A Sense of Place: Mystica Writing & Yoga Retreat

Guest post by Sandra Shaw Homer

 

Photo by Rick Brazeau (www.rickbphotography.ca)

Photo by Rick Brazeau (www.rickbphotography.ca)

 

The theme of this year’s writing retreat (a series of workshops — we all worked hard!), a Sense of Place, was perfectly chosen, as it was my strong sense of place that inspired me to suggest that Allyson Latta hold it here on Lake Arenal.

Photo by Allyson Latta

Ever since her first Costa Rican workshop in 2012, to which she invited me to speak about my writing, I have wanted to be a participant. I was so impressed by the creative energy and goodwill flowing all around me. But Allyson had her next couple of winter retreats in Grenada, hard for me to get to.  The only solution . . . to tempt her to Lake Arenal in April of this year.

Fortunately, just ten minutes from my house, there’s a lodge cum restaurant cum yoga centre cum place-to-connect-to-your-inner-truth, Mystica Lodge, overlooking the lake and Arenal Volcano. It’s run by Francesco Carullo, his wife, Lori Myles-Carullo, and Barbara Moglia. Everyone at the retreat agreed it was perfect (excellent food, impeccable service) — with the minor exception of the screaming midnight cicada in Sara’s room (soon gently dispatched). And my house, with its open spaces, broad verandas, and view of the lake and volcano, proved a conducive venue for several of our sessions and a lunch.

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Each session opened with a five-minute writing prompt. The first time, I, for one, sat speechless (or wordless), but in just a few days, what initially seemed like forever grew to seem much too short, and all of us were begging for more time. The quality of light. Windows. First impressions of Mystica Lodge. A place that scared you. Some of these we would read aloud. Then Allyson would read to us — a description, a poem — and get a lively discussion going.  One day there was a stark and evocative video from Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to write about.

I think we all agreed that our favourite — and perhaps most challenging — exercise involved pair work, in which each of us had to describe a place to a partner in a way that the partner could then write about it.  We were all surprised — and moved — to discover how a place so familiar could be so well “perceived” by another after only a half-hour’s conversation.

Alex and LindaIndeed, “perception” is what it’s all about. A sense of place is more than a scene, a theatrical backdrop; it’s how place is perceived by someone. All the senses come into play here. While I was describing to Rick my tour of the engine room of a freighter, he asked, “What does a freighter smell like?” That was a great question, because he made me call upon a sense I had not consciously used when I was there. Interestingly, we don’t forget (memories beget memories), and after a moment of putting myself back there, I was able to come up with a few “smelly” sensations that were nonetheless true for my not having noticed them at the time. This “not forgetting” is something all writers need to tune in to when setting a place down on the page.

And, of course, what I perceive (smell, taste, hear, touch, taste, feel emotionally) in a particular place won’t be anything like what another person does — so that sense of place can tell us a lot about who a character is. It can also convey mood —  cobwebs and creepy noises in the dark, anyone?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Place itself can be a character. In Evelio’s Garden, my forthcoming memoir (with Allyson’s help, it seems that it will finally come forth), Evelio feels personally set upon by the unpredictable weather. And the wind and rain surge back and forth through the book like waves on a beach, pounding relentlessly, taking on a personality of their own. This is the classic Man against Nature theme, and Allyson reminded us that place can illustrate theme. Without a theme — in memoir as well as fiction — a book can just flounder around without going anywhere.

A strong sense of place will take the reader out of herself, and as readers we all want to be transported to the writer’s world, where things might make a different kind of sense, but sense all the same. We want to see through the protagonist’s eyes and even beyond, to those things the protagonist may not even be conscious of and which also reveal character.

Allyson brought us through all of these points, and more, in our conversations and assignments (including daily homework, even a poem!) in a way that made us all much more conscious of how we can use a sense of place to make our writing more alive, more real, more truthful.

I was powerfully impressed with both the teaching and the writing that resulted from that intense, very special week here on the lake. When can we do it again?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

 

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SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for 25 years, where she has taught languages and worked as a translator and environmental activist. For several years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. Her writing has appeared in Oasis Journal 2014 and on a few websites, notably Allyson’s Memories into Story, Off the Beaten Track, and her own blog, Writing from the Heart. Her first travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, is available in paperback and as an e-book. She is working on a memoir of her life in Costa Rica, Evelio’s Garden, an excerpt of which can be found at Miss Move Abroad.

 

From Allyson:

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Muchas gracias to all the writers whose creative writing and sensitivity and mutual support made this year’s retreat special; to Sandy for suggesting it, helping with the planning, and opening her home, and for the gift of that yummy catered meal; to Lori Myles-Carullo, Francesco Carullo, Barbara Moglia, and their wonderful staff at magical Mystica Lodge for their smiles and warm hospitality (not to mention scrumptious food, stunning gardens, restorative yoga with Lori by the river, massages, swimming, and all the guidance and trouble-shooting that contributed to the week’s success); to our amazing driver, Eliecer (Flaco) Carvajal, for getting us where we needed to go on time — including to that stunning lakeside restaurant right at sunset — and entertaining us all the way; to Natalie McDonald of Sapori Antichi for her elegant catering at Sandy’s; and to guitarist and singer-songwriter Hannibal Chévez for his beautiful performance on our last evening. From start to finish, this really was a memorable retreat.

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