Foodie Writing Marathon Coming Up April 8 in St. Joseph, MO!

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Marathon Magic with New Marathon Pals in Columbia, MO

In early August of 2016, I was fortunate enough to take part in a writing marathon as part of a writing project leadership retreat in Columbia, Missouri.  It’s always fun to share the marathon technique with newbies, and we had two on this quick jaunt that turned out to be packed with juicy writer moments even though we only had a couple of hours to wander.  Many thanks to Bryan, Liz, and Jen for being such awesome marathon buddies!

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1:55 Flatbranch Brewery

Blessed to be on a surprise writing marathon with two people who have never been on one before, though they don’t seem like newbies to me.  Flatbranch Irish red is soft and full of malty sweetness, perfect for a rainy Monday in Columbia.

I was sad today at the marathon launch, that no mention was made of Richard Louth, founder of the New Orleans Writing Marathon, and the site he directs, the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, where the marathon was born more than 20 years ago.  Legend has it that Richard was leading a Professional Development session for Louisiana writing teachers who had gathered in New Orleans for a conference.  He had planned to do a Natalie Goldberg-style writing  marathon, with several rounds of writing and sharing there in the conference room.  But, he could feel the teachers out there under the ballroom lights of the Monteleone Hotel, with the alluring French Quarter just 30 floors below them, wistful. Longing.

Suddenly, he made a change and decided to take the marathon on the road, to let teachers out to be writers in the world.  He let them form their own groups, he let them follow their feet and go where they wanted, write where they wanted.

He worried, he said, that they wouldn’t come back.  Worried that they would be overtaken by spirits or by shopping, or whatever.  But they did. They did come back.

And, when they did, they were somehow changed.

 

3:00 Tropical Liqueurs (a.k.a. “Trop’s”)

We make a collaborative decision to walk two blocks to the Tropical Liqueurs on Broadway.

Trop’s is a legend in these parts, and difficult to describe.  Inside, a blue-green light rope hovers over a row of daiquiri machines, swirling, some gently, some quickly.  The Tiger Paw machine and the Silver Bullet machine have their own light-up signs.  They are also slightly larger than the others, leading me to wonder if they are the most popular.  The “Retro Flavor of the Month” is Amaretto Sour.

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The Silver Bullet, I read, is 190 proof: Grain Alcohol with lemonade and Sprite.  The others have equally daunting lists of ingredients.

Who would be here on a Monday afternoon?

Writers.  And, a woman who comes in and orders two Toasted Almonds with two added shots for each—butterscotch and salted caramel.

She is making someone very happy today.

The table we’ve landed at is sticky.  And not just normal sticky.  Sticky like it’s been sticky for years, layers of sugary frozen booze spilled and spilled and mopped up but never really removed, never really absorbed, each drop, puddle, and slough forevermore a sticking point for the place.

I sip my complimentary DD fruit punch and feel the back of my throat clench, feel the bits of tropical punch powder coating my tongue, my teeth, the backs of my eyeballs.   Sparks and flecks of flavor crystals spin sticky galaxies, melting into the rain behind us in the parking lot.

 

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4:08 Stony Creek Inn Hotel and Lodge

Ode to Faux Lodge Décor in the Lounge

O, antlers!  O, rustic-look high-top tables,

O, antique wooden skis and hacksaw,

O, old-timey radio and vintage suitcase:

you sit in an empty bar rattling now with an industrial fan scaring the dampness and the patrons away.

Your table tents flop and fold, hawking Stony Creek signature house wines.

Beyond the plastic pine trees, the TV is tuned to the Food Network.

Guests walk through your double doors looking for the restrooms,

Flip flops and ball caps and dinosaur  t-shirts ramble past, not stopping.

You wait for nightfall, for happy hour, for the $3 specials on Pink Fix Blush and Canyon Road Merlot to start flowing.

In the soft light and the antler shadows, you wait for people to see past the polyurethane coating,

wait for them to look around for their friends, shiver against the raging AC and think that maybe,

just for a moment,

they smell wood smoke.

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Marathon at Conception Abbey during the PLWP Writing Retreat

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In June of 2016, I led a writing marathon during a Writing Retreat hosted by the Prairie Lands Writing Project, held at a beautiful Benedictine monastery in Conception, Missouri. We launched from the conference room, then made our way to write in the beautiful Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  When I had asked one of the monks in charge of guest conferences if it would ok for us to write there, he said, “I assume your writing will be… uplifting?” 

“Yes,” I told him.  “Absolutely.”    

I don’t actually know what everyone wrote in that huge, ornate space that day, but I do know that it was an uplifting experience to be there in the good, contemplative company of fellow writers. 

