My Writing Marathon Origin Story


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Many times, people ask me how I became interested in Writing Marathons. This is the story of my early years, learning about marathons by hosting them in the Nebraska Writing Project and attending them at National Writing Project Annual Meetings and Retreats whenever I could.   I’ve adapted the text in this post from a poster presentation I made years ago for the Nebraska Writing Project Spring Gathering in 2012.  Now, I share it to tell my marathon origin story.  Many thanks to my marathon mamma, Michelle Rogge Gannon (Director of the Dakota Writing Project), to my mentor Robert Brooke (Director of the Nebraska Writing Project), to my oldest marathon buddy, Jeff Grinvalds, and to Richard Louth (Director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project) for founding the New Orleans Writing Marathon back in 1994. 

Summer 2006: I go on my first writing marathon, with Jeff Grinvalds and facilitator Michelle Rogge-Gannon (Director of the Dakota Writing Project) at the NWP Writing and Technology Professional Writing Retreat in Nebraska City. We also meet Natasha Whitton, Tech Liaison for the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, where the writing marathon was born in 1994. It’s simple. Powerful. Fun. I can’t wait to bring it back to the Nebraska Writing Project.

Fall 2006: With Robert Brooke, Director of the Nebraska Writing Project, I pilot the first NeWP writing marathon, Eye of NeWP, and invite the 2006 Summer Institute participants, the Advisory Board, and Michelle Rogge-Gannon. It’s a bunch of fun. We all want to do more.

April 2007: We plan the Second Writing Marathon in the NeWP, again in Lincoln’s  Haymarket, this time on the Saturday after the Spring Gathering. A small but mighty group of five convenes.

Summer 2007: I go off on my solo writing retreat at Platte River State Park. I keep thinking about how cool it would be to bring a group of NeWP teacher-writers out there for a retreat…

October 2007: We host the third NeWP writing marathon, this one in midtown Lincoln, ranging through the Sunken Gardens and Antelope Park. It concludes at Jeff’s parents’ house, where we bask in Latvian hospitality.

January 2008: The now-traditional Winter Writing Marathon in downtown Lincoln takes shape and starts to attract a larger crowd. We learn that Yia Yia’s is great for pizza and beer and artfully-lit photography, but too loud for read-arounds.

April 2008: Our first Omaha Writing Marathon ranges over the Old Market. This is also our first marathon with young writers! In future invites, we include the line, “Your writing-friendly family and friends are welcome to join us.” It’s a good thing.  I still use that line on all of my flyers today.

September 2008: We roll the fall writing marathon into the first Platte River Writing Retreat and end up reading by candlelight after an outrageous potluck. An awesome start to a new tradition!


November 2008: At the NWP Annual Meeting in NYC, I get to go on my first NWP-sponsored writing marathon, with Sharon Bishop and some upstate NY TCs. I meet writing marathon founder, Richard Louth (Director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project), and join 200+ writing teachers as they flood into the NYC subway system, heading for Greenwich Village.

March 2009: I write my first writing marathon fan letter. Richard Louth succumbs to my gushing and agrees to meet with me in New Orleans. He and his wife shower me with books, New Orleans tips, and lots of support for my work. We realize that SLWP and NeWP are sister sites, both with long histories of valuing teachers as writers.

January 2009: We hold our second Winter Writing Marathon in downtown Lincoln. We have learned our lesson from Yia Yia’s and hold this read-around at Misty’s.

April 2009: Our first writing marathon held “out west.” Sharon Bishop hosts this one at the Stuhr Museum, and we get to write in a Pawnee Earth Lodge!  Awesome.

Fall 2009: We’re back at Platte River State Park for another great retreat and another great marathon. Lucy Carruthers writes a feature story about it showcasing gnomes and bees. Robert and Kate write in a paddleboat with Pan. More kids come. More campfire awesomeness ensues.

