Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

Rise early. Work late. Strike oil.   — J. Paul Getty

Before you invest in a commercial writing retreat, test your mental discipline and your toleration for silent solitude. Time at an exotic location doesn’t guarantee writing success. I offer practical, tested suggestions for creating a place and time for your writing at home.

Creating a Private Writing Retreat

Every writer’s dream may be saying to her local writing group, “I’ll be working on my novel at a retreat, so I’ll miss the next two meetings.”

For most writers, a retreat is a mirage; we read the ads, shaking our heads at cost, and imagine applying for a grant. Most writers have seen their fantasies of finding the perfect retreat evaporate.

Yet we can visualize a perfect place to avoid the daily demands that gobble writing time. Whether our fantasy setting is near warm beaches or aloof mountains, we’re sure such a hideout would empower us to really write that novel. Say the word “retreat” and we see ourselves, monk-like, bent in ascetic devotion over satisfying work.

Take heart; we live in the Synthetic Age. Experts tell us the artificial can be as reliable as genuine articles, and few of us can tell a real diamond from faux, or solid wood from veneer anyway. If you can’t afford a retreat, you can make one.

A Retreat Won’t Make You a Writer

home-retreat-cranes-2016-9-16Face facts; moving your physical body to an “official” retreat won’t make you a writer. I once studied the Shaolin Kung Fu five-animal system, concentrating on the form known as “White Crane.” My instructor worked with me on several aspects of this martial art, developing my breath control and balance, speed and timing. Gradually, I developed strength and flexibility while learning fighting stances based on the symmetry and stability of a crane’s movements. Eventually, I understood how to use my hands and arms as weapons, learned the backfist and claw hand, and how to deliver the blade kick to an attacker’s knee. Throughout my training, my instructor emphasized that physical abilities alone would not enable me to master the form; meditation and focus are key aspects of the martial arts. In the end, I was not willing to devote three or more hours a day to practicing Karate in order to master its nuances on the chance I would use my skill to repel an attacker.

My experiences in writing have been similar; the physical facets of a retreat must be coupled with mental discipline and tenacity if you want to be a writer. The important aspects are the mental discipline and tenacity.

Physical Features of a Retreat

A commercial retreat provides the writing customer with varied opportunities, often including an ideal work space in a beautiful location; meals cooked by someone else; uninterrupted work time, and freedom from household chores. How can you duplicate these features at home?

Each writer would understand and arrange these requirements differently, but many writers could create a retreat at home, eliminating travel expense and the hassle of packing.

At home, I can’t hide from my real self, whereas when I travel I assume other roles, depending on the purpose of the trip. At home, I have rooms filled with writing resources and tools; I’m surrounded by comfortable clothes and furniture. Traveling to a retreat forces me to choose what I will need, and I might forget something vital.

Work Space

Work space is a high priority for a writer who takes the job seriously; dozens of sources discuss the importance of assigning exclusive space to writing. Even a closet or the corner of a room can be a beginning, and help a writer to achieve the mental attitude I’ll discuss later. If you don’t already have a writing office, consider stealing another room temporarily for an at-home retreat. Survey how you might temporarily transform a porch or spare bedroom, stocking it for a brief writing session. You may like it so well you won’t give it back to the rest of the family.

home-retreat-arbor-2016-9-16Examine your home, inside and out, for nooks that might become secret retreat spots even in a busy day: the attic is particularly tempting, especially if access is via a folding ladder you can pull up after you. Shut yourself into a spare bedroom at the back of the house. One writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard; she’s out of sight from the sidewalk six feet away, and unable to hear telephones or raps at the door. Her lack of electricity is outweighed by the privacy. Draw the mental curtains and you’ll feel as if you’re a motel guest, free to set your own schedule.

Meal Preparation

How can you duplicate the retreat luxury of eating meals you do not cook? Analyze your own nature and the possibilities in your location. Mealtimes at home can furnish dangerous opportunity for detours from your purpose, but you need not starve in a garret. Perhaps you’ll prepare for a “retreat week” by cooking meals in a frenzy and stocking the freezer. Or hire a friend or family member to fix and deliver meals every day. (Beware the rampant curiosity about your trade; your cook might, ask, “So, what are you working on? Can I see it? I brought my novel for you to look at.”)

Consider stocking the freezer with microwave meals, or going out to breakfast and buying a prepared meal to eat at your desk at noon. Cache healthy munchies to cut down on cooking and dish-washing, and keep you from stuffing yourself with fats that will clog your brain and pad your bottom.

Necessary Chores

Plan for house-cleaning before you “arrive” at your retreat. One harried middle-aged writer I know schedules errands and meetings for the day her cleaning woman comes; she escapes the woman’s chatty curiosity. When she comes home, the house is tidy enough so she can go directly to her desk, as if she were on retreat.

Or you might train other members of the household to do necessary jobs while you are “gone.” At the same time, make other arrangements as you would for any absence from home: pay bills, think about pet care, and water the plants. Spend a week or two noticing all the business that keeps you from writing, and arranging for it to be completed, or suspended, for the duration of your retreat. You might even choose to “arrive” ceremoniously, walking up the front steps and entering the house as if you are a visitor.

Looking at Locale

Exotic locations lure us toward commercial retreats, but many of us, with work schedules requiring us to leave and get home in the dark, are strangers to our own neighborhoods anyway. As you plan your reproduction retreat, walk around your home with the eyes of an outsider. Identify flowers and trees; watch birds and squirrels; find a perfect pocket rock. Romp on swings and jungle gyms in a park, or play follow-the-leader with children.

A writer I know, who supports his family on his earnings, declares a dog essential for writers; his hound provides a constant excuse for walks while talking to himself. Strolling streets and alleys alone at midnight can be suspicious or dangerous behavior in some communities, unless you’re following a dog.

Carry a notebook everywhere. When a short, relaxing stroll clears up some problem that’s perplexed me for days, I’ve sometimes been forced to scribble on grocery lists and traffic tickets. Once I note a thought, I can examine it as I chase squirrels with the dog, or pursue any other casual activity. If I were washing dishes or putting a load of laundry in the washer, I’d want to finish first, and might lose the idea.

home-retreat-cooking-2016-9-16

What’s Time Worth?

Before you reject any choice as too costly, consider how much work time is worth to you; check the figures on how much you’ll make if you finish and sell an article or a play. If you have a full-time job, consider how your hard-earned income can buy a writing break.

