Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At the Cabin: A Tranquil Writer's Retreat Produces Creativity with Gayle Irwin

by Gayle M. Irwin

Solace reverberates, stillness the prevailing sound. No traffic noise, no construction racket, not even the ring of the telephone. Although only a 20-minute drive from my house in town, my woodland hideaway seems hours from the barrage of droning disruptions. This peaceful parcel of timberland has become my writing retreat.

Lodgepole pines stretch their gray trunks heavenward like necks of giraffes. The trees tower above the 12x40 foot wood-sided cabin, offering shade from the searing sun, its warm rays rife at the 8,000-foot elevation. Thoreau had his Walden's Pond; I have my Peaceable Kingdom, three+ acres of Rocky Mountain forest at the top of Casper Mountain. Although other cabins are visible through the lacy lodgepole branches, rarely is my solace disturbed, for other cabin owners don't frequent their private paradises as I do mine – that truth adds to the quaking quiet.

For more than five years, I've spent weekends and weekday evenings surrounded by nature's splendor: green-suited hummingbirds darting through the still sky; tawny-eared mule deer sauntering on dry-needled, sparsely-grassed ground; auburn-shirted pine squirrels chattering from overhead tree branches, and heavy-headed yellow daisies yawning in the early-morning light.

It is during that tranquil dawn that I create stories, sitting at my laptop that's powered by either its own battery or the solar panels connected by a cluster of marine-celled batteries. The collection also lights the paneled cabin. Each form of energy helps me produce chapters of books or develop feature articles for magazines and newspapers. Although I can write at my home office in town, the visits to the cabin rejuvenate and revive my creativity, priming, prompting, and pumping the flow of words. Amidst the solitude, I've written two full books and partially-written two others, as well as countless magazine articles, newspaper stories, and blog posts. Sometimes my musings are generated in the cabin itself, other times sitting under the shade of those giant lodgepoles, or while basking in the embrace of the screened porch. The twittering of birds, winging of butterflies, and wafting of a breeze in the tree tops tug at the tendrils of my brain and sing softly amid the crevices of my heart, culminating in a creativity that soars from my soul.

Each visit, each overnight, renders words on the page that spill forth like warm water fountains in Yellowstone, frothing and steaming to be freed from their confines. The words, whether paragraphs on a computer screen or sentences in a lined composition notebook, produce a satisfactory, albeit edit-able piece; like an appetite satiated, I come away from my cabin experience appeased. What bursts forth may not be my most profound work, but it is palatable, and I later trim the fat or add more flavoring.

I am inspired by my my mountain property, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder was by her surroundings, whether it was Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri or the great plains of the Dakotas. That inspired location encourages writings that will, I hope, uplift readers of my words. Whether the product is a book about my dog that helps children overcome an adversity in their lives, a story that teaches an environmental lesson about the forest or the creatures living on the plains, or an article with appropriate verbiage to encourage people who are down on themselves, the excitement I feel when I sit across from my laptop in the tranquility of my mountain acreage cascades through my mind and spirit. For me, tranquility equals creativity and productivity.

Laura had her Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods. I have a combination – my Little Cabin in the Tall Woods of the Great Plains. With woodstove billowing even in mid-summer and lantern or solar light producing a soft glow amid snoring dogs and creaking crickets, a new paragraph is birthed and a new idea illuminated like the light surrounding me. At the cabin in the forest atop the mountain my senses are awakened from their dull sleepiness and my writings spring forth from their hibernation, taking flight like woodland songbirds then perching in the place they are meant to inhabit.

Susan chimes in...
What a beautiful place to write, and what a connection Gayle clearly has to her cabin. Something about getting out in nature can really free us to write. I know when I took a weekend in Esterbrook it jarred a lot of words loose. If you don't have your own cabin, make a date with the outdoors. Treat yourself to a weekend away someplace beautiful. Your notebooks will thank you.


Gayle M. Irwin, Casper, is a freelance writer and the author of five inspirational dog books. These include three books for children and two devotional-style books for families. She's written short stories that are part of five different Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including the latest dog book, The Dog Did What? She writes regularly for Our Town Casper magazine, a monthly publication, and for the weekly Casper Journal newspaper. Her stories and columns also appear in the Douglas Budget and River Press newspapers, and she has contributed writings to Creation Illustrated, WREN, and Crossroads magazines.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


post by Lynn

I did a search on Pinterest for the phrase "writer's block" and up popped lots of "pins" about this pesky aspect of the writing process. I quit counting at 450. Obviously "writer's block" is the metaphor of choice for many writers.

Not me. Not any more.