November 2009: Anne, Mary, and I make it to the NWP Writing Marathon in Philadelphia. Richard reads the Hemingway quote and I swoon. We write and wander and watch people throw pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave. I start to realize that writing marathons change the way writers interact with the people they encounter.

January 2010: The third Winter Writing Marathon draws a record crowd of 23. After a strange start at Sheldon Art Museum on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Campus, we’re off on the coffee-and-art tour of the city, then back at Misty’s for the read-around. Jen Stastny does her “big arms” Eddie Izzard bit as we cross P Street.

April 2010: Our first Riding/Writing Marathon in NoDo (North Downtown) Omaha. We have a great launch by the Omaha Writing Group at the Hot Shops Art Gallery and a read-around right back there. This was one picturesque, sunlit marathon!

March 2010: At CCCC in Louisville, I present a paper about writing marathons and ecocritical notions of “spirit of place.” I’m on a panel chaired by Robert Brooke about writing marathons with Richard Louth and Natasha Whitton, from the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and Marjorie Roemer from the Rhode Island Writing Project. . No one thinks to take a picture of the panelists, but everyone is loves this slide with the John Muir quote I got from Jeff Lacey: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

July 2010: We do an optional writing marathon during the Professional Writing Retreat at St. Benedict’s Retreat Center in Schuyler, Nebraska, with c0-facilitators Robert Petrone and Jane Connealy.  I write a cheeky sequence about “What writers need,” “What St. Benedict needs,” and “What the world needs.”

September 2010: Returning again to Platte River for Writing Retreat and Marathon #3. By now we’ve several got several emerging traditions and themes, including a Quilt Show, an Angry Cardinal Clan, and a Write about Found Stuff Ritual.

November 2010: I organize a Rogue Writing Marathon at Downtown Disney during NCTE. Richard and Natasha come from SLWP, along with the fantastic Michelle Russo.  we are also joined by  Gigi and Wilma and other folks from the Oxbow Writing Project.  This is the start of our “go rogue” option when we want to have a writing marathon but it doesn’t fit into the official program (we revived this at the Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2014).

Nov. 2010

In 2011, I started this blog, so the story continues back at the beginning.  In August of 2013, I became Director of the Prairie Lands Writing Project at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri– a site with a long history of writing marathons where it was easy to continue my research and my work, spreading marathon joy to the masses.  I am fortunate, indeed!

Many thanks to my Teaching Writing with Technology classes at MWSU and the great teacher-writers in them who help inspire me to keep writing–digitally and otherwise.  Here is the latest group, on a class marathon in downtown Saint Joseph in March of 2016, beholding the magic of the s’mores pizza at GeneO’s:

marathon smore pizza


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NWP Annual Meeting Writing Marathon: Minneapolis Edition



On Nov. 20, 2015, the Minnesota Writing Project hosted a writing marathon at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting.  It was a well-attended love fest for marathon fans from around the country.  Many thanks to New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat friend Michelle Shaw and her crew (pictured below) for facilitating this awesome event!


9:50 a.m. The Newsroom with Richard, Jane, Anne, Kirk, and Kate

To our surprise, the Bloody Marys arrive with beer chasers.

“It’s a Minnesota/ Wisconsin thing,” explains our server.  Our drink orders have redeemed us in her eyes after asking her to clean off the one dirty table in the place, just the right size for our group.

20151120_095412The Newsroom is only two blocks from the Hilton, and it has a beautiful, enormous bar in the shape of a sailboat, complete with masthead, with bottles all through the rigging.  The Bloody Marys take me back to the last day of the New Orleans Writing Marathon that summer, and to Andrew Wiseman’s rousing sing-along version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  It had been an intense, emotional week, and this song pushed many of us over the edge into tears. 

20151120_120901Who knew we’d find lagniappe—that little bit of something extra common in New Orleans—here in this frozen, Nordic city.

Life should come with a beer chaser.Something to chase after a good thing.

It will never catch up, of course, but it has to try.

