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

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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,

Johnnie
XXXXX

 

 

 

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,

Johnnie
XXXX

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

the cost of coaching

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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?

Writer as Shaman: 7 Ways Stories Will Change Your Life and Heal the World

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Twenty-five years ago, I started writing a novel, and the process of developing the main character and her story world created a crack in my psyche and changed my life forever. I was taken through my own dark night of the soul, which led – gratefully – to my spiritual transformation. Since then, I have been on a spiritual path, have viewed my creative writing practice as a spiritual practice, and have devoted myself and my life to embracing the power of story.

While writers have probably always had an innate sense that stories heal, science has proven the benefits of story in our lives – in both the writing and reading of fiction and non-fiction. Stories are a human need. We crave them. We tell them. Every day. Stories are not only healing to the writer. They carry the power to heal readers and the world at large, as well.

For the Writer

1 – Evoking your imagination while writing a story can lead to improved brain capacity and ease of being in the world.

  • Using your imagination can improve your problem-solving skills. By troubleshooting a character’s obstacles as she attempts to attain her primary desire, you can become more creative in troubleshooting and solving your own.
  • Using your imagination can improve your memory. Engaging your imagination creates more neurons in your brain, which leads to better brain function and retaining information.
  • Using your imagination can improve your relationships and social interactions. By empathizing with your characters’ problems, you’ll become more aware of the day-to-day struggles of your fellow humans, thus allowing you to be more empathetic in general.

2 – Using the process of amalgamation, which is the act of consciously or unconsciously blending real-life people and events with imaginary people and events for the sake of storytelling, allows us to resolve events from the past.

  • Recounting stories from our personal past can help us make meaning of what was. By remembering a past event from an older, more experienced – or simply different – perspective can give us a sense of personal power.
  • Creating a re-telling of a past event and imagining what could have been can also give us a sense of personal power. This is not about denying reality or naively wishing a situation had been different, but more about reframing the story to achieve a sense of redemption or inner harmony.
  • Using creative license to write about anything from a past personal event to a current cultural phenomenon and creating a fictional story with a positive outcome can give us hope. There is something immensely powerful in being able to imagine a world where change and growth are possible. Believing in a better world and doing what we can to create it helps us find peace in the moment while continuing to put one foot in front of the other with a sense of personal agency toward the project of human evolution.

3 – Through the process of deep character development, we come to understand ourselves on a much deeper level. By creating characters who come off the page and behave like real people rather than flat, cardboard caricatures or stereotypes and getting beneath their skins to examine their true motivations, pains, and fears, we can’t help but do this better for ourselves. Thus, writing stories leads to greater self-awareness and advances us along our paths of personal evolution.

For the Reader

4 – Reading stories gives us a healthy escape from everyday life. Whether we read a memoir about someone’s experience growing up in a small rural community or a fantasy novel about a young woman with superpowers, the descriptions that build the story world evoke our imaginations and bring us the same benefits realized by the writer mentioned above. As Stephen King once wrote, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Reading stories quiets our minds, much the same way meditation does.

5 – Reading stories – in particular, literature – leads to greater levels of empathy. By riding along beside a character through the ups and downs of his quest to achieve his goal and through the mistakes he makes along the way, we become softened to the struggle of what it means to be human, which allows us to more readily accept and embrace struggle and imperfection in others.

6 – Reading stories can lead to greater human connection. When a reader witnesses an experience like their own, they know they’re not alone in the world, that their life isn’t as taboo as they may think or feel, and through this, they can experience validation, and ultimately, a feeling of connection.

For the World

7 – When writers and readers experience the benefits of story, it up-levels their positive presence in the world. Writing and reading both bring numerous benefits, probably the most far-reaching of which is a greater understanding of the human condition. This understanding can elicit more compassion, more empathy, and ultimately, more peace in the world.

English writer, Alan Moore, known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many others, believes writers are modern day shamans. He describes the magic they work as the alchemical process of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to create story worlds into which readers can enter and experience changes in consciousness.

This journey into story worlds – ours and others’ – allow us to clear our minds. It serves as a salve to our hearts and an elixir to our spirits and souls. If you’re looking for creative ways to further your evolution as a human on earth in this lifetime, embrace the power of story. Write your stories. Share them. And read the stories of others.

