Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.
We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.
During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.
The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions. Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.
Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.
Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.
We ate together. We shared. We laughed.
We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.
And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.
“Don’t doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”
Another boring day in front of my screen. I seriously think my history teacher runs searches for “most boring details from early American history” before making her lessons. Wow! Crazy boys rode horses at breakneck speed to deliver mail to California. Who cares what happened five hundred years ago before there were aircars or globalnet?
I sighed and started drawing on my notekeeper. Ever since I took that virtual tour of the LA Arboretum, my doodles took the form of various flowers I had seen. Not seen in person of course since there were no flowers outside of state-run sanctuaries. I loved drawing all their varied shapes and colors. My favorite was the calla lily with its graceful sweeping hood and bold yellow stamen.
“Ms. Stamly.” I heard my voice and jerked my attention back to the class display on the screen wall. Oh no, she was calling on me.
“Yes, Ms. Hill,” I said as I frantically paged back on my notes trying to discover what we were talking about in class.
“I thought maybe your audio went out,” she droned. “My question was whether you thought the railroads were unfair in their domination of early California transportation?”
So that’s what happened after the Pony Express. All I had were sketches of flowers.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, I think I missed that part. Globalnet problem,” I offered.
My teacher’s face scrunched up like she’d just tasted something sour. She straightened and wrote something on her notekeeper. “Well, you’d better get the newest update.” Then she called on someone else, and my mind drifted away.
I hoped she wouldn’t message my parents. They had big plans for me after secondary school, and getting a bad grade in American History was not part of them. If I did badly in school, they’d take away my screen time, my only escape from our apartment’s sterile white walls. I would go crazy in less than a week, and then they’d put me on those pills that most of my friends took.
It’s not my fault my mom and dad were doctors at the university hospital and my destiny would be to join them one day. The thought of sealing up a bloody wound with a Sealit wand made me want to swoon like a lady wearing a corset in those ancient texts.
Locked up in our sanitized apartment tower, I longed to feel dirt on my hands. Hear the drone of bees and cheerful gurgle of a rushing stream. Like the rest of the ill-fated children of my time, we were quarantined to our homes until our secondary graduations. Viruses and bad influences they said. When she was home, Mom would tell me stories about how teens used to drive cars and meet for bonfires at the beach. Going anywhere seemed a fairy tale. Fires? I couldn’t imagine the government allowing anyone to set one for personal use.
I needed to get out of here. Maybe I could get Amy to go with me. I texted her on my watch.
“Log out of school, and meet me in the rec room.”
She wrote back right away, “Are you crazy?”
“Just the right kind.”
A few minutes later, a tall girl with spiky yellow hair met me by our apartment’s pool. Without a word, I waved her over to the changing room, the only place without cameras. I unpacked the duffel I had brought, dumping out adult clothes, wigs, and makeup.
“What is that for?” she asked, her voice wavering.
“We’re going to smell flowers,” I said.
A short time later, we were riding in an Uber aircar on our way to the LA Arboretum. Mom and Dad would probably blame Amy and never let me speak to her again if they found out what we were doing. They refused to believe I would resist any of their plans for me. My heart was racing, but it would all be worth it.
The car dropped us off without a word. I was so glad self-driving aircars were the norm, as the AI wouldn’t see that we were teens under our disguises. However, we would still have to get past the front gate.
I exhaled in relief when I discovered the entry kiosk was only a machine. I waved Mom’s spare cash card that she left for emergencies and the gate opened with a click.
“Come on,” I said as I pulled Amy with me into the Arboretum.
Wild pungent aromas overwhelmed us. Competing layers of sweet smells combined with a musty undertone, scents that I had never experienced. Some reminded me of candy or cakes, while others were dark and mysterious. The plants were so green they hurt my eyes. Not only green, but so many shades of green I lost count.
And flowers! In every shape and size, shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, and a white so brilliant it must have been copied from a cloud.
“Penny, are you alright?” Amy shook me by the shoulders.
“I’m more than alright. I’m perfect.” I had stopped in front of a long stemmed white flower, its curving bell shape holding me in awe.
“I’m not going to medical school,” I said almost like a prayer.
“Penny, these flowers are making you dizzy. Every child has to take their parent’s place. What if all doctors’ kids decided to choose a different career? We wouldn’t have medical care.”
“But that’s not who I am,” I insisted. I waved my arms toward the paradise surrounding us. “I belong here. Caring for plants and flowers. Adults can make laws and control what kids do, but we’re born with our own talents.”
“We’d better get back,” Amy said, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to hear us.
I nodded, and called up the ride service on my watch. “I’ll be back,” I whispered on the breeze.
If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.
Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.
Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.
Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.
We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.
When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.
Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.