Sometimes you just know when something is right.
A combination of factors led me to sign up for my first writing retreat and it started with an email from a classmate of mine.
Launched by Dulcie Witman and Regina Tingle, both MFA graduates of Goddard College, the retreat Wide Open Writing brings together creative people at a farmhouse in Tuscany.
It was easy to say “yes” for a number of reasons, starting with Regina and Dulcie themselves, who I knew from my graduate program. The Master of Fine Arts program at Goddard College requires students to develop personally as well as academically—it ensures authenticity in writing. It’s a natural fit for mid-career professionals who seek to develop their creative talents. Strange, huge things tend to happen during the program—divorces, major career transitions, physical transformations. I quit my job and moved home to concentrate solely on the work. Goddard was magic to me: my Hogwarts.
At Goddard we learned the standard of good writing is authenticity. Are we being authentic to our work? To our characters? Ourselves? I knew this is what Dulcie and Regina would translate into the Wide Open Writing retreats—with the added bonus of medieval sun-soaked towns, rolling vineyards and bottomless glasses of Chianti.
Thinking of signing-up for a writing retreat? Don’t have the luxury of knowing your retreat leaders? Check your chosen retreat’s website for testimonials. Ask organizers to connect you with past participants. Find out what you’re getting into, because all retreats have their own distinctive features. What are you hoping to gain? If you’re seeking brutal criticism and harsh revision, Wide Open Writing is probably not the retreat for you. It is restorative and open, aiming to include rather than exclude, to encourage rather than criticize. Participants typically have come as strangers and kept in contact afterward as close friends. Many who attend claim they’re not writers and end up producing beautiful, heartfelt pieces.
This is what you can expect on the Wide Open Writing retreat in Tuscany. Writers meet at the train station in Florence. We ride together on a bus to Fattoria Voltrona, a working vineyard. We settle into our rooms, singles or doubles. We get to know each other over a 4-course Italian dinner at a communal table. Each day begins with a yoga session followed by a silent buffet breakfast. We meet at 10:30 a.m. for a writing prompt and reading session. We have a leisurely lunch, then afternoons are free. During the afternoon, you might have a swim in one of the pools, book a massage, or schedule a creative counseling session. You might hike the grounds or take a ride on an Icelandic horse. You might write in your journal. You can rent a Vespa and drive 5 km into San Gimignano for some shopping. Late in the afternoon, we’ll write some more, read our work, and enjoy another dinner together with Chianti made from grapes grown on the property.
I responded 10 minutes after I received Dulcie’s original email and sent in a deposit shortly afterward. I had come out of a year of surgeries for breast cancer, and was developing a growing dissatisfaction with working within the walls of a gray cubicle. Frustration with waking up to gray skies and a general grayness that had settled in.
The retreat experience was everything one imagines Tuscany to be. Bright. Medieval. Tasty. Romantic. Magical. And one of the best parts? Being with others who were also searching for something more in their lives. Seeing what others were doing with their lives and how they were making it manifest provided the last nudge I needed to plan a leap into freelance independence. That included becoming more involved in Wide Open Writing. I do its social media and led a writing session in 2015. Find us on Twitter and Instagram @wideopenwriting.
In our last morning session that first year, Nancy Coleman, Dulcie’s partner and the retreat’s yoga instructor, shared a piece in which magical things happened, a story with frogs raining from the sky. That afternoon, as we shared our last lunch together in Florence, the skies opened up and let loose a hailstorm of Biblical proportion. “Nancy’s frogs!”