Writing in a retreat is, literally, buying uninterrupted time to concentrate on writing; time is not a gift but something we must take from another activity. We envision a retreat as a sanctuary from the daily buzz. Our homes should be havens where we make the rules. Unfortunately, many of us have turned our lodgings into snares that keep us busy without writing.

Anyone who writes at home knows that pausing to eat lunch can lead to scouring the kitchen sink and doing the breakfast dishes; you might as well set the garbage bag outside as a reminder to put it in the alley before tomorrow. Since the steps are snow-covered, you sweep them; brushing your teeth, you decide to scrub the toilet, and you’re hanging fresh towels when the phone summons you at the convenience of a persistent siding salesman. Before you know it, three hours have evaporated, and you’ve lost the idea you were stalking when you left your desk.

Mental Remodeling

Creating a retreat at home requires you to remodel your mental machinery for the discipline necessary to establish a writing schedule. Even a committed writer who wins an expense-paid stay in the best retreat on earth can’t work twenty-four hours a day. If you spend more time not writing than writing, you’ve established patterns deflecting you from serious work no matter where you are. Correcting these glitches, readying yourself mentally for the benefits of a retreat, is more important than having paper and a pen, or buying the latest personal computer or electronic pocket calendar. Mental groundwork consists of a combination of self-discipline and determination; these may be a writer’s most vital resources, and they can’t be bought, or taught.

White Crane Karate requires not only physical training, but the ability to picture oneself as a crane. A novice is encouraged to see her arms become slender wings of bone and sinew, her fingertips spread like feathers to gather and shape air. Willowy, powerful legs lift a body sculpted for flight. Students are reminded that each movement must be poised and graceful; have you ever seen a crane stumble?

I can’t assess the precise importance of either mental vision or physical training in mastery of Karate; I can’t say that fifty percent of being a successful writer is disciplining oneself to write regularly. But when my writing is not going well, when I hear only howling car horns and screaming brakes, I picture a crane like those in old Japanese woodcuts, beak and supple neck lifted elegantly against dark clouds. Exercising, I meditate on the same vision.

Charting Time

First, analyze your obligations; what prevents you from spending time each day writing that great American novel? Having a full-time job is no excuse; William Carlos Williams, the influential 20th Century poet, wrote poetry, plays, essays and fiction while sustaining a lifelong medical practice. By cutting your options for writing time, a job may focus you intensely on the hours available, and provide funds to ease creation of a home office or retreat.

Begin by charting your time for a week to discover how you really spend each day. Allot a single page for each day, with categories of activity listed along one side: work, exercise, child care, driving, sleeping. On an adjoining side, record the hours, beginning at midnight. Don’t cheat; log anything you do for more than a quarter hour by shading in a box. Keep the chart with you all the time you’re awake, and record what you’ve done at least every couple of hours, before you forget. Keep track of your time for seven days, a total of 168 hours. At the end of the week, add up the hours you’ve devoted to each action.

Yes, charting one week takes time. But if you’re honest, you’ll learn enough about your own habits in one week to change the priorities of your life, if you want to.

Study the results. Question yourself about what they mean.

Analyze Work Habits

Do you concentrate on finishing a single task, or leap from one chore to another? If you never quite complete anything, you increase your own frustration. How many of the duties on your chart do you want to do? How many are truly unavoidable? Does your family help? Do friends encourage you with positive attitudes about your desire to write? A writer can sabotage her own goals if she hasn’t cultivated discipline.

Using what you have learned from reviewing the chart, build a schedule reflecting your priorities. Remember, writing is a job, so as soon as you get serious, you’ll start trying to sneak out of it. But being serious about writing will help you believe in its importance, which in turn will help legitimize it in the eyes of friends and family members. Planning is part of a program to improve your self-discipline.

Building a Work Schedule

  1. Schedule unavoidable jobs first, along with necessities like sleeping and eating; be realis­tic.
  1. Plan errands. Itemize household tasks like cleaning, doing laundry, fixing meals; delegate jobs among those who share your home. Consolidate errands, saving time by doing several in one part of town. Avoid leaping up in the middle of a poem to buy a can of corn for supper; a few “quick trips” can destroy a timetable.
  1. Establish specific times for relaxing pleasure. Since you know time is limited, make choices that will help your goal; substitute a walk for a TV program if exercise clears your head.
  1. After chronicling other parts of your average week, schedule writing periods as carefully as you would devise time for another paying job. Don’t plan to begin eight hours of writing at nine Friday night. Can you use a quiet office an hour before work each morning?

Keep time charts in your writing journal so you can repeat the process later, to see progress or make changes. Even one hour a week of writing time will improve your skills. Gradually, you may increase the writing time wrested from other obligations. Try a “retreat day,” before you’re ready for a week. Thinking of yourself as a writer helps reinforce the discipline and determination you need.

Consider the Telephone

HOME RETREAT cell phones 2016--11-4.JPG

If you’re trying to think of a word that rhymes with “paramour,” will you answer the phone? Most days, we allow that insistent jangle to snatch us out of intimate moments, but a telephone is only a tool; we can choose how it serves us. Determine your priorities. Consider turning it off while you work. Get an answering machine; turn the ringing sound low, or off, or move the phone far from your work area, so you can honestly say you didn’t hear it.

Tell chatty friends you’ve got “a deadline,” or you’re “on retreat;” instead of explaining, let their assumptions answer their questions. A deadline implies that someone is paying you, and a retreat might have artistic or religious significance, lending both terms a dignity most people are reluctant to invade. Better yet, leave a message on the answering machine designed, after all, to explain for you. After you finish work, listen to messages and return calls; with luck, you’ll get someone else’s answering machine, saving still more time.

At a retreat where I spent several weeks, the only phone in the house was tucked into a cramped alcove off the kitchen. Sometimes a staff member would be close enough to answer it, and place a message on the kitchen table to wait until the next time I came down. No one ever knocked on a closed studio door unless the house was on fire. Writers and artists in residence were discouraged from talking or using the stereo or television in the retreat’s communal rooms during the day.

Loving Silence

Uninterrupted silence is a major attraction at many retreats, since our lives are so noisy, but it’s not ideal for every writer. I loved the particularly rural silence at a retreat house in a mountain valley a half-mile from a tiny village. Occasionally, a logging truck whined up the dirt road, or a resident horse whinnied, but even if all the residents of the hamlet shouted at once, I couldn’t have heard them through the thick adobe walls. Conversely, a writer who came from New York City discovered she could not adapt to the quiet; she drove twenty-five miles to the nearest café each morning to write amid the babble of conversation. Each day, she wasted gas and money because she did not know she was uncomfortable with too much tranquility.

