hat writer doesn’t dream, of leaving the cares and worries of home behind and jaunting off to some beautiful location where the writing spirit is pampered and like-minded wordsmiths wield the pen with courage and panache? But the cost of taking time off from “real” jobs, finding child care or reasonable plane tickets keeps writers from taking a break to relax and catch up with their inner muse. However, Elizabeth Ayres, author, writing teacher, and founder of the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing has paved the way for writers to take a retreat from everyday life with her book Writing the Wave: Inspired Rides for Aspiring Writers .
For the price of the book and a cup of coffee, a writer can use Writing the Wave as a weekly retreat to stimulate creativity and learn, or re-learn, the fundamentals of writing. While Ayres’ book offers a go-anywhere portable retreat, her writing center offers online workshops and retreats at several locations on the East Coast.
Over the course of her career, which began in 1972, Ayres taught creative writing at universities, prisons, senior citizen centers, and a home for unwed mothers. For 17 years, she taught at New York University in addition to two years at an extension campus of the College of New Rochelle. In 1990, Ayres founded the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. Her purpose was to build an environment where the creative spirit flourishes for beginning writers.
WOW: Welcome, Elizabeth! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s talk about your book, Writing the Wave. What was your goal when writing the book and did you mean to make it a “portable” writing retreat?
Ayres: My goal when creating Writing the Wave was to pass to a larger audience the thrilling, transforming experience my workshop students were obviously having. I wanted to create a friendly "I'm-with-you-every-step-of-the-way" ambience that would deliver a nurturing, inspiring teacher right to the reader’s door. I wanted them to feel they had a personal coach, a supportive guide to comfort, cajole, encourage or explain at each moment of their journey. I wanted them to feel like they could practically raise a hand to ask a question. It’s the “bed in the bag” approach to creative writing! And yes, the book definitely makes portable that “time out for imaginative thinking” that’s so essential to a retreat.
WOW: I think many writers long for that kind of “time out”! There are places in the book where you say “Stop. Don’t move on until you finish Step X.” Why did you make this a part of your book’s format?
Ayres: Writing the Wave achieves unparalleled reader-participation with its novel format. As you’ve noted, instructions are given piecemeal, one step at a time, which means the book is in the driver's seat. Readers can relax and enjoy the scenery. There is no struggle or effort to create, so the imagination can work freely, without constraints, without fears, without blocks. Writers then experience the creative process at its most magical level.
The format also lets me make all explanations about the writing process between the stops and starts of the exercise, imitating the classroom, where students get in-situ guidance from their teacher. Complex ideas are communicated at the precise moment they're most relevant to the writing.
Most books bury their instructions or suggestions to readers in narrative, the star of which is the author's ideas. The star of Writing the Wave is the reader's experience with the written word, an experience I guide from beginning to end so that readers are never bored or intimidated. Its step-by-step instructions guarantee readers successful completion of each task; thereby, vastly enhancing their experience of the mysteries of the creative process.
“Most often, the really profound thoughts and the really salient feelings are buried in our unconscious…”
WOW: It seems that your book takes a lot of pressure off the writing process. At times, you note that the writing process can get emotionally charged. Why does this happen?
Ayres: A spider spins a web from silk that she draws forth from within her body. In order to spin a web of words, the writer must draw forth the only silk she has—thought and feeling. Most often, the really profound thoughts and the really salient feelings are buried in our unconscious, largely inaccessible until we start wrestling to make them manifest through language. This means every word is bringing with it ten or twenty times its weight in emotion—sort of like a sponge that gets heavy with water and then must be wrung out. The Writing the Wave exercises guarantee a full sponge—and lots of practical tips to show you how to use the water!
WOW: Some people will pick up your book with an inkling to write but with no formal training. What will Writing the Wave give to those folks?
Ayres: Mary Poppins was onto something: a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. The creative act—bringing something forth from nothing—should feel good. Beginning writers usually feel bad, though, because self-doubt, fear, and self-criticism outweigh everything else. Writing the Wave catapults readers beyond fear. It promotes a process-oriented attitude which will act like a balm on up-tight beginners. Freed from crippling worry, Writing the Wave’s readers can relax and have fun. Who wouldn't? After all, in this book they get to stick random thoughts in boxes, gather apples into baskets, make treasure maps, toss coins, write upside down, and jot words on butterflies' wings.
But, while they’re having all this fun, they’re also learning important skills which will give them the confidence and knowledge they need to keep on writing after they finish the book.
“The creative act—bringing something forth from nothing—should feel good.”
(Photo: Montauk Ocean Front Writing Retreat)
WOW: Why do both beginning and experienced writers benefit from Writing the Wave?
