“Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.” Dani Shapiro
And there I was. Eating a granola breakfast made by the bestselling author Dani Shapiro at a sprawling Connecticut estate owned by a famous television executive. An unlikely scene? For sure. So how did I find myself clothed in Yoga pants with six other engaging women writers at the feet of a Master? Well, it’s a WOW of a story alright…
Several years ago while glancing through a magazine at the beauty salon, I read about a writer’s retreat held in Positano, Italy called Sirenland. It was created and facilitated by writer Dani Shapiro who at that point was unfamiliar to me. Save for one short Gotham writing course taken in New York a couple of years ago, I had never before participated in a writer’s workshop, colony or retreat. Improving my writing within an inspired group was an amorphous goal, and the Sirenland retreat, in stunning, hearty Italy was a Divine prospect which I tucked into the “bucket list” drawer for sometime in the future, when/if the stars would line up. After the initial link Dani’s name seemed to appear everywhere on my radar screen: as a reviewer on a book for the New York Times Book Review Section, on an article in Travel and Leisure Magazine, as the author of a new book, entitled “Devotion.”
I read Devotion, a breathtaking narrative of her spiritual journey, always a hot topic for a rabbi, and started to look for earlier books she had also written. Quickly I consumed Black and White and Slow Motion, the way I would a sweet blintz soufflé after a fast on Yom Kippur. Her stories which were honest, revealing and beautifully written fed a hungry part of myself and sparked a desire to be more present to my own writing which often got sidelined by the myriad commitments that fill my schedule.
I reached out to her and we spoke on the phone and once we met face to face briefly in New Orleans at a Jewish Federation National event where she was a featured speaker. Slight as a sylph, Dani was soft-spoken, sociable, generous and kind–a very talented speaker as well as a writer. I wanted to learn from her, soak up the successful artist’s wisdom, the way ancient women did under the date palm tree where the Biblical Judge Deborah sat dispensing spiritual advice. I fantasized that after our sessions I would retreat back to my lap top with fingers dancing the happy dance on the keyboard. More than ever I was hankering to attend Sirenland or join her ongoing writer’s group. But stars being as they are, sometimes bright and sometimes hidden, never seemed to line up for us to get together. Until recently.
“There’s one more slot left for my Connecticut retreat in July,” Dani wrote on Facebook in the early part of the summer. A quick glance at my calendar and I typed in record speed, “I’d like to come.” “You’re in, Lynnda,” she responded. Blissful about the opportunity to participate in a creative writing community I began the journey.
About writing retreats, I had read in Dani’s latest book, Still Writing/ The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life: “This love is a strange alchemy of mutual recognition. We are, each one of us, wrestling with words, with our futile stabs at some kind of human eloquence. We are solitary by nature but we have chosen to come together because the page benefits from the eyes of others. Because we are unable to see our own work clearly. Because we have developed connections and metaphors that are unknowable to us until someone else switches the lights on. We come to the workshop table –even the most defensive and cynical among us—in an act of faith.”
Faith is part of my DNA. Dani’s retreat was run like a gentle, wholesome Master Class. Safe and comfortable. Each day after the granola breakfast, Dani read inspirational quotes written by successful poets and authors who had also struggled while we sat comfortably in a white room with the sun pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows. All of us who write suffer the universal discomfort of looking at a blank piece of paper at the beginning of the process, wrangling with words, syntax and structure in the middle and the anxiety of sending our work out to the masses for judgment at the end. Learning to set our intention and stay mindful and focused is key. It’s imperative to have the support of a like-minded writing community to garner confidence and critical to have the benefit of an excellent teacher. Dani is that special teacher.
To encourage development, she offered meditations from wisdom traditions, including Judiasm, as well as daily centering Yoga practices, taught by the captivating Yogi/ writer, Tracey Bleier which enabled quiet reflection. It’s in this place that ideas are planted. Thoughts continue to germinate over casual dinners prepared by a private chef, which becomes the perfect setting to ask general craft questions, engage in conversation and share ideas with brilliant, interesting writing-sisters-in-spirit in-between sips of Merlot.
The centerpiece of a successful retreat, and the place where it feels most vulnerable is the “workshopping” of writing. Our gathering submitted up to 15 pages of writing in advance to one another and to Dani for review and feedback at both public and private sessions. I quickly discovered that offering up revealing personal texts for evaluation from strangers is like taking the blanket off of your newborn baby’s face. The hope is that everyone will coo with delight. But it’s an unrealistic expectation and the truth is the path to growth.
I presented a piece of a book I had been working on. I tend to overwrite. Less is more. Duly noted. My Six-Word Memoir: I still have work to do. I came to learn, so I listened to thoughtful comments gratefully from the discerning members of the group, and I tried to appraise what skills I needed to improve. Dialogue about the writing is meant to be reflective. It requires grit and resilience. Literary refinement, like life-refinement it is a WOW. And hard work. It is also a beautiful gift. Thus, after conscious integration, we must start again.
The WOW in creative writing, like creating a life, is in absorbing, integrating and building with unknowns. Co-existing with fear, rejection and uncertainty. Cultivating courage. Maintaining conviction. We move forward because otherwise we get stuck in unfulfilled dreams and broken promises to ourselves, to others and to God. Particularly in this renewal month of Elul as we gear up for the Jewish New Year, let us all be mindful, as Dani explains, of the opportunity to begin anew, one fresh page at a time…