11:00  a.m. Still at The Newsroom

Out the window, I can see the Hilton, and I count up and over to the window of my room.  I can almost see the flowers sitting in the window still, trembling pink orchids above the frozen streets.

A surprise.  A decadence. A presence here across the miles. 

Lucinda Williams plays on the restaurant sound system, bringing up the tears again but making me remember that I need more Lucinda Williams in my life.

20151119_171423_resizedOut the window, a forklift scoops loads of steaming asphalt from a dump truck and carts it away to parts unknown.  Clouds of grey smoke rise up past my orchids and fade into the grey Minnesota sky.


Late the following evening…

At the Dakota Jazz Club, the marathon continues with a different group of friends–Darin, Cathie, and Dan–after our NCTE presentation.  We write after listening to the stunning gospel-infused blues of Kelley Hunt who makes us weepy with a song called “Beautiful Bones.”  Eventually only Dan and I are left.  MC Longshot  is on the mic, and the club transforms slowly before our eyes into an entirely different venue.  We sit in the estuary zone and write in the dim, churning nightlife vibe.

Minneapolis has been the scene of another police shooting of a young black man, and protests are ongoing.  MC Longshot chants:

Ain’t no justice, ain’t no peace/When we’re dealing with police

Wake up/ Good morning!

We need everybody

Wake up/ Good morning!

We need everybody

The crowd grows.  We write into the night. Eventually, our server asks that awesome marathon question, “Are you guys writers?”

12291062_10208237460039974_6471943368669295412_oDan invites him to write with us. He declines, but says that some of the off- duty staff are writers.  Dan pushes paper to him and urges him to invite them to write with us.  Our eyes follow him to a table a few rows back.  We exchange nods with the shadows, keep writing, keep listening.

A while later, the server brings us a piece of paper with three different styles of handwriting on it.  It says,

Do not go gently into that good night.  The shadows of November bring the clouds of December.  The night holds promise… City of lakes in early freeze.  Come back in the summer if it should please.

sinister noises/sincerely revealed/misled once again

Please be kind to yourself. Also, please be kind to others.  If ever you are feeling alone, realize that people come, sometimes things change, and other times they do not.  You alone have the ability to go to the last.

Our marathon hearts swell. We send back some writing of our own, greetings from the middle Midwest to the northern Midwest with encouragement to keep writing.

In my notebook at 12:55 a.m., I jot down MC Longshot’s challenge, “What are you going to do/to make a difference in this world?”  I am overwhelmed again by marathon synchronicity.  I write,

 So. Cool. It’s everywhere…



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Writing in Good Company: The New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat 2015

I cannot begin to document the thousand little miracles that made up the 2015 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat, July 13-17. I never thought that anything could be as good as the 2014 writing marathon.  But here it was, again, stunning from the start, each day feeling like a lifetime. Threads of writing on this marathon have worked their way into several different pieces that I am still working on, but here I will pull out two pieces from the first day in the good company of new and old marathon friends, including my dear travel companions Jeff and Kelly.

A million thanks to Richard Louth, Kim Stafford, Tracy Ferrington Cunningham, Michelle Russo, and the whole retreat leadership team for creating the most magical and intense writing experience of my life.  Anyone who wants to attend in 2016 should stay tuned to for updates.

20150714_11270311:15 a.m. Carousel Bar

Reveling in my triumph at scoring seats for my half-newbie group at the famous bar in the Monteleone Hotel, I celebrate with a Vieux Carré, the signature cocktail of the house, invented in 1938. It contains both kinds of bitters, Angostura and Peychaud’s.  Blessed bitters, grounding the spirits of the glass and the city and the writer just the same, they draw the sweetness out, giving it something to stand on.

I’m watching a group of four carefully groomed and very tan young bros flirt with two brown-haired young women. The girls are seated at the bar, which is moving very, very slowly. The guys are standing, stationary. Very, very slowly, the girls drift away with their drinks.

Moments pass. Pages fill. My glass empties.

