Okoboji Writer's Retreat

September 18-20

My first writer's retreat ever and it completely exceeded my expectations. Would I be surrounded by pretention? Would it be lame? Would I be irritated that I drove five hours to northwest Iowa for this? No, no and no. I was surrounded by lovers of words: Journalists, poets, memoirists, novelists, all storytellers in their own unique way.

Lakeside Laboratory on the shores of West Okoboji.....

I engaged in conversation at the hotel continental breakfast with fellow Iowans about how "Iowa nice" really only applies when meeting white people. A woman from San Diego sat next to me on the shuttle and a friendship was born. The next day after again sitting together on the shuttle, her husband, to whom I was introduced the day before, overheard me in the pastry line telling a woman from Perry, Iowa that I was from Fort Dodge.
"I'm from Fort Dodge," he said.
We stared at each other a moment, mouths agape, stunned by the folly of it all. "What's your name?" I demanded. "Chris Britton. Do you know any Brittons?" "We had a Mimi Britton who was the drama teacher." As I said it I remembered she wasn't local. "Do you know the Stitt's?" he asked.
"No. But the name is familiar." 

Chris and Nancy Britton

Sitting in the main tent to wait for the morning introductions of the presenters, we quizzed each other.
"Do you remember Kawtsky's? On the main drag?" he asked. "They supplied all the football uniforms. When the small farm schools couldn't afford new uniforms anymore, they went out of business."
"I did not know that," I replied, appreciating this new nugget of hometown history. I remembered the sporting goods store as a shopping destination for Wrangler denim overalls.

That launched a whole series of mutual questions.
"Do you remember Gates department store?" he quizzed.
"Yep. Right on the corner. Do you remember the Boston Store? My mom worked there. Do you remember Expo Pool?"
"Yes. Do you remember the bowling alley across the street from it?"
"No. It was a grocery store when we went."
"Oh yeah, they tore it down."
And on and on. Nancy listened patiently when it continued at lunch. I basked in a serendipitious glow. 
At lunch the previous day, I had joined a group of strangers, filling a vacant seat at their picnic table. A young woman across from me expressed her trepidations about writing a memoir prompting me to talk about my own as encouragement. After my description of it, she looked at me with quiet sadness. "My sister died from drinking in February." A hush fell over the table and my hand clutched my chest, a reflex when I hear about someone suffering from addiction. My soul swelled as she talked about her family, her story prickly with secrets. Everyone has a story to tell and every story is different. Because we're all different. Take that AI! That was my biggest takeaway from the retreat.


Phoebe Wall Howard of the Detroit Free Press

Even an inmate on death row has a story to tell, said Phoebe Wall Howard during the Writing with Emotional Intensity session. Upon asking him what he had been thinking about as his execution approached, he said he had been thinking about horsebackriding through almond trees when he was a boy, the pink blossoms prominent in the memories. A jumper from the Golden Gate Bridge talked about how she felt like she was flying. Until she slammed into the water and plummeted to the bottom of the bay, overtaken by terror of drowning. Her tales of seeking out the human side of any story, even a car airbag story, were riveting.
Since I'm 80 pages into my second book, I attended fiction sessions on my first day, two of which were facilitated by novelist Nicole Baart. Although she writes what I would dub "soccer mom fiction," not a genre I'm inclined to read, I learned so much from her as a published novelist with an agent. I learned how to properly query an agent, the first step completing your manuscript. What I learned from her about writing fiction has spurred me to revise my first 80 pages and inspired me to continue, timely lessons providing me with a fresh and eager mindset. 

Captivating panel discussion on respecting cultural differences.

And I just learned. Yes, there's a lot more journalists of color but there's still too many white men in management. We need to respect each other's differences. And we need to know how to respect them. It's really not asking too much.
I attended a poetry session, which I had no intention of doing until I fell into conversation with poet Kelsey Bigelow. On the trail back to the main tent, I confessed to her that until recently I poo poo'ed poetry, fiction reader that I was. I had grown to respect it once Facebook calculated that I was clicking on Mary Oliver poems. I had been greatly moved by her poem, read to us in the main tent on the first morning. It was a brave and beautiful disclosure of her body image challenges. I attended her poetry session on a cabin porch, humbled by the on-the-spot poetry created around me. One poet, who has been writing to soothe the grieving of his wife's death, revealed rhyming comes naturally to him. Boy did his poem back that up! Reading rhythmically also seemed to come natually to him. 
Those two days were the perfect amalgamation of September weather, immersion with fellow writers and where I am in the writing of my second book. On day two when Vicki of Des Moines asked me at breakfast how my first day was, I told her I felt full. By her facial expression I could tell she understood what I meant. And that fullness has stayed with me. 


Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Art Cullen. He looked like a writer.