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Retreat, Ritual, and a Chat with the Women of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop
*Note: Though the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Summer Yoga & Writing Retreat at the Château de Verderonne, France has marked its application deadline as May 15th, admissions are rolling until filled and there are still a few spaces. Apply A.S.A.P.
Photo: Rita Banerjee
We hear that writers are crazy and miserable people. I don’t necessarily mean crazy in the clinical, mental illness sort of way, though sometimes we are that too. “Writer crazy” is that unspecified, wild-eyed, solitary unhappiness exalted and romanticized in films, books, television, plays, songs…because what could be more romantic than the manic sadness of a tragic visionary who collapses under her own magnificent world? It’s a blessing and a curse. Meanwhile, my friends who are doctors, therapists, and psychologists vehemently assure me that artists who struggle with mental illness are usually less productive or entirely unproductive in periods of illness compared to their periods of stability, wellness, or recovery. While instability and isolation do not support sustained prolific creativity, fortunately, the road to “You can get it!” is paved with easily accessible self-care and support. It’s just a matter of finding the practices and communities that support you.
Many practices that you can do on your own, at home, and for free or for rather cheap can beautifully maintain a creative writer’s balance and feed her craft: yoga, meditation, journaling, mandala coloring, breathing exercises, running, swimming, riding, long walks or hikes in nature…Whatever it is, it’s important that the activity is performed with awareness, mindfulness, and an engagement with the present moment. It should render your mind a quiet, fertile place. Ritual feels like the perfect word for the act of cultivating a nourishing writing practice—what you do to prepare for (or complement) writing should be a kind of dedication with mental, physical, and emotional signals that communicate to your mind/body that it’s time to create.
I knew this when I began my Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, but while I am relatively disciplined at home, there was no denying that teaching, interning, department extras, and classes were taking over my writing, sleeping, and breathing time. My health, already bad, declined, and I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Even simple tasks like grocery shopping and cooking were exhausting. Then I switched genres from Poetry to Fiction, finally admitting that most of all I wanted to write a novel (set in France), which was a lovely, freeing, and very work-intensive decision. I needed to do something big to get the project off the ground and get myself together. That’s when I heard about the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop (CWW), founded by writers Diana Norma Szokolyai and Rita Banerjee, and their Summer Yoga & Writing Retreat at the Château de Verderonne, France. I thought, A retreat—what a magnificent idea. Someone would say, “Jess, do yoga now. Here’s a pillow.” And “Jess, write now. I’ll take care of lunch.” I’d pay for that. A few months later, there I was.
Retreats are immersions: they deepen and intensify your practice and afford the time, space, and experience to figure out how to transmute those teaching as rituals in your daily life. And Château de Verderonne feels like a sumptuous two week ritual. Yoga in the gardens or, weather not permitting, in our private salon, is led twice a day, before breakfast and dinner, by the wonderfully gifted Elissa Joi Lewis, who also teaches art classes. Elissa, full of knowledge and always ready with props and suggestions for modifications to intensify or relax a pose, pulls out all the stops to conjure up creativity through breathing exercises, postures, chants, mudras (ritual symbols or gestures), meditation, and yogic philosophy, playing consciously with the kinship between practicing yoga and practicing art.
Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller Series, argues that ritual is the key to creating art. In From Where You Dream: the process of writing fiction, he explains that you must prepare for writing by entering a trance and focusing on the breath in a quiet space, much like the centering meditation of a yoga class. Once you’re there and centered, you must stay present with sensation and allow yourself to create directly and organically from that “dream space.” Like in yoga, you set an intention to stay open to all experience and at the same time, remain unattached to ideas, hence the popular mantra, “I am not my mind.” Butler writes that the best art comes from this “moment to moment sensual experience,” and “non-art” is full of summarized or intellectualized reported experience.