In your facsimile retreat, silence enough to work may be relatively easy to find, with a little practice and firmness. If street noises are distracting, shut windows; in hot weather, set up a fan. Wear foam earplugs. Be determined and you will find a way.

Lock the door, and put up a sign. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on a chain across the road to her house when she is painting or thinking:

I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.

A sculptor in New Mexico hangs a warning on her gate:

Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.

Clearly, you must be determined, and sometimes ruthless to other people in order to use time as you choose. My parents trained me to be unfailingly polite; I struggled for years to be cordial and still prevent other people from wasting my writing time in meaningless talk. Finally, I realized that even discourtesy is not always enough to preserve the simple human necessity of time alone. A retreat constructs an automatic barrier to protect your time. But if you learn to protect it yourself– if writing is that important to you– you’ll gain more than two weeks of peaceful work in a chaotic year. You need not be rude, simply firm. “Sorry, I can’t do that” usually works.

Once you’ve solved some of the problems, declare “writing days” or “retreat days.” If you stop writing to do household chores, make your penalty harsh enough– cleaning the garage?– to remind you not to do that again.

Retreat Luxuries

home-retreat-bouquet-2016-9-16A real retreat furnishes special effects, but you can duplicate some of these at home. My perfect retreat was surrounded by wooded hillsides where I often walked with my dog and the house hound. One day, I noticed a tangle of wild grape vines and selected three brilliant red stems to display in the empty green bottle I’d found on my last walk. My former country home and my new city home are both surrounded by wildflowers I’ve planted, but I seldom stop writing to pick nosegays. Arranging the grape vines beside a whitened jaw bone on the broad window ledge before my desk did not break my concentration on a knotty problem in the essay I was writing, but the bouquet brightened other hours at my computer. These days, remembering the joy of arranging that window sill scene, I’m more likely to take a refreshing walk among my flowers without losing concentration on the day’s writing job.

We can make such energizing rites part of any ordinary day, simulating the atmosphere of retreat. Light a candle; breathe deeply while gazing into its modest glow. Lock the bathroom door and take a hot bath with the blueberry-scented crystals Aunt Emma sent you last Christmas. Swaddled in a quilt on the couch, read a book, being careful to wrap the quilt so tightly around your ankles you can’t possibly get up to answer the door or telephone. Choose a signal to tell yourself it’s time to switch to thinking about writing. Perhaps you can grind coffee beans for the perfect cup of coffee to take to your office. Formalizing such a ritual will signal your mind to shift from daily drudgery to the calm necessary to writing. Opening your mind, you may discover the editing your subconscious has done while you were occupied elsewhere. Discipline yourself to go to your work area the instant you realize you are avoiding the labor of writing.

A writing refuge, no matter where it is, won’t necessarily cause brilliant sequences of words to gush onto your paper. But if a writer learns self-discipline, a home retreat available anytime can be more useful than a two-week excursion to an exotic isle that breaks your budget.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This essay was originally published in Bloomsbury Review in 1995 with the title Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat

Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.

 

Resources:

The signs quoted in my essay appeared in from Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. (NY: Ballantine, 1992), also a good source for building self-confidence. Don’t be intimidated by the book’s massive size; a deft reader can skim the repetitions and catch relevant highlights.

The Writer On Her Work, Vol. 1 and 2, ed. by Janet Sternburg. Novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers talk about finding time, work methods, and other issues of importance to any writer.

Google “writing retreat” and you’ll get thousands of choices in seconds, but be wary. A listing is not a recommendation, and not all writing retreats are entirely dedicated to improving your writing; some are dedicated to making money.

http://www.writing/shawguides.com lists writing retreats and workshops all over the world, categorizing them by genre, month, state, and other methods of focus.

http://www.writersretreat.com lists worldwide retreats with resident writers.

http://www.monasteries.net Source for Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States, and similar resources. www.goodnightandgodbless.com has similar listings.

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The Pulitzer Prize: What’s the Real Story?

pulitzer-banner

Once again I’ve seen the phrase “nominated for the Pulitzer Prize” on a book of questionable merit.

And recently I heard a reader say that the book was nominated for the “pew-litzer prize.”

Wrong and Wrong.

Let’s take care of the easy one first by referring to the www.Pulitzer.org handy list of frequently asked questions:

How is “Pulitzer” pronounced?

The correct pronunciation is “PULL it,  sir.”

That ought to be easy to remember.

Second, almost any author can enter a published book in the Pulitzer competition. But to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize is something else entirely.

Again I refer to the list of questions sent to The Pulitzer organization.

What does it mean to be a Pulitzer Prize Winner or a Pulitzer Prize Nominated Finalist?

A Pulitzer Prize Winner may be an individual, a group of individuals, or a news organization’s staff.

Nominated Finalists are selected by the Nominating Juries for each category as finalists in the competition. The Pulitzer Prize Board generally selects the Pulitzer Prize Winners from the three nominated finalists in each category. The names of nominated finalists have been announced only since 1980. Work that has been submitted for Prize consideration but not chosen as either a nominated finalist or a winner is termed an entry or submission. No information on entrants is provided.

Since 1980, when we began to announce nominated finalists, we have used the term “nominee” for entrants who became finalists. We discourage someone saying he or she was “nominated” for a Pulitzer simply because an entry was sent to us.

The Pulitzer organization “discourages” this kind of fake promotion, but of course has no way to prevent it.

To submit a published book for consideration for a Pulitzer, the author need only fill out the form and pay $50. Juries select the finalists in each categories, and another set of jurors determines the winners in each category. You might say you entered your book in the competition, but you can’t legitimately say you have been “nominated” for a Pulitzer Prize. Only those winners selected by Pulitzer judges can make that claim.

The Pulitzer prizes were first awarded in 1917. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American, was a newspaper publisher who crusaded passionately against dishonest government.  His New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch papers sometimes used sensationalism to gain circulation, but he was the first to call for the training of journalists in schools of journalism at the University level. Finally, he endowed prizes for excellence in journalism, literature, music and drama, and established a governing board with the flexibility to make changes as needed. Today, prizes have been diversified in many ways and, for example, may be given for online journalism, and even self-published books as long as they are in hardcover or paperback form. And journalism awards have not always gone to major papers, but often to small papers for superb investigative work.

Some years, no prize is awarded if the judges do not find entries to be of suitable quality. According to The Plan of Award, “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fail to gain a majority vote of the Pulitzer Prize Board, the prize or prizes may be withheld.”

