Into the Fire, Year Four


Day 31: Sun Magazine Writers Retreat, Esalen Institute

Friday night found me apprehensive.  Would this retreat be yet another experience of isolation and loneliness? Or would I connect, make friends, and embrace the real reason I was here – to improve my writing?

At dinner I found familiar faces and friends from prior retreats. Listening to the presenters at the opening session brought me home, followed by the “Contributers Notes”, where every participant shared a 30 word bio.  Though there were 120 people reading, I was captivate by each unique story.  I slept well, with the sweet lullaby of the surf below.

8am: This morning I hit the baths, before breakfast.  Hot soak, cold plunge, repeat. All the while taking in the phenomenal view from the bathhouse, the endless ocean, sun rising over the bluff to the east. Drinking in the heady smells of kelp and brine and sulphur.

Over breakfast I decide to attend three presenters I haven’t worked with before.

10am: First is Doug Crandall, from Georgia. “The Power of I”.  Writing in the first person, and “in-scene” so the action is happening, right now.  I had already begun this on the blog, making the writing more immediate, compelling, exciting.

Doug’s style of presenting is humorous, delightful.  He is friendly and open. Two exercises, each with a chance to read:  Write of a scene in the third person, then rewrite in the first.  Again, listening to the other readers, I am drawn to the common experiences we share, the emotion which is at once personal and universal. And that makes us human.

Back to the baths for a quick soak, drinking in some sun, then a great Esalen lunch.  More conversation.  I’m find I am sharing more easily, learning names, feeling open, receptive.

2pm: Tim McKee’s Readers Write session, we write on topics which may be used in future Sun Magazines.  Though I opt out of reading my pieces this time.  I am thoughtful, absorbing the experience.  Pondering.

4pm: A session with Sparrow.  How to explain this one… Sparrow, the poet from Phonecia, New York.  Scraggly white beard, laughing constantly at his own private jokes, I want in.  Show me what’s funny, especially on this topic: “When Disaster Strikes”.


Sparrow has us introduce ourselves, each associating with some kind of disaster.  Some choose “natural” disasters, storm, earthquake, hurricane, wildfire. Others choose more personal forms of disaster, bankruptcy, divorce, positive pregnancy test.

We write about the experience of 5 minutes, waiting for a disaster to strike.  Some of us write of real experiences, others fictional.  Themes emerge: loss, death, grief.  All things I am experiencing, deeply.

Now Sparrow asks us to write of the happiest time of our life, followed by the worst disaster we’ve experienced. The stories are beautiful, touching, sad, tragic. And somehow, writing about them brings out the common thread of our humanity, how we live in this world, a balance of life and death, with hungers and desires and gifts and desperate needs.

I read, and talk of the losses I am carrying, that I need to write about, and that I knew Sparrow was the person who could help me, laughing in the face of it all.

6pm: I take yet another soak, as the sun sets over the endless sea, painting the skies in radiant yellows and oranges fading into deep blue. Dinner brings more conviviality. I am meeting more friends at each opportunity.

8pm: At the last minute, I decide to attend the Poetics of Place with Allison Luterman.  I haven’t written much poetry, but see it might be a way to express all that is moving in me during this trip.  So many places, so many sights, so many feelings.

Allison has us introduce ourselves, and something we experience, with our senses. We read examples of poetry where place is described, and talk of involving all the five senses, plus the intangible sixth sense, that of how we feel, how it impacts us, what Allison calls the soul of the place.  This resonates, and I work at some poetry in the exercise.  Emotions flow freely, tears are shed as well as laughter. I am touched by others readings.

I try to write more after the session, but exhaustion hits and I head to bed. I marvel at the day’s connections, deeply satisfied and eager to apply what I’ve learned to my writing.


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