The Balcony Challenge: New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat 2018

20180714_203924At the 2018 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat, I finally managed to accomplish a goal I’d been working toward for years: to write about New Orleans balconies. Thanks to the good company of the wonderful writers at this great event hosted by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project at the gorgeous Beauregard-Keyes House, I was able to pull together balcony threads from the week and even from previous years to craft something that might be appearing in Louisiana Literature soon (excerpts below).

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Each day during this magical week felt like a whole lifetime (as it so often does in New Orleans). In addition to the incredible writing, we ate and drank like kings, met a dozen cherished new writer friends, and saw six bands in six days. Standout shows among these were our beloved New Orleans Swinging Gypsies at Bamboula’s, the spirit-lifting Waterseed at the Blue Nile, and the fabulous Jumbo Shrimp at a packed Spotted Cat (see them in action in videos below). Many thanks to all the intrepid music-loving writers who accompanied me on these evening forays. As New Orleans Writing Marathon founder Richard Louth famously says, “The marathon continues even when pens rest.”

Balcony of Le Richelieu Hotel

IMG_1596Last year I sat on this balcony almost every night during the retreat, my writer’s senses tuned to the frequency of the 1200 block of Chartres Street, awaiting a balcony epiphany. Instead, I witnessed a tense interaction between a carriage driver and a menacing track tailgating her. The carriage driver eventually pulled over to let the truck pass and called out a frustrated, “Thank you!”

The truck driver sped around her and then immediately parked, illegally, on the next corner. As she passed, he yelled, “Don’t be rude to the residents!”

“Excuse me?” she asked curtly.

“Don’t be rude to the residents,” he repeated. The carriage driver ignored him.

The man disappeared into a small house and then emerged carrying a large jar of liquid and a baby gate, both of which he put in the truck. He went back into the house and then came out again holding a pudgy dog under his arm. Even in the lamplight, I could see that the dog had been spray-painted blue.

I said a prayer for the dog, then watched the man get back in the truck and roar away

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On this trip I purchased my very first piece of gallery art, “Stargazers” by Chris Roberts-Antieau from the wonderful folks at the Antieau Gallery.

Balcony of the Bienville House Hotel:

20180720_093134Currents of Essence Fest-empowered womanhood eddied and flowed around one spot on the sidewalk: a tarot card reader and her client seated at camp chairs pulled up to a tiny table with a celestial tablecloth and lit candle. She was an older, hippie-witchy woman; he was a stylish young African-American man. He cut the cards and shuffled them. She drew them one by one into their array.

They talked, their heads together, unconcerned with the river of goddesses all around them.  Unconcerned with the firetruck backing up into its bay. Unconcerned with the booming car stereo parade. Two stories above, tiny ferns clinging from their own cracked brick balconies listened and nodded in the breeze.

Balcony of Muriel’s Restaurant:

20180714_204627Later in the week, I tried to write on Muriel’s balcony overlooking Jackson Square, but it was so hot that I could not even touch the marble tabletops but had to keep my hands well above the protective insulation of my notebook. I gave up after only a few minutes and headed in to join the other writers in the Séance Lounge. As I went in, I passed a lively couple heading out for their own attempt on the scorching balcony.

Soon, the same couple also sought refuge in the cool lounge. “What are you all writing about?” the gentleman asked.

“Anything we want,” I replied. “Right now, I’m trying to figure out why this woman’s arms are cracked.”

20180714_203625I showed him the elegant statue in the corner of the lounge that looks like a lamp but isn’t. It depicts a dancer in Middle Eastern garb, her back arched, her right arm reaching up to the heavens, her left arm reaching down to the ground. Her mahogany limbs are covered in a mosaic of deep cracks.

“I think it’s a tattoo,” he said. “Tattoos are very popular these days.”

He looked closer and noticed the way the woman’s heavy, beaded bracelet covered her left hand like a glove.

“I’ve got it,” he said. “She’s Michael Jackson’s girlfriend!”

All the other writers in the room looked up. The man looked pleased with himself. “Y’all can write about that,” he offered.

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Many thanks to all of my awesome writing groups from this retreat and to the fabulous leadership team–Richard, Tracy, Michelle, Marley, Kimberly, Ellen, and Jack– with whom I also collaborated during the retreat to record a program for National Writing Project Radio: Celebrating the New Orleans Writing Marathon.

Stay tuned to writingmarathon.com for news about the upcoming 2019 New Orleans Writing Marathon Retreat, likely to be held July 15-19.

4 comments

  1. Appreciate: I appreciate all the other media you’re including in this entry. Lots of vibrant pictures, and you have videos at the bottom! Awesome! I especially like Balcony of Le Richelieu Hotel. The darkness and red color makes it look mysterious—apt for writing.

    Notice: I notice the story about the man who gave his two cents on the statue. It just seemed funny. The two things he says just fit together so well… “tattoos are popular these days,” and “you all can write about that.” Sounds like he’s got everything figured out.

    Wonder: Just a line I liked: “Two stories above, tiny ferns clinging from their own cracked brick balconies listened and nodded in the breeze.” I wonder what it means for ferns to nod. It seemed like the kind of line that sends a shiver down your back, poetic, the kind of thing that gets you excited when you’re being a writer. Anyway, cool line.

    • Thanks so much for reading! In rereading this post, I like that fern line a lot, too. That guys was a great character, so typical of the folks you talk to everywhere in New Orleans.

  2. I liked the “hippy-witchy” description! And, as I was reading, I thought to myself, “How on earth did she think about writing about balconies?” I mean, it’s a great idea! I’m afraid I would have overlooked that obvious feature of the buildings. Especially when I would be trying to think about what to write. It’s a great idea!

    I can tell you love New Orleans. Your writing takes on a tone of wisdom and love when you’re writing about your experiences. I hope that makes sense. I had a hard time finding the right words.

    As always, your pictures are lively. They add life to the page and make me want to read the writing.

    With so many trips to New Orleans, what will you write about next? Do you have an idea going in, or do you just wait to be inspired once you get there?

    • Thanks so much! I have been very fortunate in the opportunities that I have had to write with such wonderful National Writing Project folks in this incredible city. I appreciate your support!

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