When I find the group again, I see that a thinner, blonder 11737952_10207398289701240_4726592216325707756_ngirl in a black crop top has anchored the young men, leaving the brunettes to float on.

Ten minutes later, I see that three of the bros, one of the brunettes, the crop top blonde, and a brand new blonde with beach waves have all formed a chatting fleet, moving as one in measured, steady shifts.  They circumnavigate the carousel, carried in the boozy current beneath the bar’s circus lights, clown masks, and mirrors. 


2:14 p.m. St. Louis Cathedral

In the opening session—on Bastille Day—Kim welcomes us to Day 1 of the marathon and says, “Let the doors of our reticence fly open!” Then he challenges us with a question that follows me all morning and all through lunch: “What is your freedom for?” 

It’s easy to see how people become born again, turning themselves over to “the Lord” in seeking answers to this difficult question through religion.  Today I realize that I have, instead, turned myself over to Lourdes, the Le Richelieu Hotel desk attendant who checked me in. 


I wanted so much to have a room with a beautiful balcony over Charters Street.  I’d had one last year, and one the year before that, with the bad boyfriend spoiling it a little but not enough for me to stop asking for the same kind of room, in the online reservation notes and in person, pleading.

But this year, Lordes said, “We couldn’t do that, but we do have you in a nice room with a balcony in back.”

She saw my disappointment. My hurt. “So it’s in back?” I asked. 

“It overlooks the pool,” she said, smiling. “It’s very nice. You’re going to like it.”

I dragged my skepticism up to the room and flung open the doors of my balcony. From that moment my orientation to the room and to the marathon changed.

20150713_142926_resizedAs Lordes predicted, I do like it. I like it so much, I am humbled and changed by it. It’s a spacious two bedroom suite with a huge, gorgeous bed and a little sitting room, part of the original McCartney suite where Paul and Linda stayed for several weeks while they were visiting New Orleans. Best of all, it faces inward, opening to the lush courtyard. 

I realize now that this is what I need. A new room with a new view.  A turning inward. 

Reminded of the John Muir quote I like to put at the top of my own marathon handouts, I feel awed by the power of the marathon once again, quieted and grateful and even ready.

“For going out, I found, was really going in.”  


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 2014 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat Days 5 and  6: Friday and Saturday

Martens photo 8 French Quarter DownpourDay 5: Friday

Opening session for the last day with our retreat writer-in-residence, Kim Stafford.  I write,

What is there left to write? 

Everything.  All of it.  The bits in the cracks.  The bits in the light.  All of it.

We are doing it together.  Learning by being writers together.

There is a reason we bow our heads.

In the quiet, I can tell that there is some silent weeping in the room.  I am wiping away tears, too, and I don’t even know what they are about any longer.  All of it.  Something very strong has happened here, and we all are feeling it.20140718_122814

Jeanne baptizes the bricks of the Gallier House meeting room with a spilled Bloody Mary, a kind of sacrifice.  A tiny, angry dog barks away nearby.  It is enough.

Kim tells us about something called “The War of Art.”  He says, “Seek your muse, but seek your resistance.”

20140718_101032We take lots of photos, and then trickle away in sad, reluctant fragments.  Some of us are staying on for one more night, and we are off for some bonus fun in the city after the retreat’s official end. Kelly and Jeff and I rendezvous at Muriel’s for lunch.  For dessert, we accept the hostess’s invitation and do the self-guided tour upstairs, talking in whispers the entire time, especially in the famed Séance Room.  Like everywhere else in the Quarter, the ghosts are charming and the vibe is lush.20140718_145316


That night we see trumpet player Kermit Ruffins perform at the Blue Nile and have another amazing night on Frenchman Street.  I dance my booty off with complete strangers, including an artist Jeff befriended earlier in a record store and who shares my love of Kermit’s “Palm Court Strut.” When the song is over, we hug like old friends.20140718_204614-1

Day 6: Saturday

8:45 Croissant D’Or.  I write,

It’s raining again, and it’s beautiful.  I got up early to pack and to have one more New Orleans moment before we needed to get in a cab to make our flight home.  In a sleep-deprived fog, I headed out the door and promptly passed up the turn at Ursalines Ave. and found myself at St. Philipp before I realized my mistake.  By that time, it was really coming down.  I paused under a big balcony and checked the map.  A small, patient bulldog and his person waited it out with me, all three of us watching the crystal downpour next to the vine-wrapped balcony ironwork of a lapidary shop, sparkling with pink Christmas lights.

