Coming out of ten days of workshopping at Sage Hill has been a bit like coming out of a cult – a nice cult, though – in that, it took approximately six days of pounding myself on my mountain bike in the Rocky Mountains to deprogram. The experience was powerful. I don’t know if all groups experienced the same intensity as ours did … maybe there’s something about writing non-fiction – heavy emotional shit from our lives – that makes us more vulnerable than writing fiction would. The writing at times was explosive, heart-breaking, funny, brilliant … always honest. We sometimes felt broken open right there in a workshop, in front of a group of seven relative strangers. Did having an all-female group (not including our wonderful facilitator, John Vaillant) have anything to do with it? I think it may have been one reason why we were able to scoop our guts out and place them, steaming and gooey, on the table. I know. Gross.
Maybe the fact that we were living in a monastery contributed to the potency of the experience. Sage Hill Writing takes place at St. Michael’s retreat near Lumsden, Saskatchewan. It’s run by Franciscan Friars, (just like Friar Tuck on Robin Hood!) whom I called Jesuit priests the whole time I was there. Without getting all ‘out there’ on you, I have to admit, there was a very distinct energy about the place. I might even go so far as to call it ‘spiritual’ in an atheist kind of way.
I was strangely invigorated the whole ten days, to a point where I was convinced I must be severely ADHD. But I was hyper-focussed, no Ritalin required. I expended so much energy – physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, socially – that I thought for sure I’d crash, but everyday I felt more charged up. I was wide awake at 6 almost every morning, (I get an image of Frankenstein coming to life, popping up in bed, arms extended), laced up my runners, ran for half an hour to an hour. And this is after being unable to run for a year and a half due to some undiagnosable knee injury. It didn’t matter how late I’d stayed up, sipping or gulping wine, singing oldies while Brian or Spider accompanied us on guitar, or dancing in the moonlight…. I still popped out of bed raring to go. Well, a couple of mornings, admittedly, I slept till 7, maybe even 7:30 once.
After my morning run, the days were packed. For one, we ate constantly – 8 AM, noon and 5:15 PM. It seemed we left the dining room then bam!, it was time to turn around and come back and eat again. The food was good, and the cooks made huge attempts to accommodate gluten-, lactose-intolerant pains-in-the-butt like me, but after about a week, whenever mealtime rolled around, I heard groans of: “OMG, we have to eat again?” and complaints of major sugar-buzzes. I thankfully couldn’t eat the desserts. One night they even had tubs of vanilla ice cream with about twenty toppings – chocolate syrup, fruit, chocolate chips, even Reece’s Pieces! I think someone mentioned they forgot the sprinkles. Was that Elaine? It was a spread fit for a five year old’s birthday party. I, of course, could only eat the fruit. I’m sure a person could pack on a few pounds at Sage Hill, but my metabolism was galloping along so fast I actually lost weight.
Between grazings, we had our workshops. Some groups seemed to hold workshops everyday, but we held them every second day for about 2 ½ or 3 hours. We could have talked for ten hours though. We had so much to say about each other’s writing, about the craft of writing, about our emotional processes, our lives … It seems we talked about everything except verb tense (inside joke). The feedback was insightful, thoughtful, full of wisdom, skill, experience. We learned so much about the writing process by delving into each other’s work. Learned so much about ourselves and each other.
We had a stellar line up of facilitators: Ken Babstock, poetry; Spider Robinson, science fiction; John Vaillant, nonfiction; Kimmy Beach & John Gould for introductory poetry & fiction; Helen Humphreys, fiction workshop; Lawrence Hill, fiction colloquium. (I cut and pasted this paragraph from Rhona McAdam’s blog – hope you don’t mind, Rhona!)
John Vaillant, as mentioned, was our trusty workshop leader. Poor John, he thought for sure he would have two men in the group – Jan from Sweden, and Carle. Little did he know the “j” is pronounced as “j”, not “y”, and the “e” in Carle is not silent. He spent ten days “herding” us (his word choice) from place to place, or following us. Once he even followed us into a women’s clothing store in the bustling town of Lumsden, where we proceeded to tell the shopkeeper that we were John’s wives. Being a cheeky kind of guy, John asked if they carried any of that full body, scratchy Mormon underwear. After browsing for a few minutes he’d had enough, and as he was leaving, Carle, quick on the uptake, yelled after him, “Honey, could you leave your wallet?”
