Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Retreat! RETREAT!!!

Writing is, as I've said before, largely a solitary process.  At the end of the day, it is the writer, alone, in front of his keyboard, typing until his fingers cramp and eyes bleed.  Those who are not like us don't understand, can never understand, why it is that we shun the light or the company of our fellow humans.  But (and believe me, I am loathe to admit this), we do occasionally need human contact.  We do need the validation and camaraderie that comes with being amongst those of our kind, to step out of the "normal world" and into the crossfire of absurdity that only occurs when a room full of creative people are together with the goal of pushing each other to greatness.  And thus was born the concept of the "writer's retreat."

This past week, it was my honor to teach at Seton Hill University as an adjunct professor in their MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program.  I've been doing it for a while, and I always enjoy it, but this time was one of those times I particularly enjoyed because every June, the alumni of the program come together for the In Your Write Mind retreat.  Guest speakers in the industry, pitch sessions, workshops, all that is fine and dandy, and what the retreat is about.  But there is another thing that cannot be overstated in importance:  The participants themselves.  I admit, I'm a bit biased because many of the writers at the retreat are former students of mine, and I consider them no longer students, but colleagues and dear friends.  But the very presence, the interaction, is something all writers need.  In a way, it's validation.  We learn from each other, feed off each others' creative vibe, pick each others' brains, toss around ideas and recharge ourselves from the year's burnout of going through the daily grind.  It's one part support system, one part dysfunctional family.

I go to writing workshops all the time, and I have yet to find one that is as tight-knit as the In Your Write Mind retreat.

And while we're on the subject, I'd like to mention the root of the retreat, the WPF program itself.  You want to be a writer?  You want to write horror, or sci-fi, or romance, or YA, or any of a dozen other "genres" at which the literary community scoff?  Did you think you'd never get an MFA because your tastes run darker than those of the bearded academics who feel that authors like Barker and Lovecraft have no place in the learned world?  Guess what.  Seton Hill has the WPF program that awards an MFA on graduates, and there are two notable differences between this program and every other MFA that I've seen.  First off, students are not handed theory by people who have degrees but have never published, or who have published, but only in an academic or literary environment.  The teachers in the Seton Hill program are WORKING WRITERS.  I should know.  I am one.  Students are taught how to build a novel from the ground up in the genre of their choice by people who actually do that.  They're also paired with one of these writers so as to get real mentoring from one of them.  Go back and read that line again.  Do you realize what a wonderful opportunity that is?  Go look if you don't believe me.  Second, the goal of the program, the "thesis" if you will, is to complete a market-ready manuscript.  To date, five of my former "mentees" have sold their theses to publishers.  And I can't even count the number of novels that come from the program.

So here's my challenge to you:  If you want to be a writer, write your little shriveled heart out all year long, but make time to be around your fellow crazies.  Step into that crossfire of absurdity once in a while where the ideas fly and people actually want you to succeed.  You never know who you will meet.  This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Knost, whose book Writers Workshop of Horror I frequently assign to students.  The man is a bundle of laughs and good will.  I met agents, publishers, and, most importantly, other authors.  I met up with my old friends and we laugh about what a hardass I was to them.  It was a week needed, and I feel reborn.

If you don't believe in magic, go to a writers retreat and watch the sparks fly.  Watch the creative muse dance around our heads, and see the creations that come out of our collaborations.  Watch what happens when a group of writers get into a single room together and are left to their own devices.  And you will believe in magic.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

We lost one of the great luminaries of our time, a man whose prolific works and blinding imagination provided with my generation, as well as many others, with visions of Mars, dystopian futures, demented carnivals and Halloween trees.  He took us to space and beyond, showed us the strange and macabre here on earth, and delved into the mysterious and weird with devilish glee.  His name was Ray Bradbury.

If you've never read Ray Bradbury's work, you can officially consider yourself ignorant.  Whether it was Fahrenheit 451 in high school, or Something Wicked This Way Comes as a child, his work introduced me to wonderful worlds and fantastic characters that stick with me to this day.

I don't believe I'm overstating his worth when I say we would not be where we are, as a society, without this man's imagination.  He gave us our vision of Martians.  He warned us of the dangers of book-burning and censorship.  He gave us stories in which tattoos told stories and made us fear the sound of thunder and wish for an ice-cream suit.  If you've ever been afraid to be taken to into Dark's Carnival, or watched the Twillight Zone, or wished for an electric grandmother, you've been touched by Ray's genius.

I first encountered Ray's work with the movie adaptation of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce 1983) when I was twelve years old.  I was fascinated and terrified by Mr. Dark and his nefarious circus, but when I came home, my brother suggested I try reading the book.  At the time, I wasn't much of a reader, but I sat down in a comfy chair and read it.  Cover to cover.  His writing style spoke to me, his characters stood in the same room, behind the chair and loomed over my tiny body, and I felt the little giggle of nervous fear bubble inside of me with every word.  After that, I sought out his work at our pitiful local library and read The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.  Anything with his name attached to it, I read, saw, watched, and absorbed.  The man was a literary giant to me.  Still is, and will be for the rest of my life.

For those who have not read much of his work, there is a lot of it to read.  Do yourself a favor and dive into his catalogue of work.  You won't be disappointed.

Good night sir.  May flights of Martians fly you into the stars to your rest.