Jeff said last night that we would all have to pay some kind of price for what we were taking from New Orleans.  I suppose he might be right, on some level.  If anything, my liver and arteries are paying the price.   But honestly, I don’t think New Orleans works that way.


On my way to Croissant D’ Or, I’d just been thinking how much I wished I could capture in a photograph–as well as in writing–the beauty of the French Quarter in the rain, but also how impossible that seemed, so ethereal as to be utterly untranslatable into something as mundane as film.  But the wrong turn, the downpour, the bulldog, the balcony, and the Christmas lights gave me the perfect opportunity to come fairly close.  Once I had my picture, the rain let up, and I went on my way for a perfect coffee and a spot of writing before my flight. 

That is how New Orleans works.


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Marathon Mothership Day 4: The Cracks and the Light (New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat 2014)

20140717_090606Day 4: Thursday

Today I give myself an assignment based on one of Kim’s quotes from the beginning of the retreat.  I determined to ask myself, all day, “Where are the cracks?”  “How is the light getting in?”  I start early, just outside my hotel room, looking down on still-sleepy sidewalks below.

9:05 a.m. Le Richelieu balcony

This morning the cracks are in the floorboard paint, alternating smooth and gritty under my bare feet. The light is getting in through a clump of ivy on a balcony across Chartres Street, so green in the early haze that it shines from within, from deep inside the thicket of leaves tiered tight and flooding into the curling black iron.

During the morning session, Kim reads one of his Nebraska poems, “Prairie Prescription,” about a pregnant woman who has been prescribed an hour of beauty a day.  He asks us to write what that would mean for us.  Then he says, “The past is destiny. The future is freedom.”

20140715_154122(0)He introduces a Buddhist concept he calls “Four Ways of Seeing,” including “the visible,” “the invisible,” “the secret,” and “the deep secret.”  These prompts lead my writing toward the imagery of “the veil between the worlds,” which practitioners of various mystical traditions will all tell you is exceptionally thin in New Orleans.  I start to realize that Kim is our Papa Legba, our writer’s version of the deity of the crossroads in traditional voodoo, the master communicator who opens up the door between humans and the spirits.

My marathon group today is two groups of writers starting in two different places.  Jeff and I head for coffee at Croissant D’ Or while Jeanne and friends head for lunch at Rose Nicaud. We plan to meet up at Jean Lafitte’s sometime around 12:30.

11:25 Croissant D’ Or

20140717_115840The cracks are everywhere here in this Old World patisserie.  In the small hexagonal floor tiles. In the wall paint. In the sidewalks outside my window seat. New Orleans is made of cracks, I realize, which explains all the light breaking through, everywhere, beauty blooming out so fast my heart explodes each time it tries to keep pace.   

Right now, it is breaking through flaky layers of frangipane next to a perfect cappuccino, sweet almond paste and butter seeping straight through to calm my blood. 

Outside my window seat, a thin blond woman in crisp beige heels and a white pant suit climbs onto a raggedy bike decked out with beads and pedals away.

12:10 Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar

The cracks are all over, again, here in the wood-topped table and in the dark, old pirate bricks grinning at us from just behind the veil. The light is getting in through the gorgeous blue eyes of our server, a young Viking so tall his blonde head floats just under the dusty rafters. He’s patient and kind and so beautiful that our rowdy table of writers is hushed in awe each time he stops by. 