We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?

Your Life as Fodder – Or How to Grow a Story

So often I hear people say they want to write but they struggle coming up with ideas. That they feel compelled to write at all tells me they already have ideas. It could be that they just don’t know how to get them outside themselves (remember the jar full of frenzied bees?). Or maybe they don’t know how to transform their ideas into a story and execute it. Or maybe they don’t believe anyone would care to read what they have to say. To all of that, I say this…

First of all, believe in yourself. (You can do it!) Second of all, you’d be surprised at the difference sharing your story can make for another person. (Really.) And third of all, if you really believe you’re out of ideas, simply look to your own life and go from there. (Your life is magical, mystical source of fodder.)

I’m not saying that you ought to write personal essay (unless that’s what you want to do) but that you can take snippets from your life and turn them into fictional stories. Treat those snippets like seeds that you can plant (put them on the page – just get them out of your head – and see what starts to sprout), water (stay with it, tend it, and add what’s needed – trust yourself to know), and prune (edit, cut, and relocate). When you commit to the growth of a story, it will grow.

Here are a few examples of events, phases, facets of my life that I can use to create fictional stories…

  • I had always wanted to experience living in an apartment building and managing it for the benefit of free rent. My personal story didn’t quite go that way – I managed SEVEN buildings (while working two other jobs), and I got a measly $250/month credit on my rent. My romantic fantasy became a horrible reality – the worst job I’ve ever had. (And that’s saying something.)

    Upper management was difficult to work with due to systemic dysfunction and a total lack of awareness that change was needed. One person, in particular – the Assistant General Manager with a bull-in-a-china-shop presence who perpetually, even angrily, chomped on a big wad of gum – was consistently rude and dismissive – even cruel. To me. I worked non-stop with no one to give me a break (even though they “sold” the job as one with TONS of flexibility – they lied). Some residents were demanding and rude. Some were lovely. The building was a “charming” old one in downtown and fraught with problems. I also got up close and personal with the homeless problem in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I saw the underbelly of humanity.

    I moved into the apartment of the previous, beloved maintenance man who had died just a few months before. Management neglected to tell me he died in the apartment (until I asked). But it all worked out because he left a calming presence in the space. And the maintenance and painting crews were fun guys and treated me well. They were, by far, the best part of the job. Think a Raymond Carver-esque short story.

  • Just before taking the manager job at the apartments, I lived in an artists’ community. Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t. Rampant disregard for authority by residents who were underdeveloped emotionally and mentally, partially due to the enabling of the manager who was a lovely person as a person I’d want to know outside that context. You can bet that, someday, the people I met there will wind up in a screenplay, as will the four sane people I also met there. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with art and lots of weed and alcohol.

  • When I was 11, I came home from school one day. My grandma was there, as usual, and I could tell she had been crying. When I asked her why, she stalled, but I eventually learned that when she arrived at our house that day, she found a note on the kitchen table – It was a narrow sliver of torn, lined paper, just wide enough to accommodate two sentences – from my dad saying he was leaving us. I remember immediately going to my parents’ bedroom closet to find his half of the closet empty except for the several naked dangling hangers. The image of that emptiness was seared into my brain and serves as a metaphor for the emptiness his decision made in my life. While I long ago came to terms with that period of my life, it’s an image I can use to tell a story about family, selfishness, grief, infidelity, insanity, growing up too soon, strength, and more. Think a Joyce Carol Oates-esque short story.

So, if you’re compelled to write a story but can’t think of what to write, take some time to scan through your life and all the experiences you’ve had. You’ll find more ideas than you can handle. To start, make three lists:

  • Events/phases – like my working as a manager or living in an artists’ community
  • People – like the brutal Assistant General Manager or the uplifting maintenance crew and painters at the management company, or the enabling but very likeable Manager and “crazy” residents at the artists’ community
  • Images/objects – like the image of my parents’ half-empty closet and all those meager empty hangers

If you’d rather not write about yourself and your life, spin off from one small thing from your life and see what happens. The truth is… we can tell more truths about humanity through fiction than we can through writing from our life experience, anyway. So free yourself up. Draw from your life, then let your imagination take over. Not only will it free you up, but you also won’t have to concern yourself with being called out on “the facts.”

Give it a try and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…