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Retreating together

Nathaniel Hansen

image4 Writing is an act I do alone. In my home office before anyone is awake (just as now). In my school office between course prep, grading, and the dozens of other tasks that demanded my attention. Even at one of my local coffee shops, when others are present, I’m still by myself. Solitude is my preferred working method.

Yet one month ago, and for the second consecutive October, I reserved time and money to attend a weekend writing retreat in a three-story house facing Lake Michigan, a retreat with a dozen other writers from various states. For a self-acknowledged introvert, for someone who works alone (preferring it), what is the draw?

The gorgeous fall colors that are absent back home in Central Texas, sure. The temperature thirty degrees cooler than the above-average fall temperature back home, yes. The walk along the Lake Michigan shore, my bare feet chilled in the off-season sand, yes. Still, those aren’t the only reasons.

*                *                *

For much of Saturday, each of us carves out hours of space in the lake home to work on our projects. I sit in a lower bunk in my room, small reading lamp on, windows open to the breeze rushing in off of Lake Michigan, the heater set low enough to offset the brisk air, coffee cup within arm’s reach.

My first project is tightening a forthcoming creative nonfiction publication. I read aloud off the paper copy, marking it up, the task wonderfully slow. Next, I transition to completing those edits in the file itself. By late morning I have finished this first big project, and there is a feeling of success, a feeling of momentum.

I slide in socked feet down the hallway: others are still sleeping. Two rooms over, a friend is reading Dante’s Inferno. I descend the creaky stairs, each step a tree limb snapping, despite my attempts to be stealthy.

In the kitchen, someone has claimed a spot at table, gathering essays for a book-length manuscript. Another person is editing a collection of poems. We chat in snatches, each respecting the need for quiet. I pour the last of the coffee and prepare a new pot.

In the living room, a few people sit on the world’s most uncomfortable couch, each working with words in some way. I sit down, stretch my legs, having already written for several hours, the most my brain can handle in one span. I ask others what they’re working on; I share what I’ve been doing. And then it’s back upstairs.

*                *                *

Back in my room there’s a new sound. I approach the window, glance down. My friend sits on the deck two stories below playing her fiddle. It’s one thing to listen to music when I write (which I often do), another to listen to live music by someone whose written words months earlier moved me to seek help. Instead of being states away, she is in the sunshine bowing melodies that help me sort through images and scenes.

I am ready to work on the next project, a piece about something that has bothered me for decades, something I am not yet ready to disclose, and the revision comes easily. I acquire a new vision for the piece. Although I am alone in this room, I am supported by community around me in this three-story house, and that is enough to move me forward, to brave my way through what is painful to write.

*                *                *

Oh, it’s not all quiet, no. A bunch of writers together?

Over three days I laugh more than I have in months.

Over three days I’m a part of a community of writers, some of whom I know well, some of whom I barely know, some of whom I’ve just met, and somehow something creative, something sacred happens over this quick span.

Over three days there are communal activities: the evening meals preceded by our rendition of the Doxology, the evening jam sessions (my fingers aching from playing an acoustic guitar for hours), the reading at a nearby public library where each of delivers a couple poems, a short prose piece.

Over three days my heart is filled, and when I touch down in Austin on Sunday night, my heart still overflowing with fellowship, I have already been plotting the probable retreat dates for 2016.