Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Two (The Planning)

Photo by from Pexels

As promised in my last post, I want to share my experience of the Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat to Vancouver, BC that went way off the rails.

I’ll start by saying that my ROTR retreat to Vancouver was my first overnight retreat. I had decided it was time to branch out from the one-day train retreat I did last Fall to Seattle and give one a little further out on the west coast Amtrak line a go. Vancouver, BC seemed like a great place to start.

I spent a lot of time scoping out locations for activities that would align with the topic for the retreat: The Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Supporting Characters (content from my Writing Through the Body™ method). I wanted to be mindful of finding locations and sites that wouldn’t require a lot of travel time within the city, and of also providing everyone with ample alone time (because I know we writers LOVE our alone time, right?!).

If you’ve planned a retreat of any size, you know that this part of the process is a bit like playing a chess game. You think ahead, strategize, anticipate all the possible needs of your participants and all the possible things that could go wrong, with the number 1 goal to give them an experience that will get them closer to their desire – in my case: to make progress on their books.

I wanted to find a way to visit ALL the parks in Vancouver but quickly realized that wasn’t realistic given time constraints and travel time, so I landed on Queen Elizabeth Park as a location for one of our group activities. I figured with it being the highest point in the city, it would be a nice reprieve from the bustle down below on the afternoon of our first full day there.

We were scheduled to arrive at the King Street station at 11:30PM on a Thursday. Amtrak offers only one direct trip from Portland to Vancouver, BC, and it seemed the best option, given that all the other trips going that direction required a transfer to a bus. Writing on the bus was not what I was offering, and to be honest, it didn’t sound appealing to me at all. So, I figured it wouldn’t be to my participants either.

Because I wanted to give everyone a chance to sleep in the next morning (Friday) and revel in a slow start to the day, especially after our late arrival the night before following an eight-hour train ride, I planned two activities at Queen Elizabeth Park for Friday afternoon, as well as dinner at Chambar, one of Vancouver’s top restaurants, for Friday night.

For Saturday, I planned an open day for participants to explore the city alone or together and/or wander off to get some more writing done. Saturday night, our last night there, I planned another group dinner at Joe Fortes, another of Vancouver’s highly recommended restaurants.

(I knew that at least two of the participants had dietary restrictions – as do I – so I was sure to find restaurants that would allow for substitutions and make accommodations for those who needed it.)

When searching for lodging for us all, I wanted to find a hotel within walking distance of many of Vancouver’s top sites and attractions and would not require a lot of costly travel time for those who wanted to venture further out. I also wanted to keep the overall cost down and keep the focus on the writing rather than bill the retreat as any kind of “luxury” experience.

This proved to be a challenge. I looked at a few large Airbnb rentals, but the 30-minute travel time back to the city for all the rentals available at the time that would accommodate us all was more than I wanted to tack onto our days, and I thought this would, again, create more cost for participants. It would have also made transportation to group activities trickier.

I found that, despite my planning this retreat several months in advance, I couldn’t find hotels with enough vacancies for all of us (I was hoping for a max of 10 and a min of six) and/or that were within what I thought was a reasonable price range.

I finally found a hotel that seemed to fit all the requirements needed for the retreat, so I reserved a block of rooms and included information about it on the website for the retreat.

With all the planning details taken care of, I could now advertise the retreat and plan for the virtual pre-trip class I would offer on the content – The Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Protagonists.

I had hoped for a minimum of six writers. I got four, and I was happy with this because it was, as I said, my first overnight retreat, and I knew all the people who were going: two were clients, one was a person I knew from networking who had referred one of my clients (they are friends), and the other had gone on my last one-day train retreat to Seattle.

Knowing the people who would be going, having some already-established mutual respect and familiarity between me and them gave me a sense of security about executing the retreat.

All seemed well. And it was… until we reached Vancouver, BC, at 11:30PM on that Thursday…

Come back soon to read about what began to unfold – even before we had made it through the customs gate at King Street Station in Vancouver.

In the meanwhile… as always, I’m sending you mad writing mojo.

Bright blessings and creative courage,





Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part One

One of my offerings to my clients and others who write or want to write is my signature Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat. We leave Union Station in Portland, OR, write our way to our destination, then experience a change of pace and scenery, and maybe, revel in a spark of imagination from the day’s sights, sounds, smells, and more.

