Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Word Lover's Retreat in Lakeside

Word Lover’s Retreat participants felt right at home at the Idlewyld Bed and Breakfast, built in 1888 on Walnut Street in Lakeside. A private gated community founded as an independent Chautauqua on Lake Erie’s shores in 1873, Lakeside is one of the few remnants of the adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Innkeepers Dan and Joan Barris ran the kitchen while cooking me, the weekend hostess, who used Joan’s tried-and-true recipes for the event.

True writers write, and many of us spent several hours writing on the front porch on Friday afternoon. After a walking tour of Lakeside and a soup and salad supper, Donna Wilson’s writing-prompt boxes came out and we wrote memories stirred by postcards, linked random words together in essays, and dug deeply by completing phrases like, “A secret dream of mine is to . . .” Surely the results were part of Julia Cameron’s goals when she wrote The Artist’s Way: those who wrote explored their potential for possibilities and what they have to share with the world.

Freelance Writer and Writing Coach John Ettorre shared tips from his book-in-progress during his “Flex Those Writing Muscles” session on Saturday morning. John focused on the craft of writing and the habits and disciplines that produce good writing. The weekend’s mantra became “less is more” as we talked about tight sentences, perfect word choices, listening for cadence and flow, editing, and rewriting. The other theme that emerged is how important it is for a writer to read widely.

John's session segued into the afternoon session entitled “The Book Loving Soul.” Gustave Flaubert said, “Read in order to live,” and that sums up how most writers feel about reading. Most of us became avid readers in childhood, stealing reading moments in the backseat of the family car or on a tree roost or in our beds at night with flashlights. We discussed keeping a writing journal, tracking the books we read, studying good writing to become better writers, listening to books on tape, and taking part in book discussion groups.

Journals, like Katherine Mansfield’s, are a writer’s notebook, a journal of inner life, a spiritual autobiography, and she said her journal was a way “to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious, direct human being.” Our personal journals can be culled for memoir, stories, novels, personal essays, articles, or poetry, or can be worth reading on its own. A journal helps us make connections. The afternoon workshop “Leaving a Trace” was inspired by Alexandra Johnson’s book by the same name and the writing exercises delved into how to cull our life experiences for use in our writing.

Haiku, one breath poetry, is a form of poetry available to everyone. In the Haiku workshop we learned how experimenting with Haiku can teach us how to write succinctly. It also shows us how to show without telling, thereby enriching our writing by allowing the reader to bring his or her experience to the moment encapsulated in the poem. We vowed to write haiku on our own when we returned to the world.

As shadows lengthened in the afternoon, we rocked in bentwood rockers on the front porch of the Idlewyld and discussed Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes and her husband embraced Italy when they bought Bramasole, an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. Roman roads and wells, ancient vineyards, hidden frescoes, vibrant markets, simple food, and big hearts--the book’s a celebration of Italy. The memoir and armchair travel book presents poetic cadence and a lyrical quality worth study. Although we agreed that Mayes challenges us to “surprise” our own lives and not resist the impulse to live fully, the consensus of the group was that the book's language is rich, but meandering, and the author is too reserved and self-centered.

Following after-dinner sunset walks, we returned to the Idlewyld for storytelling and spent a good deal of time laughing before retiring to our Victorian sleeping quarters. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we spent Sunday morning in a circle around the big meeting room critiquing each other’s work. We were productive.

When we took leave of Lakeside with great hesitation, but basked in new friendships and refreshed spirits. The weekend encapsulated my image of what an Igniting Possibilities Event is meant to be.

Monday, May 5, 2008


When I read Hemingway I search for Hemingway’s struggle as a writer, but when I read Steinbeck I am interested in the way he told stories. What a story teller he was . . . so real and true and attentive to the nature of human beings. No rose colored glasses, just life, in Cannery Row. Steinbeck entertains by re-telling obscure details or facts or discovering information. This passage is just interesting: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.” Descriptions are poignant and blunt—Doc stopped at a “big Chicken-in-the-Rough place he knew about.” And he had a beer milkshake along the way.

Cannery Row is a series of chapters and some have nothing at all to do with the story. In the end they all make up the story that is Doc's story, although each chapter is from a different perspective and not always Doc’s. What was the point of all these lives disconnected but intertwined together on Cannery Row, which was a real place Steinbeck knew well?

Doc, like Steinbeck, loves people. He says of the boys “’They could get it . . . they could ruin their lives and make money. Mack has qualities of genius. They’re all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in the wanting." By showing us all these ways of being alive, the writer wove a tapestry that is true to how we live life. Steinbeck's message was that life is real and good and made to be lived fully. Doc says, “Even now, I know that I have savored the hot taste of life lifting green cups and gold at the great feast. Just for a small and a forgotten time I have had full in my eyes from off my girl the whitest pouring of eternal light."

Can anyone but Steinbeck write like that? Hemingway would have thought Steinbeck didn't state things simply enough and Steinbeck would say that Hemingway sure knew how to make life's complications dark.


Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden is sensual and complicated and about Hemingway. The mad girl, the wife of the writer-protagonist David creates puzzles with her words when she says things like, “I’m how you want but I’m how I want too and it isn’t as though it wasn’t for us both.” Of the published clippings he carries, the ones that will eventually destroy them, she says, “I’m frightened by them and all the things they say. How can we be us and have the things we have and do what we do and you be this that’s in the clippings?” The clippings changed him for her, the writing man was different from whom she thought the real man was. David is Hemingway when he thinks, “Be careful, he said to himself, it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.” Quentessential Hemingway.

The couple struggles on and on, too much work, too much love and too much hurt. Too much analysis destroys their love. He escaped into the simpleness of the complicated story he was writing, the one among others that she destroyed and in doing so destroyed him and them. “He was happy to be alone and to have finished his work for the day. Then the loneliness he always had after work started and he began to think about the girls and to miss them; not to miss the one nor the other at first, but to miss them both.” We see into the soul of Hemingway, his own life a struggle between wanting to live life fully and having the time to write, between wanting to be loved but not willing to love well enough. The reader is also entertained with a glimpse of Hemingway's writing life when David says, “There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way that it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how the early sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”

David’s wife is cruel; did he marry her for her beauty, her money, surely not her soul? He looks for his stories and becomes “empty and dead in his heart” because “No one would do that to a fellow human being.” The heartless madwoman thought she owned this writer and could control what he produced, what he had to say. But the stories were part of him. “He found that he knew much more about his father than when he had first written this story and he knew he could measure his progress by the small things which made his father more tactile and to have more dimensions than he had in the story before. He was fortunate, just now, that his father was not a simple man. David wrote steadily and well and the sentences that he made before came back to him complete and entire and he put them down, corrected them and cut them as if he were going over a proof . . . he wrote on a while longer now and there was no sign that any of it would ever cease returning to him intact.” He was victorious. As was Hemingway.