Bringing out authentic writing
December 16, 2005
Michael Hawkins and David Hicks have been facilitating writing retreats in the Rocky Mountains for two years, but the knowledge and depth of experience they bring to the retreats can hardly be measured in years. Together, they create a safe, energizing environment in which writers can access their true voices and emerge with powerful pieces. Summit Daily News interviewed the two men, to get their perspective on the power of retreats.QHow do you approach the retreat – what kind of atmosphere do you intend on creating during the weekend, and how does it help writers?AMichael: (We have) a vision of writing, teaching and meditating in a beautiful place. I have benefited from several Buddhist meditation retreats in the Theravada tradition, so it made sense to emulate that particular environment. This includes the idea of Noble Silence, in which retreatants talk as little as possible during specific periods of time, as a way of respecting the inner quiet that everyone is cultivating. Also, we provide detailed structure for each day’s events, so that everyone knows when to expect meditation, writing, readings, writing feedback sessions or whatever. And finally, we try to provide a safe atmosphere for writing the hardest thing. It’s important for everyone to take risks in their writing, to expose themselves, to dig down into the nitty gritty. Group meditation creates an intimacy that is hard to describe, and this automatically lends itself to a safe atmosphere. The readings and feedback sessions help retreatants get at the specific things that want to be written – things that are “up” in this person’s life. Within a short time, retreatants create deep friendships that, from what we hear, continue long after the retreat ends.
David: We try to create a peaceful and communal atmosphere. First, peaceful, because we believe that writers too often write “in their heads” – they overthink everything. The result is that characters become generic; plots become predictable; and dialogue serves the plot – all because the writer knows where the story is supposed to go and is very preoccupied with getting us there. Also because they’re in their heads too much, they end up “telling” too much (violating that well-known guideline, “show, don’t tell”), which means the reader doesn’t get to enjoy the discovery of truth, that wonderful thing that happens when you read a good book or story. So, we try to keep it quiet, and we meditate the first night, to establish the mood: This will be a place where you can shut off your mind and access the truth of your (or your characters’) experiences. All art comes from the unconscious, but we can’t access it unless we can shut off the stream of our consciousness, or at least reduce it to a dribble. So peace and meditation help the process that we advocate.Second, we try to create a communal space. We often attract writers who would like to take their work to the next level, and that means getting something published, and that world, the publishing world, is very communal. Writers can write all they want in solitude, but at some point they have to show their work to someone, bounce ideas off other writers, workshop their work, ask someone “how does this sound?” and so on. And then they need to put themselves out there, meet some editors, some published authors – people who can help them to get their work published.For our last retreat we thought about having it catered, because that would just make everything a lot easier, but then we realized that catering it would mean taking away one of the best “team-building” things we do – making meals together. Someone cooks, other people help, someone else does dishes, and so on. It’s really one of the nicest things about the retreats. Real bonding happens in the kitchen. Some of the writers who met at that retreat still keep in touch, still share work and get feedback – and that’s been very, very good for them, because before the retreat, they were pretty much on their own, wondering if their writing was any good. Now they know what their strengths are, because they are reinforced through these meetings with the other writers, and their writing has improved markedly (I know, because I’ve seen it) due to this interaction.
QWhat do you see occur at your retreats, as far as transformation, growth or bonding?AMichael: We see a lot of resistance through the first two or three meditation sessions – resistance to sitting still, to not talking, to facing what may be “down there.” We also see resistance to writing the hard stuff. Then, about halfway through the second day, a type of rawness arises in everyone. Tears may flow, but mostly we see everyone moving to a place of trust – trust in themselves, trust in fellow retreatants, trust in David and me, and trust in whatever it is that wants to come out. It’s remarkable how far folks go in such a relatively short period of time. I believe that it extends beyond writing, and can be pivotal for participants in other areas of their lives.David: We see a remarkable, beautiful thing. People sign up because they want to get some free time to write and go to a pretty place, or because they’ve heard that I’m a good editor or that Mike’s an amazing astrologer, but they end up having a wonderfully holistic experience and it affects them physically, emotionally and spiritually. At every one of our retreats, almost everyone breaks down in tears at some point (including us, the teachers), because, after all, when you slow down your life and let your unconscious desires, urges, impulses and creativity bubble up, then you’re allowing to your consciousness everything that you’ve worked so hard to repress all these years, just for survival’s sake. QMichael, what does David bring to the retreat?
ADavid brings a willingness to walk the talk. He doesn’t just insist on writing authenticity for participants, but he demands it of himself, as well. By exposing himself through his own writing, he clears space for others to do it, too. At that crucial moment between resistance and letting go, David is there to cross the bridge with each retreatant. He gets raw and honest, and his presence is infectious that way.As a professional writer and editor, he is not only good at getting people to write, but he’s exceptional at helping writers understand what good writing is – writing that is publishable. He covers the nuts and bolts of what constitutes a story, while at the same time coaxing writers to take risks in terms of which story wants to be told. His style of teaching is intimate, letting writers know that he’s no different than them, that we’re all in it together, and we can help each other get it right. He’s by far the best writing teacher I’ve ever had. QDavid, what do you think Michael brings to the retreat?AI was always very, very skeptical about astrology, but Mike has completely changed my thinking about it. He has this amazing ability to chart your life and make sense of it, as if he’s not just reading your stars, but reading you. He has a way of turning what looks like a bad situation – like Pluto and Mars are battling for your soul – and showing you how it’s not a negative, in fact it’s a positive, an opportunity to change the way you are, for the better. But it’s as a person, as the intelligent, self-aware being that he is, that he brings the most value to the retreats. Mike is a loving and strong person who helps everyone on the retreat become stronger and more self-loving by the end of the three days or the week we’re all together. He really is a solid, beautiful human being, and right away you can feel it, when you’re in the same room with him. And even if you’re preoccupied with your own (stuff) and you have no patience to sit for an hour and you can’t slow down your monkey-mind, sooner or later you’ll feel it, and you’ll sit down and shut up long enough to feel who you are. Mike, and what Mike brings to the retreats, makes them the success that they are. Because without Mike, we’d just be writing and eating and hiking. With Mike, we can access our unconscious, which then spills into and out of our writing, which means that our characters have more depth, our dialogue is real, our stories, fiction or nonfiction, are authentic. And that’s what we’re shooting for: authentic writing.