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Writers’ Workshops

Maybe it is the memories
the change of pace that brings us there
the sense of vacation
maybe the smell of the place
the sights of the gulls, the dunes, the grasses but oh it is the feel of it,
the crunch and slide of it
the feeling of beach sand
so different from dirt, soil, loam
no, not earthy, moist, rich,
but oh so granular and gritty
even when wet,
moveable paper spreading under toes
sliding beneath the soles
smoothing my skin
clearing my mind
unburdening me of the rest
drawing me to the tactile, the feel
of beach sand
—”Beach Sand” by Raymond A.Foss

“The use of sea and air is common to all; neither can a title to the ocean belong to any people or private persons, forasmuch as neither nature nor public use and custom permit any possession thereof.”
—Elizabeth I Tudor, Letters

Jen Lorang has a stressful job that involves long hours and travel, thick legal documents, bewildering medical language, and adamant—sometimes dishonest—claimants. She’s a fraud investigator for Medicare. But she is also a writer.

“I haven’t been published much,” she admits easily. “I don’t write for the glory—or for the money, thank God. I just do it because I enjoy writing stories. Every year I go to a writers’ retreat. I need to go. It’s a recognition and a validation of my writer inside.”

Lorang drives a full 51⁄2 hours from her home in Lisle, New York, to Patricia Chaffee’s day-long retreat, called “Creating a Writing Life,” which Chaffee started in her home in Mystic seven years ago. The waters and sea air feed Lorang’s soul as well as her inner writer.

“It’s good to be around other writers. It’s the whole experience, really. It’s positive, uplifting. Patricia is awesome. She brings together an eclectic group, and being by the ocean is good for the writing soul.” She smiles. “OK. Maybe the whole thing is just an excuse to visit the coast.”

Not so much for Paul Hensler, author of baseball book The American League in Transition. He has come to Chaffee’s retreat six times, and although he finds the marshlands breathtaking, it’s the time he spends with other writers that got him hooked. “We talk about our successes and failures. There’s breakfast and lunch, some writing exercises, but really, it’s the time talking with other writers that I enjoy.”

And for Linda Balestracci, it’s Patricia herself. “She helped me edit a piece I’d been working on for a long time, and when it was published, she was almost as excited as I was. She wants us all to succeed as writers.”

But the lure of the Connecticut coastline is irresistible. “We found the right venue online,” says Cary Tennis, who is bringing his writing retreat and workshop from California to the Guest House Conference Center in Chester.

Twelve years ago, Tennis inherited the “Since You Asked” advice column in Salon.com from Garrison Keillor. Tennis had been running Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) retreats in California since 2007, but the column gave him a national audience, and interest soon broadened. He has hosted retreats in Florida, Tuscany, and Amsterdam, but this is his first workshop in New England.

The AWA philosophy is simple: every person is a writer, and every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn, and develop his craft. In an AWA workshop, everything is treated as fiction to keep the focus on the writing rather than the personal. Everything is kept confidential; there is oneon-one conferencing. This encourages breaking down barriers created by illness, poverty, age, or fear. Although it is not therapy, it has great healing potential. Last year, he headed up a writers’ retreat in Baltimore for veterans with PTSD.

A retreat offers writers a balance between being alone and sharing their writing; it’s about inspiration and encouragement—not, says Patricia Chaffee, “… teaching someone to write.”

“That’s the difference between a retreat and a workshop,” says Sandi Shelton of Guilford who has been hosting workshops for eight years, first at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison and in her home for the last five. Coming off a 30year career as a journalist, Shelton is a commercially published author of both fiction and nonfiction.

Her first books came as a result of a column she wrote on parenting. Her novels came later. “When those books were labeled ‘chick lit,’ my publishers suggested I adopt a pseudonym if I wanted to write more serious fiction.” Shelton did just that, with tongue in cheek. She’s Maddie Dawson: she’s just a little bit mad, and writing about the lives we find ourselves living when we think we’ve made all the mistakes possible.

Shelton’s 8-week programs, called “Words at Play,” aim to make the participants’ writing stronger. “The goal for some is to get something published,” she says, “but for many it’s just a lovefest, having a receptive audience each week.”

Grace Pauls is working on a memoir. When she first went to Shelton’s workshop, she was nervous. “I was worried that since Sandi was a published author, she wouldn’t have patience for the level of writing I could bring to the workshop, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. She is so welcoming. The atmosphere is never intimidating or embarrassing; and she guides, sometimes just asking a simple question that sends me off to write about something I hadn’t thought of.” Pauls says, “The workshop is my lifeblood right now; it’s a gift.”

When Lisa Saunders’ husband’s job as a scientist took him to coastal Connecticut, Lisa quit her job as a writer for a New York college and the couple moved to Mystic.

“It was real culture shock,” she says. “I wandered the streets with my dog Bailey, trying to connect with things: fishnets draped on restaurant walls, Lost At Sea grave markers, plaques establishing historical houses, tiny whales as door knockers.”

Already the author of three books, Saunders created a project for herself. She and Bailey walked and walked and created what she called the Mystic Seafarers’ Trail on which she identified what she considered the “7 Wonders of Mystic,” and then she wrote a book about it. While doing so, she fell in love with the area and with her neighbors.

Marrying her love of writing and her newfound love of Mystic, Saunders began collecting other women who loved to write.
“Lisa’s been amazing putting things together,” says Pam Collins from New London. She’s been going to Saunders’ gatherings for the last several months. “You have to be nice to get in what Lisa calls The Nice Girls Club.” She laughs. “There are about 30 of us. We meet, it’s potluck, we talk about our writing.”

Saunders has been holding workshops in libraries, through New London Adult and Continuing Education, and most recently at Bank Square Books. In her newsletter, she entices other writers to come to what she calls the Mystic Writers Colony. “But I feature other attractions of the area, fun things to do, recipes, resources for writers to come to the shore to get inspired and published.”

Some workshops are genre-specific. For example, for five years, psychologist/mystery writer Roberta Isleib and suspense writer Hallie Ephron led Seascape: Escape to Write, a weekend workshop devoted to writing mysteries. “We’re taking the year off this year,” says Isleib, but she only means the Seascape workshop; she still teaches writing, most recently a workshop at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. She writes a series as Lucy Burdette, and she doesn’t get far from the coast in these books, either. They’re set in Key West.

There’s something humbling and mysterious about the sea. Perhaps that is what allows artists to get past ego and judgment so they can explore, experiment, and create.

Image Credits: Photo by Anastassios Mentis

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