Another annoyed writer, Steve Lehto, has expounded at length on this same topic, and his fury is well worth reading. Search for “The Pulitzer Scam,” Huffington Post, or follow this link. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-lehto/the-pulitzer-scam_b_897320.html

As Lehto explains, the Pulitzer site has a lovely search function by which you can find the names of winners and legitimate jury-selected nominees going back many years. So next time you see a writer claiming to have been “nominated for a Pulitzer,” look at the list; chances are you won’t find the writer who has made the statement.

Want to enter your published book? If you are a U.S. citizen, visit the Pulitzer.org How to Enter page. All entries must be made using the online entry system. Entries may also be made for authors who are deceased. Hard copies of books, plays, and recordings must also be sent to the Pulitzer office. Journalism entries are uploaded to the site.

Go ahead. Just don’t say you’ve been “nominated for a Pulitzer prize.”

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Read all about the history of the Pulitzer Prize, nominees and winners, the Pulitzer’s Centennial Celebration, and many related events here: http://www.pulitzer.org

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Read, Revise, Relax: Six Steps to a Successful Retreat at Windbreak House

You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.

Good Retreat adYou’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.

Now you’ve decided: what you really need is a writing retreat at Windbreak House. You looked over the website and Facebook page, you’ve sent in your application and yes! You’ve been accepted.

I promise to do all I can to make your retreat a success. This means I’ll give you all the motivation you can handle, but no massage. If you want wine, you’ll have to bring it along.

How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?

Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, whether you come to Windbreak House, or go to one of those places with the luxury amenities. I’ll follow this with ideas for creating your own retreat at home, and using your writing time more effectively.

First: Ask Yourself This

Will I go to the retreat alone or with someone else?

I conduct retreats according to my assessment of how you can achieve your goals. Several weeks before you arrive, you will send me an electronic attachment containing the material you intend to work on. I will read it several times, and write comments and questions about your intent in the manuscript. Then I’ll print copies for each of us. We’ll discuss what I’ve written and your responses to it. You’ll have an opportunity to revise, and perhaps to give me new work on which to comment. During your retreat, your work will be my first priority; we can meet as many times a day as you choose, and I’ll read and discuss with you anything you write. If you want that kind of attention, you may choose to be the only retreat guest in residence.

Good Retreat group 2014--9-12Do you want company? Group retreats can be beneficial; having two or three thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement. Before you ask people you know, however, ask yourself if you’ll work well together, or visit more than you write. Also, each additional person reduces the time I have to spend with you.

If you don’t ask writing friends, you could tell me that you’d like to share your retreat with another writer of the same gender. We can’t promise, but we’d let you know if someone who seems compatible applies for the same dates, and put you in touch if you choose. The kindly critical eye of a stranger can provide valuable new insight.

If you plan to share your retreat with others, remember to consider them in each of the following steps as you get ready for your getaway. For example, we can supply e-mail addresses (if you choose, and don’t already know one another), so you can arrange to cooperate on cooking, purchasing ingredients and preparing some meals, and you might learn about each other’s retreat goals.

Second: Set goals

Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Unless you choose a longer time to stay, your retreat will be two whole days and two half days. We’ll make plans the afternoon you arrive, then spend two full days consulting about and revising the work you bring with you. On the fourth day we’ll discuss how you can create and maintain a writing schedule at home. Twenty years’ experience has taught me that while this may not seem long enough, most people aren’t prepared for deep concentration on their writing for a longer period. During longer retreats your energy and attention may begin to dissipate.

Good Retreat sorting papersDecide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can ask me to make changes in our schedule if necessary.

I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you send it to me. Choose a reasonable size, not a 400-page novel but several problem chapters. The writing does not have to be finished. If you make notes in the text about your questions about the writing, you’ll help me to understand how I can best help you. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? The retreat house has a strong library covering many facets of writing, but we may not have the volume you like best.

When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t bring every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes; organize those at home during down time. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.

Third: What to Take Along

Good Retreat bedroomOnce you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow? Some writers have brought comforting stuffed animals to help them relax—but no live ones, please.

Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on our chilly floors, layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. We have one-size-may-fit-you boots if the weather is rainy, and extra jackets and walking sticks in the closets. Moreover, I have a vast array of coats and umbrellas I will cheerfully loan you if needed.

Good Retreat computerWhat writing materials do you need? Include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. I will put your writing on a flash drive so I can use my printer to produce copies for both of us, but if you want to print your own copies, bring a printer, ink cartridges, paper, cords. Bring your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, favorite books. Windbreak House has extra supplies of pens and pencils along with the usual office supplies like paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape. Again, if you forgot an essential item, I may be able to supply it.

What about food? If cooking relaxes you, consider bringing ingredients for several special meals. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. The Windbreak House kitchen is equipped with dishes (including wine glasses!), silverware, pots and pans, cooking utensils, a propane stove/oven, a microwave, a fridge with a freezer compartment, a coffee maker, an electric coffee grinder, dish soap and linens.

During a retreat of the usual length, you will eat nine meals, including supper the first day, and lunch on your way home the fourth day. Here’s a diagram you can use to plan your shopping.

Breakfast  Day 2 / Breakfast  Day 3 / Breakfast  Day 4

beverages
grains
fruit
vegetables
dairy
meat/eggs
nuts/seeds

Then plot Lunch Day 2, Lunch Day 3, and Lunch Day 4 (on your way home) followed by Supper Day 1, Supper Day 2, and Supper Day 3. Three breakfasts, three lunches and three suppers.

Good Retreat cookingDon’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so bring plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, bring what you need. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”

Windbreak House water is safe (tested yearly) but hard, with a high iron content that creates a flavor some folks don’t like. We provide bottled water, but you might want to bring your favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated in our arid climate can help you sleep and work more efficiently.

Four: What You Leave Behind

Turn Off CellOf course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, and I don’t expect you to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach; feel free to tell them retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.

Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Tell responsible adults that if a real emergency arises, to call the County Sheriff (we provide the number in the retreat packet we mail you) to contact me.

Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. One or two writers have been so exhausted by preparations that they slept most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that my job is to help you write the best that you are able on your chosen project; I will not knowingly do anything to harm you or your writing.

Good Retreat dinner together

Before you settle into the retreat house, I’ll guide you on an orientation walk inside and out, so you are comfortable with the house and its surroundings. We’ll have dinner together (I bring my own), while discussing your goals and plans for the retreat.

