The Path to Inspiration: A Week at Djerassi

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Stay the course.

Inspire. Spark. Motivate. Encourage.

The path to inspiration — especially when it runs parallel to getting published — can seem a lot like the one above: fog laden and uneven. Inspiration is an elusive beauty at times, and then at others, everywhere but overwhelming, and finding balance can be difficult. I spent last week at the Djerassi Program for a Writers Workshop and Retreat with Nova Ren Suma where inspiration appeared in all her forms.

I arrived to San Francisco on a cool, but muggy, afternoon. The ride from the airport was enlivened by an accidental detour into a state park off HWY 280, and made extra-special because my CP Susan Crispell was in the car enjoying it with me.

Our driver, Celia, had promised the first trip into the Djerassi Program was “an experience”, and she was right. Due partly to the winding mountain road, and partly to the unshakable sensation that we were leaving normal behind and entering somewhere entirely other, we approached in hushed but blissful wonder.

View from the Barn, where I was staying.
View from the Barn, where I was staying.

Where my own search for inspiration was concerned — and I’m not even certain in what form I expected it — Djerassi and the other writers were equal sources. The setting was blessed with rolling hills, creeping fog, and stunning peeks of the Pacific Ocean. The writers were blessed with talent and kindness.

The first morning we shared our opening pages, discussing hooky first lines, what information is critical and what can really be left out, cut, or pushed back. We set the workshop schedule, and even though I wanted to cry at the thought, I also signed up to do a reading from my completed YA fantasy.

Climbing. (Courtesy Nova Ren Suma)
Climbing. (Courtesy Nova Ren Suma)

I tried to focus on the moment because I knew the moment would soon pass.

And it did, all too quickly. Before I knew it, my critique arrived, accompanied by a clear morning and shimmering blue ocean on the horizon. The response to my work-in-progress was overwhelmingly positive, and while there were suggestions of things to improve, to clarify, to expand, the resounding sentiment was they loved it.

Let me say, that can be just as hard to hear as criticism. It can be just as difficult to accept as being told you’re doing it all wrong. (By the way, I am pretty sure I am always doing it wrong, but I firmly believe it is how I must also do it if I’m to do it at all.) I left the critique in a jumble of emotion.

It took a few hours for those emotions to clear, but with clarity, came this: the story was working. The world building was making sense. The characters were (mostly) connecting. And even though I still had questions, it was worth pursuing. In my private conference with Nova, I talked through the ending of my WiP and she encouraged me to keep going in the direction I was headed. (“No, it does not sound crazy,” she said kindly. ) She also gave me pointers on how to strengthen the narrative where it was weakest.

That evening, I read aloud from my completed YA fantasy Redhunt. Reading aloud from a novel you have written is one of the most emotionally draining experiences you can have as a writer. (Yes, even more than querying, because you feel it all at once and in front of everyone.) It’s also a huge part of selling a published novel and something every author will have to face at some point. It’s hard, but it’s vital. I am glad I did it, even if I still feel exposed when I think about it.

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The focus of the retreat was writing — ours, each others, our favorite books, etc. — but it wasn’t all spent sitting at a keyboard or holding a pen. Writing is done by exploring. By talking it out, or talking through someone else’s, or staring at the ceiling for long stretches of time. A writers retreat is built on writers connecting with other writers, it is made by people giving each other time, or talking about books, or Doctor Who, or failed concepts or shelved novels. It is measured by more than word count (and I’m not just saying that because I got less done than I’d hoped to).

It is just more.

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Nova arranged for Margot Knight, the Djerassi Executive Director, to take our group on a sculpture tour of the property. Djerassi is more than a place to write — or paint, dance, compose, and generally create— it is a place unique and ever-changing, a work of art itself. A place worth getting to and exploring if you have the opportunity.

It is a place, and a time, I will never forget. Coming home with new friends and allies for the writing journey, with renewed faith, or confirmed suspicions, with new words and plans, was the very inspiration I needed.