My Monastic Writing Experience in Orvieto, Italy

Originally posted on Renee Johnson Writes:

Writers attend workshops and retreats for various reasons.  Some wish to hone their skills of description or dialogue, others are seeking inspiration or direction, and then there are those of us who have something to explore within ourselves—something too difficult to sort through with our morning coffee while retaining a smiling face and carefree demeanor.

When I accepted Justen Ahren’s invitation to join his Monastic Writing group studying in Italy, we both knew I was part of the latter category.  My inward journey would be much more difficult than the procession of planes, trains, and taxi cabs I would need to arrive at the base of the cliff which had long protected the residents of Orvieto.

Orvieto - cliff

“After climbing a great hill, oneonly finds that there are many more hills to climb.”Nelson Mandela

A week in a medieval Italian hillside village of artisans, wine makers, divine architecture…

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Justen Ahren Demystifies his Monastic Approach to Writing


Check this out. Following shortly is my experiences in Orvieto, Italy, studying Monastic Writing with Justen Ahren!

Originally posted on Renee Johnson Writes:

As I researched writing residencies and fell upon the Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts, there was an additional page on an Italy Retreat.  Clicking on it, a single sentence snagged my attention.

“Where will your writing take you?”– Justen Ahren Tweet thistweet-graphic-1

Applying this simple question to the Monastic Writing Retreat held by Justen Ahren in Orvieto, Italy, images of the Italian landscape, great food and wine, and ancient architecture immediately began to flood my imagination.

Orvieto - brightened monastery

Curious, I sent an email to Justen Ahren requesting information, and an exchange began to happen where I learned about an approach to writing that was different from any I had experienced before.  Yet, it was nothing new.

On the contrary.  It can be traced to many of the earliest writings, especially those of anchorites — people so dedicated to devotional practices they withdrew from society at large…

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Making Your Own Rules

Do you make your own rules about blogging, email, writing time?

Most of us do. We nearly have to or we would just become bogged down by the sheer weight of all of the responsibility.

I commit so many sins where email is concerned. With a smart phone, I-pad, kindle, and lap top — all backups for the desktop computer — I can check email any time of day normally.

So, I scan through them, reading the ones most important to me. However, the others build up until I’m looking down the list of page after page of interesting articles I meant to get to, sales I’ve missed, and opportunities to connect long gone.

My new rule, I cannot let the first day of the month arrive with old emails in my inbox.

“Your email inbox is a bit like a Las Vegas roulette machine. You know, you just check it and check it, and every once in a while there’s some juicy little tidbit of reward, like the three quarters that pop down on a one-armed bandit. And that keeps you coming back for more.” — Douglas Rushkoff

Blogging is a passion, but if I spend too much time on posts — and let’s face it, who among us doesn’t seek the best picture, the most poignant quotes, the perfectly worded sentences — then I’m not connecting with other bloggers, working on the next manuscript, learning a foreign language, or getting in a workout.

My new rule, I will post at least once a month and connect with my followers and those I follow before moving on.

Writing time? Oh boy…this is sacred. Around here, things start getting crazy as soon as the sun rises. So I have to protect writing time with an iron fist. And the only way to do that, is to get up early and by that I mean…4:45…which gives me a couple of hours to write in solitude.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”W. Somerset Maugham 

Workouts? I know what you’re thinking. If anything on the list could be passed over, this is it. Well, NO. Workouts are a writer’s best friend. We sit too long at a time. We hunch our shoulders. And we probably drink too much coffee.

So getting a full rush of sweat is good for us. It also feeds our creativity.

New rule, I won’t have dinner until the workout is in!! Most days I can squeeze something in even if I have to break it into chunks of time, say 20 minutes in three different segments. Try it, it works.

“So many people are insanely busy nowadays, and it’s easy to say, ‘Ah, I’ll workout tomorrow.’ But you have to set aside a time and stick to that schedule.”Derek Jeter

But these are my rules. What are some of yours??

