“How is going to a
writer’s retreat different from going into your room and closing the door?” my
“Well, duh. I didn’t
have to clean anything.”
Long ago, I developed
a ritual where I had to clean and straighten things up before starting a new
craft project. For better or worse, I’ve extended that process to my writing.
When I checked
into the Benet House
in Rock Island
I had a sunny, clean room all to myself. One barrier down to guilt-free writing
absolutely no unnecessary clutter, no great masses of important things collected
over a lifetime and carried along with every move. I have precious items tucked
into every nook and cranny available in my personal space at home. They all
have a story and meaning, and can be quite distracting at times. My retreat
room came with two twin beds: one to sleep in and one to serve as an EFS
(Exposed Flat Surface). That meant I could fill it with all the essential stuff
I had brought with me, a manageable amount of clutter, since I had to carry it
in by myself. Second barrier down.
Then there’s the
treat of not having to cook any meals for six days. Sure, I had to make my own
breakfast: brew some coffee, tea, unwrap a cereal bar. Letting someone else
cook the rest of the time has always been pretty high up on my wish list for
luxury. Sharing the buffet with the sisters two times a day was fine. I had
enough good food to choose from and never felt hungry. If I had, the little
kitchen area came stocked with microwave popcorn. Another distraction out of
The solitude the
retreat offered was calming and soothing, but, for me, it felt good not to be totally
alone. A poet from Chicago
occupied the room next door. We saw each other briefly in the mornings, shared
a table at mealtimes, and occasionally passed each other on the nature trails.
The rest of the time we, as writers, went our separate ways.
The grounds of the
monastery contained a small lake and ninety acres of woodland and prairie. Deer
could be seen by day and coyotes heard at night. I haven’t had that kind of
park-like experience in ages, so much the better not to have to pitch a tent to
do it. I took the sidewalk down to the lake for morning and afternoon breaks. From
the dock, I stared into the depths to see what creatures lived down there and
watched birds skim over the water’s surface. It felt awe-inspiring to have the
natural world so close at hand.
From the edge of
the lake, a network of enticing paths took off into the woods. They were nicely
mown and wide. On my first day, I took a leisurely walk and came back with four
pages of observations. My notes provided some much needed detail for a scene in
So much for the easy
A much more
difficult task was the main reason I had listed on my application for wanting
to be chosen for this retreat. I had hoped for a private, safe place to work on
a short story begun over a year before during a workshop at the David R. Collins
Writers’ Conference. The class assignment had been to write something personal
to a person no longer around. I had written to my recently deceased mother.
I had come up with
a reasonable first draft. The instructor had read it aloud to the other workshop
participants. I wouldn’t have been able to read it myself; my grief was still
too fresh. It had remained untouched since then. But now, I knew I’d have to
read it at the end of the retreat week; the prospect was unnerving. I only had
a few days to prepare for something that, for me, might be impossible.
I made my revisions
and began to practice reading it aloud. The first day went badly, but the next
one went well enough to give me hope. I kept practicing. I whispered it softly
to myself in my room. I read it louder if I knew for certain that I was alone.
And finally, I took it down to the dock and offered it to the fish. My public
reading at the Midwest
was barely adequate, but I got through it and that counted as a success in my
A few of the things
that I took away from the 2013 Great River Writers’ Retreat: the honor of being
the first local writer chosen to participate, the validation that my writing
has steadily improved over time, the ability to cope with fear and anxiety, and
the commitment to continue writing.
In short, I have a
new way of seeing myself thanks to the Midwest Writing
, its volunteers,
and its sponsors.
(More information on the Retreat and the application process is available on www.mwcqc.org/contests/writers-retreat/ or by calling Ryan Collins at 563-324-1410.)