Those “moment to moment sensory experience[s]” are much more nuanced than you’d think—all the available senses are involved. In my Yoga Teacher Training at Kripalu, I learned that the body holds memories, a phenomenon addressed in the study of somatics, a branch of psychology that examines the mind-body connection. In certain poses, you may feel spontaneously happy, sad, angry, frightened, blissful—you may be flooded with memories, sensations, and epiphanies. You may weep or laugh without knowing why (or knowing all too well why). Stay with present if you can: breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow (or BRFWA). Your body is releasing trapped energy, memories, and emotions—parts of your past that you have been carrying unconsciously, perhaps as tension, shortness of breath, pain, or anxiety. What does the experience feel like, smell like, look like, sound like, and taste like? The information you need to have a cathartic experience is the same information you need to create one on the page. Butler argues that in order to make art, we have to dive into the unconscious mind, confront whatever pain dwells there, and use that intense awareness to write from the “white hot center.” This is just another way to access the unconscious.
That’s why I find asana (yoga postures), good practice for writing and vice versa. Asana comprises a moving meditation that deepens the trance and simultaneously directs awareness inside and outside the body so that I experience the world fully without translating sensation and impression into ideas. Now I keep a notebook and pen beside my mat so I can jot down notes and phrases that feel organic, and likewise, I keep a mat by my writing space so I can explore sensation when I feel stuck. Originally, the asana component of yoga was developed to prepare the body to comfortably sustain sitting meditation, which may as well be a writing session. Writer Natalie Goldberg draws on her experience studying sitting meditation with Zen Master Roshi in her craft guide Writing Down the Bones. Her writing exercises and advice are a natural extension of Zen meditation, focusing on mindfulness, acceptance, and quieting the “monkey mind,” a Buddhist and Hindu term for a mind that chatters with endless distractions (sounds familiar). She currently leads workshops and writing retreats using this meditative approach to writing.
And then comes the love. One of my biggest struggles with yoga is the “unconditional love for all beings” business, which is essential to yoga and writing, and probably key to happiness and eternal bliss. Loving yourself is hard, especially if, like most people, you’ve been through abuse and struggle with shame, self-loathing, and its variants. And then there’s the rest of the world, full of lovely people, and also murderers, rapists, child abusers, puppy-kickers, and Bill O’Reilly. It hurts me to imagine loving them, but the intention of unconditional love is the North Star to a life of ahimsa (non-violence), and the pain points to areas that are still tender in my life. Those white hot centers. Love for all beings also kindles a writer’s ability to empathize with and understand every possible character, no matter how terrible, wonderful, or strange their (or your) actions may be, and love them despite it. It’s like what Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of the critically-loved Revenge of the Radio Active Lady, told me in workshop when I was struggling to humanize a villain: “Make him love something you love. You’ll have that in common and you’ll sympathize with him. Then write from there.” Great advice. Thus, my monster got a puppy that afternoon and an affinity for fashion and fine incense.
And it was in the Château de Verderonne workshop that I got good advice on how to rein that puppy in. Outside of yoga class, there are allotted times for free-writing, workshops, and craft talks, all of which made me realize how much I needed a non-judgmental writing community. An MFA is a lot of great things, but most MFA workshops don’t necessarily give you room to make (many) mistakes. That’s what your community of writers is for—they are the friends you can trust (inside and outside an MFA) to look at your messy, fragile baby bird novel, as ugly and wet as it is, and not to smash it into the ground. Instead, they’ll give you advice to help it grow up into some more presentable stage of bird. And whether I was in yoga class or workshop at the retreat, I had room to experiment and could trust gentle yet wise guidance. Yoga asks the practitioner to sacrifice her ego, just as the writer must surrender her ego in order to allow herself the space to draft and try out those imperfect ideas. (Or lay those imperfect eggs? I don’t want to stretch this metaphor too much.)
