What could be better than going to Baja Mexico in February – from snow drifts to sand dunes; from tires spinning on ice to waves crashing on the beach; from white-out conditions to bougainvillea and cactus flowers in bloom? What could be better than all that? Going to Writing-down-the-Baja, a writers retreat led by author Ellen Waterston of The Writing Ranch, and attended by bra fitting expert and author Elisabeth Dale. Not that I knew the latter would be there or that there would be surreptitious glances at my breasts to determine did I know what I was doing bra-wise. No, that was a double-barreled bonus.
For six days, I wrote in the quiet surroundings of Serendipity, a B & B built and run by American ex-pat Sharon Morris and her husband bit by bit over twenty-some years. An oasis in the desert of the southern Baja peninsula on the outskirts of a tiny town called Todos Santos.
Sharon and her able staff fed us three meals a day. No need to think about anything except writing. And oh man, the food! The morning started with 9 of us gathering for breakfast and conversation about how our homework went the day before, or the latest news from the States, or personal stories. We bonded over burritos.
Sharon offered freshly squeezed passion fruit juice to begin and then we chewed our way through a bowl of fresh fruit and a choice of cereals, followed by a main breakfast course which could be a breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs and cheese or Sharon’s interpretation of chilaquiles or eggs or an omlette. To further stretch our stomachs we wrapped up with either bacon or sausage and a side of toast, Belgian waffle, or croissant and THEN we waddled to our outdoor seminar on the patio overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Lunch was equally generous – tostados, homemade fish and chicken tamales, posole to sell your soul for a second helping, fresh jicama salad. Lord, I can’t remember it all. Suffice to say we did not suffer for our art. We had a chicken mole for dinner one night that I wake up moaning for in the small hours. My husband wonders.
The real main course was the retreat. Every morning, Ellen led us through writing prompts designed to tease out new material from overworked brains. Day 1 and 2 we worked on poetry and even those in the group who declared a fear of poetry surprised themselves. A haiku a day provided mental warm-ups for all. Day 3 we tackled fiction, day 4 non-fiction and day 5 we were challenged to write “Chapter 1”. Afternoons we devoted to writing and wandering in the desert or on the beach or sitting by the pool watching whales spout in the ocean. We read our best work aloud to each other on the final day. Reading aloud to a group – a new experience for me – exposed our vulnerable words to the air and others but in this group, I felt safe.
The real marvel to me was Ellen’s ability to listen and hone in on the core of each person’s writing. Often, I would respond to the prompts with a stream of consciousness outpouring not necessarily having any idea at all but on reading aloud, Ellen would find the nub worth pulling. I struggle with big ideas but what I grasped through listening to Ellen comment on others work, was big ideas can be exposed through gathered small thoughts.
I’ve done a bunch of on-line writing courses, two of them excellent (The Story Intensive by Sarah Selecky and Introduction to Creative Non Fiction by the eponymous magazine and taught by Meghan O’Gieblyn) but I wanted to connect with other writers face to face. I wanted a sense of community, shared purpose, and belonging. My regular work life is office administration and has been for 35 years. Writing is a new calling and I needed to find other souls occupied in the same solitary work and find support in this new creative experience. I wanted time to explore possibilities away from the dust on my writing table lamp insisting it be tended to immediately. The retreat delivered.
I attended a poetry reading, for god’s sake! How cool is that!
No one doubted we were writers. The assumption among my compadres: We write therefore we are writers, an exhilarating affirmation.
Words of wisdom from Ellen
Blogging has been my writing focus for nearly 5 years. It makes me write. But with limited writing time due to the aforementioned day job, Ellen cautioned “Just be sure it isn’t draining your creative tank.” I ponder this even as I write this post.
“What is your commitment to writing?” This question challenges me to plan and then deliver. She threw the gauntlet and I caught it.
I offer photos of the incomparable location which, I feel is important to add, is safer than most cities in this hemisphere. I walked alone on the beach every day. I walked along a dusty road where sand-coloured Mexican mutts investigated my presence with sniffs and yips. I ate and drank whatever was offered with no ill effect. On that note I leave you with this haiku.
Comida Todos Santos
I ate more beans
this week than in my lifetime
no writer’s block here.