Ayres: Writing the Wave is an integrated exploration of the imaginative process essential to any form of creative writing. Each of its twelve exercises transforms a fundamental writing principle into a concrete technique. These techniques work for fiction, non-fiction, poetry—even play and screenwriting. The exercises break the writing process into basic elements then recombine those elements in progressive stages corresponding to beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of writing. Committed writers with a well-developed practice can use the exercises to jumpstart a stalled creative battery or open a door they might not have stumbled into working alone.
WOW: Let’s switch gears a bit to your own career as a writer. Did you always feel a call to write? Can you briefly explain how you became a writer?
Ayres: My call to write began in infancy. I remember clinging to the slatted sides of my crib, crying. My father stood over me, reached down, picked me up. But I could not tell him about the room in the dream. Shaped like a funnel it was, and from the wide end of the funnel, a horde of creatures swarmed toward me. I ran. They followed. I kept running; the room narrowed; I looked behind; they were still coming, snarling and gnashing their teeth.
When I was ten, I wrote a story wherein I named these creatures: M artians, for they were little and green. And much later, I wrote a memoir wherein I dared to ask this question: if the funnel-shaped room had no fourth wall, what was beyond it? I then wrote myself past the opening, to where a black sky studded with stars beckoned. Henrik Ibsen says it is the task of the writer “to make clear to herself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and community to which she belongs.” I became a writer to explore the unknown where the answers to those questions are revealed and share my discoveries with others.
“I think an open state of mind is crucial to getting the most out of any retreat…”
(Photo: Elizabeth Ayres on the pier next to the new Patuxent River Writing Retreat-Workshop)
WOW: One of the ways that you share those discoveries is through the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. What was your transition like from writer to writing coach? Is “writing coach” how you would refer to yourself?
Ayres: I never made any such transition! I would never use any word except writer to describe myself. I teach because I want to empower others to explore their own “temporal and eternal questions.” I think my biggest gift as a teacher is that I have the ability to plumb the depths of my artistic process so that others can use my techniques to arrive at their own discoveries.
WOW: Your writing center offers several retreats throughout the year. What would your advice be for getting the most out of your retreats and also for getting the most out of writing retreats in general?
Ayres: I think an open state of mind is crucial to getting the most out of any retreat, certainly the ones I offer. It’s important to leave behind expectations and agendas, so that you can be free to explore and respond to whatever invitation language and imagination are offering you at the moment.
WOW: What have you experienced as you developed your writing center? What difficulties and joys have you encountered as you started and now produce writing retreats and courses?
Ayres: The Center is dedicated to the belief that the individual undergoes a personal metamorphosis while creating a work of art, and that the work can then contribute to the transformative process of others. I believe that artists play a vital role in our society as it struggles to evolve, and through the Center’s retreats and workshops, I’ve tried to establish the conditions necessary for the creative spirit to flourish. The joy is always the same and always new—seeing each person thrive in the environment I’ve created and blossom to her or his full potential. The difficulty? Making sure I protect my writing time!
“I believe that artists play a vital role in our society as it struggles to evolve...”
(Photo: At the Montauk Retreat)
WOW: I’m sure it is difficult at times to protect your personal writing time. What is next on the horizon for you and for your writing center?
Ayres: Right now, I’m querying agents for a work-in-progress called American Dreamscape: Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, a creative nonfiction work that invites readers to find whatever matters most to them in the everyday wonders of the natural world. It’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek meets Chicken Soup for the Soul, gifting readers with wise, inspiring reflections on nature and the human condition. In both language and subject matter, the book embodies the proclamation by Keats I mentioned above: that beauty is truth and truth, beauty. American Dreamscape already boasts Annie Dillard’s promise of a glowing endorsement.
I’m proposing it as a series, to begin with Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, followed by Encounters with Cherished Landmarks, followed by Encounters with the Glories of the Southwest—or any other landscape an editor or agent might suggest. I also have some exciting ideas for spin-offs, including an American Dreamscape write-in-the-book journal companion.
And I’m training others to teach Writing the Wave.
WOW: Thank you, Elizabeth, for such an intriguing interview. Best of luck with American Dreamscapes and the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing.
Readers, you can purchase Elizabeth Ayres’ book Writing the Wave: Inspiring Rides for Aspiring Writers and find more information about Elizabeth Ayres at her website:
Susan L. Eberling is a freelance writer, mom, closet poet, and entrepreneur in beautiful Denver, Colorado. As a part of Team WOW! Women On Writing, Susan blogs and writes the monthly Must Haves guide to goodies for women writers. In her hometown, Susan writes for local newsletters and small publications, highlighting amazing women who inspire and contribute to their communities. Susan loves to read novels and enjoys time outside.