With the combination of drifting around the Château with blissfully few responsibilities and the structure of the retreat, I was impressively productive even though I went on all the optional excursions to Paris, Chantilly, Picardy, and Versailles. I outlined the entire novel, wrote new scenes, and revised old ones, and came away with a real plan. I even shared some of the work I had written at Spoken Word Paris, an indie literary performance gathering, mostly comprised of expat writers.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be invited back as a guest professor and I couldn’t be more delighted to be a part of it. To celebrate and explore the symbiotic nature of yoga and writing, and the love affair between ritual and retreat, I’ve conducted an interview with Elissa, Norma, and Rita.
A chat with the women of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Yoga and Writing Retreat:
Jessica: What are some of your favorite yoga poses, breathing exercises, and/or meditations for stimulating (or sustaining) creativity?
Elissa: To increase creativity and flow, hip-openers like Pigeon pose and Lizard pose (Uttan Pristhasana) are my favorite. When you release tension in your hips, you also release the emotions that come bubbling up. The hips and pelvis are related to the Svadisthana chakra and the water element which governs the area of creation and creativity. These postures help clear writer's block by encouraging creative energy to flow without over-efforting.
Also, Nadi Shodana pranayama (also called alternate nostril breathing) is a wonderful breathing technique to begin or complete your practice and is appropriate for anyone. It stimulates a daydream-like state, where our senses draw in (called pratyahara) and we can disengage from the external world. It helps us develop the focus and concentration needed in meditation. I think any meditation that works for you is excellent. Meditation is the key to open the mind to inspired creative thought. It brings you back to yourself, to moments of truth, without mind chatter, self-criticism and self-consciousness.
Jessica: How does yogic philosophy parallel your personal artistic manifesto?
Norma: Both good writing and good yoga should bring us closer to the truths of our inner and outer worlds. Yoga postures allow us to explore our flexibility and grace, to release tensions, and to engage the mind in meditation. From a place of relaxation and letting go, one begins to feel more centered and aware of things as they are. In this heightened state of awareness, one can more deeply see and appreciate the multi-faceted truths of the world around us. Our inner world also crystallizes and comes into more clarity. This parallels the process of being deeply engaged in the flow of creative writing. As we pick up the pen, or begin to type, we take various perspectives and positions; we explore the tensions we’ve felt, imagined or observed, and endeavor to release the unspoken onto the page. Like yoga, writing is an exercise. Similarly, good writing leads us to a heightened awareness and appreciation for things we may not have seen before.
Jessica: What's your advice to someone who wants to practice their craft and yoga symbiotically?
Elissa: There are many ways to incorporate writing into your yoga practice, or vice versa. I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is to begin or develop a regular yoga and meditation practice and then spend a few moments writing/recording. This will help you pause reflect and refill your creative well. Begin by opening the body with yoga to release physical tension. Next, take your meditation seat and notice the moments of silence and possibility. Observe what is changing inside and your ability to pay attention. Then, open your notebook, record the images and let the words gush from your pen.
As an alternative, you can try listening to a guided Yoga Nidra (a relaxation meditation often practiced in Corpse Pose) and writing when you wake from your session. Because Yoga Nidra is practiced lying down, it allows the body to deeply relax and uses imagery to release memories from the subconscious and the unconscious. It helps to not suppress things, but to let them flow. The symbiotic relationship between yoga and writing carries us toward a deeper self-knowledge.
Jessica: How does community support your yoga practice and/or artistic practice?
Norma: The image of the solitary writer is deeply rooted in the romanticized myth of the lone, genius writer. In truth, most great writers were part of communities comprised of other writers, intellectuals, and artists that inspired each other. Many great literary movements and unforgettable manifestos came out of the collaboration of such communities of writers.
The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop (CWW) started as a community-based organization, an all-inclusive forum led by a group of graduate students from the faculty of arts and sciences, as well as the graduate school of education at Harvard University. We wanted to hear all voices, not just university students, and we would get a diversity of participants, including retired shopkeepers, single mothers, and artists. We had at least one thing in common that brought us together—we wanted to write well.
