The Writer’s Playground – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Writer’s Playground

The writers have taken over the hotel, or so it seems. Everywhere you look, there we are. We sit on plump couches, we stand in the Cantina (conveniently next to the free coffee bar), we sway in the wooden rocking chairs lining the front porch. Some writers furiously tap out previously-started stories on laptops, while others let poetry pump from their brains and inkbleed onto the pages of a freshly bought notebook. Some prefer not to write at all in the moments leading up to our 10 AM class. Instead they watch the smallest of details pass in front of them with wide open eyes. We have learned that being aware and observant is a kind of writing, too.

We are working in the Summercamp Hotel, a historic nineteenth-century wood-sided dwelling which secrets a colorful, retro beach getaway within. The monstrous camp-inspired lodge is situated alongside the Camp Meeting Association of Martha’s Vineyard, home to the landmark “Gingerbread Cottages.”

Outside the sun is hot and the air is dense. It is July in Massachusetts and the humidity is persistent. It is everywhere I turn, just like the ice cream stores calling out to tourists and the salty sound of ocean waves crashing against stone walls. Just like my need to write, to be playful and confident and inspired, which is why I am here.

I was recommended to attend the Martha Vineyard’s Institute of Creative Writing for one week. Initially, I expected it to be similar to other writing workshops, where students sign up for a specific theme or genre and then are meant to produce something by week’s end. Most commonly, this workshop setup works well for students who are not interested in straying from a specific project started in a specific genre. Students stick with only one instructor for a whole week and the line between instructor and student is usually quite clear. But at MVICW, that line is blurred as we are all writers finding our way in the world.  

The very first night as we sip our muse-inducing elderflower wine, Alexander Weinstein, founder of the Institute, opens the door of the conference room to symbolically cast out our inner critics — those editorial voices in our heads who tell us we’re not good enough, who bring us down, who impose self-doubt. “Send that internal editor to the ferry, and give them a one-way ticket to the mainland,” Weinstein says. “Let them have a one-week vacation. We are here to play.” [Bonus: Read MQR’s interview with Alexander Weinstein about his latest work, Children of the New World (Picador, 2016).]

During the first class, Weinstein teaches us writing exercises (more like games) so we can better understand how he wants us to free ourselves of fear and failure this week. Many of the activities are routine tricks that Weinstein himself does at home, while in the middle of his own writings and revisions. One trick he has us try is to just free write and then every minute or so, he calls out a random word to us and we have to incorporate that word into our writing. It’s amazing to watch my brain’s associations unfold on the page and twist the story into a new direction, just by adding the words “jellyfish,” “smoke,” “Northern Lights,” “jasmine,” “afraid,” and “love.” Weinstein says, “If you get to a hard scene in a project you’re working on, just free-write even for five minutes. The random words will allow you to create non-cliche metaphors.” Even if you only produce one good sentence throughout the whole five minutes, it’s a beneficial tool. He ends with the moral of the lesson, “There’s nothing holding you back.”

We go on to take classes with other instructors and play with genre and the blurring of those labels. We reinvent fairy tales (with Sequoia Nagamatsu), we create ten novel chapter titles and write short shorts for each (with Kea Wilson), we experiment with prose poetry and dissect how successful poets write meaningful and heartfelt pieces about the most inconceivable terrors in the world (with Amelia Martens).

Although many of the students at MVICW are trying some of these genres for the first time, the idea is not to master each genre fully. The process of writing is the real experience. Periodically, the instructors stop their lecture to give us a moment to read from our in-class activities. To share our inner souls in a safe space. They might say, “great,” or “thank you.” But there’s never any judgment. In every way, we are harvesting our own grapes here on the Vineyard, growing bunches of ideas, fermenting them into art both as a group and as individual writers.

About halfway through the week, one of the attendees mentions aloud that he is feeling fatigued, and not tired in a “oh-no-it’s-Monday-morning” kind of way. He says his mind is like “hot pudding” and I can’t agree with him more. A kind of hypnosis occurs here at MVICW, as if an inspiration fairy rewires one’s brain when they step off the boat and makes them not want to do anything else but write. Write before 10 AM class. Write through the lunch break. Write when the afternoon class is dismissed up until the evening’s faculty reading. Sometimes, I feel I’m writing stories in my dreams — that’s how vivid and surreal they’ve become.

But perhaps it’s not the fact that we’re in Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps it’s because we find ourselves in the rare situation that we have a full week without work, without responsibilities, without other people counting on us, and all we have to do is do what we love — which is to write and tell the stories inside of us that we can’t not share. It is an incredibly fortunate position to be in.

But I had to confront something I hadn’t fully acknowledged, something that is easy for writers to forget.

We’re sitting around the classroom tables, each student revealing what their strengths and weaknesses are with regards to writing. The most common weakness is “not having time to write.” It’s important to know that most attendees are full-time parents, spouses, and workers, and these responsibilities take up much of their daily life. A concern for many of these participants is that they feel pressure to be productive this week, as in finish a book, complete a short story, or write five “outstanding” poems that can be submitted into the world. I, on the other hand, have no children, work only a part-time job, and am heading to grad school in the fall. With all this “time” on my hands not spent thinking about diapers and mortgages, you’d think I’d be able to write on a more daily basis.

I realize, however, that most of the things holding me back are indeed that stupid Inner Critic — one always too afraid that I’ve reached the peak, that I’ll never be able to write as well as the last time I picked up the pen. Sure, the ideas may keep coming, but how will I ever be able to communicate it to others in a beautiful, artistic way? I remember when I was in elementary school and carried a notebook with me always. After completing assignments, while riding in the car, there I’d start scribbling the next chapter of my “novel.” Now I sit in front of my computer’s blank screen, too afraid to even write a sentence sometimes. The only thing stopping one from writing is fear and a lack of play. Our goal as writers should be to return to our playground, where ideas can swing on monkey bars and language can flow like little legs down a plastic slide. As poet Amelia Martens said on the last day, “You can do anything.” If it hasn’t existed before or been written a certain way, that’s okay. Time should not be an issue. If you want to write, then write. No need to justify why to the ones who love you. They will know that it is time that you need.

It is time that we’ve had on this island. Weinstein and his program created a true summer camp for writers. It’s a place where creativity is cultivated and shared, a place where writers are a community, not in competition with each other. It is a place where self-love can exist, too. It is a place to release the inner critic’s clutches and return to the inner playground. I’m incredibly honored that I was able to attend the MVICW, to share my energy and experience with the other writers, to become witness to each of their unique stories. I feel a new sense of purpose and plan to live my life out fueling this need to self-love, play and create time for the craft that I love. Because writing matters and my body craves to do it.

Lead image via Summercamp Hotel. 

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