I conceived of this idea after taking the Amtrak train from Portland to Eugene to visit my youngest son, Spencer, several times. I found that, without fail, the rhythmic motion of the train provided me the perfect environment to write in flow. I quickly became hooked and wanted to find a way to feed my new addiction and to create the opportunity for others to experience it, as well.

That’s when Rhythm on the Rails was born. My idea. My baby. My signature offering that makes people drool when they hear about it.

The first ROTR happened last fall in November 2018. I and a small group of writers went to Seattle for the day. We left Portland in the morning, made the three-hour trip in coach class, and when we arrived at King Street Station in Seattle, we caught a Lyft to the Space Needle to make our way to the top and consider Point of View – our writing element focus for the day.

The Space Needle was underwhelming. I had seen it before, and I was counting on the newly renovated rotating glass floor to up the ante for the group. But, alas, it didn’t measure up. Besides being underwhelming, the Needle was crawling with people. But… despite the lack of verve I had hoped for, the departure from our usual, day-to-day perspective gave us plenty to think about regarding Point of View. (For instance: How do you describe a car while standing next to it on the ground vs. from high above at 520 feet in the air? The physical change in perspective offered an in-the-moment opportunity to consider which visual elements to focus and elaborate on and how to translate that into the written word.)

After we descended the Space Needle and made our way through the crowd, we caught another Lyft to Pike Place Market where we had lunch at Matt’s in the Market. We enjoyed choice soups, salads, and drinks while I shared details about the Crown Chakra and the writing element I pair with this highest bodily chakra in my Writing Through the Body method – Point of View.

We went our separate ways in the afternoon for some alone time and a chance to wander and see the sights and to browse and shop in the market and nearby boutiques.

In the evening, we met up at the corner of 1st and Pike and climbed into our last Lyft ride of the day to head back to King Street Station for our trip home. On the three-hour ride back to Union Station in Portland, we wrote and chatted, then parted ways, happily worn out from our very full day.

Prior to the retreat, I met with each participant for a half-hour coaching session and followed up with another one a few days after the retreat. My goal was to provide each person concentrated writing time in a unique environment, as well as some individual one-on-one assistance to move their writing projects and dreams forward.

That first ROTR retreat was an experiment, of sorts, and I learned a few things. Or I, at least, had other ideas about what to do differently the next time.

And I’ll have the opportunity to put those ideas into action on the next one-day ROTR Writing Retreat to Seattle on Saturday, August 24.

I can tell you this: It’s gonna be fun. (It involves a scavenger hunt, and who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt?!)

With a one-day ROTR under my belt, I decided to do my first overnight retreat this past Spring. I and another small group of writers went to Vancouver, BC. Stay tuned for the story about how that unfolded…

Spoiler alert: Not as planned. Not at all.

But everything in life is a learning experience, and crimany, did I learn a lot.

I’ll be sharing those lessons with you in future blog posts, so stay tuned…

Whether you’re a retreat participant, a retreat planner, or an entrepreneur who provides your clients and followers with unique experiences, there’s something for you in this train retreat story that went WAY off the rails…

Until next time… sending you mad writing mojo…

Bright blessings and creative courage,


I Go Back to May 1937 – Sharon Olds

I ADORE this poem by Sharon Olds. I adore it so much, I used parts of in my first film, I’m Too Much (2004).

It’s a lovely reminder that no matter what we endure in life, we have the power to transform – ourselves and other people – with our words.

Sharing our stories is what heals us.


I Go Back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
What story will you tell?

Why I Want Clients Who Can Afford to Pay: The Messy Mix of Money and Coaching

the cost of coaching

Photo by Vladislav Reshetnyak from Pexels

I recently did an interview with the smart, self-aware, and sentient Molly Mandelberg, creator of Wild Hearts Rise Up and the Tactical Magic Podcast for the Warrior Goddess Entrepreneur. The interview went well. It was more like a low-stress, fun conversation about writing and how to bring your book to life. As a writer and book coach, my mission in life is to heal the world through stories, whether it’s the stories I write and tell or the stories I help other people write and tell. So, having the opportunity to talk with Molly was a blessing and an honor.

