Going to New Orleans! Join us!

I am thrilled to announce our first-ever writing retreat in New Orleans!  We hope you can join us for 5 nights in October, and many more details and an application are here on the NYWC website.  This will be an unforgettable experience, in a place that is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

My first “visit” to New Orleans took place in June 2005 on the page, while reading the the first 5 books published by the Neighborhood Story Project.  The books (scroll down to the bottom of this page, where you can order a set of all 5) were written by high school students, who interviewed residents, family members, store owners and many others.  The books became the best selling books in New Orleans (with the exception of Harry Potter) soon after they appeared. There’s also amazing writing by the young people about life in their neighborhoods, and photographs taken by the students.  I was thoroughly captivated by the amazing culture of food, music, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians (which has nothing to do with vomiting your guts out on Bourbon Street), Social and Pleasure Clubs, and above all with the overwhelming sense of community.  I fell in love with New Orleans without ever having been there.

We all know what happened in late August of that same year: the devastation of Katrina and the ensuing floods, compounded exponentially as our government turned its back on our own citizens.  I had spoken to one of the NSP’s founders, Abram Himelstein a little bit after reading the books, and tracked him down after the storm and learned he and his family were in Houston and okay.  But all I could think about were all the people and places I’d just read about and loved, many in the 9th and Lower 9th Ward and other neighborhoods obliterated by the floods.

In January 2006, about 6 months after Katrina, I visited Abram and Rachel Breunlin (the co-founder of the NSP) to discuss replicating the NSP program in New York City. (This book is the result of that project.) I don’t really want to write about the destruction I saw, and would much rather think about the amazing people I met.  Just like after 9/11 in New York City, everyone had their own story to tell: where they were, how they survived, who they lost, who still hadn’t come back, and their journey back to the still very empty city.  I felt some of the same things towards this city I had felt after reading the NSP books, along with a deep sense of mourning a place I’d only fully known through stories.

Why am I telling this whole story while announcing our 5 nights of writing in New Orleans later this year?  After all, the city  is  not quite  either place I describe above anymore.  I guess aside from just my own memories, I am thinking a lot about what I took away from seeing what was left, if anything, of the places I’d read about and loved. More than ever, I realized how important the act of writing could be.  I knew that writing is personally transformative, that it allows us to connect with our own creativity and voice, that it is challenging, rewarding, fun, hilarious, painful and energizing.  I knew, about 4 years into running NYWC, that the mere act of writing things down, and having others hear or read what you write, actually changed lives. But after loving one New Orleans in print, and then seeing a totally different one in person, I had incredible gratitude that someone had taken the time to write things down. Everything is temporary, of course, and time always moves forward, but the 5 NSP books are a snapshot of a place and time that happened to go away very soon after the books were created.

I may be the worst marketer in the world, because I am perhaps responding to the question of  “Why  should you come to our New Orleans writing retreat in October 2012?”  with the answer: “Because we are all going to die one day.”  But what I really mean to say is that writing is meaningful and important in ways that we can never predict when we sit down with the pen or laptop.  And that anyone can do it, even if, like the young people of the NSP, you never really thought you could do it.

And if you have stayed with me this far, I will also point out that we will have an incredible time in New Orleans.  it is again one of the most fun places on the planet, with amazing food, music and culture.  We will stay for 5 nights in an amazing complex near the French Quarter, we will go on a tour of New Orleans led by the good folks of the NSP, have food made for us by the incredible chef Michael Porsche, and have time to see the city.  Oh yeah, we will also write together in writing workshops led by me (I am good at it and much more fun than this post implies) as well as private writing conferences, a chance to be part of our awesome community of writers, and time and space to think, dance, breathe, ruminate and feel alive.