On a more serious note, John was a brilliant facilitator. Generous with his time and feedback, insightful, empathetic, diplomatic, sensitive … all the qualities necessary to manage oft-times emotionally-charged workshops. He is also an incredibly skilled writer, and able to articulate what he does to make his writing work. Probably his biggest asset was a strong sense of humour. We all had many belly laughs over the ten days.
When we weren’t in a workshop, or doing one-on-one sessions with John, we were reading each other’s work or writing in our tiny rooms, where we emulated the monks’ lives of austerity (dictionary definition: plain and simple, without luxury or self-indulgence, suggesting strict self-denial, without distractions or decoration) I shared my space with dozens of tiny bugs. A native Saskatchewanian told me what they were called, but the name escapes me. I spent a lot of time dabbing them with wet toilet paper and flushing them down the toilet until by about day eight they got the hint and became less copious.
So, what else did we do…..?
We spent a lot of time in the lounge area, in overstuffed chairs facing out on the rolling prairie; partly because it was the only place we could get internet reception, partly because there was comfort in being in the same room as like-minded folk, working quietly on our own, or chatting in small groups. It was also a great viewing area for the intense lightning storms that passed through. Unfortunately, one of the storms took out our internet for a few days, but that got us all off Facebook and back to our writing. We also had a tornado warning, but nothing came of it….
Evenings were often full – we had a keynote speaker, Bob Calder, and Q & A with Douglas Gibson, two evenings of faculty readings, and two of participant readings. (I’m still not sure what possessed me to read a section of “God Or Boys”, the irreverent recounting of my time spent as an adolescent Born-Again Pentecostal. In a monastery!!) We also did some good old ‘round the campfire singing and guitar playing (sans campfire), mostly of oldies: Beatles, Cat Stevens, Neil Young… even ‘Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky’ by Pete Seeger! (We had just workshopped one of my chapters with reference to that song – my 13-year-old vow to myself that I would never, ever, end up like my parents, living in a little box of ticky-tacky).
Most people walked a lot – on the mowed trails through the fields near the monastery if willing to consort with the ticks – or on the roads, if not a tick-lover. I visited the trails on day one, looked down and watched a throng of tickly ticks scuttling up my legs toward my shorts, pulled one off that had sunk it’s ghastly grippy grabbers into my thigh, and this wasn’t even in the long grass! Back in my room, the repulsive buggers kept creeping out of nooks and crannies of my sandals for two days. Due to my numerous, dramatic recountings of the event, I got the reputation of “tick lady”. Someone mentioned some people have more of a certain chemical in their blood that attracts the ticks to them. I must have a lot of it. They seemed to love me. People wanted me to walk with them to act as tick-magnet, clear the way like a metal detector. Needless to say, I stuck to the roads for my walks and runs for the rest of the time.
Okay, so now I feel like I’m trying to make excuses for why I didn’t actually get much writing done…..
I did get a lot of ‘planning’ for writing done. In fact, I had some incredible a-hah! moments. I realized early on that I wouldn’t get any new material written in only ten days, and at first I panicked, because I had been languishing in Squamish, unable to figure out how to go forward in my new coming-of-age memoir. I had about 200 pages already written, but it was all over the place: some full chapters, some short stories, some floating scenes. Big gaps in time, events that didn’t necessarily connect but that I felt were important…. So at Sage Hill, I decided to do two things: find the beginning to my memoir out of a possible three chapters, and get a detailed, definitive structure for all the scenes and chapters I’d already written and still had to write. I accomplished both of these things – even came up with a new method of plotting, which I’ll share in another post.
Somehow, in ten days, I was able to figure out what to leave in and what to take out, what was missing, what scene had to come next, and why. And that made the next scene slot into place. Cause and effect. I had that posted in bright purple Crayola marker on my wall. Cause and effect. Every scene for a reason. Every scene fits with the theme. It was like a horizon opening up before me.
