Friday, May 27, 2016

The Great River Writers’ Retreat Experience [2013]

“How is going to a writer’s retreat different from going into your room and closing the door?” my husband said.
“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 Retreat Center in Rock Island, I had a sunny, clean room all to myself. One barrier down to guilt-free writing time.
Another bonus, 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 way.
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 my novel.
So much for the easy part.
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 Writing Center was barely adequate, but I got through it and that counted as a success in my book.
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 Center, its volunteers, and its sponsors.

(More information on the Retreat and the application process is available on or by calling Ryan Collins at 563-324-1410.)

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