Friday, February 28, 2014

February '14 Writers' Retreat to Maine

(Nine scribes at the scenic overlook in Rangeley, Maine)
I love a writers' retreat. From my very first, Halloween weekend in 1993 when I both courted and confronted the Muse at the start of my professional writing career, the notion of vanishing to some literary oasis for a few or more days to be a writer, only a writer, has become the adult version of what Christmas and birthdays were to me as a kid.  I've probably attended some two dozen retreats over the years -- from grand old island hotels to cozy week-long rentals to luxury resort destinations. A retreat has been a gift I give myself for rarely taking a day off from writing, even though I tend to ramp up the output of fresh pages once I land and savor that first cup of Java. It's a chance to reflect, refine a business plan, and to breathe.  I loved the recent weekend retreat to a friend's house held in Rangeley, Maine from Friday, February 21 through Sunday, the 23rd more than most, I think, because it was also a chance at redemption.

Last April, a similar retreat was held in the same house -- a beautiful New Englander being updated and restored by the family of my dear friend, the talented Melissa Gates (whose story "Jar of Hearts" is a must-read in the anthology Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification).  The month prior, we had just moved north after buying our new-old home, Xanadu, and though I was thrilled to see many of my wonderful friends from my Southern New Hampshire Writers' Group, I also felt something physically wasn't quite right with me. A painful lump had formed on top of my scalp, and agony radiated down both sides of my face, ending in my molars.  I headed to that retreat with a smile on my face -- albeit a painful one -- and tried to go about my business as best I could.  Unable to sleep by night, I passed out during the day and developed a fever.  Four days into the five-day stay, I begged off early and returned home.  Two days later, I was admitted to have a massive infected cyst removed and earned myself a five-day stay after all, in a private room on the fourth floor of Androscoggin Valley Hospital. During that time, at least I wrote.  Quite a bit, in fact.  But for the first and so far only time, the joyous creative experience of a retreat was tainted in a long (and miserable) shadow.

None of which had anything to do with my good friends, our lovely hostess (who went completely above and beyond in terms of hospitality), or that wonderful house.  So when a return there was planned, I welcomed the chance to cast out the last, lingering spiritual residue of my brush with Jurassic Cyst -- the physical had already passed, though the experience has left me with a long divot of a scar running along the top of my head.

(Twelve layers of buttercream Heaven!)
Nearly a year after the fact, I've found myself blessed with a wealth of company -- talented and solid friends from not one but two writing groups.  And, through various parties, readings, conferences, and other gatherings, members of both groups have also formed friendships.  When the retreat was announced, Melissa graciously offered to invite members of my Berlin Writers' Group to round out the fun.  Five of us gathered at Xanadu by noon on a blustery, gray Friday and, once Melissa arrived to meet up with us, we traveled by caravan through the wilds of New Hampshire's north country (through the ominous 'Thirteen-Mile Woods') to Errol, where we planned to gas up and grab a bite.  Melissa and I had done the same thing last year -- a quick sandwich and a cold soda in Errol before the last forty miles to our ending point in Maine.  If that sub and drink this time around weren't the best ever; throughout the weekend, I found myself reliving moments from the previous visit, only this time without the crippling misery latched onto my skull like a modern remake of the Ray Milland/Rosie Grier '70s shocker, The Thing With Two Heads.

Rain lashed the house on Friday afternoon, and a stiff wind blew outside.  But inside, with the heat cranked, I snuggled down and quickly penned a full short story ("Second Chance"), one of two for that day.  I sipped coffee, enjoyed the arrival of the Southern New Hampshire contingent, listened to music on my headphones, and healed.  Jurassic Cyst was not some minor outpatient procedure, there one moment, gone the next; what was diagnosed as beginning with an ingrown hair following a haircut had become serious enough to require constant intravenous antibiotics by the time I landed at the hospital. There were long-reaching consequences in the months that followed (including a reaction to oral antibiotics that turned one of my eyeballs into photo-sensitive ground hamburger).  But as the retreat unfolded, the specter of that darkness broke, and I gave up the ghost.

(Short story workshop in town, with the fabulous Esther M. Leiper-
Estabrooks and Judi Calhoun)
On Saturday morning, I rose early and entered the big standing shower in the upstairs bathroom, which boasts a massive rain forest head that feels like being pelted from every direction.  Last year, showering there was almost too painful to bear.  This time around, the experience was exquisite, like a water massage. Though I was on little sleep (energy and exuberance this time around, not due to monstrous infection), I bounded downstairs and started writing the opening draft of a novella, "American Grotesque", which details the experience of the affliction. Writing the words was difficult, but pages flowed, and the last tendrils of the malaise evaporated.  After a lovely breakfast, we headed into town, where I led a workshop on the basics and business of selling short stories, and we enjoyed lunch. Back to our retreat house, I grabbed a quick afternoon nap, returned to writing, and we were treated to a huge turkey dinner with homemade stuffing, gravy, and potatoes courtesy of the talented Judi Calhoun.  A luscious cake made by a famous New Hampshire cake master -- twelve layers deep -- followed.  The food was amazing, as was the group reading that stretched late into Saturday night. The company, the best.  I wrote and completed the exorcism. Hallelujah!

I can't wait for our next writers' retreat to Rangeley -- August, I'm told!