Last Friday, I took advantage of a gift certificate I’d won at the recent LVW Summer Event at Jerry Johnson’s place and visited Annalisa Parent’s Gateless Writing Salon in downtown Burlington, Vermont.
Huh? Okay… As they say, don’t look a gifted horse in the mouth or whatever.
My writer friend S. had taken a mini workshop with Annalisa at the LVW Summer Event and loved it, so he wanted to try her writing salon as well. We decided to make a day of it and ride to Burlington together. We found a parking spot right in front of her office building and wandered off to a nearby café to do “writerly things” before attending the salon.
At the café, I had a hard time concentrating on my writing. I’d been blocked for weeks, maybe due to the fact that I was trying to write many different things at the same time, though I’d actually hoped it would spur my creativity. Sometimes it’s good if you don’t get too focused on one thing—obsession is always only a hair’s breadth away.
But it was as if my fiction stream had completely dried up. I couldn’t think of a thing to write… and then the nonfiction part suffered too.
So I sat in the café, across from S. who was happily typing away on his laptop, and half-heartedly edited a chapter of the nonfiction book, but I didn’t really FEEL it, you know what I mean? (Of course you do if you’re a writer—who am I kidding.)
At some point I got chilly and asked S. to accompany me to L.L. Bean on Church Street to buy a jacket, happy for an excuse to get away from the computer. At 7:00 PM, we finally climbed the stairs to Annalisa’s office.
Just the office alone could arouse anyone’s creativity. It was a huge office space specifically designed for startups. There were no cubicles. Everything was wide-open, the way I envision offices at Google: young and stylish, with quirky, non-matching furniture, tables with Lego sets for inspiration, an old British telephone booth, a live-size cutout of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and other fun features.
Down the hallway were conference rooms in different shapes and sizes. One looked very classy, with leather armchairs and a marble-slab table, another sported chalkboard paint so you could write on the walls, and yet another had a ping-pong table surrounded by conference chairs.
The salon was intimate, just five people that day, and I immediately felt as if I were among friends. Gateless Writing, I learned, is a specific “patented” concept originally taught by author Suzanne Kingsbury who lives in southern Vermont.
In the short introduction, Annalisa, a certified Gateless teacher, explained the principles of Gateless Writing. Bottom line is that an accepting, nonjudgmental atmosphere and an emphasis on the strengths of the writing instead of criticism releases tension and enables people to bring out their very best.
That sounded great in theory, but I was skeptical. I’m naturally opinionated and critical (including with myself), so I was wondering how anyone’s writing could improve if nobody would tell them what was wrong with it. Anyway, I was willing to give it a try.
So I sat down with some trepidation… and then the words started flowing… and flowing… and flowing. It was like fireworks in my brain, that delicious feeling every writer knows, but that unfortunately is all too rare—the feeling when a story pours out of you and you have no idea where it’s coming from, almost as if someone dictates the words to you.
According to Annalisa’s instructions, I didn’t try to push my thoughts into a certain direction; I didn’t second-guess myself or wondered where in the world this was going. Here’s what I wrote:
Whenever I think of the Great Flood in Wheaton Heights, I think of my hamster Hannibal’s death, though one has absolutely nothing to do with the other. The Great Flood happened when Grampy was in eighth grade, just like I am now, and he says it was the greatest disaster Wheaton Heights had ever seen.
Grampy talks about the flood a lot because that was when Great-Grandma Marjorie, his mother, scooped so much water out of the basement that she got a mini stroke and had to be rushed to Mt. Fillmore Hospital in a rowboat.
Grampy says the adults took him with them because it was too dangerous for him alone in the house, and there was nobody who could stay with him. The night was so dark that his father, Great-Grandpa Timothy—he never allowed anyone to call him Tim—had Grampy sit in the front of the boat and shine a flashlight across the dark, rushing waters of the Willomee River so that they wouldn’t accidentally bump into a bridge or a drifting car.
All the while, Great-Grandma Marjorie lay in the boat babbling gibberish that nobody could understand. Grampy says it was the stroke that had made her brain go all weird and was jumbling all the words and letters in there like the big tumbler on the lottery show.
When they finally got her into the emergency room, she stretched out her hand and took Grampy’s and squeezed it really hard. “Robert,” she said because that was his name, “Robert, promise me you will walk on the graves of the Others.”
Grampy says that was the scariest thing anyone ever said to him. He says the goosebumps on his arms were so bumpy that the hairs on them stood straight up, like wheat stalks.
But that’s also why the story reminds me of Hannibal—because Hannibal did walk on those graves, and I walked with him. Well, I was actually just chasing him after he had escaped his cage, but I don’t want to be that nitpicky since you and I just met.
But don’t expect me to tell you how Hannibal died within the next five minutes. It wouldn’t do to tell you without giving you some background first. I promise you won’t be disappointed: there’s a murder and another, and things going bump in the night, and real and fake ghosts, and Sasquatch, and a real-life UFO encounter.
So bear with me for a while, and we’ll get there together.
After the writing time was up, we all gathered to read our stories out loud and give encouraging feedback. It wasn’t hard, I have to tell you: EVERYBODY had come up with amazingly creative things—one participant had written a snarky YA dialogue bursting with humor, another a first-person narrative that sounded so authentic that I couldn’t figure out if it was fiction or not, and my friend S. (who says he doesn’t like poetry very much) read to us something that sounded very like a poem and was so intense, it gave me goosebumps.
All of us were astonished what we were capable of. As the flyer said, “This one-of-a-kind workshop for writers in all genres creates evocative, compelling work that tends to surprise writers with its potency.” Boy, did it ever. Something seems to happen when you feel safe, and the creative juices just kick in and don’t stop flowing.
The flyer also said, “Its effects last long after you walk out the door.” True, too… I felt like writing the whole weekend, and I didn’t have any problems—unlike most of the time—to keep my inner nag under control. Usually, I write a chapter or just a scene and then immediately start editing. This time, I just wrote, and it felt amazing. I’ll definitely go back.
If you live in the area, consider giving Annalisa’s Gateless Writing Salon a try. It happens every Friday from 7:00 to 9:00 PM and costs just $25 for drop-ins, $20 if you buy a punch card online. There's no ongoing curriculum, so visit whenever you can and feel like it.
I heard that some people have written entire (and very successful) books through the salons. In any case, I can almost guarantee you emerge after just few hours and feel like a totally different person… and a better writer.