It is common, in all trades and professions, to get feedback on work, and so it is the same with the profession of writing. Before a piece of writing is finalized and polished, it can often be very helpful to get critical feedback from a supportive and trustworthy community of writers. Many of the writers in our workshops have stayed in touch over the years and continue to support one another. It is tremendous to see writers grow and blossom over time.
In addition to encouragement, support, and critical feedback, I think one of the most powerful things a community can offer a writer is accountability. If you know that people are counting on you, then you are more likely to follow through. Whether your goals are short term or long term, a community can hold you to your word.
Of course, the same principles apply to a community supporting one’s yoga practice.
Jessica: What is your most important yoga-inspired art-epiphany?
Rita: Last summer at the 2013 Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Yoga & Writing Retreat at the Château de Verderonne in Picardy, France, each day began with a 90-minute session of yoga. Shortly after sunrise, Elissa would lead us, a gaggle of nervous writers and part-time yogaphiles, through the picturesque lawns of the Château de Verderonne. She would always find a scenic spot to hold our yoga sessions. Sometimes, it would be the secluded, dappled spot near the botanical gardens where willows edged the lake. Other times, we would meet on the sprawling meadows with a view of the rising château behind us, and on cloud-covered days, we would practice indoors in the 19th century glass sun-rooms near the sand gardens of the manor house. Our practice each day would begin with sun salutations and gradually transition into more difficult poses. Elissa included elements of vinyasa, ashtanga, and yoga nidra into her practice, and each pose would help to focus on and release sources of tension and stress.
Following yoga, we would sit down for a wonderful home-cooked petit déjeuner, a French-style breakfast, together. After breakfast, our morning classes began. Each morning we would meet in the red salon room of the Château de Verderonne manor house to discuss and debate elements of craft in our own creative writing. For instance, on a given morning, we might sit down to take a class on French poetic forms, or one on Emotion and Suspense in Theatre and Fiction, or one on Evocative Object, or one on Developing Characters and Personas. In each writing seminar, a Cambridge Writers’ Workshop instructor would introduce and teach elements of creative writing craft followed by a writing prompt meant to provoke and generate new work. The morning craft seminars would be followed by lunch, free writing sessions, and afternoon workshops where retreat participants would share and critique each other’s work.
Having the craft classes and writing workshops bracketed by yoga sessions really helped to open up the flow of creativity and imaginative thinking. During the summer retreat, I began to write the first fully formed chapters of my novel, and used the techniques I had learned in Diana Norma Szokolyai’s craft of writing seminar on character development to create holistic fictional characters with individual identities, agendas, and flaws.
Having started this practice of morning yoga sessions followed by an hour or two of intense creative writing at our summer retreat, I continued to work this way throughout the fall. Right before Thanksgiving, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop partnered with the Ashtanga Yoga Studios in Manhattan to have a two-day yoga & writing retreat at the Ashtanga Yoga Shala in the East Village. It was during this weekend retreat, that I had my biggest epiphany. I realized that no matter how stressed out I felt in life, or overwhelmed with deadlines and obligations, taking an hour to do yoga followed by an hour of working creatively, on my own writing and art, really sparked my creativity and ability to solve problems faster. It was during this yoga weekend retreat, that I sat down, and wrote my short story, “Darling Marie.” I was learning how to pace narratives, create suspense, and develop complicated, evocative characters for my novel, and as an exercise, I would write short stories, stretches of dialogues, and fully-sketched scenes to see if I could sustain a narrative and make sure that story had a believable beginning, middle, and end. It was during our yoga & writing weekend in New York, I realized that after the physically activity and mental calming which comes with a productive session yoga, my mind was a bit like a blank but fertile slate. After a particular good session of yoga, the focus of my writing felt sharp, the words flew on the page without hesitation, and my ability to develop fully formed characters, scenes, and stylistic sentences came with ease.
Jessica: What inspired you to run this retreat in France?
