Flash Fiction Retreats with Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman

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For the last few months, I’ve been traveling around, bumping into SmokeLong contributors  and editors, doing workshops and readings. Recently, I had the opportunity to share a glass of vino with flash fiction gurus Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, along with their flash fiction retreat participants in Casperia, Italy. At a palace of course. I’ve asked them to share a few words about their retreats and what makes them so amazing.

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Both Nancy and you are seasoned workshop leaders. Why did you decide to branch out into offering retreats? What can you do at a retreat that you can’t do in an online workshop?

(Kathy): We do both have a lot of online instruction under our belts, but saw offering retreats as a way of combining our love of travel and our desire to teach and inspire in a cool, innovative way. We also quite liked the idea of making the retreats specific to flash fiction!

I think there’s a real sense of communing that comes from sharing the same physical space with other writers. Eating and drinking and laughing together. Everyone experiencing something new and interesting and beautiful together. And this of course you can’t achieve online.

Also, we’ve found it really sparks creativity to literally get out of one’s comfort zone and into a new place. It’s why we’re always looking to find beautiful / unique / exotic / inspiring places to hold our retreats.

Your latest retreat was at Palazzo Forani in Casperia, Italy. I just happened to be in the area on your free day, so I popped by and had lunch with you and your keen participants. We did a lot of eating and drinking. But what does a typical retreat day entail?

(Nancy): Well, in Italy every day involved a lot of eating and drinking! But seriously, every location and every retreat has its own personality. The things that stay consistent is the general workshop schedule—most days we have a morning session with Kathy that is mostly generative and an afternoon session with me (Nancy) that focuses on revision and workshopping. We also have a final night “salon” where we all dress up and drink (more) wine and read our work. The salon ends up being one of our favorite parts and to prep for that I’ve been offering a performance class on the last day instead of a regular workshop session. So ideally by the end of the retreat participants write some new stuff, revise some old stuff, and read their work in public. You came on our free day (normally we will only have free half days) where participants can explore, take an extra long nap or dive more deeply into their writing. It IS a retreat after all—we want people resting and rejuvenating, not exhausted from classes all day.

But within that framework each retreat develops its own flavor. In Costa Rica we used the metaphor of the jungle as we designed our classes: “wild” writing, birdsong repetition, taking a machete to the overgrowth, etc. Last year in the high mountains of Colorado we were “mining” for silver and gold in our work; in Italy were drawing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. We want our retreats to reflect and engage with the location. In Italy we were staying in a very old palace (palazzo) with all its creepy/romantic charm and Kathy did a special “ghost writing” session. In Costa Rica we were/will be staying in screened cabinas open to the tropical air and all the sounds of nature. In Grand Lake we will be in a big mountain lodge (think wood burning stove) overlooking a mountain lake.

One thing that remains consistent is that by the end of the week we have all bonded in a special way—writing partners and friendships that will last a lifetime.

Your next retreat in Colorado is almost sold out, but are there still places for that one? I see Randall Brown will be making an appearance. I could listen to him talk about flash fiction all day.

(Kathy): As of this writing, there’s actually one room still available for our Grand Lake retreat so if anyone out there has been considering this they ought to jump in now! Nancy and I are very excited that Randall will be lending his expertise to this retreat, yes.

In 2020 you’re going back to Costa Rica. How do you choose your retreat destinations?

(Nancy): Yes! We loved Peace Retreat and how comfortable the staff made us feel while also leaving us to our work (the whole staff attended our final night salon.). So we’re excited about returning and of course it will be easier for us because we’ll know what to expect this time. For instance, we will know that the howler monkeys sound like crazy screaming ladies in the jungle (but good luck actually seeing one!) and that you really can eat bananas in every form: fried, cold, mashed, grilled, and that the (optional) yoga at 7 am is actually a lovely way to wake up! And the Peace Retreat staff will be prepared for how much coffee writers drink—ha! Because so much of our planning is an (exciting) shot in the dark—language barriers, currency conversions, and scouring photos to make sure we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And even then there are unknown elements—that’s part of the fun.

