Monday, May 21, 2012

Writing Staycation

A Staycation Junkie

by Sheila Walker

As soon as Zahara Heckscher’s November 2011 Writing Staycation ended, I immediately signed up for the April 2012 session.

I’ve been working on a memoir about my experiences in Cameroon in Central Africa for so long that I cringe to think of the generation of MacIntosh on which I began it. I became a cultural anthropologist as a result of my first trip there, and have returned to do fieldwork, attend cultural events and always to visit the family with which I lived when I was nineteen and beginning the journey that marked my life.

My problem isn’t writers block. It’s rather a lack of continuity in a life characterized by a sometimes incredible amount of international travel -- thirteen trips overseas in 2011. The continuity and intensity of the five consecutive days of staycationing, rather than the usual once a week for several weeks, was exactly what I needed. That we met in the sunny Zora Neale Hurston Room also seemed planned with me in mind since Zora is my heroine as an African American anthropologist best known for her popular writing. I felt like I was in summer daycamp.

Each morning began with a prompt of some sort to get our creative juices flowing. It was usually someone’s inspirational words. Sometimes it was fruit -- a pomegranate the first Writing Staycation I attended and a pineapple the second, which we were to contemplate with each of our senses, and let the experience flow into our writing. Whereas some in the group waxed poetic (if one can wane poetic, that’s what I did), each fruit transported me to experiences related to my manuscript.

The pomegranate brought me images of visits to NY’s Chinatown at age four where, in addition to being intrigued by a fruit so much more interesting than oranges and apples, I began the fascination with other peoples and cultures that led me to Cameroon and to being an anthropologist. The pineapple reminded me of the shock of some Cameroonian villagers at my amazement at seeing a pineapple grow for the first time. How, they wondered, could someone from a presumably developed country not know such things that they took for granted? That was one of my many lessons about the relativity of who’s developed and who’s not and by what criteria.

A major benefit I got from the Staycation was Zahara’s critical reading of parts of my manuscript and of my agent query letter and proposal drafts, and her quick, supportive, and constructively critical feedback. She gave me a sense of the importance of what I have to say, suggested elements to highlight and augment, and demystified the proposal-writing process. Noon lectures by authors, bloggers, agents, and others enhanced the value of two intensely useful weeks, as well as leading me to other Center classes and workshops to pursue paths that got their start in my two Writing Staycations.

I’ll be back as soon as my schedule allows. Just call me Staycation Junkie. I’ll see you in the Zora Neale Hurston Room.

(Writing Staycation meets Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 4 through 8.)  Please click here for more details.

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