Report on the 1st Annual EMW Writers’ Master Class/Retreat

On June 27-29, we held a writing class/retreat a a beautiful cabin just outside Heber, Utah. You can see the agenda here to get a rough sense of what we did (though we shortened some sessions to make more time for questions participants brought with them). Thanks to the generosity of the venue donors, there was no tuition. The final food cost for participants was $12.50 plus the cost of a Friday night dinner at a restaurant in Heber (where, incidentally, a waitress walked up to our table right in the middle of a funny story about a missing testicle…which is exactly the sort of unplanned event that makes a writers’ retreat.)

We plan to hold next year’s retreat in Salt Lake City to make logistics one step easier for out of state visitors. We’re planning on June again, but are still open to specific date requests from people with tight summer schedules.

To give you an idea of whether you’d like to apply next year, here’s a brief report, drawing on emails from the participants, on some of the strengths of this year’s retreat:

Community:

The thing participants seem to have valued most about the retreat was the face time with other Mormon writers. Here are some of their thoughts on the value of gathering:

“The best part of the retreat for me was the feeling of community that we shared. For me, writing is a solitary act, something I do on my back porch before the kids wake up or in a room with the door closed and music drowning everyone else out. I can share the product of my efforts, but rarely the efforts themselves. So being in a room with other people who have the same goals, the same desires and work habits and challenges–well, it felt so comfortable that I forgot pretty quickly that we were all strangers.”

“You fostered a charged environment conducive to casual but writing-based conversation among people who share the same values and interests, and something sparked for me. For this reason, I hope you’ll make sure there is plenty (maybe even more?) of off-time at future retreats. It’s the rubbing against each other (um, not literally) that can be as valuable as anything.”

“I couldn’t have been happier with the breadth and depth of the other attendees’ experiences and contributions. They showed me how wide the world of Mormon Letters really is [and gave both] support and useful criticism–which is, as you said, what Mormon Letters needs as it grows.”

“I have always felt that conversations about what it means to be a Mormon writer are helpful, both on an individual level and in terms of the future of Mormon art [...] because they make me feel like I have a community of interesting people to write for, and that I have interesting things to talk about when I am conscious about my Mormonism in my writing.”

“That feeling of belonging to a world of writers probably can be had at any writer’s retreat, so here’s what makes this one different: I not only got a sense of belonging as a writer, but I felt like I was part of a larger community of Mormon writers. James painted the world of Mormon literature as a place of acceptance, encouragement, and mutual striving for higher caliber art. By the time I left, I wanted to produce quality Mormon literature not just for my own satisfaction but to help Mormon lit as a genre achieve its potential.”

Three Craft Concepts:

I enjoy teaching introductory-level college creative writing classes, but it was wonderful to work with a group where everyone already had writing experience and knew how to tell a compelling story. It was also great to work with a group in which everyone could talk about why they write and what their ideal audiences look like. Because of this great foundation, we were able to dive deeper into questions of why and how writing really works.

Looking back, I think three main craft ideas came out of the retreat:

1) Most writing instruction focuses on getting from concept to finished work, but there are also numerous choices between an impulse to write and the formation of a concept. In an early session called “The Parable of the Irritated Oyster,” we worked to articulate and weigh the choices that come between an initial itch to write and the concept for a work. For example: an interest in mental illness and Mormonism could lead to a poem with a clinically depressed narrator struggling to make sense of the “Plan of Happiness” or a novel about a missionary coming home early to figure out what’s real and what’s not after his scriptures start talking to him. Or: the desire to talk about the special frictions that can develop between different personality types within a faith could lead to a short dialogue about a young husband and wife shopping for a religious gift for their nephew (do you give him the Nephi action figure or the Abinadi with battery-powered flames?) or it could lead to a short story about a missionary sent to a distant colony world who, for cost reasons, gets a locally built robotic companion with three distinct personality modes uploaded from the most successful finding, teaching, and planning missionaries in the galaxy.

2) Many itches to write come from a feeling of narrative poverty. That term is borrowed from Stephen Carter, who uses it to describe times in real life when we run short of stories to tell ourselves to make meaning of our experiences. If you’ve ever had the feeling that “I wish we would talk more about this in the church” or “we don’t seem to know how to deal with x issue,” you may have discovered a site of relative narrative poverty. As an individual, this can be frustrating and may not lead to much more than a complaint about the church. As a writer, though, it’s a great opportunity for exploration. How can we talk about what we don’t? What fundamental human tensions make the subject so difficult, and how can taking those tensions seriously give your work weight and depth?

3) In the retreat, we made a distinction between event (“what happened”) and myth (“a story which keeps happening”). Most deeply Mormon stories, whether scriptural or oral, have survived not because they describe a past event, but because we are able to recognize our own fundamentally human dilemmas within them. We are all Adam and Eve; we are all pioneers. Because Latter-day Saints have so much experience reading texts mythically, we should also be able to write texts that can read in such a way. At the retreat, we practiced identifying a mythic core–or fundamental human dilemma–in each of our concepts or stories as a tool to help us refine them.