Martens photo 2 Jeff Grinvalds at Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith ShopMellow club music is moving all around us, and the light is getting in through the high notes but settling into the bass booms, cozying up to the corners of the room and twinkling at us like the lights in Café Amelie’s courtyard last night. 

Light is getting in all slanted and soft from the shuttered doors thrown open since the day the place began back in 1722. It’s lighting up the plaid bro shirts and the edgy black tees and the middle-aged polo shirts, lighting up the pink capris and the maxi dresses and the cutoff jean shorts of the girl whose boyfriend smacks her tiny derrière as she heads to the ladies’ room. 

Our young Viking server has gone to stand in the doorway. An unlikely guardian of the crossroads, he quietly surveys the Bourbon Street swagger. His broad shoulders angle outward, drawing sunlight into our shadows. He checks his phone and smiles at it, his beautiful thumbs swiping and scrolling and texting away, telegraphing his heart’s deepest joy, I hope, to some extraordinary love.

3:30 Good Friends Bar

20140717_160026It’s Happy Hour here, but I’ve gone for the $8 Maker’s Mark in honor of my BFF, Cheri, who will come to New Orleans someday soon.   Jeanne has pulled us into this glorious, stately old gay bar, remembering some story from long ago, but now we are so in the thrall of our mesmerizing bartender,  J. J., none of us can write.  I look for the cracks, but I can only glimpse them through holes in the rolling, raging conversation, or perhaps in the drink  J.J. is touting, “The Buttcheeks Spreader.”  I look for the light getting in, possibly through another one of J.J.’s recommendations, something called “The Double-Wide,” but everything is so distracting and dizzying that I really can’t be sure.

I leave my group in J.J.’s capable hands and head back early to Le Richelieu to prepare for the pedagogy panel I’m on during the evening session.  Jeff is typing frantically by this time, capturing what will later become a fantastic piece based on our Good Friends experience called “Hey, Girl!  Hey!”

That evening, the marathon rolls on even while our notebooks lounge safely back at the hotel.  Jeff and I call in an order of oyster po’ boys from Verti Mart, just two blocks from 20140717_210745Le Richelieu, and then find ourselves in a weird fluorescent wonderland when we go to
pick them up.  There’s an enormous orange-tan man in a seersucker suit jacket and shorts waiting in line just ahead of us, his huge shirtless chest grinning under a dazzling smile and straw hat.  He turns out to be Tito—of Tito’s Handmade Vodka—also  picking up po’ boys and regaling everyone with Tales of the Cocktail stories from the festival on the other side of the Quarter.

20140718_122234Jeff and I float out of the Verti Mart dream world, gobble the perfect po’ boys, and then
float down Frenchman into another dream world, this one made of brass and funk at The Stooges show at d.b.a.  We dance all night with Cynthia, another retreat writer we’ve decided that we have captured, like pirates, and whom we affectionately refer to as our “booty.”

The evening ends under the bare light bulbs of the Frenchman Street Art Market and a then a slow glide back to bed.


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Marathon Mothership Day 3: Ramping It Up on the River (New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat 2014)


Day 3: Wednesday

At the morning session, Writer-in-Residence Kim Stafford teaches us a four-step process for writing taught to him by his father, the poet William Stafford.  The four steps are these:

  1. Date, time, place
  2. Random journal writing
  3. A line of insight
  4. A meditation on that insight

20140714_181946I write,

  1. 10:15 a.m. The Gallier House. New Orleans
  2. Terribly tired after getting up way too early to work on my revision of the Wink’s piece. Craving serious breakfast.  Last night is a dream now, a haze of fried chicken and neon and rum.  Probably too much rum.  Starting to do too much planning.  Must stop.
  3. We imprison ourselves trying to make sense of the day. More gets done with less consideration and more exploration.
  4. Never read email before sleeping. Even our modern habit of checking Facebook in the dark before closing our eyes traps our mind for the night in the blue rectangle of light.  Locked in a dimension apart, our consciousness fights, all elbows, to free itself like the Superman villains trapped in that flat, spinning dimensional prison, arcing forever into space.  Rather we should ease ourselves into fade-to-black in soft, open fields behind our eyes, random thoughts passing through unfettered, free to flood in and out of our dreaming eye.

