tell them I had paid for the purse before the robbery. I was going to a party. I needed it for the party.


Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Mary’s work?
  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?
  • How is your own writing practice like Mary’s? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below.

And thank you, Mary!


Note:

These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
 
 

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Give This Cake! http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/give-this-cake/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/give-this-cake/#comments Fri, 28 Nov 2014 18:07:16 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8751  
IMG_1470I don’t know why – maybe because “Throwing Cotton” was recently made into a movie! – but people have been sending me the nicest letters lately, telling me how much they love the stories in This Cake.

It still feels surreal and incredible to know that my stories are alive out there in the world, introducing themselves to wonderful readers, finding homes in new hearts every day.

Publishing a book is like watching a ship set sail. I’m throwing confetti and waving a silk handkerchief from the dock! It really isn’t mine anymore: it belongs to you, the people who read it.

Since I’ve been getting more requests lately for autographed copies of my book, I ordered a box from my publisher.

Now I can sign, personalize, gift wrap, and ship my book out to you directly!

Give This Cake Is for the Party to the writers and readers on your gift list this year, and I’ll write a personalized message inside for them, to make it extra special.

$22 for Cake

I’ll wrap the book up and tie it with a pretty ribbon. In the spirit of giving, ease, and fun, shipping anywhere in the world will be one low flat rate.

Go here to place your order for This Cake Is for the Party today! I have a limited supply, and I’ll mail them out as the orders come in — but when they’re gone, they’re gone.

Love,

Sarah Selecky
 
 

$250 for SSM

SSM Gift CertificateP.S. Want to give the ULTIMATE gift? Give the writer you love a gift certificate for Story Is a State of Mind! (Or, you can send this link to the person who wants you to start writing.) This writing course can change lives — it’s an incredible and unique gift for any writer who is ready to take a big leap

Give Story Is a State of Mind to
a writer you care about this year.

 
 

$272 for both

P.P.S. Want to send This Cake Is for the Party and a Story Is a State of Mind gift certificate to someone at the same time? What a sweetheart you are!
 
 


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What to read for fun (Part 2 of 2): The Book Matrix http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/the-book-matrix/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/the-book-matrix/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 12:00:39 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8535 If you read my last post, you’ll know that for whatever reason, I do not feel compelled to read “critically-acclaimed literary fiction” right now. For the most part, at this moment, I want to enjoy reading without thinking very much about it.

Can I do that? I write literary fiction. Am I allowed to read for pleasure?

YES! As it turns out, there’s lots of other stuff to read out there. Forget about the New York Times Book Review – check out Shoppers Drug Mart, people! I have been pulling things out randomly and trying everything I can get my hands on: genre fiction, YA fiction, old, new, classics, series, dog-eared books I find at garage sales.

Reading widely and out of my snobbery zone has been very educational. And just because my mind works this way: I began to organize my findings and plot them on a graph so I could be discerning, not judgmental, about my reading tastes.

I call this graph my Book Matrix. You can make yourself one, too!

The-Book-Matrix

The Y-axis runs on a scale from fun and compelling to drudgery. The X-axis runs from canned and derivative to spectacular and original.

The books that fall in the bottom right quadrant are very well-written, but not easy and fun to read. (I usually hang out in this quadrant all the time, but I just can’t read those books right now.)

The books in the top left quadrant are fun for me to read, but kind of derivative or clichéd. I go there sometimes, for reasons I explained in Part 1 of this post, and in my piece on bedtime reading. Some of my other (non-)guilty pleasure writers are: Maeve Binchy, Patrick Rothfuss, Lev Grossman, Minette Walters, and Sophie Kinsella.

Books in the bottom left quadrant are those I don’t find original OR compelling. Sigh. Pass.

But then there are books that are fun to read AND well-written! This is the sweet, most special quadrant. I am always looking for something to read that fits in here. This is the gold.

Well written and fun to read books on my Book Matrix include books by these writers:

John Green
Edward St. Aubain
David Sedaris
Cheryl Strayed
Daniel Handler
Jaclyn Moriarty
Sue Townsend
Susan Orlean
Monica Ali

Try plotting your favourite books on your own Book Matrix, and see what you come up with. It will be different for everyone, of course. How can you possibly quantify “fun” or “drudgery”? That’s so personal!

That’s exactly what makes the Book Matrix so wonderful. You can make it yours. Unapologetically.

After you make your Book Matrix, you get to be picky about your reading. If you find yourself dragging through a book you “should” read, like for a book club or an online reading challenge, you don’t have to finish it. Your Book Matrix gives you a good reason to skip it!