Then you will be alone, or with your chosen companions, on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you have favorite bath salts? (Our bathrooms allow for both showers and baths.) Chocolate? Wine?  A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Bring along anything legal that will help you relax into your stay here. Take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.

Five: You Are Here

Good Retreat write and writeHere’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.

When you arrive, I will already have spent hours reading and re-reading your submitted writing and composing comments. I’ve learned the hard way that if I give you these comments the first night, you might stay up late reading and revising instead of relaxing. Therefore, the next morning, I will bring you a printed version of these comments and leave you alone to read and absorb them. Then we’ll meet to discuss my comments and your responses, and how they will affect what you are writing.

Together, we’ll decide the next step. You may revise this first piece and return it to me for more comments. Or you may bring more writing for my comments. At each phase, I’ll consult with you about what you want to do next. I’ll provide handouts referring to any problems I see in your writing, and perhaps suggest additional reading to help you proceed.

Good Retreat hands with papers

When we talk, I suggest that you take notes to help you recall oral comments I may make; conversations always bring more insights than I have had in my solitary reading of your work. If you disagree with my ideas, say so; discussion may lead to improvements I haven’t considered. Even if you think I’m wrong, take note of what I say about your work; at some future time, you may decide I made good points. If you quietly ignore my suggestions as you revise, I won’t object; we will continue to work together. Tastes differ, and my experience in writing and publishing does not make me, or any other person who comments on your work, infallible.

While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished

The day your retreat ends, we will discuss how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband or wife, the house or garden.

Good Retreat write at homeBefore you leave the retreat, we will consider how you can establish a writing place and time at home. I’ll suggest ways to stay focused, and to begin your new program before you, or those voices of guilt, can talk you out of it. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.

Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.

 

 

Book Remarks: There Used To Be A Guy But He Died

WilkinsonGuyDiedThere Used To Be A Guy But He Died
Alan Wilkinson
Injury-Time Ltd., 2016

How could anyone resist a title like that? I couldn’t, and the title justifies itself in the first few pages of this saga of Alan Wilkinson’s 630-mile bicycle ride across Nebraska, from the lowest point to the highest in the state. The lone stranger rides into town as the wind blows tumbleweeds across the dusty street. Taciturn as any hired gun, and saddle-sore, he’s looking for— well, I won’t ruin the surprise.

Wilkinson is English, and has visited Nebraska many times since developing a fascination with the west as a child; he speaks regularly at gatherings to discuss the work of Mari Sandoz in Chadron. But despite my own heroine-worship of Sandoz, we’ve never met. Through his writing, however, I’ve come to enjoy his wry and muted sense of humor, and his deft way of picking holes in American conceit.

Why would anyone ride a bicycle across Nebraska? The author says he’d like to emulate the experience of the Oregon Trail as pioneers saw it, “pitting myself against the elements and attempting to compare the actual experience of crossing the Plains with the feelings I might have when it was over.”

He gets his wish; he’s blasted by heat, scoured by dust, and worn out by the sheer effort of propelling himself across the plains. Like those pioneers, he writes, “To be honest, I wanted to surrender. But there was nothing to surrender to; nowhere to go. . . . It was only by pressing on, that I was able to keep my spirits up.” If we Americans could talk to those among our ancestors who followed the Trail, surely they would say the same.

Along the way, though, Wilkinson accomplishes something I didn’t expect: he brought me to tears. He attends an event where more than a hundred “middle-aged Americans” join together in singing “Over There.” For the honorary Limey in the crowd, dressed in cowboy boots and denim jeans, the song is ironic: Sure, the Yanks are coming, “Chewing gum and silk stockings and chasing our women. Muscling in.” Hearing those voices, though, Wilkinson realized more fully the “heroic and self-sacrificing nature of the commitment.” Through his eyes, I could see those Great Plains farm boys, one of whom was an uncle I never knew, cheerfully putting on his uniform to fight for an ideal.

This book is subtle; no car-chases, lightning strikes or other drama. He even downplays a dog bite. If I hadn’t already been a fan, Wilkinson would have won me over when he said he’d been tempted to slip in some incidents from more dramatic trips, but he resisted. What the book does offer is an honest assessment of Western people. Wilkinson used to be a freight train guard, so he pays particular attention to trains, but he also provides a considerable amount of Nebraska history, and recommendations on the best books to read about the subject, all the while suffering from the heat and exposure.

When he finally jolts down gravel section line roads to arrive at Panorama Point, at 5, 424 feet the highest point in Nebraska, Wilkinson triumphs:

Here for the first time I could see what it must have been like to arrive in an ox-drawn wagon and at last, after all those hundreds of miles, start looking around for a place to settle. It would be a feeling of true freedom, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. With no reference-point, no neighbor, in those days no crossroads, a pioneer would have a very real sense of what liberation meant: not just alone-ness, but total self-reliance. It’s this self-reliance that makes westerners such dyed-in-the-wool conservatives.

Many writers have written travel tales that, as the hackneyed phrase goes, “share with me,” a lot more than I want to know about the writer’s sexual preferences, fears, triumphs or problems. Wilkinson lets me far enough into his mind so I can appreciate his reason for riding, but he doesn’t drag me down into a personal abyss. He’s honest; getting this book ready for publication some years after the ride, he says he’s tried, “to stick to the way it felt then, rather than the way it looks now. Back to my journals and maps, and no fabricating.”

A conscientious reviewer always proves her perspicacity by mentioning something negative about the book, so here goes: I wanted a map. Sure, I have a perfectly good Atlas, but Rulo, Wilkinson’s starting point, isn’t on it, nor are some of the other towns he mentioned. Sure, I could find Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s home town, but my map doesn’t tell me exactly where Dix is.

WilkinsonRedHouseAs long as I’m here, I’d like to applaud Wilkinson’s The Red House on the Niobrara, the book in diary form he wrote while experiencing life in a hundred-year-old hunting lodge, also in Nebraska. He’d barely moved in when he was hit with a genuine April blizzard as only the Plains delivers them; then his road washed out. Wanting to live like a pioneer, he planted a garden. In true Plains style, hail destroyed his first effort and grasshoppers his second.

Still, like the real pioneers, he persevered, getting acquainted with the locals by helping them with their work and drinking in their bars. He probably made the neighbors nervous by camping out at the gravesite of Mari Sandoz, but he also wrote a fine book demonstrating his real relationship with the land and its people.

Find The Red House on the Niobrara on Kindle for $4.95, or paperback for $13.95.