Here are a few things participants said about these core craft ideas:

“I was grateful for the practical opportunities the retreat gave us to create story ideas by tapping into the itches we so seldom explore, let alone encourage. In a few hours, I had literally doubled the number of Mormon story ideas I had because I paid attention to what about the story interested me, and with the help of you and the other attendees, I was able to see what was working, what wasn’t, and how the pieces needed to fall in order for me to have a working story. Frankly, this exercise of starting from the itch is immensely helpful to me, whether or not I’m writing about Mormons. Beginning with the itch forces me first off to determine what it is I want to say, but once I’ve decided what it is that I’m really getting at, looking to the itch illuminates how the rest of the story must play out; following the itch creates a framework that makes it far easier to actually write.”

“I was able to see how to take quintessentially Mormon ideas and bring them to a wider audience by tapping into mythic stories. Not only are non-Mormons unfamiliar with the specifics of Mormon culture–and cosmology–but also they generally don’t care to find out (it seems to me). However, by tapping into myth, I see that we can make those specifics palatable–even interesting and resonant–to the culture at large.”

“I think we could go even further in tying the two [discussions of Mormon art and the concept of myth as a recurring human story] together—how Mormon experiences, because they are rooted in myths that apply to all humans, can speak to audiences outside Mormonism as well as inside, if done well.”

“[The retreat] gave us the tools to be the kind of writers that can participate in this society [of thoughtful Mormon writers] that [it] welcomed us into. I left with a better sense of who I wanted to be as a writer and a well-marked path to get me there.”

Energy: 

Another aspect of the retreat many participants mentioned was its effect on the writing energy. Especially for an undervalued field like Mormon letters, finding the energy to do work is as important as developing writing skills. Here are a few comments on how the retreat energized people to work:

“I was reminded why I care about writing Mormon lit, and reinvigorated in my resolve to continue to do so. I needed this particular boost at this point in my career because of the pressure at school to de-emphasize anything religious in my work. It’s easy to get distracted from the heart of my work with dreams of making a splash “out there.”  Thanks for reminding me that the things I really care about are important. Thanks for making me feel less alone in that passion. ”

“The generative exercises we tried were freeing. They were also exceptionally difficult for me to embrace (as a perfectionist who has never done anything like them), but ultimately I can see exactly how vital they’ll be to me in the future.”

“I’m plugging away at my story [based on a concept from the retreat]!”

 

A few last thoughts:

One thing participants didn’t mention in their post-retreat emails, but which was a huge benefit of sharing space for me, was that we had some great conversations about specific Mormon works. We are not nearly as well-read in Mormon Lit as we perhaps ought to be, but it was great to have several shared reference points and be able to tackle works without the constraints of blog comment discussions. It’s good to be able to feed more immediately off each other, and to say what you think considering how the ideas you throw out might theoretically be accessible to anyone ever for misinterpretation, offense, or harsh critique.

Another thing I really appreciated were the story-swapping sessions about Mormon life. It was really interesting to talk to people with the observation, analysis, and empathy skills of good writers about their experiences of callings or marriage or intergenerational relationships. I also enjoyed conversations about Mormon history from writers’ perspectives: trying to imagine things in a detailed human way, rather than through a scholarly lens or in a simplified everyday church version.

And I enjoyed losing horrifically at Ping-Pong and winning at Foosball against some great writers. After long days of working and thinking, it was fun to just have fun together.

Again: I hope you’ll consider applying next year.

For those of you who weren’t there: what else do you wonder about the retreat?

For those of you who were there: what important things did I leave out of this report?

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6 Responses to Report on the 1st Annual EMW Writers’ Master Class/Retreat

  1. Darlene says:

    Nothing to add–just thank you for a really invigorating time, James. It was great.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Sounds like a lot of fun! I hope schedules et al. make it so I can make it next year.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    I’ll admit, selfishly, that it is the energizing aspect that I most desired. Perhaps next year I can make it work.

  4. Angela H. says:

    I admit to being a little out of the loop, but I had no idea this retreat existed. Granted, I couldn’t have made it anyway, but maybe next year? It sounds like a great event.

  5. Julie Nichols says:

    You left out some pretty important, basic information: who led this retreat? (Even if it was you, help us know who that is–why should we attend a retreat you’re leading? And second, who ended up attending? How many were there? Would those of us who weren’t there know any who were? What were some of the factors that helped you choose from among the applicants?

  6. William Partridge says:

    I am looking for “budding” or starting out Mormon Writers. I am compiling a book of short stories concerning the Book of Mormon. I need those who want to write and possibly be included in this book of stories. I am a published writer “WN Partidge” and have three books in the past.

    If there is a place you would suggest I go to find these type of people, not the accomplished one, but the desirous ones, those who can, will write for me for the experience, passion of writing, and the critique they can received from my editor, reader, etc, please direct me.

    Thanks so much,

    Bill Partridge

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