Undergraduate Creative Writing Retreat
Posted on September 17, 2013
Every year, I try to attend a few writing conferences and retreats. This is something I only started doing in the years since I became a fulltime writing teacher. I didn’t realize that these events existed while I was an undergraduate, and although I wanted to attend AWP and some other events in graduate school, I never had the money to fly across the country and get a hotel room.
When a friend who teaches at my alma mater suggested that we put together an undergraduate writing retreat that could be attended by our students, I was really excited. Getting together with writers–especially writers you’ve never met–and talking about your craft is such a great experience, and I loved the idea of giving that opportunity to my students.
Last Friday afternoon, I took two of my students to the John XXIII Retreat Center in Hartford City, Indiana for an overnight retreat. We were a small group, compared to the ten or so students that attended from the other two universities–Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan.
It has been an exceptionally busy week, and although I was looking forward to the retreat, it was a bit of a sacrifice to try to fit it into my schedule. Chalupa is still significantly sick and hasn’t been able to go to work in about a month, so I needed to find someone else to watch Ruthie. My sister volunteered, and Ruthie ended up having a wonderful overnight at her cousins’ house, where she didn’t even throw a single tantrum. (That’s probably because, as she told me yesterday, “Mom, I don’t throw tantrums at OTHER people’s houses! Just at home!” Gee, thanks, kiddo.) A friend generously offered to bring some dinner over for Chalupa, which meant I could go into the overnight obligation-free, if not carefree.
What a great retreat it turned out to be! The students who attended the event were extremely talented. On the first evening, they were given the opportunity to read their work in an open mic. To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about it–I always worry that open mics are going to go on for too long. (This is like a result of my church upbringing, where passing the mic always turned into an hours-long affair of “testimonies” and never-ending prayer requests.) I was surprised and thrilled when student after student read incredible work that they had produced. I was floored and ended up telling my internet friends that what I’d heard was just as good as some of what came from my MFA colleagues at UNH.
Inspired by their talent and bravery in sharing difficult pieces with our group of about twenty-five, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the event. I took a little bit of the scheduled writing time to work on a short essay that was prompted by a conversation I had with one of the other professors who was there, and spent the other scheduled time grading homework and finalizing my craft talk. I also read a little bit of Margaret Atwood’s new book, MaddAddam.
There were two readings and two craft talks. Amy Lepine Peterson, a creative nonfiction writer who lives nearby, gave a really phenomenal reading on Friday that night that I believe set the stage for the students’ openness with one another. Paul Allison from IWU talked about lessons he’s learned from writing the novel that he is currently working on getting published. Prof. Daniel Bowman from Taylor, a poet, read from his excellent book of poetry, A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. (Isn’t that a phenomenal title, by the way?)
As for me, I gave a talk on “turning on the camera” in Creative Nonfiction, and emphasized the importance of striking a good balance between what sounds like voiceover in a movie and what is visible to the reader, like what the camera chooses to focus on. Much of this comes from my time in Meredith Hall’s workshops at UNH, but I have adapted some of her lessons to be teachable in small portions to undergraduates in settings like this. I read from Meredith’s Without a Map, as well as from Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” and Jeanette Winterson’s amazing Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Aaron Housholder, also from Taylor, didn’t give a craft talk or reading, and instead conducted a closing benediction/conversation in the retreat center’s little chapel on Saturday evening after dinner. We gathered together and shared what we thought of the event and what we had learned from each other. The students seemed to have really enjoyed the retreat and were already talking about looking forward to another one next year. Aaron also shared with the students a really personal story about why he views the urge and need to write as a gift from God. I have been replaying some of his talk and our conversations over in my head a lot since Saturday, which is always a good sign that something important was happening.
Hands down, one of the coolest parts of the weekend was chatting with the two students from my university who attended the event with me. Because this was the first year for this, I only invited students with whom I already had a bit of a relationship or who had expressed interest in the event last semester. It would have been great if more had been able to join us, but the two women who joined me were great. They represented the university really well, joining in with the other students even though we were such a small group. They both read at the open mic, and their work is excellent. I also enjoyed our conversations as we drove to and from Hartford City. I’m really excited that these two women represent the kind of writers and creative people we have at the school where I teach! Because I mostly teach freshman composition to beginning writers who have no interest in English class, it was a wonderful reprieve to talk to students who not only care about writing, but who are passionate about it.
This retreat made the weekend a little long and overly full, but I’m so glad I participated, and I’m absolutely looking forward to next year.