There Used To Be A Guy But He Died is available on Kindle for $4.95 or paperback for $10.95; and if you want to read more of this deft writer’s work, look for Alan Wilkinson’s blog at http://walkinonnails.blogspot.com/

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Rendezvous Stories: Liberating Buckskinners

For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
–Ingrid Bengis, Combat in the Erogenous Zone.

The buckskinners we knew wouldn’t have sent Christmas cards even if we’d known each other’s names and addresses, so our first task at rendezvous was finding out everyone’s news from the past year. Snort was out of work again and trying– again– to make a living as an artist while his wife worked full-time at the refinery. They’d rented out their house and were living in their tipi in the back yard. Fred was taking classes at the junior college while Mimi toiled at the packing plant. Iron Woman had lost a premature baby.

RDV men big kettle 1987Red had gotten a promotion, and his wife Sandy still worked in the supermarket. That year, Red was club president, and booshway [buckskinner slang for the original French word for the guy in charge, the bourgeois]. The night was half over by the time he worked his way around the circle and sat down near me. I hadn’t yet seen Sandy at the fire, so I leaned over and asked Red, “Where is your devoted wife? Didn’t leave you, did she? I thought she was starting to act liberated last year.”

“She’ll be up tomorrow. Had to work this afternoon and then shop and get the food packed up.” Red grinned at me, knowing what my response would be.

“Gee, Red, I hope you didn’t strain yourself just driving up here.”

“She’ll get the kid from school and he can help her. I brought the lodge.” Red saw the look on my face and added, “I remember it when she’s not yapping at me.” His jaw tightened, but he was grinning as I laughed.

The year before, Red and Sandy had entered modern mountain man legends when he drove two hundred miles to a national rendezvous and realized–- as he pulled into the parking lot-– that he’d forgotten his lodge. Dumping his gear on the ground, he’d ordered his wife to wait and turned around. She sat on the food chest while hundreds of other buckskinners streamed into camp. As snow fell out of the darkening sky, she wrapped herself in a blanket and ate a couple of candy bars. Several people who knew her, and a few dozen who didn’t, offered to stand guard over the stuff or haul it to their lodges. Several men suggested she set fire to the pile and run away with them. Women offered her knives and pistols along with advice on correcting Red’s shortcomings if he ever came back. When Red drove into camp at two in the morning, after two flat tires and a detour around a snowstorm, Sandy still sat on the food chest, huddled in all the blankets they owned. Many of us were watching from our darkened lodges, but none of us ever found out what she said to him.

I shook my head. “I still think she made a mistake, Red. With your gear as a dowry, she could have done lots better.”

“That’s why I ain’t married to one of you liberated women. I trained Sandy right. When I tell her to jump, she asks, ‘How high honey?’ on the way up.”

“I’d come down with my knife in your brisket.” By now half the circle was listening to us, cheering for one or the other.

“Linda, you know women can’t handle complicated thoughts. You’re trying to act against nature. Probably why you’re grumpy all the time. Do it my way, you’d be happier.”

RDV LMH hat woman 1987“Let me get this straight, Red. Women are so stupid they should listen to a guy who can’t remember his tipi when he’s planning to live in it for a week?”

Red handed me a wine bottle and patted my shoulder. “Men occasionally make little mistakes because we have to think of everything. Women have all they can handle just cooking and cleaning house.”

Without drinking, I passed the wine over my right shoulder. I never drank the wine after the first time I saw most of the camp hung over after one of these potluck sprees. Forty people “calling buffalo”– buckskinner lingo for throwing up-– is not an inspiring sight.

Then a fist clamped around my wrist. I turned and faced a stranger. He cradled a sleeping child; a big white dog sat in shadow behind him. “Hey, bitch, are you one of them liberated whores that made my wife run away?” the man said.

“I don’t know your wife, but if you talked to her like that, no wonder she left.” I tried to jerk away but my hand went numb as his grip tightened. The dog lifted his lip to show his fangs.

“He’s a new club member.” Red whispered close to my ear. “A teensy bit hostile to women just now.”

RDV George sittingHe raised his voice, enunciating carefully, “Frank, this is Linda. She’s George’s wife”–- he pointed elaborately at George, who had stopped talking and loomed across the circle– “and a friend of mine.”

Oblivious to Red’s warning, the man leaned so close he fogged my glasses. “Do you think women ought to have careers instead of taking care of their kids, you damned bitch?”

“I think women who have kids ought to take care of them, buster, but if you want to discuss women’s rights, you’ve already called me a bitch once too often. And let go of my arm.”

I straightened up, aware of the Green River knife sheathed against my backbone. Across the fire, George’s blue eyes were cold; I knew if I got in real trouble, he’d be there.

“I’m gonna put my boy down,” Frank said slowly, “then I’m gonna kill you. Guard, Snowy.” He released my wrist and turned to tuck the child against the dog’s white belly fur. I heard a nervous slurp as someone sucked from the wine bottle. When Frank turned, I was holding my knife blade up in front of his nose.

RDV Buckskinner knife

Leaning past me, Red performed one of his duties as booshway. He closed one big hand on Frank’s arm, and one on mine, and spoke firmly. “Linda, I can’t let you kill him because he makes me look good. Frank, let me repeat– Linda is George’s wife. You know George.” He pointed with his chin, without letting go of either of us. “The big guy over there in the bearskin hat, watching you. Linda and me are friends. We argue as a joke. She’s really not too bad as liberated broads go.” He winked at me, and released his grip.

“I’m very sorry your wife left you,” I said slowly so my voice wouldn’t quiver. “Do you plan to raise your boy alone?”

Frank slumped. “Gonna try. She wasn’t doing much for him anyway. Spent all her time in the bars. What do you do?”

“I don’t have any kids, but I’m a darn good stepmother. I’m a rancher.”

“You believe in women’s lib?”

“I believe women ought to make up their own minds about how to run their lives. But having kids changes your life, permanently. You can’t be as independent as a woman alone. And I don’t go around telling women to leave their husbands.”

The big dog leaned forward and licked my face. Frank said, “Well, if Snowy likes you, you must be OK. He generally don’t care for women.”

“You base your judgments on what your dog thinks?” I said.

Red groaned and mumbled, “Good Lord woman, quit while you’re ahead. George,” he yelled, “can’t you shut this woman up?”

George shook his head. “No, but you’re welcome to try, Red,” he hollered as conversations resumed in the circle around us.

