Colony Days to Writers’ Retreats

By Patricia A Florio

I’ve been playing with a theory about the old writing colonies compared to the ones that are being offered today. Let me say, the word colony doesn’t exist anymore. I understand why.

Back in the early Fifties when Lowney Handy ran a writer’s colony in Illinois, near the city of Robinsville, where the great James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity lived, Lowney used a method called “copying.” She’s quoted as saying, “Copying will make you a writer faster than anything else.” And she attributed this sentence to meeting James Jones, how much she had learned since meeting him.

John Bowers, author of The Colony, participated in this method of “copying,” by living in a cabin in the woods, working on his standard typewriter, copying pieces from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (one of my all-time favorites) and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald. Bowers said, Fitzgerald got inside of people with his writing. Coming from Mr. Bowers, I’d say that was quite a compliment for Fitzgerald and reason to check out this author. But Handy told the young emerging writer, Bowers, “Leave Tom Wolf alone.”

 

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Having had John Bowers as my mentor at the Wilkes University Low Residency programs, now called the Maslow Family Low Residency Program, I have spoken to Bowers on many occasions and asked him questions about this act of copying. Handy had recommended to Bowers, and all her colony students, not to think about what he was copying, “just copy, copy, copy,” and metaphysically (my word) the words and syntax will seep into Bowers’ brain matter and make him a better writer. I was intrigued.

I have personally received two workshop scholarships from the Norman Mailer Society, (Mr. Mailer was also an emerging writer at the colony) one, at Norman Mailer’s home in Provincetown for nonfiction writing, which I earned an MFA from Wilkes University, and the scholarship, in Utah at the University of Salt Lake City. For both of these scholarships, the recipient does pay for their travel and food, but all other costs are absorbed by the Society. I felt blessed, and honored, and of course thrilled to make these strides in my own writing. But our workshops were very different than the colony.

We had never used the method of “copying,” which I was still intrigued by, but we were immersed in our writing by brain-storming, free writing that took us to different aspects in our writing capability; taking time off for lunch, coming back for more prompts, then a break for dinner, coming back the next morning with a piece of writing in hand, polished as best as I could, ready to read in front of other students, who were also attending the workshop.

 

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Oddly enough, as Handy in The Colony talks about James Jones as her personal mentor, passing on his writing accomplishments to her students, who now lived at the colony for about three months, attempting to learn the art, writing small scenes at first and branching out into what might become novel sized. Whereas, my experience at workshops or writers’ retreats were seven days, total. Certainly not enough time to wake up the novel writer inside me. When James Jones comes on the scene at the colony, Bowers was more than impressed as he says in his book.

When I had received an invitation to go to Chianti, Italy to a retreat at a monastery with none other than James Jones’s daughter, Kaylie Jones, and Judy Mandel, another proficient writer, my heart pounded inside my chest. I had begged my husband, “Let me go!”

Now, I don’t care how influential Lowney Handy believed in this “copying” method for writers, I wanted my generation’s standard of a Jones writing experience to spill all over me in Italy. Yes, I did get to go.

September 2016, fourteen women met at an airport in Florence, Italy, women who had come from two other countries, Australia and England, and the rest from different states across the United States. We introduced one another, a few were familiar with each other from Wilkes University in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, had been in the writing program or graduated from the writing program, like me, they wanted more. They also wanted to experience the richness of the Tuscan region of Chianti, the peace-filled mornings of having breakfast with one another. The same way they did in the colony in Illinois. Only we went to a gathering of all the writers inside the old church, now converted with plush couches, and listened to either Kaylie or Judy gives us their retreat. They wanted us to dig deep. This wasn’t going to be some lesson in Hemingway or Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, for that matter. This was internal searching to feed individual scenes, perhaps a memoir, or essay, or some personal truth that we were all going to share with one another at this retreat. This was not easy. But it was creative. Each of the writers by day seven had shared raw truths, built scene after scene and perfected their skills.

 

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Patricia Florio, born in Brooklyn, New York, whose latest novel-in-progress, Almost Invisible, Confessions of a Court Reporter, features a street-smart woman who takes the law into her own hands. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University and is the author of My Two Mothers, a memoir and Puppy in My Pocket, a children’s picture book.

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