Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My Island Writing Getaway

(The Oceanic Hotel)
In three short months, I'll be headed across the Atlantic.  Not that far, in all truth -- ten miles east.  But the trip to Star Island, second largest in the Isles of Shoals, will be the farthest I've ever traveled in that direction.  I, my new laptop, plenty of fresh pads of paper, new pens, and my idea catalog will arrive by ferry on board the Thomas Laighton to the Oceanic, a grand old hotel rising up at the heart of Star Island where, for five days, I plan to work tirelessly upon and hopefully complete my 1,000th work of fiction, my Space:1999 novel, Metamorphosis.

I first learned of Dale Slongwhite's retreats in 2009, after leaving a writers group I was part of for sixteen years (and an integral presence in their twice-yearly weekend writing retreats).  I love to go away for a few days to someplace fresh, different, to court the Muse; have since 1993 when I attended my very first writing retreat.  But hitting the millennium mark, a goal I've dreamed of since high school, deserved a bit of the extra-special and so, in addition to spending several days in Los Angeles at the 2012 1999 convention with actors and others from the beloved 1975-77 series, I have treated myself to Star Island -- and a setting quite unlike any other!

It was my pleasure to speak with Dale regarding the writing life and what it shall be like to write while located so far out at sea.

(Dale Slongwhite on Star Island)

Please tell us about yourself, Dale.
I married young -- I earned an associates degree, got married, and worked full-time as a clerk in an insurance agency for two years while my husband finished his bachelor degree. It took me twenty-three more years to finish mine. I took a course here, a course there at eight different colleges. My goal was to finish college before our daughters. I'm proud to say I accomplished that goal in 1994 by earning a B.A. in Communications through a low-residency program at a Massachusetts liberal arts college. I took advantage of my "student" status (I was over forty at the time) by procuring interviews with four New England writers -- Elizabeth Searle (she won the Iowa short fiction award that year); Susan Dodd (she wrote the novel Mamaw, the fictionalized life story of Jesse James' mother); Mary McGarry Morris (whose book was an Oprah pick and later made into a move directed by Steven Spielberg) and Donald Hall (poet laureat of New Hampshire and later of the U.S.).

I grew up in Connecticut, moved to Massachusetts after marriage, and relocated to Florida five years ago. For the record, I am still married to the same man I put through college. We have just celebrated our forty-first anniversary.

What do you write?  How do you write?  
I write nonfiction, although I have been playing with a novel for two decades and am in the throes of publishing it. I co-authored a book Gathering with my sister. It is a collection of thirty essays about the intangible things we have gathered over the years. I wrote fifty stories for the 100th anniversary book for Florida Hospital. I have a July 15 deadline with the University of Florida Press for a book on farmworkers in Central Florida. As for writing, I use a LOT of paper. I am an environmentalist until it comes to my writing. I may write longhand, but in recent years, it's been more the laptop. But I always print out fresh material, make lots of longhand edits, and re-print it fresh.

(Recent attendees focused on fresh pages)
What are the origins of the writing retreats you offer in New Hampshire and Florida?
In 1993, I was laid off from a job I loved due to an acquisition. I had never collected unemployment before and did not know if I would earn my severance at the same time as unemployment. Within a week of the lay-off, I learned about Amherst Writers an Artists, a certification program in conducting writing retreats. I decided not to do the safe thing with my severance money. I spent nearly $2,000 and learned how to conduct workshops -- intended to be two and a half hours, once a week. Instead, I rented a Bed and Breakfast in Rockport, Massachusetts, and planned a Friday night - Sunday afternoon retreat.

A year later, I remembered taking a boat trip that stopped at Star Island, a Unitarian Retreat Center. I called and asked if they allowed non-Unitarians to hold retreats there. They said yes, but only during the first two weeks of September (rules may have changed), and if it was educational or spiritual. This September will be my eighth workshop on Star Island.

How many writers attend your retreats annually?  Do writers return year to year?
Eight to ten writers. One writer has attended all eight and will be returning. Another has attended four and will be returning. Others have attended two. The rest often write at this time of year, lamenting they will not be able to join us but hope to in the future.

What are the island and facility like?
Star Island is the second largest of the group of nine rocky islands named The Isles of Shoals. Although it is "the largest," it is still quite small. One could walk the perimeter in fifteen minutes. It is located nearly ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the center is a huge old-fashioned "hotel" called The Oceanic. It has a wrap-around porch with dozens of rattan rocking chairs where conferees gather each evening to watch the sunset as though they were about to attend opening night of the year's blockbuster movie hit. The facilities are rustic, but no one seems to mind since the environment is magical.

What format does the retreat follow -- is it structured or relaxed?
Both. We gather around a large oak table in the Writing Room of the Oceanic Hotel. I provide carefully-chosen writing prompts. We write for a specified amount of time then share our work, if we so choose. (Almost everyone does, even if they are shy at first). We comment on what stays with us, what we think is good, what the writer did right. Critique is not allowed. We meet for two+ hours, three times a day. By the end of the four days, we have the beginning of fourteen or so pieces. Some have less beginnings if they choose to continue writing on the same piece.

I come with a schedule that accounts for every minute of every day, but I'm tuned in to the needs of the conferees and I'm not afraid to change it.
(Star Island's chapel)

What accomplishments have come out of the Star Island retreat?
You probably mean publications, and there have been many. But the more important accomplishment to me is how a Star Island Writing Retreat changes the life of an individual. I have seen many an attendee arrive head down, mumbling they thought they'd give it a try but they can't really write but they want to and I'm sorry I'm not as good as everyone else, no I won't read. By the second day, that person is smiling, reading wonderful pieces, and proudly proclaiming, "I am a writer."

I have seen an eighty-year-old man write a letter to his long-deceased father, finally coming to terms with their differences. I have seen a woman who never wrote before write amazing essays about unexpectedly losing her husband only six months before. "This was better than therapy," she said. I have seen lifelong friendships formed. I have been hugged tightly and told, "I couldn't have done it without you." I have seen newbies cheered on by veterans. I have seen writers emulate the techniques of others. 

That's why I travel 1,333 miles (according to Google maps) every September to conduct the Star Island Writing Retreat.

Finally, and this is the most important question of all, is there coffee on Star Island? Preferably iced?
Coffee is provided on the wrap-around porch each morning and at each meal. You can purchase it in between at the tiny snack bar during the posted hours. Wouldn't know about iced.   


  1. we tried getting star island as an investigation for my paranormal group. we wanted to try to go just after the season ended, and it would be just us ghost hunters on the island by ourselves...

    wow, now that I say it that sounds like the beginning of a cheesy slasher movie...

    in the end we couldn't get them to nail down a price for us so it just never worked out. oh well.

  2. Wow! This looks like a wonderful place!

  3. Hee! Allen, I'll let you know if I have any encounters at the Oceanic that would justify your investigation!

    1. I'm sure I'll hear you screaming from my house if you do LOL

  4. LOL just like Doctor Smith from LOST IN SPACE!