A few days after the interview, parts of the conversation filtered in and out of my mind, and one comment I had made kept coming back to me. And not in a good way. It isn’t that I wanted to rescind what I had said because I meant it – and I still do – but not in the way it sounds on the surface.

The comment came after Molly asked me who I want to work with. I said something like, “People who can pay” or “People who can afford it.”

Side note: Sometimes, when I have a thought, make a comment, or share an opinion I’ll explain it to death, and I think I do this for a few reasons.

  • It’s the teacher in me wanting to ensure the chances of being understood, as best I can, by everyone who’s listening because I’m well-aware that we all have unique learning styles, and we all absorb information and words differently based on our individual world views.
  • One of my persistent fears in life is that I will be misunderstood and all sorts of unfortunate outcomes will follow, like hurt feelings or the spread of my words in a context that doesn’t align with who I am. (I’ve unpacked the reasons behind this fear and I embrace it for the benefits it allows me, but I won’t take you on yet another spiral of thought to explain.)
  • And then there’s the fact that I’ve been academically trained in argumentation and rhetoric, which requires us to perpetually ask the question “why?” And for every “because” that comes after, another “why?” follows.

So, I’d rather over-explain than run the risk of leaving a partially hatched comment, concept, or idea up for someone else’s translation without having had the chance to drill down inside it, even if just a little.

All this said, though, sometimes I under-explain so I don’t fill up a conversation with “too many” words. My internal editor is hard at work in these cases, and it was, albeit rather subconsciously, during the interview with Molly. Had I allowed myself the time – had I not been concerned that I was going to go over time or that I might blather on too long about one thing – I would have broken my response down into three layers.

  1. Yes, of course, I want to be paid for what I do. I have years of training in this area, I’m college educated in this area, and I’ve been teaching college for two decades in this area. I’m also growing a business, and I believe my coaches and my fellow entrepreneurs when they tell me I’m worth my fees. I know I am.
  2. Then comes the second layer to the statement’s meaning. When people are willing to invest in themselves, they tend to show up more fully. Yes, I want that. I want my clients to show up, to take our agreements seriously, to pour themselves into their books because I wouldn’t be working with them if I didn’t believe they have brilliant ideas that need to make their way out into the world. My clients are worth their own self-commitment, and as I always tell them, writing their book is an act of self-love.
  3. And then comes the third layer to this statement’s meaning. I want my clients to be able to take on the monetary obligation that comes with coaching so they won’t experience stress every month about how to pay me. I want them to be able to focus on their creative process so the words will pour onto the page.

I don’t doubt that they have plenty of other life stressors perpetually jockeying for first position throughout their days and in their minds and hearts. I don’t want to be one more of those things – not in a stressful, creative-killing kind of way. And this is the big, overarching reason I want my clients to be able to pay. I don’t want their financial obligation to me to be a burden.

I’ve been in enough coaching situations wherein I knew from the get-go that my budget couldn’t manage the fat monthly payment. Yet, I allowed myself to be convinced, coerced, or coddled into signing on with the promise that I’d make my money back within a few months, raking in an income that would make the monthly coaching payment seem insignificant. But this hasn’t happened for me even though I’ve gone all in. And from what I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t happen for most. Unless they’re in the corporate sphere. Which I am not.

This is not to say that the programs I’ve been in haven’t been helpful. They have. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve made progress. But the curve to get from here to there is such a circuitous foute that the real, consistent money making doesn’t usually come right away. (Another brief aside: one of the programs I was in never, for a moment, felt forced on me or oversold to me. This coach let his quiet approach and his knowledgeable expertise make me want to work with him. And his program was priced so that I could be part of his group without feeling like I had to take desperate robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul measures every month to honor my financial obligation to him.)

Because I’m a book coach, I can’t promise my clients any kind of monetary gain from writing their book. Will having a book give them more credibility in their area of expertise? Yes. Will it help them get more high-level speaking gigs? Absolutely. Will they experience personal transformation from writing their book? Without a doubt. Will they make money from their book? Probably not.