After a long moment of gathering silence after the writing, Kim says, “This is the ritual to enter the French Quarter of your soul.”


Soon I am off with Jeff and Kelly, our marathon day framed around a loose plan to find brunch and then board the riverboat Creole Queen and write on the Chalmette Battlefield.

20140716_12122512:00 P.M.  The Original Café Maspero

I came for the Eggs Sardou but found shrimp and grits instead.  And they haven’t quite righted everything, but I am much, much better.  The fresh herbs and bits of ham in there have healed a hole in my spirit.  Or at least plugged it for now.  Almost.

“Almost” is an ok place to be. Missed the mark but landed somewhere close, at least.  In a lively, lovely place where the gaslights stay on all day.  Rising up in my caffeine elevator, ready to peer down a bit from wherever we were, ready to look up at where we’re going.

3:05 Chalmette Battlefield

Martens photo 5 Writing on Chalmette BattlefieldThe National Park Ranger is going on about the battle of New Orleans, but I just want to sit here under the biggest live oak I’ve ever seen.  With its hanging moss, this tree could be my Hair Sister, dark and sprawling and unkempt and all over the place.  I love you and your gorgeous, voluptuous body.  I will come back for you and your sisters, I promise.

3:35 Aboard the Creole Queen

Martens photo 3 Kelly Lock McMillen on riverboat Creole QueenWe cruise along, cradled in Mother Mississippi’s brown arms as the riverbanks slide past through the big windows on either side of the riverboat interior.  A hulking Polish oil tanker looms and then fades under the gold-tasseled fringe of heavy curtains.  Then the Domino Sugar factory, with the rusting metal docks trailing past in the molasses-sweet air. A young girl in a lime-green t-shirt with white-rimmed sunglasses makes her slow way along the outer deck.  Then a long, red grain barge slinks by, nudged by a striped little boat called the “Belle Chase.”

The big rack of glassware sways above the calm head of the bartender mixing cup after cup of rum punch.  Two long columns of passenger heads sways, too, all of us pulled together into the rhythm of the rocking current whether we want to or not.  Behind us, the huge red paddlewheel thunders into the water, sweeping us back home to New Orleans, back to where everything washes down, back to where it all comes from.

20140716_1652154:50 Riverwalk Streetcar

We’re outnumbered on a streetcar full of Elks making their way upriver from the Convention Center.  They’re all sporting their proud red vests, emblazoned with their lodge numbers and hometowns underneath all the badges and pins.  Elks from Wisconsin.  Elks from Arizona. Elks from Ohio.  They tell us they love the streetcar and have been riding it all week.  Through the open windows, I realize that I can stick my head out to a scary degree and be killed instantly by any number of poles, signs, and structures.  I decide to keep my hands and feet inside the ride at all times, safe with the Elks.

Back at the evening open mic, I read the piece I’d worked up that morning about our encounter with Dwight Henry at Wink’s, then we treat ourselves to dinner at Café Amelie, topping up the day with a gorgeous stroll back through the Quarter at night.


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And So It Begins: Days 1 and 2 on the Writing Marathon Mothership (New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat 2014 )

Martens Photo 1 with Richard Louth and Tennesee Williams wall quote

Day 1: Monday

The wall in from of us in the Gallier House meeting room reads, “Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands—and who knows what to do with it? –Tennessee Williams”

In the opening session, our writer-in-residence for the retreat, Kim Stafford, quotes the Leonard Cohen line, “There’s a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  It will resonate with me for days until the last full day of the marathon, when I give myself over to it.

