For two years now, I’ve helped organize a small writers’ retreat in France with two other women. I’m immensely lucky to know the writers Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, whom I met when we were all three studying for our MFA in Boston over ten years ago. They are both talented, passionate writers and teachers – not to mention being quite a lot of fun to spend time with.
When Fog Island Mountains came out, the three of us had a mini-celebration over pizza in Mystic, CT of all places and got to talking about lives, schedules, writing, and teaching. We are all busy juggling work and writing and families and… none of this is surprising, this is how everyone in (most of) the world now seems to live. Sigh. Constant juggling, constant striving for balance. In any case, we threw ourselves a challenge that day—to manage a week away, once a year, no kids, no spouses, no cooking, just writing, just book talk, just walks in the country. And we wanted to provide this space for other writers, too, especially those in the same kinds of situations.
We founded L’atelier writers’ retreat and workshop within weeks, found a location and set a date.
A word on the location because we could not have been more lucky—this is a small, rural bed and breakfast in France run by teachers and booklovers. The staff members have pooled their personal libraries to fill the place with books. And when we arrived last year for the first retreat, we were all delighted with the atmosphere—a mixture of elegantly eccentric and charmingly rustic. Think architectural salvage put to very good use mixed somehow with summer camp and the whole thing works. The sheer number of books in all the buildings and rooms that make up this unique hotel create the best ambiance.
In any case, I’ve just returned from our second annual retreat and am still feeling inspired. It’s a rare indulgence to take a step back from the all-too-often-horrible, always-busy world and just focus on the things I love the most—reading, writing, talking with other readers and writers. It’s also an immense pleasure to hear how other writers approach their work and see their projects develop through conversations with other writers/readers. I’m not a natural teacher because I can be very nervous speaking in front of large groups, but I absolutely LOVE thinking about and discussing how people work through internal questions (both emotional and aesthetic) through poetry and writing and story. This fascinates me.
Last year we were five, this year we were ten. We brought our books, short stories, and poetry to this rural hideaway, we brought our internal libraries (a source of immense pleasure in discussion), we brought our critical minds and our humor. And we worked really hard.
I’ve come to associate the first stanza of Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole” with l’Atelier and I’ll put it here below. There’s a long story why I associate this stanza with this retreat, which I won’t go into… but here it is, because it’s lovely, because it recreates the feeling I have when I indulge this need of mine to take a step out of the world and be quiet and singularly focused for an entire week:
In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. I am what is missing.