How do we decide where we are going? Like this: “Hey Kathy, where have you always wanted to go next?” Ha. No really, it’s half dreaming and half pragmatism. We start with our wish list and then we study, search, scratch out, study, search and scratch out again until we find the right place. We are of course looking for special locations—we aren’t interested in the resort experience, we are writers after all, we love the unique/gritty/beautiful and are ultimately looking for places that will inspire writing. Because the bottom line is that we’re aren’t a travel service, we are just fellow writers and teachers who want to spend time with other writers in beautiful, remote, inspiring places. Places that are simple and affordable and will get people writing, writing, writing. It’s easy to get distracted from writing when there are too many frills…and most people have no problem being distracted. The point is to focus.

A peek at our wish list for future retreats? Iceland (northern lights), French countryside, Bali (to be close to the Australians!), Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Nepal, Spain, Puerto Rico…any you want to add or vote for?? We are trying to decide for summer 2020 now (wink).

What are your approaches to workshopping flash fiction? On the flash fiction retreats website, you mention one-on-one mentoring. How does that work?

(Nancy): The one-on-one sessions are one of my favorite parts of the retreat. Every participant gets 1 session with each of us (length depends on how many days we have) and so many things can happen in those sessions. I approach them as creative coaching sessions (which I rarely get the luxury to do in person). Often a writer will come with a story in progress and we will focus the session on that. But that time can also be used to talk through an idea—I’ve seen many a-ha! moments happen just from talking out an idea and bouncing it off another writer. As writers this is so important but it’s not always easy to find the right eyes/ears at the right time. Other sessions I’ve had include discussions of publishing, uncovering creative blocks, or just the writing life in general. The writers lead the sessions so they can use them in any way that suits them and their work best.

Workshopping—The editing process in general is one of my favorite parts. One very important component is to know what phase of the writing process a particular piece is in—a freshly written piece probably isn’t ready for critique and neither is the author. During the retreat I lead group workshop sessions but we look at stories written before the retreat, stories that have had time to grow and mature on their own, first.

My approach is mostly intuitive—I’ve been an editor since 2004, so I can quickly home in on what is working and where the story has hit a snag. But I find that the group has a lot of wisdom, so my workshops ultimately become a group brainstorm session that I facilitate.  That said, no one leaves any workshop I lead feeling torn down—it’s always about lifting one another up to create the strongest piece possible, and I believe that we learn as much by helping others as we do by workshopping our own pieces (and I always recommend revisiting one’s own piece after workshopping others as you will be wearing the correct “editor’s hat”).  Each day I will bring “tools” to the class, different aspects and approaches to the creative revision process, but ultimately the work on the table that day decides the focus of the session. Every piece needs something different; there is never just one formula that works for all.

(Kathy): Nancy covered what we do in our one-on-one sessions really well. And as to the teaching sessions, I run the generative ones and in these I like to focus on particular aspects of writing in general and flash specifically. My teaching philosophy is aimed at inspiring writers to find ways into their own material. I think a lot of writers come to retreats in order to break out of a rut or overcome a block, so a good deal of my sessions is focused on strategies for awakening creativity.

And I do like prompts for getting one going, but one can google “writing prompts” and have enough of those at their disposal to last the rest of their days. Also these tend to be one-offs, whereas my prompts and exercises are designed such that they can be used again and again. For instance, I have writers use mind-mapping exercises to create their own word banks and so forth.

I also like to delve into areas not usually covered in typical flash fiction workshops, such as using poetic devices to create more musical prose, use of time and narrative speed, and exercises aimed at going deeper into the revision process.

Each session, I give time for free writing and writing to an exercise aimed at building on the lesson. I have been absolutely amazed at the beauty and depth of the work produced in the generative sessions.

Anything else you want to add?

(Nancy): Working with Kathy is so easy and rewarding—I think a big part of what makes this endeavor work well is that the two of us bring different but complementary/overlapping skills and strengths to the table and we are both really loving this crazy creation! Finding a good working partnership is crucial. But finding the right project is key: For me, there is nothing more rewarding than when someone says: “Yes! I’m finally going to give myself and my writing a gift I’ve always dreamed about.”

Out in the world Kathy talks a lot about being a good literary citizen. The idea that it’s important to lift each other up—writing can be hard and writing for a living even harder. So in a way our retreats feel like a gift we can offer to writers grinding day in and day out. The fact is we all need a writing retreat, a quiet, simple, inspiring moment to reconnect to our creative selves. To be able to provide this service, to allow writers to dream big—this is a real gift. In a small way we are helping people make their dreams come true. So yeah, what can be better than that?

Read more at Flash Fiction Retreats.