Kim tells us about his adventures so far this trip in New Orleans, his experiences with people and places. He talks about getting “really deep, really soon” because that’s how New Orleans works.  He passes on some advice from one of his own writing teachers:  “Lower your standards, and then keep going.”

Kelly and I leave the Gallier House and walk, starving, hoping to find the famous Irene’s Cuisine but missing it somehow but ending up at Coop’s which, miraculously, isn’t crowded.  We share smoked duck quesadillas, and I order the tasso and crawfish pasta, which I love.  We drink and talk and wander down Decatur Street, enjoying  Le Richelieu’s magic courtyard before heading up to bed.  All around and above us, room lights glow dim with writers sitting up too late.  It has begun.



Day 2, Tuesday

In the morning, Kim leads us in several potent writing exercises and ideas start to tumble.   He reminds us that this retreat is “a time out of time.”  I begin thinking about the “veil between the worlds” –the imaginary line between the past and the present, the real and the imagined, the tangible and in the intangible.  It’s a generally accepted notion that the veil is very, very thin in New Orleans, thinnest of all in the French Quarter.  A gossamer nightgown on a shapely silhouette. Dangerously thin.

He challenges us to write a very long sentence and forbids semicolons.  I write,

She sat on the balcony just one room over from where her last relationship had met its end— not its technical end, where she finally said, out loud, “we’re done,” but rather the first glimmer that she was, in fact, not at the turning point and not on the  downward slope and not even that she had been there for some time but rather a sinking awareness that there had never really been a slope or even a trajectory  in the first place but only a long, slow drift out to sea in the mist, moving farther and farther away from herself.

When it’s time to head out, I’m torn.  I want to go everywhere.  Across the river to Algiers with Jeanne.  To Antoine’s  with Michelle.  To the garden district with Ellen.  Then  Annabel comes at me with her blue eyes like diamonds and says, “Come with us.  Come with us to Harry’s.” And of course I do.

Martens photo 4 Annabel Servat Writing at Harry's Bar

11:17 Harry’s Bar

A beautiful sweet rum syrup to coat my writer’s guts. It tastes like the tropics, with touches of bitter plantation histories at the edge of the sugar. Again, Harry’s Bar, and gorgeous Annabel with her amber rings singing to the sunshine outside.  She’s our marathon priestess for the day, and how lovely.

Perfect Harry’s, where George Dorrill baptized me in the afternoon rain two years ago, sitting exactly here on our first marathon stop of that first day.  Following his example,  I went straight to the jukebox, starting us off with Janis Joplin. Take another little piece of my heart, why don’t ya?

Three cool, young friends have taken up the bar stools across from us, and so far they approve of my music choices. Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” makes me cry, almost.  Tears will be a given here in this potent city. I can feel them in the edge of my throat, caught there this morning already when Richard read the Hemingway quote and Brant said, “Amen.” 

Amen indeed, brother.

And now it’s “Crazy,” by Patsy Cline. And a case of Maker’s Mark is being dropped off just in time around the side of the bar.

Each marathon stop from here on out is a whole day unto itself.

20140715_124957 At Wink’s, the famous Dwight Henry feeds us stuffed peppers with macaroni and cheese AND potato salad with a side serving of his personal philosophy of celebrity. At Café Envie, Randy and I watch each other watching and writing about the same apartment balcony across the street, a place Randy tells me later where he used to live.

At Molly’s on the Market, we run into a dozen other writers passing through at the end of their own marathon ramblings.  We wander away for the open mic and for dinner—Fiorella’s famous fried chicken—then wander back to Molly’s and take up residence at the window seat and trade stories with random passersby on Decatur, everyone and everything glowing in the neon and the humid evening air.  People ask us for directions.  For smokes.  For recommendations.  They smile.  They stop to chat.  Where else do people stop and talk with total strangers like they do here in New Orleans?

We can barely write, it all comes so fast and easy.  Jeff sums it up:

“This window is the shit.”

Martens photo 7 Jeff and Kelly in Molly's Window

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