#   #   #

Copyright 2008 Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Rendezvous Stories: Afterword

Reading this narrative thirty years after it happened brings the memory vividly back. I haven’t seen Red in twenty-five years, and never saw Frank again, but their faces are as clear in my mind as their words, because I recorded this entire incident that night in my journal. I probably didn’t advance the cause of women’s liberation much with Red and his friends, but I’m glad to have spoken honestly. I hope Frank was able to raise his son well, and I hope the lad grew to have a little broader outlook than Frank displayed that night. I was glad to have survived the encounter, and that George didn’t have to bring weaponry to bear on the situation. I still prefer to settle hostility with negotiation if possible, though I also favor having access to weapons for emergencies.

An explanation of Rendezvous Re-enactment from Land Circle

Rendezvous was the annual trappers’ meeting during the fur trade days [1824 – 1840]; a few days in summer when trappers brought in their pelts, were paid, and bought their year’s supplies. . . . The muzzle-loading weapons of that age, either cap and ball or flintlock, are still intriguing . . . In modern times, people interested in the weapons have extended that interest to the way of life of the mountain man, and instituted dozens of such rendezvous in the United States, Canada, Germany, and other countries. . . . Everyone’s objective is to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the look and feeling of a rendezvous camp of the period. A place is set aside for the primitive camp, with running water [a stream] and firewood. Those who have authentic clothing but modern camping gear must camp in a spot reserved for modern tents and tin tipis: campers. “Pilgrims,” inexperienced participants or visitors, are sometimes allowed in camp if they make a serious attempt at dressing in period style.

The insistence on authentic attire and accouterments is not mere whim; the camp’s primitive look enhances photographs, paintings, and research, and adds to the enjoyment of people who truly live the period. The mood would be ruined by seeing someone in blue jeans, scorned by modern mountain men because Levi Strauss didn’t start making them until 1851. The rule keeps away folks who aren’t seriously interested; those who are will be treated with friendliness, and almost any buckskinner will take time to help a newcomer learn how to participate. When you put on buckskins or a long dress, you put on a different mood; . . . The whole tempo of the world changes.

— from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
(Fulcrum Publishing, Golden CO; 1991; Anniversary Edition 2008)
excerpts taken from the chapter called “Rendezvous!”
pages 35 through 37 (Anniversary Edition)

For more information:
see the rendezvous page on www.windbreakhouse.com

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Feeding South Dakota: Empty Bowls

Fighting HungerRecently I contributed to the local Empty Bowls project, and I urge everyone to do so. This project helps feed hungry children in the local area– including my hometown of Hermosa. The project that helps local folks the most is the BackPack Program, which provides bags of nutritious and easy-to-prepare food for children who otherwise would not get enough to eat on the weekend. Nationwide, this 15-year-old program feeds more than 450,000 children on weekends.

Proper nutrition is critical to a child’s development mentally and physically; hunger reduces academic achievement and even future economic prosperity. A hungry child will never achieve full potential. In the U.S. today, 15 million children are hungry– that’s one in five. Contribute locally to improve the future of our nation.

My contribution this year was modest: I painted a bowl that will be part of the Celebrity Auction at the local Empty Bowls event.

Bowl painted by Linda 2016

My painted bowl, which proves that I am no artist, will be sold at silent auction along with a signed copy of my most popular book, Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, at the Empty Bowls luncheon March 23 at the Surbeck Center at the S.D. School of Mines. This photograph was taken before the bowl was fired, so the colors should be more vivid.

In 2009, at the invitation of Ruby Wilson, I drove to Brookings, S.D., for an Empty Bowls fundraiser sponsored by the United Church of Christ, to benefit Heifer International. (Heifer International is one of my favorite charitable organizations, and yes, they give cows to people to help them become self-supporting– also pigs, chickens, turkeys and other critters that translate into more long-term help than one meal.) I read a new poem dedicated to the event, and the poem was first published on a poster advertising the fundraiser. “Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers” subsequently appeared in my book Dirt Songs, with Twyla M. Hansen.

Here’s how you can help this year:

March 23, 2016
11-12pm, 12:30-1:30pm, 5:30-6:30pm
SDSMT Surbeck Ballroom

Leadership Rapid City Class of 2013 invites you to participate in the 4th Annual Empty Bowls Luncheon benefiting the BackPack Program of Feeding South Dakota.

Empty Bowls is an international project to fight hunger. The premise of the Empty Bowls Project is straightforward. Patrons are served a simple meal of soup and bread. At the end of the event, guests choose a ceramic bowl (crafted by artists and community participants) to keep. The Empty Bowls are a reminder of the many bowls we have filled, and the bowls we still need to fill to provide nourishment and food to the hungry.

Empty Bowls began in Michigan in the spring of 1991. Due to the tremendous success of the project and the work of thousands of participants, Empty Bowls projects now occur many times throughout the year, all over the world, raising millions of dollars to fight hunger.

There are many different ways to get involved and participate in the message of the Empty Bowls Luncheon. Here are just a few ways to help make this event a success:

Become an Empty Bowls Sponsor. Consider sponsoring the Empty Bowls Luncheon as a business, a local organization, or as an individual. Various levels are available from a BackPack Buddy Partner of $150 to a major sponsorship of $10,000. We would love to partner with your business or organization!

Create and Donate a Bowl. You don’t have to be a professional artist to participate! Leadership Rapid City and Feeding South Dakota have teamed up with Pottery 2 Paint so that individuals and groups of all ages and skill levels can take part and share in the fun. Individuals can paint a bowl and purchase at ticket to the luncheon for just $15!

More than 21 million children qualify for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program. For many of these children, school meals may be the only meals they eat. What happens when they go home over the weekend?

For more than 15 years, the Feeding America BackPack Program has been helping children get the nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need to get enough to eat on the weekends. Today, bags of food are assembled at more than 160 local food banks and then distributed to more than 450,000 children at the end of the week. With your help, we can provide more food to more children in need.

*  *  *

I was just informed of another fine event to help the Hermosa BackPack Program:

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Hermosa United Church of Christ
Spaghetti Dinner to benefit the Hermosa BackPack Program.
 
The Hermosa School operates on a 4-day week, so each weekend is three days long. Currently, forty six children (out of approximately 180 total, Kindergarten through 8th grade) are furnished foods for breakfast, lunch and snacks for three days. Funds are running low and two months of school remain. The spaghetti dinner will be served from 11:00 – 1:00 on April 3 in the Fellowship Room. There will be a free will donation. The youth of the church will be helping to host this event.  A business meeting for the Fairburn-Hermosa Community Food Bank will follow at 1:30. All interested volunteers are welcome.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

For more information:
http://www.feedingamerica.org/

For information on the Rapid City event:
http://www.feedingsouthdakota.org/news-events/events/rapid-city-empty-bowls/

For the history of the Empty Bowls program:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empty_Bowls

To learn more about Heifer International:
http://www.heifer.org/

 

Poetry in the Schools

Poetry Out Loud: Local

Last month I donated my skills to a couple of educational events as a way of giving thanks for some of the generous help I received from teachers in this rural area.

