Tuesday, October 23, 2012

When Words Count Writers Retreat Part Two

Within a minute of my arrival to When Words Count Retreat Center, a new destination for writers nestled in a rambling country hollow between the mountain peaks of Rochester, Vermont, I knew I had found my way to one of the happiest places on the planet. Since the autumn of 1993, I have retreated to write regularly across the New England countryside, from inns to islands and all points in between.  That first retreat to Wentworth Mountain over the Halloween weekend of '93 changed my life forever -- I went there determined to either give up this 'writing thing' or to embrace it like my very life depended upon the outcome.  Circumstances clearly favored the latter; even at its darkest moments since, I have loved my life, lived it with joy and exuberance.  Wandering the happy halls of When Words Count was like stepping back nearly twenty years through time to that very first retreat where I drank copious amounts of Earl Grey tea, luxuriated before a roaring fire, and communed with my muse in an intimate way deeper than marrow or blood; on a soul level.

That Monday night, I and my fellow conferees -- the fabulous Amber Lisa, the inimitable Jan Cannon (who is penning an amazing book), Lisa Cordeiro, and writer singer/songwriter Chrissie Van Wormer -- lounged in the Gertrude Stein Salon for a reading of our works.  I had just the previous night gotten book galleys for my short story "Phantomime" which was selected to appear in the invite-only anthology Blood Rites, a forthcoming release from Blood Bound Books.  I read the story aloud and got some fantastic feedback, and then I was thrilled to hear Jan's pages, followed by Amber's.  Both ladies knocked it out of the park as far as I'm concerned.  I love being read to.  I love it when the writing is stellar, and it sure was.

I enjoyed one of the most rejuvenating night's sleep in recent memory and woke with the opening of a short story that has eluded me since the spring and my trip through America's quite-wild West.  After showering, I wandered downstairs to the Stein Salon and wrote almost the entirety of "Cruciform" before Chef Paul arrived to cook us yet another exquisite breakfast.  I powered through to the end of the short story and returned to my novel Blinders, which got a wonderful jump start at the retreat center following six years of languishing unfinished within fifty pages of its THE END.  The same sense of euphoria I experienced in 1993 on the mountain where I chose to be a writer (or, more to the point, the writing chose me) embraced me, and I caught myself smiling widely while seated in the salon with its bookcases and cozy furniture and views of the rolling hills dressed in vibrant autumn colors, savoring the moment.

As part of our stay, we five were each given one-hour consultations with Jon Reisfeld and Steve Eisner who, along with Eisner's lovely wife Nele, were gracious and delightful hosts. Our conversation, held at one in the afternoon on Tuesday at the J. D. Salinger Cottage (a gorgeous detached bungalow just up the hill from the main house and the barn) was so upbeat, so energetic, it has sustained me well after my return from Vermont.  There are great and exciting plans for professional writers being created at the retreat center.  Based upon what they'd seen -- my usual output of fresh pages, one after another -- and what they'd heard me read, Jon and Steve invited me to be part of the excitement, which will also include a return to the center to lecture and workshop with other writers not far down the road.  I skipped along the trail back to the main house following my consultation.  There, beaming, I indulged in that day's episode of my beloved soap General Hospital on the Stein Salon's flat-screen.

Dinner that night included the most delicious butternut squash soup I've ever had the joy of tasting, with creme fraiche and a toasted crouton. Succulent roasted chicken and cauliflower, leafy salads with heirloom tomato and a sweet balsamic dressing, and perhaps the best chocolate chip cookies in the history of the planet followed.

"With simple yet fine ingredients, you can make lavish meals.  You can create something that people really respond to," says Chef Paul Kremar, the culinary genius behind the retreat center's incredible gourmet fare.  "With a handful of ingredients, you can create food that is as good as anything you've ever put in your mouth."

Chef Paul, whose enthusiasm and aura radiated throughout not only the Julia Child kitchen but the dining room and the Stein Salon, where nightly he served up incredible appetizers, was a visible and welcome presence throughout my stay.

"I don't subscribe to that old school notion that the kitchen is the sole domain of the chef," he says. "People are fascinated with food and want an interactive experience.  I believe in the opposite of the old Gourmet Magazine philosophy, which had a 'don't try this at home!' mentality.  Here, I like to interact with you, maybe inspire you to show that you can try this at home after you leave.  Flavor and texture must always reign supreme, and local food gives you a strong footing in terms of quality.  But it should always be yummy.  My goal is to make it the yummiest for our guests."

On our final night, Lisa read her latest short story, a paranormal mystery, and Chrissie, too, shared from her present work-in-progress, both offerings engaging and a treat for the ear.  I retired to my room exhausted but also energized.  For days, I'd absorbed the details of my surroundings, the trees and flowers outside, the elegant antiques acquired from months of auctions, artwork, and the personalized author-specific touches to the rooms.  I slept well and woke rested on the last day of my stay, a rainy and overcast Wednesday.

Saying goodbyes at a conference or retreat are never easy, but no sense of melancholy hung over my departure from When Words Count.  Bruce arrived in our car on time, and off we drove through the bucolic, rain-lashed countryside, headed for home.  A few stops along the way for provisions, and we enjoyed a happy night snunkered down with the cats while rain hammered the State of New Hampshire. Since that afternoon, the amazing energy that infused the retreat has stayed with me, as have the connections made in that magical place, a gift I gave myself and one all writers should treat themselves to.  I am counting the time until I return to that little slice of literary Heaven-on-Earth!


  1. What a grand tribute to the best writing experience I have enjoyed. You say it so well. While words cannot describe the adventure, your words do. Going the distance, When Words Count Retreat created the prefect atmosphere to be creative. As for Chef Paul, the meals are superior in every way, and you gave him the proper tribute for a cutlery artist. Well done.

    1. Thank you so much, Jude. I just loved my first visit and can't wait for the second -- hopefully sooner rather than later! Cheers!

  2. Wow...Chef Paul rivals the chefs at my work. (They've honed in on my love of good cooking and always ask me to "guinea pig" their latest creation...half of the time if I don't like it it doesn't get served to the students. My downfalls are Chef Glenn's London broil that is served at Friday night dinner and Chef Marc's apple crisp; both major diet killers but oh-so-yummy!) Sorry, I'm off track. (I do that a lot; drives Allen nuts sometimes.) This sounds like a wonderful place to find great inspiration for whatever comes to mind. The picturesque setting is absolutely magnificent and it looks to be just the thing to soften the hardest of hearts.