I believe that the way you visualize a thing affects how you feel about it. When I hear "writer’s block," I picture a big concrete box, or a massive wall--something solid and insurmountable. So I asked myself, do I really want to look at this slow-downed feeling I sometimes get as an almost-insurmountable block? Nah. I want to choose something more permeable and less permanent. Otherwise, I’ll psych myself out and quit writing.

Lately, my favorite metaphor for this phenomenon is a speed bump. Think about it. What are you being asked to do when you approach a speed bump? Slow down, and look around. Are there pedestrians crossing the parking lot? Is there a stop sign ahead? There’s a reason you need to slow down, because there's something you need to be aware of.

In one of my works-in-progress (fiction) I recently reached a fizzle-out moment. After a spurt of panic in my gut, I told myself to chill. I visualized a speed bump. I slowed down. I re-read my latest pages and asked: what do I need to be aware of? It dawned on me that I still had not zeroed in on a precise point of view. I was all over the place in third person, with some omniscient undertones in one part.

So I have been reading my craft books and, with this particular story in mind, revisiting all the nuances of third person. I did a writing exercise suggested in one of the books.

Now that I am on firmer footing (multiple third person, medium distance) with the issue, I feel tugged back to my story. The energy is returning. I can speed up now.

What if I hadn’t hit the speed bump? My point of view would have continued to zigzag, and I would have reached the end and had to go back and do a major clean-up. Not the end of the world—I’m sure I’ll have plenty of revision to do when I reach that point. But I am GRATEFUL that I hit the speed bump when I did. It caught my attention and I made a change.

So I offer to you this suggestion—when the writing stops flowing:

1. Slow down
2. Look around
3. Ask yourself: What do I need to be aware of?

Or, you can visualize a big block if that still works for you. It's your process! :-)


Check out Writing Wyoming's Pinterest account. We have compiled lots of valuable links to information in the following categories:

Writing Prompts; Wyoming Writers and Poets; Writing Life; Writing Advice; Writing Events and Opportunities; Books on Writing; Creativity; Poetry; The Business of Writing; and even one called Did You Know This About Wyoming?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Improving Your Critiques: Advice from Kristin Abraham

by Susan

Ah, critiques. We need them and we dread them -- both giving and receiving. We want our critique group to push us to do better, but not push us down. We want to help our fellow writers, but we're not always certain what to say or how to say it.

I was fortunate enough this last weekend to be in a small workshop with Kristin Abraham, English Instructor at Laramie County Community College, where she discussed how to offer constructive criticism in a writing group or workshop.

The biggest takeaway for me was that a whole heap of praise is needed for every criticism. Many things are right with every piece. The act of putting it down on paper is an act of creation and personal expression that has value.

With that, here was what she taught us:

  1. Remember why you are there: To help and support fellow writers as they create.
  2. Don't forget the PRAISE: For everyone's success, it's important to share what works well and what makes the person a unique and strong writer. The PQS format is a good one: Praise, Question, Suggest, in that order. Often the suggestions will flow naturally from the questions, and that final step may not be entirely necessary.
  3. Speak in terms of the piece, not the author: What is the poem or essay or story trying to do, not what the author is trying to do. The critique is not of the fellow writer sitting in front of you. It is a critique of different aspects in one particular piece of writing. It is not a judgement of the writer's existence as a writer. (Note to self: Also good to remember when accepting critiques.)
  4. Don't harp on it: If you agree with one person's question or suggestion, it is enough to say you agree and move on. The writer heard it the first time. Repetition is not needed nor, worse yet, an extended conversation that yes, yes, we all agree this is a problem and this and this and this is why. Two exceptions: 1) if it is a debate where members of the group disagree as to whether it works or not, OR 2) if you are agreeing with the praise. Keep praising.
  5. Don't forget that the author is in the room: Don't get SO caught up in the debate that you are forgetting the intended goal: to help and support fellow writers. 
  6. Emphasize your perspective: It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to critique is to put the focus on yourself, as in your reaction to the piece. This is one situation where "Me! Me! Me!" is actually the most considerate approach. It is more constructive to say, "This confused me," than to say, "This is confusing." 
  7. Avoid overload: Don't feel the need to point out every single thing you think could be improved. If their sentences are too long, point out one or two examples. Don't mark every instance all the way down the page. Again, an exception: you cannot overload praise. Keep praising.
  8. Be specific: If you liked the imagery in a poem, point out a specific image that struck you particularly. If you felt as if certain areas could be tightened, point out a few specific examples (but see #7 and reel yourself in.) Generalities can be overwhelming and can give the writer no starting point.
  9. Be flexible and open: Be willing to modify your commentary and change your mind. This helps you to embrace your personal perspective (see #6) and stick to the point of the group (see #1).
  10. Relate the piece to your own writing: Saying "I've done that before," or "I ran into the same issue in my writing," reduces any air of superiority and again (Did we mention #6?) helps emphasize your perspective. Your fellow writer may be more receptive if he or she feels as if you have something in common.
I know my temptation is always to pull the weeds first, when what I really need to prioritize is admiring the flowers. I'm reasonably certain (OK, 100% certain) that I've inflicted some unfortunate critiques on others. I look forward to taking Kristin's principles and doing a better job of helping and supporting my fellow writers in the future.