Writing a book and having a book is best not viewed as a means to get rich. Or even to create an income. Writing a book is best viewed as a means to lift yourself up as an expert in your field; enhance your self-worth; and put your name, face, and ideas out into the world.

So, when I say I want to work with people who can pay, I’m talking about that third layer. Yes, I want to make a living doing what I love. (I’m not Oliver, for god’sake.) Yes, I want to work with people who will take the commitment seriously. (I’m not a babysitter or a rescuer, either.) But mostly, I don’t want my fee to make my clients do emotionally charged financial calisthenics that take up space in their beautiful creative brains, making the writing even more difficult than it already is.

Can everyone’s budget manage the cost of coaching – private or group? Definitely not. Do I want to help people with brilliant ideas get their books written, even if they don’t have the funds? Yes, I do.

And that’s why I sometimes question the whole coaching model to help people write. I don’t have an answer yet to remedy these concerns of mine, but I’m working on it… Because I do know that my mission in life is to heal the world through story, whether they’re mine or whether they’re yours.

So, stay tuned and let’s see if there’s a way I can help.

And in the meanwhile, leave a comment below. What you most need help with in your writing?

Picking the perfect moniker: How to name your characters and more

People often ask me, “But what’s your real name?” Sometimes, the question comes from seeing my name in print, then meeting me in person and discovering I’m female. And sometimes, the question comes when they’ve gotten to know me a little and discover I legally changed my name in 2000. So for the record…

My real name Johnnie J. Mazzocco.

It’s the realest name I’ve ever had.
And I’ve had SEVERAL.

There’s the name I was born with, which consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and my dad’s surname. Then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and the surname of my first husband – Martin. And then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle name my parents settled on, my dad’s surname, and the surname of my second husband – Owen.

Johnnie J. Mazzocco isn’t the name I was born with, but it WAS the name my mom wanted me to have – at least the first name. She wanted to name me after her dad, John, but my dad nixed that. He thought I’d think I wasn’t wanted. He thought I’d think they wanted a boy instead. So, they gave me a “girl’s” name.

I spent the first three decades of my life knowing that Johnnie was supposed to be my name, and after many significant life changes, the Fall before I turned 40, I changed my name. I had been toying with the idea, and my close friends were helping me out by trying it on for size. When I talked with the person who would eventually be the head of my graduate committee for my first Master’s degree, I introduced myself as Johnnie. When it came time to apply, I had to make it legal to fill out the paperwork.

I decided I might as well go all in. I didn’t want my maiden name. Nor did I want either of my married names. None of them felt like me. In fact, whenever I introduced myself with the old name, it felt cardboard-dry in my throat.

I opted to use the first letter of my old middle name and forego a full middle name and to take on my mom’s maiden name because I’ve always strongly identified with my Italian lineage. It wasn’t until the day I was signing the papers to make it legal that I realized I have my grandpa’s full name: Johnnie Mazzocco. (His legal name was John, but my grandma called him Johnny.)

Changing my name has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I don’t share my “old” name with people, even though they ask.

I changed my name for a reason. It wasn’t a hideous name.

It just wasn’t me.

Whether you’re a parent or a pet owner, you know the task of naming another being is not an easy one. Many of us consult baby name books or get inspiration from our favorite pop culture icons or fictional characters. Some of us explore the latin roots of names, or we opt for the name of someone we know and respect. Whichever route we take, most of us know it’s an identity creator, so we take it seriously.

What about when we name our fictional characters? Finding the perfect moniker can be daunting and time-consuming, but giving it the time and attention it deserves, a memorable name can become a lasting icons in the worlds of literature and pop culture. Scarlett O’Hara. Atticus and Scout Finch. Dorothy Gale. Harry Potter. Holly Golightly. Lolita. Clarissa Dalloway. Lennie Small. Sherlock Holmes. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Mary Poppins. Nancy Drew. And on and on and on…

Here are a few articles with ideas about how to find just the right names for all your characters.

The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters
6 Creative Ways to Name Your Fictional Characters
How to Name Your Characters
How to Choose Character Names

Whether we’re name our kids, our pets, our characters, or ourselves, picking the perfect name is an important proposition. When this weighty task is in your hands, how do you handle it?

How do you name your characters? 

And if you were to re-name yourself, who would you be?