creative writing community, craft and inspiration
by Laura Romain
Do you remember how Sarah Palin (as imagined by Tina Fey) could see Russia from her house? Well, I can see St. Marguerite’s Retreat Center from my front window. The historic building perches at the top of Mendham’s second-highest hill, about a mile south of the renovated barn that I call home.
At first, the idea of heading to St. Marguerite’s for The Writers Circle’s fourth annual writing retreat seemed ridiculous to me. After all, I can—in theory—write perfectly well in my home, where I have a desk, a white noise machine, and all the chamomile tea I could wish for.
But over the course of the fall, stressors and distractions—from my buzzing phone to client work to dirty dishes—crowded out my writing time. When last Friday rolled around, I was ready to pack my bags (an embarrassing number of them), say a temporary goodbye to my little barn, and escape to St. Marguerite’s for the weekend.
When I walked through the leaded-glass front doors, TWC directors Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron handed me my schedule and welcomed me to shape the weekend according to my needs. “All of the classes and sessions are optional,” Michelle explained. “Whether you want to attend our break-out classes or hole up and write, make this weekend into whatever you need.”
I needed a weekend set aside for writing, relaxation, and the company of people who love stories, and that’s exactly what I found.
During dinner the first night, Sister Eleanor Francis from the Community of St. John the Baptist—the Episcopal religious order that runs the retreat center—regaled us with stories of the building’s history. Formerly an orphanage for young girls, St. Marguerite’s is the kind of place where I wish the walls could talk. How many girls snuck outside past bedtime, slipped frogs between their schoolmistress’s sheets, or smuggled in contraband books and food?
Over dessert, we all shared our goals for the weekend. Some of us planned to get projects ready for publication; others wanted to fill in the outlines for their novels. Personally, I need to reconnect to the fun and magic of writing. I write because I deeply want to, not because someone will blackmail me (or take away my chamomile tea) if I don’t finish my novel by the end of the year. Nevertheless, my inner critic can suck the joy out of creating worlds on the page. It was time to reconnect to that joy, that sense of sparkling possibility.
Chatting with my fellow attendees, I found that we were a diverse group—from as far away as Utah and as nearby as, well, my barn. Whether we were married or single, working or retired, we all bemoaned the demands of the workaday world. We craved time and space to reawaken our creativity, as well as the camaraderie of people who care about writing.
The next day, we explored St. Marguerite’s, discovering no shortage of inspiring places to write. On one end of the building, a high-ceilinged solarium offered a cheerful, plant-filled environment. Other writers settled at the heavy oak tables in the dining hall or retreated to the cozy library on the second floor. I chose the chapel as my writing home, sitting in a sunny patch and gazing through the windows to the garden whenever my thoughts needed to wander.
Chet Ensign, who arrayed a table in the dining hall with multicolored index cards that represented scenes of his novel, said, “Hearing other keyboards clicking is reassuring. One gets so used to being on one’s own.” Kristina Hunter also felt energized by the group dynamic. Her favorite part of the retreat was “working along fellow writers and being inspired by them.”
Breakout Workshops, Afternoon Yoga and One-on-One Time
Over the weekend, Michelle led two breakout workshops, one on “writing with the senses,” which offered practical tips on incorporating sensory detail and richness into writing, and later, a class about writing scenes that work. Meanwhile, Judith led two sharing and critique groups, in which participants presented their works-in-progress and received feedback and encouragement. “Sharing work and getting feedback was invaluable,” said Niv Miyasoto. “And I enjoyed listening to such an array of storytelling talent.”
After lunch, I had the pleasure of leading meditation and yoga sessions. I’ve taught meditation and writing workshops before (including for TWC), but I knew these sessions would have to be special. The people who joined me in the library for meditation had just spent hours summoning their inspiration and their concentration. They needed to interact with their inner landscape in a way that would revitalize them, refill the wells of their creativity, and help them focus for the afternoon.
I started with a guided visualization designed to help them break through writer’s block—and it worked, if I do say so myself. This meditation, Niv reported, “brought a totally unexpected solution to a sticky point I was looking to resolve in my novel.” I then taught the group how to meditate using a mantra, or an inward repetition of a word or sound. This style of meditation is especially suited to verbal types of people, and it’s a gentle but powerful way to cultivate concentration.
Afterward, I led a gentle yoga class designed to help participants regain focus, release stress, and stretch the parts of their bodies that become tight from hours of sitting and writing. One participant, who had never done yoga before, marveled at the difference a single class could make for her joints. Others found that the time on their mats refreshed their minds and enabled them to write more freely afterward. Personally, I left the room with a renewed feeling of self-acceptance and gratitude for the writing I had already done during the weekend and the progress I had made. It was a great introduction to the class I’ll be teaching during TWC’s 2018 Winter session, called Yoga and Writing for Everyone. Join me!
On Saturday night, we were invited to read our work aloud to the group in the upstairs library. Given the warm, supportive environment, many writers chose to share work that was particularly close to their hearts.
Afterward, in the dining room, Mally Becker taught us how to play storytelling board games that The Writers Circle designed. Some of the resulting stories featured destroyed planets, tense mother-daughter dynamics, and—of course—giant cupcakes falling from the sky. The games, Sue Popek said, “added a dose of relaxation and fun to the weekend.”
As I climbed the stairs to my cozy little room, a cup of chamomile tea in hand, I felt oddly at home. This world of writers was so welcoming, so kind and fun and heartening. I wished I didn’t have to go home the next day.
Many of us relished the last few hours of quiet writing time, settling in armchairs alongside sunny windows. Others took breaks to explore the grounds or walk the property’s labyrinth, which was strewn with orange leaves.
Throughout the retreat, Michelle and Judith made themselves available, meeting with participants who wanted one-on-one feedback, focused critiques, or tailored advice on how to make the writing life work for them. As Sue said, “Michelle and Judith are positive forces who lovingly support the retreat writers.”
During our final meal together, we reviewed our weekend experiences and whether we’d reached those goals we laid out during our first night together. Many of us made significant headway on our projects. Whether or not we wrote as much as we’d planned, we all found that the company of other writers proved more invigorating than we could have imagined.
So did I achieve my goal? Did I reconnect with the sense of magic and possibility that first brought me to writing? As it happens, I did. But even better, I left the retreat with a broadened circle of writing friends, a clearer sense of my identity as a writer, and a sense of artistic self-assurance that I hadn’t felt for a long, long time.
Laura Romain has drawn on the principles of yoga to enhance her personal writing practice for more than a decade. After working as an editor at the book publisher W. W. Norton & Company, she transitioned into a freelance career as a writer, yoga teacher, and Reiki master. Her writing has appeared in Shape.com, The Manifest-Station, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Penny, Day One, The Hartskill Review, and Rust+Moth, and she blogs at http://lauraromain.com.