I’m writing this from my fourth (or is it the fifth?) annual Writer’s Journey retreat at Commonweal. Commonweal is a large, comfortable retreat center in Bolinas California, butted right up against the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a center that focuses on healing gatherings for cancer patients, and the sacredness and energy of those gatherings can be felt the moment you walk in the door. It’s a magical place. A safe place. A quiet place. A place for healing and rejuvenation. Creativity flourishes here.
Right now, 21 writers are splayed out around me in the living room in a large oval, some on cushy couches, others on chairs, some sprawled on the floor or perched in backjacks. We range in age from 21 to 70. We are from Toronto and New York, Texas and all over California. Tonight we ate squash blossoms stuffed with fresh sweet corn and creamy ricotta cheese, a huge tray of sliced yellow beets, the freshest green salad with perfect avocados and roasted walnuts, and some kind of small pasta covered with a freshly-made roasted tomato-basil sauce. Peach-blueberry cobbler for dessert. There is nothing like Clare’s food. I would go to a retreat on auto repair if Clare were the cook.
Tonight, I am trying to teach this unruly bunch of students (they get unruly at about this point in every retreat) how to incorporate vivid detail and a sense of time and place into their writing to make their stories come alive. We danced to drum music on our last break and now they’ve settled down and are writing for half an hour about their memories of a day when a major historic event took place, some time in the course of their lives—depending on their generation, it could be Kent State, the Kennedy assassination, 9-11, VJ Day, Pearl Harbor, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Challenger accident. Their task: “Tell me the story of that day and who you were at the time, using specific, sensory detail to evoke the time and place and the people around you.” Some of them will love this exercise; some of them will hate it. The ones that struggle with this one will fly with the next one. That’s how it is on a writing retreat.
We’ve only been here two days so far, and in that short time, we have formed a living, breathing, vibrant community.
We meet as a whole group for three hours every morning and three hours each evening. We write and read, write and read. I’ve given prompts ranging from, “Tell me about all the kinds of silence you have known,” to “road trip” to “a box I did not fit in.” I read them poetry and literature to inspire them. And from the very beginning, people have been writing about the things at the heart of their lives. There are tears and laughter as people read. Every emotion is expressed and acknowledged. The range of human experience appears, unflinching and true, on the page. Yet no matter what the story, our focus stays with the writing—how to keep it real, how to make it vivid, how to shape it into story. Always there are stories I have never heard before. (And I’ve heard a lot of stories)
In the afternoons, small pods of writers meet and write together. There are trips to the beach, hikes on the cliffs above the sea, saunas, silence, and naps. At Commonweal, there is the freedom to rest, to write, to listen, and to be. Coming here, we all experience deep rest from the frenzy of our lives. And from that quiet center, new writers are born, established writers find new voices, and we sink into the pleasure of words, the gift of story, and the special bond a group of passionate writers can share.
Early registration for the 2011 Commonweal Retreat is available for a limited time at this year’s prices.