Tuesday, March 13, 2012

AWP Panel Presentation: Patricia Lee Lewis of Patchwork Farm Retreat

Continuing with the sharing of our presentations and materials from our AWP 2012 panel presentation, Will Write for Food: Writers Working Outside Academia
, (blog label 'AWP Panel Will Write for Food') today’s post is from Patricia Lee Lewis. 

Patricia Lee Lewis was born and raised in Texas, where her three children were also born; for over 30 years she has lived and worked at Patchwork Farm Retreat in Western Massachusetts. She holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Vermont College, and a BA from Smith College, Phi Beta Kappa. Beloved mentor of many writers, leader of frequent writing retreats both nationally and internationally, she has also been the publisher of The Patchwork Journal. A grant in 2011, from the Massachusetts Arts Council, enabled her to help establish a writing program at her local library. Trained to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), Patricia and friends volunteer in Guatemala.  Her first book of poems, A Kind of Yellow, was awarded first place by Writers Digest International.  Both books are available on Amazon.com. High Lonesome, her most recent book of poems, was published in 2011.

2010 trip to Ireland

Patricia Lee Lewis

Creative Writing Retreats : Or, how I left politics to live on the edge
 by Patricia Lee Lewis
                          You know, one thing leads to another in life, and I had worked for years as an advocate for civil rights, for women, for peace, for small organic farms and rural communities, for the health of the earth, when my life took a turn. It was the mid-80’s, my kids were grown, and I had two jobs, director of a rural economic development organization and elected country commissioner in our area of western Massachusetts. One evening between meetings, I was doing my laundry in Northampton, when an old friend asked if I would like to join a writing workshop. I was ‘way too busy, so of course I said, yes. That workshop was led by Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, and developer of a remarkable workshop process that encourages writers at all levels to write with courage and to trust their deepest selves.
                        My oldest son had died a few years before and I had done everything I could to avoid the grief. In the safety and community of Pat’s workshop, I found my way to stories and poems that expressed what I hadn’t faced.  It was 20 years ago that I led my first retreat in my own home at Patchwork Farm in Massachusetts. Later, I teamed up with Charles MacInerney, a wonderful yoga teacher from Texas, to offer creative writing & yoga retreats—something we had never heard of but thought would be fun.        
                        I’ve been drawn through the years to hold our retreats in what feel like sacred sites. Sometimes simple and rustic, sometimes luxurious, they are in places where human beings have connected with the earth in special ways for centuries—the verge of mountain and forest, tiny islands, sheer cliffs over oceans, high volcanic lakes.  Writing retreats in beautiful places on earth are inspiring, fun, and rejuvenating for writers; and, they enable leaders to travel to places they could never afford to go.
Actually, this is not the business to be in, if you are looking to make big bucks. It is patient work. It’s important, if you want to offer retreats, to think of yourself as the owner of a small business. Which means: a business plan, financial records, a database of participants and contacts, marketing, and being responsible at every level, even when you are sick.  Plus, to offer a writing retreat, whether at home or abroad, you’ll want to find a site you can afford, arrange for lodging, meals, meeting space, special excursions; help participants make their way through airlines, currency, hotels en route, health and safety concerns and even fear of flying. After you solve the problem of snoring in double rooms, you get to lead the retreat, for which you have planned a program and prepared packets of materials. That—retreat design and schedule—is another conversation, entirely. By the time you sit down in the writing circle you are at the top fifth of what will have been an iceberg of work. And you are so happy.
                        It’s hard to make a living doing this work. Especially now, with so many writing retreat options. We were among the first, and it was an important decision to combine creative writing with yoga on our longer retreats. It gave us a niche, which is what I recommend that you find, too.  But, there have been many years when I’ve barely broken even, without counting the hours I’d put in for no pay at all. Still, it sure is rewarding. My closest friends are people I’ve come to know through writing together. We are now part of a writing community that extends across several countries. I’ve traveled to some of the world’s most enchanted lands, and in some places we’ve become part of the local community, as in these past five weeks, when I have worked as a volunteer in Santa Cruz, Guatemala, the money-poor, and heart-rich Maya pueblo on Lake Atitlan, where we have held retreats since 2006.
                        The guidelines we use in the workshops to keep each other safe enough to write whatever comes, are also good guides for living your life, and so I’ve learned how to keep things confidential, how to treat everything as fiction (i. e., not to take things personally!), how to listen with my whole heart to what others say, how to hear what is working in a story or relationship, rather than going first to criticism, and to experience writing as a healing practice.
                        One of our retreat participants said this work of leading retreats is my life’s ministry, and I think she’s right. Perhaps it will be yours. But it is a choice to support the writing of others, before one’s own. It’s a choice to be made very carefully.  And I’m glad I made it.

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