Kristin Abraham is the author of The Disappearing Cowboy Trick (Horse Less Press, 2013) and two chapbooks: Little Red Riding Hood Missed the Bus (Subito Press, 2008) and Orange Reminds You of Listening (Elixir Press, 2006). Her poetry and lyric essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Best New Poets 2005, Columbia Poetry Review, LIT, and American Letters & Commentary. She teaches at a community college in Wyoming, and lives in Colorado, where she serves as editor-in-chief and poetry editor of the literary magazine Spittoon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


photo by Lynn Carlson
post by Lynn

I collect quotes, especially quotes by writers. As I read through the notebook where I scribble or cut-and-tape these quotes, I am struck by what a colorful, irascible bunch of human beings we writers are.

The quotes makes me laugh, and also leave me thinking that even on my most disgruntled days—it's not a problem, because I am in such excellent company!

You think I’m making this up? Here’s a sampling:

“You’re miserable, edgy and tired. You’re in the perfect mood for journalism.”                   - Warren Ellis

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”         - Kurt Vonnegut 

“A story is not a carrier pigeon with a message clamped to its leg.” - David Madden 

“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into a bouillon cube.”          - John Le Carre

“If I had to give young writers advice, I’d say don’t listen to writers talking about writing.”             - Lillian Hellman

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”                        - H.G. Wells 

So if you find yourself frustrated, grumpy, sharp-tongued or short-tempered…

Welcome to the tribe!

Friday, September 5, 2014

More Writing Spaces

On Tuesday, we talked about the need to carve out a writing space and invited readers to share theirs with us. We hope you enjoy them, and that you enjoy creating your own space.

Art Elser
Here's my writing space. It's in the basement with only a sliver of a window on the west and north sides, so almost no natural light. What you can't see is the lock on the door to the basement--can only be opened by Kathy from the outside --and the slot in the door to pass trays of food down to me.

The desk is bare because my MacBook Air is on holiday at the Apple repair place, getting a new battery. I love the Air because my secondary writing space, in the warmer months, of course, is on our patio where I can see sky and trees and hear birds and crickets and cicadas and the damned lawn service mowers and blowers. And thrown in lately is the sound of concrete saws and their attendant dust. 

Lynn G. Carlson

 It's my creative chaos and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Plus, the window is garden level and bunnies and ground squirrels peek in at me

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Creating a Writing Space: An Infestation of Earworms

by Susan

It's all about creating a space for your writing.

My husband's avocation is music. It brings him joy, but it makes him a walking noise machine. Just as a good writer writes often, a good musician practices frequently. Incessantly, to be accurate. Thought-disrupting, poem-wrecking, banging on the keyboards, so much harmonica I think I'm in a black and white prison movie practice.

He's got good reasonably good taste in music, but every set list has a clunker or two that he still needs to practice... repeatedly. Hence, the problem of earworms. Mercifully, I have three solutions:

Woman Cave #1: The cabin
This is the garden shed my husband renovated. He added windows, wired up the electric, hung drywall and damn near cut off his left index finger on a table saw building the screen door. Not only did we end up in the emergency room, but he had to play a bass gig with only three useful fingers on his fret hand.

It's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, but quiet and peaceful, filled with things that make me happy and perfect to generate ideas with pen and notebook.

Woman Cave #2: The office
Doubles as a guest room, but we're recluses so we rarely have that issue. This is the less creative, more down-to-business place to get on the laptop and to revise and finish up pieces.

Option #3 because I really like my husband: Headphones
At some point, in the interest of remaining married, I need to spend some time in his presence. Alas, he spends his downtime watching old movies. Noise machine.

The solution is headphones, available at any hardware store. He can watch film noir, and I can write in the same room with him..

We have a right to a writing space
On a writing retreat, author Linda Hasselstrom told me that we have the right to our own space for writing. It is part of our work. We need a spot to go devoted to words. Even if it's a card table in the laundry room, we want, and should have, a place dedicated to word work.

Where is your writing space? 
Send a picture to writingwyoming@gmail.com!