 

9:25 a.m. Basilica of the Immaculate Conception,

Benedictines are devoted to the spirit of hospitality, and we certainly feel it here.  All around us.  Simple.  Humble.  Gentle. Warm.

Latin words above me.  Soothing stone below me.

Immaculate Conception.

I feel somewhat less than immaculate this morning.  My hair is frizzy, my legs unshaven in the ultra-tiny shower stall.  Coffee aftertaste is still coating my tongue.

My spirit feels relatively clean, however.  My life has been a journey of self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and self-forgiveness.

Wisdom of years, hard-won, to know that I’m not to blame for unwise choices—entanglements and mismatches of souls and paths.

I tried.  I learned.

It is fine.  It is good.

A young monk sits at the organ, his head bowed, the light hovering above the music stand.  A displaced halo, it crowns the notes rather than his head.

10:00 a.m. A picnic table in view of the wind turbines

Giant propellers

arc and arc and arc

over the cottonwoods.

Blade shadows slice

across crop rows below.

Clover and daylilies

Watch with us

In the stands above the soccer fields.

 

Behind us, the HVAC system roars.

Above it, birds sing,

leaves rustle.

Their engines–

digestion,

photosynthesis–

roar silently.

Chemical.

Invisible.

 

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Roundabout Writers and Betty’s Cafe: PLWP Summer Institute Marathons 2016

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As has become tradition in the Prairie Lands Writing Project, we opened and closed our Invitational Summer Institute with writing marathons.  Both times, we invited our Summer Scholars to travel around sites in Saint Joseph and the surrounding area to write, share, and explore with their writing groups.  We’ve found this to be an excellent way to begin the Institute, both for bonding the writing groups and for plunging teachers head first into their identities as writers. 

For my own group, a trio of site leaders who had never facilitated a Summer Institute before, it was a great chance for us to bond as writers and to re-center ourselves in a core NWP practice.  Dana, Elisabeth, and I enjoyed writing at a coffee shop (with amazing lavender-lemon-white chocolate cookies), but our most memorable writing stop was at a fountain at the crossroads of Folson and N. 25th Streets.  It’s a great spot to write, nice and quiet, with great views of the lovely neighborhood, but it does place us in the middle of an intersection.  Our experience of interacting with people in this public space, this inviting roundabout, let us to name our group “The Roundabout Writers.”  People waved at us as they went by. One guy in a truck slowed down and says, “Mornin’.”   I spent most of my writing time recording our interaction with a dog and his owner.

A woman with a well-groomed yellow lab walks by.  The dog is lagging behind a bit, the way some dogs do when they realize that they are heading back home.  The owner stops to chat with us.

“Such a nice spot,” she says, and we agree.

“That’s a good-looking dog,” I say, in return.

She thanks me and says that his name is Lincoln.  They found him on the side of the road in Lincoln County, Oklahoma.  She says that they still have some work to do in terms of crate training, that she suspects the poor dog was kept in box in his previous home.  I sympathize, telling her a bit about my own rescue dog’s struggles.  She smiles and nods.  She says, “We just never know what we’ve been though, do we?”

Lincoln comes up to me and lets me pet his smooth head and soft ears.  I repeat back to him the same words a vet tech softly said to my dog not long ago at one of our check-ups.  “You got you a good home now, huh?  Good dog.  What a good dog!”

For the final day of the Summer Institute, we went again on a writing marathon, returning to our roles as writers for one more day with our writing groups before the SI experience came to an end.   We wrote with our groups, then we all gathered for the final read-around and delicious lunch at Boudreaux’s.

For this marathon, Dana and Elisabeth and I invited the two remaining members of their group to join us.  I was excited because we decided to write and eat a famous spot in St. Joseph’s “South Side,” the beloved Betty’s Café. 

At first, it was a bit dicey.  The place was tiny and packed with what seem to be a crowd of serious regulars.  We waited a bit for a table, then added a chair to a four top.  We scanned the menus, then got out our notebooks.  Soon, the magic of Betty’s wrapped around us…

“So what have we got goin’ on here?” asks our waitress.  “I see y’all got your own notebooks.”

She is totally, absolutely, efficient and yet welcoming.  She looks like a veteran athlete, trim and tan in beige capris and a bright orange Betty’s Café t-shirt.

The back of the shirt proclaims in bold lettering: “This isn’t Burger King.  You don’t get it your way.  You get it Betty’s way or you don’t get the darn thing.”

“We’re writers,” I explain, then tell her about one of my students who wrote Betty’s for one of his major writing projects.  She nods, takes our orders of assorted grits, eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy–and doesn’t bat an eye at our five separate checks.

“It’s ok,” she says with a wink.  “You’re at Betty’s now.”

And I believe her.

 

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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

 

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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!

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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 writingmarathon.com 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. 

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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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