After a particularly intense session of plotting, I went for a long run and got all metaphorical and sentimentally sappy about the long, straight stretches of road spread out before me. There I was, able to see where I was going for miles ahead, with nary a dip or bend, and it seemed a metaphor for the sudden clarity I felt about my manuscript. I was finally able to see and plan ahead. Right to the end of the manuscript. Just days before, back home in Squamish, where the trails I ride and run are lined with ligament-ripping roots and rocks, lung-shredding hills, dip and doodle after dip and doodle, I’d been stagnating in my writing, unable to see around the next bend. On the Saskatchewan prairie, I saw my way clear.
I also had another brain-storm when I went on my longest run – a loop that started on the road, then along the train tracks, and ended up going through neck-high grass back to St. Michaels. I figured out the theme for my manuscript, and thus, for my whole life. This is what Sage Hill did to me: epiphany after epiphany. It couldn’t have been something in the water – it tasted like shit so I bought a massive bottle of water from town. It must have been something in the air. In the endless sky.
Anyway, I was running, and running and running, and it seemed further than it should have been, and I was wishing I’d gotten better instructions from John, and I was hoping I wasn’t lost, like I often am due to my terrible sense of direction. As I headed off the dirt road onto a smaller road toward the railway tracks, I saw all sorts of signs of animals in the mud, and suddenly, I got a vivid image of a pack of wolves attacking me, one ripping out my throat while another one hung off my neck. I thought of the note I’d left on my bed saying I’d gone for a run, and where, just in case something unspeakable happened. Then I realized– Holy shit! It’s a free day! If I don’t show up for lunch no one will notice. Maybe even for dinner. I could be bleeding to death, or getting eaten alive and no one would know. They won’t find my body till tomorrow….
This is something I do often – slip into vivid, bloody, catastrophic fantasies. Then I get down on myself for it. Like this time. I gave myself shit: “You idiot! You always do this! What is wrong with you? All you’re doing is going for a stupid little run. It’s not like you’re climbing Mt. Everest….”
And as I gave myself shit, I kept running. I didn’t turn back onto the safe road and run toward the farmhouses along the route I was familiar with. I ran toward the tracks, further into unknown territory. (I know, I know. I was only a few kilometers from the damned monastery…)
And then I realized what I was doing. I was scared but I was still running, and I said to myself: “Yeah, I have these daymares, I have this fear that keeps raising its ugly head, BUT, I keep going. I keep running.
What an epiphany!
I’ve read so many books with titles like: “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway”, “The Happy Neurotic”, “The Worry Solution”, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”, and here I am, finally, at age 51 and I can say, I DO IT ANYWAY!
And really, when I look back on my life, something I’m slowly starting to see as I write my second memoir is: I’ve always done it anyway.
Anyway, back to Sage Hill. The final evening descended upon us…. At our Last Supper, the friars did their annual thing – they decorated the dining room with butterflies: hanging butterfly balloons, butterfly cut-outs on the walls beside Jesus on the cross, butterfly napkins, tablecloths, wine glasses… We had the absolute worst gluten/lactose free meal of the ten days – heavily breaded (hopefully rice flour) chicken drumsticks and yam fries. We presented John with a very expensive framed dollar bill origami pig (we argued at length about what to get him and the artistically-inclined won out over the expensive Scotch-inclined), but we had no card. We had somehow lost the pig-rolling-in-its-own-filth card, after having all signed it so eloquently (I even drew a herd of ticks marching across the page). The pig theme is yet another inside joke that I won’t get into in this post. It has something to do with Rhona’s story of pig processing plants in Italy, and especially of the photo of the sweet little pig with its snout stuffed out a tiny portal, sniffing freedom before going to a ‘better’ place. Anyway, that’s why John got pig gifts. We also gave him a scalp massager ….
So, that’s what Sage Hill was like for me: a spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically, socially, creatively rockin’ place. Ten days was nowhere near enough time, but I don’t think I could have stayed much longer. I didn’t want to leave, but needed to leave. I loved my group but couldn’t handle one more workshop. I hated the bugs in my room, but felt mild pangs of regret as I flushed the last one down the toilet…. Very strange.