I recently had the pleasure of teaching at a writers’ retreat sponsored by The Sun Magazine in North Carolina, and I came away with what I always do when I’m a part of such groups: a reinforced belief in the power of the written word. Not that I ever doubted—I’ve always believed that writing is as essential as air and water and food; at least it is to me—but still it’s good to see the evidence in what transpires between participants at such events.
The people who come to these retreats are all at various stages of their journeys as writers. Some are just starting out, some are a little farther along, and still others are even farther. The thing they have in common is a desire to give something that matters to them literary shape. Some are poets, some are fiction writers, some are nonfiction writers, some are song writers, some are screenwriters or playwrights. All of them are human beings with a need to explore and to communicate through whatever form they choose.
I feel fortunate to be a part of the glorious things that happen at these retreats. I’m blessed to be able to invite participants to think about various craft issues with the hope of saving them some time as they develop their skills. Most of all, though, I’m blessed to be able to offer writing prompts that take people to the material that really matters. I like to think they feel a bit more empowered as they leave, a bit more in control of those parts of experience we can never really put to rest, only contain momentarily in a literary form. But doing that can be enough. It can help us understand, help us empathize, help us interrogate, help us speculate on answers, help us see more fully than we do when we’re directly facing our lives rather than sidling up to them through a story, or a poem, or a personal essay, or a play, a screenplay, a song.
If you’ve never been to such a retreat, but perhaps have thought about it, here are some things you should expect:
- You’ll write. A lot.
- You’ll do it in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.
- You’ll listen to people read what they wrote. You may even desire to share something of yours as well.
- No one will evaluate what you read. We will simply receive the gift of it and acknowledge it with a round of applause.
- There may be tears, yours or someone else’s. There will always be someone there to rub your back, give you a hug, tell you it’s all right, even resume the reading for you if need be. We understand. All of us. We’re writers. We know how overwhelming our lives can be.
- You’ll laugh. If you’re in my classes, you may even groan since I’ve never met a corny joke or bad pun I can resist.
- You’ll make friends. Some of them will last a lifetime.
- You’ll have meals with your new friends. If you’re lucky, the food will be good! If you’re not so lucky, you’ll still be in good company.
- You’ll get the chance to talk about things to do with writing that no one else will talk to you about. You’ll know you’ve found your tribe, the tribe that believes in the written word.
- You’ll leave knowing yourself better than you did when you came. Either you’ll sense this isn’t for you, this writing stuff, or (and this happens more often) you’ll be invigorated, excited, eager to get to work on the next thing you’re going to write, and you won’t feel that you have to justify what you do to those around you who don’t quite understand.
What we do with this desire to communicate through writing is up to us. As Mary Oliver says in her poem, “The Summer Day”:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Or as she says in her poem, “Wild Geese,” quoted here in its entirety:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
This, my friends, is what can happen at a writer’s retreat. You can be there without apology; you can share what you have to share with the confidence that whatever you’re feeling someone else is feeling it with you. You can leave your workaday life behind, and you can go back to it with a better understanding of who you are and why what matters does indeed matter.