And if you feel compelled to read a book that your inner book snob finds fault with, you can tell her that you’re testing it for your Book Matrix — and read on!

Here’s to your reading discernment and enjoyment.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

 
 

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Writing Retreat at The Lemon Tree House http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/writing-retreat-at-the-lemon-tree-house/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/writing-retreat-at-the-lemon-tree-house/#comments Sat, 15 Nov 2014 05:55:36 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8561 Lemon Tree House

 
I am going to be the Writer In Residence at The Lemon Tree House next April!

I’m beyond excited. This is such a special writing retreat, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Please come meet me there.

We will stay in a castle in Tuscany. You’ll take classes with me every morning after breakfast, and then you can write in protected solitude all afternoon. The retreat includes meals, yoga, massage, and day trips to Florence and Siena. You’ll meet fifteen other writers who are working on their own projects.

Heaven!

The retreat is small — only fifteen people can come. Applications are due December 15th. Please go here to find out more!

You can apply right now!

xo,

Sarah Selecky

 
 

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What to read for fun (Part 1 of 2): Guilty pleasures. http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/guilty-pleasures/ http://www.sarahselecky.com/2014/guilty-pleasures/#comments Tue, 11 Nov 2014 12:00:48 +0000 http://www.sarahselecky.com/?p=8526  
Reader, I am a book snob.

This isn’t really a revelation – I’ve been a book snob for years. But it stings to realize it right now, because for some reason, these days, (this has to do with writing my novel, I’m sure) literary fiction is not compelling to me. I can’t read the novels I used to love reading.

I feel uncomfortable to say it out loud, but there it is. I read book reviews in The New York Times and they make me cringe. I have a stack of new novels on my shelf that I know I should want to read — including The Bone Clocks and Adult Onset — and I can’t do it. Even my favourites, my talismans, the books I read over and over, like Bel Canto and Two Girls, Fat and Thin — when I look at them, it feels like a sack of wet concrete has been dumped on my shoulders.

Can’t I read books for fun anymore?

 
I find myself going to the shelves of guilty pleasures. You know the ones. Books that have the author’s name in big, metallic font on the cover — even bigger than the title of the book. The ones that come in trilogies. The ones that you can buy at library book sales for 50 cents apiece. The ones that are made into movies, and then re-released with pictures of the actors on the cover!

You know what’s funny about these “guilty pleasure” novels?

They all have BESTSELLER written in block letters at the top. Which means that they sell in extraordinary numbers. Which means that lots and lots of people buy these books. Doesn’t that mean that most people who read are reading the guilty pleasure novels?

Why is that? Thinking about that prompted these questions:

Why do we feel so guilty about pleasure?
Should we really feel sheepish about reading for fun?
Don’t these books also have an important role in our lives?

Why do people read, anyway?

 
I read to learn how to write. For me, this has always been the case – books are my teachers. I love to be challenged and impressed by sentences, stories and characters. When I read, I imagine how it would feel to be writing what I’m reading. Writers do this kind of double-reading: we read to understand the story, and we read to understand the writing of the story, at the same time.

But what about people who aren’t writers? Why do they read?

Because they want to be entertained. They want to stretch their imagination and be delighted by magic. They want to laugh, to cry, to be scared, intrigued, turned on. People read because they want to feel something!

We want to see how people find themselves in dark places, and we want to learn how they get out of trouble. We want to watch how people transform themselves in this process.

We want to make our thoughts stop spinning, to let go of our worries after a too-full day, before we go to sleep. We read to feel safe, secure and calm. We want to feel like we have a friend who understands us.

Sound familiar?

Yes, these are all of the exact reasons I first fell in love with reading, too!

When I was a kid, I loved the public library. It was one of the only places I felt seen and understood. If I was reading Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Carolyn Keene, Judy Blume, and Enid Blyton, I was not alone. If I was reading Sue Townsend, Steven King, Terry Pratchett, Mary Higgins Clarke, or Rosamunde Pilcher, I was safe.

This year, I promised myself I wouldn’t grind through any tasks that feel more like obligation than joy. I didn’t know that would include grind-through reading, too. These days, I only want to read books that feel fun and exciting to read.

In my search for reading for fun and excitement, I’ve been brought back to the kind of reading I used to do before I became a “writer.” Back when I dreamed of becoming a writer.

When did I become so judgmental? Why so snobbish? What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of not looking smart enough. I’m afraid people won’t take me seriously.

But you know what? I don’t care anymore! From now on, I’m going to read whatever I want. Maybe even something with a unicorn on the cover.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

 
 

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