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2014 in Review

When the year starts out, as 2014 did for me, there is precious little expectation for the rest of it.  You see, that was the day of my mother’s funeral.

mother's 90th birthday 019

The following week my oldest dog, nearly seventeen, died — another sad goodbye.


As if that wasn’t enough, I tore the MCL on one of my knees on the first day of February.

Friends were asking me what it felt like to be Job — referring to the Biblical character.  It felt like life had turned a dangerous corner for me and nothing good was ever going to happen again.

But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.  I signed with a publisher, The Wild Rose Press, for my first novel — Acquisition.


My knee healed — slowly — without surgery but with a lot of exercise and physical therapy.  I am super thankful for that, although I don’t think I’ll be running anytime soon.

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Then I joined a prestigious group of writers at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, bookending the trip to the island with a few days in Concord, Massachusetts before, and Boston after.

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Acquisition was released on November 7 and I left for Italy on November 8 to join up with another group of writers studying Monastic Writing in Orvieto.  (You’ll want to check out for an interview with the instructor, Justen Ahren, and my experiences — both coming in 2015.)

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Sprinkled in between these writing events were wedding celebrations for my son and his wife.  They were married on December 13.

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If you are thinking this has been one incredible whirlwind of a year, you would be correct.


And it caught up with me over the Christmas holiday, leaving me tired, drained, and with a bad case of stomach flu which arrived pre-dawn Christmas Eve and is still nagging me.

Hopefully, by New Year’s Eve, I’ll be feeling up to celebrating with friends and toasting 2015.  I must say that I will be looking back with a mixture of sadness and elation.  The new friends I have gained are priceless, the experiences immeasurable.  But the losses and grief and sadness have also been overwhelming.

Perhaps we cannot truly enjoy the victories without learning from defeats.  I’d like to give it a shot in 2015 though.  And that is what I wish for you all — a wonderful year of triumphs and successes without any failures or heartbreaks.

Hilton Head glass of champagne and 2 strawberries     Hilton Head birthday champagne and berries

Happy New Year from Writingfeemail!



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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…

Please play the youtube song while you read this post.  It is the soundtrack to this Roman adventure!!

To quote the musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and inspired by the antics of playwright Plautus (251-183 BC), a funny thing did happen to me on the way to the forum.

(Incidentally, I’ve always wanted to use that line, but it had to be authentic.)

Rome Renee with forum behind

I was in Rome, Italy, following a Monastic Writing Workshop in Orvieto — more on that later.  And I was on my way to the Colosseum and the ancient Forum where Julius Caesar walked, ruled, and is buried.

Rome Caesar's tomb Caesar’s Tomb

There was an unusually large number of policeman and military milling about, at least it appeared larger than normal, helicopters circling overhead, and there had been a train strike the previous day.  Traffic was halted along the del fori imperiali and a parade of Italians began, bearing their red, white, and green flags.

Rome flatbed truck


As best I could decipher, it was a labor issue and the Sindaco di Roma – Mayor of Rome — Ignazio Marino, with a Pinocchio nose had become their main focus.  Apparently, he had misrepresented himself to the voters, and now refused to negotiate with the labor unions.  Imagine that!

Rome Sindaco pinocchio

The demonstration was well-ordered, only becoming ‘unruly’ when staging a shot with the photographer who had run into the street and asked for some action.  To make sure he captured them in an angry run, they were happy to back up and do it again.

Small flat-bed trucks hauled additional protesters and the roadside was lined with loud speakers as they shouted, “Basta Marino.”  The occasional blast of an air horn being conducted through the speakers for magnification of sound could be heard, while some kind of machine generated green smoke.

Rome flatbed protest

So where is the funny part?

It was what happened next.  The theme song for this demonstration was one I knew and could sing along with them, which I did.  “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones.  And yes, they sang it in English!

For a moment I just sang without thinking about it.  Then it dawned on me.  I was in Italy.  This was an Italian labor march about an Italian work force issue.  And their theme song was in English!

I wanted to call people and let them hear it — experience it — with me.  But it was 11:00 a.m. in Rome so it was 5:00 a.m. at home.  Oh well, I’d just have to laugh to myself and capture as much in my memory as possible while singing along.

Have you ever experienced something in another town or city that you just couldn’t wait to share with others?

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Just in time for the holidays The Wild Rose Press and its authors have assembled a cookbook full of delicious recipes for you.  And the best part is that you can download it for FREE! 

Of course, if you’d rather have the print version there is a cost involved, but download a copy today and its free of charge!

Just their little way of saying “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays”!

And check out page 5 for a recipe from me.  Yay.

Grab it quickly.  There might be something you could use to help you survive Thanksgiving in the kitchen.

And while you’re there, pick up a copy of Acquisition for yourself or as a gift.


Have you got a favorite recipe to share?


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Let’s Celebrate the Big Day!

As most of you know, I maintain two blogs; this one for random thoughts, travel information, photographs, and ReneeJohnsonWrites which documents my path as a writer seeking publication.

Normally, I keep the two blogs separate.  But today, I am asking you to help me celebrate an important milestone.

Hilton Head birthday champagne and berries

My first novel is being released tomorrow — November 7, 2014 — through The Wild Rose Press.



Get your copy here!

I’m hosting a blog party through tomorrow night over at ReneeJohnsonWrites.  Please stop in to help me celebrate.  This is so exciting!

Hilton Head glass of champagne and 2 strawberries

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I Have a Crush on Boston, Massachusetts

IMG_1526  This was my first trip to Boston, Massachusetts, and I can’t figure out why it took me so long to get there!  Boston is fabulous!!

It is a beautiful city, with a lot of the traffic redirected to underground tunnels to make room for lovely gardens and parks.  IMG_1529 IMG_1579 IMG_1654 IMG_1537 IMG_1535

Tour guides dress in colonial costumes and if you buy a paper from Gary, he’ll pose nicely for you!  Thanks Gary!IMG_1546

And of course, there’s the really fun stuff — like going to the Cheers Bar!  I mean, who can resist right?  IMG_1510 IMG_1515 IMG_1564    IMG_1516

Or you can go to the cemetery, a normal haunt for me!  (Haven’t I included gravestones in almost all of my travel articles?)

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But with names like Franklin, Hancock, Revere, Adams — so many heroes — paying homage just seems right.

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Whether by day, or by night, October was a lovely time of year to visit.

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Since I was on the final stop in my Massachusetts tour, I splurged on a hotel, The Taj, which turns out to be on the corner of Arlington and Newbury.  Pretty nice real estate in the Beacon Hill area, close to almost everything I wanted to do, fabulous shopping, and straight across from the park and commons area.

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Expect to see more posts on Boston.  The theater has so many wonderful shows and events in Boston, the flight from Charlotte, North Carolina is just under two hours, and I have the lay of the city down.  So look out Norm and Cliff, I’ll be back at Cheers!

Have you been to Boston, or finally made it to a city you developed a crush on?

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Pictures from Concord, Massachusetts

















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We’ll Always Have Paris…

Eiffel toast

This weekend I am celebrating the marriage of a dear friend — with other dear friends in a sleepover all-girl pajama party with tons of food and wine and movies!

And yes, because we are all mostly southern women, we still refer to ourselves as ‘girls’. It’s our right. (Don’t try to interfere by pointing out the obvious.)

Going around the table starting at the left (your left) is Paula. Beside of her is Leila, the rascal who took off without giving notice. Laurie is next, then yours truly with the long hair and giant smile. Beside of me is Susan, and then Karen back at the right edge of the picture.

There are more of us and I might be persuaded to publish pictures of the event with them included. That will depend on what we are doing when the evidence group is photographed. *wink*

I have to say, these are some of the best people I have ever had the privilege to call friends and I am looking forward to getting together with them over the weekend.

This trip to Paris was so much fun. I don’t think we stopped laughing and I can vividly recall how much my face hurt at night from the constant grinning and giggling. I imagine it will again by Sunday afternoon!

What is one of your most memorable moments with your friends?

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