Rita: In the summer of 2010 when I was visiting Paris for a conference, Norma was a resident performing artist and WOOFer at the Château de Sacy in Picardy, France. It was during this first summer in 2010, that we decided to hold a private, invite-only creative writing workshop and mini-retreat at the Château de Sacy. Hermine Demoriane, the lady of the manor, was our host, and she let us wander her beautiful organic gardens, art galleries, and instillations as we wrote and searched for inspiration in the French countryside. We had such as great time at Sacy that we decided to plan a bigger, bonafide writing retreat there, which became the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Eco-living and Writing Retreat at Château de Sacy in the Summer of 2012. Our Sacy retreat featured home-made, environmentally friendly gourmet meals produced straight from Château de Sacy organic gardens and potager, a variety of craft of writing seminars and creative writing workshops, and literary tours of Paris and Chantilly. Following our wonderfully writing-intense retreat at Sacy, in 2013, we expanded our retreat to include more participants and introduced daily yoga and arts courses at the gorgeous and relaxing Château de Verderonne with the help of Elissa Lewis, our wonderful New York-based Yoga & Arts Coordinator. Since 2013, our summer yoga & writing retreat has been based at the Château de Verderonne, where participants have a chance to stroll through the château’s lovely botanical gardens, take a swim or go boating in the beautiful lily-filled lake surrounding the château, enjoy a traditional home-made French meal, or take a moment to rejuvenate with yoga while working on their new literary works and long-term writing projects.
Norma: For as long as I remember, I have been enamored of France. I started learning French from my father when I was seven. When I was still a child and could only dream of reading the language, my father gave me my first novel written in French, Eugénie Grandet by Honore de Balzac. From the age of eleven, when I first started studying French in school, I knew I would continue deeper study of French. I eventually earned my master’s in French and have spent over three years living, working, and studying in Paris. During this time, I visited the French countryside often and dreamed of creating an arts colony on a large estate, where musicians, writers, and artists of all disciplines could live and work together. This may sound completely fantastical and simply the fruit of a vivid daydreamer’s mind. However, to create wonderful projects, we must first dream. On peut toujours rêver!
A couple of years later, I was living in Boston and was involved with the founding of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop (CWW). I instantly recognized co-founder Rita Banerjee as the kind of vivacious writer, teeming with intellectual and creative energy, that I would love the opportunity to collaborate with. We talked about our ideas for long hours, led writing workshops together, and supported one another in our writing goals (and still do). Among her many academic interests, (she now holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard), Rita had also studied French, and we would often talk about French literature, criticism, and philosophy. So while Rita was visiting me in 2010 during a two-week WWOOF/arts residency I was completing at the Château de Sacy, it seemed natural to seriously discuss the possibility of a writers’ retreat in France. We both noticed something special created by the atmosphere of the estate tucked away in the French countryside, something that was especially conducive to inspiring writing.
We spent the next two years organizing ourselves in order to create a writers’ retreat that would offer respite from the intensity of fast-spaced, technology driven, modern living. We wanted writers to enjoy the splendor and beauty of the French countryside, with a hint of nostalgia, creating an atmosphere that nurtures creativity and wellbeing. In 2012, we held our first CWW writing and eco-living retreat in France. The following year, we moved to a larger estate and decided to add yoga instruction, because we had started doing yoga on our own in the gardens the first year and found that it helped after long hours of writing. Elissa Lewis, our fabulous Yoga and Arts Coordinator, also happens to be passionate about French and is currently undertaking graduate study in French. Currently residing in Manhattan, she has experience living and working in France, and she finds great fulfillment being able to teach yoga in France.
The retreat is located at Château de Verderonne, just one hour from Paris by train. We take excursions to Paris to experience the café culture, visit bookshops, museums, and literary hotspots. With our connections to current writers living in Paris (including Anglophone expats), we have the opportunity to hear and participate in readings at some of the most exciting literary venues of today. All of us at CWW are thrilled that we can offer such a high quality writers’ retreat in a beautiful, historic setting, with lush gardens, delicious cuisine, and most of all—a supportive community of writers.
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