February 25th, the Hermosa Middle School teachers invited me to speak to the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students about writing.

When I attended the Hermosa School, it was a two-story red-brick edifice. Visitors strolled up the concrete walk and steps, past the swings that clanged against their poles in the slightest breeze. I’d wave at Henry Bale, the janitor, if he stuck his head out of the office beside the basement furnace, and climb another set of stairs to the classrooms. That old building has been replaced by a modern facility. Most of my time there lately has been spent in the kitchen of the gymnasium, serving food for various charitable events.

Hermosa School 2016--3-3

This time I hefted a crate of my books and walked up to the double doors at the main entrance. I grabbed the door handle and pulled.

Locked.

At that moment, I recalled with a shock every headline about school violence I’ve read in the past few years. Of course, Hermosa cannot assume that it’s immune.

Just inside, a receptionist asked my name, then unlocked the doors and let me into a small foyer, facing a second set of locked doors. I identified myself, and she looked at a list on her desk before unlocking the second doors, then called me into the office to sign in and receive a visitor’s badge. I understand the necessity for these precautions, but find them terribly depressing. The school, however, was light and pleasant, with busy classrooms and smiling students and teachers.

Escorted to the classroom by two of the students, I arranged my books on a table and waited while the assorted students filed in. I haven’t been in a grade school classroom for years, but the faces, the slouches, the nervousness, the tentative smiles and the chatter were all familiar. I quickly identified several species of student that have inhabited every classroom I’ve ever seen: The Mouth, the Girl Who Always Raises Her Hand, the Shy One, the Hair-Flipping Gum Chewer, The Stud (yes, even in eighth grade), and others.

After introductions, I slammed into my poem “Make a Hand,” which involves sweeping gestures and a certain amount of yelling. Things quieted right down.

Hermosa School visit 2016--2-25Now that I had their attention, I explained to them that almost everything that interests them is a story— TV programs, the news, poems, gossip. I mentioned various jobs I’ve held, and showed them the books I’ve written that have been published, explaining that every book contains what I know about this neighborhood and the stories of its people. Publishing, I told them, is hard work; I submitted my first book to 26 publishers before it was accepted by the 27th.

I read them “Where the Stories Come From,” and we talked about ranch work; many of them are growing up in ranching families. After I read “Looking for Grandmother,” I asked, “Who peels potatoes at your house?” Several boys and girls raised their hands and proved they knew what they were talking about by describing their potato peelers, or knives. We discussed what the poem means, and how you can tell what my emotions about my grandmother are. I read them “Beef Eater,” and asked them what it meant. To my delight, several of them understood the joke of the poem: you are what you eat.

They asked intelligent questions, and then told me they have to write their biography for the classroom. So I gave them a formula for writing a poem that I’ve found effective: writing one line of action, one line that’s a quotation, one line of physical description, and then repeating each of these, ad infinitum, in any order, until you have built up enough details from which to write a poem, a biography, or another kind of story.

Here’s the poem I once wrote using that formula. And I told them that the poem is dedicated to my uncle, Harold Hasselstrom. They recognized his name, because their gym is named for him.

“What do you suppose he did, to have the gym named after him?” I asked.

“Died!” yelled someone.

True, but that’s not all he did; he was devoted to education because he didn’t have time for much of it in his life, and he served for many years on the school board, even though he didn’t have kids.

 

Uncle

He sips coffee
thick hands wrapped around the cup.
“This generation ain’t got no corner on violence.”
His sunburned hands, cracked and broken, clench into fists.
“You’d be surprised how many fellas
turned up in their own wells
in the Dirty Thirties.”

The drought was less severe, he says,
here where ranchers did not tear the sod with plows.
Most families had enough to eat.
His battered hands fixed fences,
drove the teams swathing hay,
paid out worn bills for the land of those who left.

Now they call him a land baron.
“Quitters,” he says. “They gave up.
But someone had to stay—
and that took guts. Men like that
had hot tempers, and did
their own law-making.”

© 1993, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Poetry Out Loud: Statewide

My second school project of the month was to serve as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition, in which students recite memorized poems.

Again I was struck by the profound changes in how these things are done in these modern times! I didn’t have to travel to another town and sit uncomfortably in a school auditorium to watch as the contestants stumbled in for their performances.

POLlogoInstead, I received by email lists of the contestants, information on judging, and directions to www.poetryoutloud.org, where I could watch a representative sample of performers.

Each contestant had submitted a video. Judges would watch each video while judging students on details of their performance such as physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, and evidence of understanding of the poem. I knew who the other judges were only from their addresses on the emails we’d received, and we had no opportunity to consult one another. I chose a time to gather my materials, direct my computer to a YouTube channel dedicated to the performances, and began to listen.

Again, this was familiar territory. I participated in contests like this in grade school, I think, and certainly in high school, back in the dark ages when it was called Oral Interpretation. Memorizing the poem was relatively easy, and my parents were encouraging. Standing alone on a stage in front of judges in a darkened auditorium was hard, but I knew it was “good for me.”

Watching these videos, shot variously in classrooms, against blank walls, and other locations, I was impressed. The twelve participants included students of varying ethnicities from high schools both large and small, and some who are homeschooled. Each of them deserves praise for their hard to work to memorize the poems, and the courage to stand up and recite it. Dedicated teachers and others encouraged these young scholars, and took time to videotape the performances.

While I did both these jobs, I was thinking of teachers who encouraged me when I was an awkward adolescent— people like Elsie Enders of Hermosa, Ed Hartman of Custer, Hazel Heiman and Josephine Zamow of Rapid City— and offering them my thanks in the only way left to do so.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

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Here’s where to find my poems mentioned in this blog:

“Make a Hand” and “Where the Stories Come From”
Bitter Creek Junction (2000, High Plains Press; Glendo, Wyoming)

“Looking for Grandmother”
Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen (2011, The Backwaters Press; Omaha, Nebraska)

“Beef Eater”
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (1991, Fulcrum Publishing; Golden, Colorado)

“Uncle”
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993, Spoon River Poetry Press; Granite Falls, Minnesota)

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom