Plein Air Writing

It was a gorgeous fall morning, cloudless blue skies, crisp air, and the faint smell of wood smoke tickling my nose.  I flitted around the house gathering stuff together, mentally checking each item off my list. Composition book, two pens (an extra just in case), sweater, coffee. Something was missing. Ah yes, a chair to sit on. Climbing into the rafters of the garage I pulled down an old lawn chair and checked the webbing. ‘It would be embarrassing if I fell through the seat,’ I thought. Now, I was ready. I’d stop for bagels and cream cheese to share with the group on my way to Monterey. I was headed to my first Plein Air Writing class. A class I’ve been waiting three long years to take.

En Plein (pronounced plĕn) Air is a French phrase meaning outdoors or in fresh air. So, the class will be meeting and writing in some of Monterey’s most inspirational and scenic locations. But there’s much more to it. I’ve not taken a class like this before, so I am going to cheat and type the class syllabus here. “…we explore outdoor settings around the Monterey Peninsula and use timed writings to coax spontaneous thought onto paper. During each session, we walk in silence, write, then read aloud to each other without comment. Inspired by the work of Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, our writing process often takes us to the intersection of spontaneity and authenticity, where the personal and universal sit side by side.”  Awesome, huh? The class is offered by the Osher Lifelong Leaning Institute (OLLI) through California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB).

We are a small group of about ten students and two instructors. It seemed most of my classmates had previously taken the class. I was the newbie. No introductions were made, and I was glad I did not have to go through the regular spiel of who I am and why I was there.

We began with five minutes of quiet meditation focusing on our breath. Then one of the instructors gave us our first writing prompt. Make a list of questions you cannot answer. Write for 10 minutes. My mind went blank. (too bad I couldn’t do that during meditation) Questions I cannot answer? What? What kind of questions? Personal? Political? Rhetorical? All I could think of at the time was, how do you pronounce Plein? Why can’t I think of any questions? I wasted at least three minutes sitting in a quandary.

True to the instructor’s word we were beckoned back by the pure tone emitting from a Tibetan singing bowl. Very Zen.

Everyone read their list of questions. ‘They’re not so different from me,’ I thought. They may be a little more practiced at this style of writing than I am, but I noticed a few of them scratching their heads wondering what to write while I pretended to be thinking of my own questions. Others obviously had the flow. It’s all good. It’s free writing, you can write whatever you want. No questions? No problem. Just write.

Next, we were instructed to write three of our favorite questions on a slip of paper and pass it to the person on our left. I don’t think I even had three questions. The person on my left was one of the instructors and the keeper of the Tibetan bowl.

Our next assignment was to answer the questions given to us on the slip of paper. “What? I have to answer her questions? We’ve not even been properly introduced,” Monkey Mind squawked.

“Hey, it’s free writing. If you can’t answer the questions, just write. It will come.” My less neurotic self answered.

I left the circle and walked in silence, enjoying the tranquil beauty of the park.

Finding a quiet place to write, I set my aluminum chair down on a small wooden deck overlooking a lagoon. Shrubs, berries, nutsedge and cattails grew along the shore. Cormorants, gulls, geese, and ducks bobbed up and down on the surface of the green water. An egret landed on my deck, gave me the once over then flew away. I drew a breath and read the questions given to me. ‘I’m not good at writing on the fly. I need time to think, to mull over the questions,’ I thought. ‘I cannot answer these.’ The lagoon was quiet, peaceful. I watched several ducks gliding just above the surface of the water coming in for a landing. I began to write. Ink flowed from my pen, as my hand swept across the page barely able keep up with my thoughts.

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The allotted time flew by, it was time to get back to the group. Once again, we read aloud, answering the questions put to us by the classmate on our right. Our answers were personal, lively, funny, sad, and often took the long way around.

The woman who sat on my right thanked me for answering her question. She now knew what to do. Truth be told, I could not answer her question, but I could tell her my story.


“Smiles are contagious; let’s start an epidemic”   -Laura Smith-

Smiles of the Week


Countries Represented: USA, Japan, Korea, Brazil






9 thoughts on “Plein Air Writing

    • HI Donna
      The class was awesome and so relaxing. I think the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) has connections with many universities. Maybe you can find one near you that offers the class. You’d love it


  1. What a wonderful experience! I think both my monkey mind and my blank mind would be on full alert too. I love how you managed to loosen up and let your writing flow after quieting your thoughts a bit. Was this one of many meetings? I imagine it will get easier as you gain practice.


  2. What an amazing and inspirational experience, Laura. I loved reading your step-by-step thinking process during this plein air session, as I’m sure it would be very similar to mine. I’d be distracted by all the wildlife commotion and the pretty surroundings, but hopefully, that would turn me to action eventually as well. Like you (and this happened during yoga classes I took in the past as well), I would feel like I don’t belong and that I couldn’t do what was asked, that I would need more time. That’s what we do… We are insecure writers, always doubting about ourselves, until a spark strikes and the pen flows. I’d love to do a course like the one you’re taking. It sounds beneficial towards the writing process and the mind.

    The first time I heard about plein air is when I visited an exhibition with my mom in Belgium, which featured French painters who had painted their work en plein air. 


  3. Hi Liesbet
    Yes, it’s not unusual to see painters creating works of art along a beautiful stretch of road or in a natural scene in the mountains, but I not come across many writers. I’ve always wanted to pick a spot alone the walking path in Monterey and sit there and write. I think this class will help me in many ways. Tomorrow is our second meeting. I’m very excited.
    Thanks for your comments

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: IWSG–March 2019 | Crafting My Retirement

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