The Moss Wood Writing Retreats

Back in June of last year I had the extraordinary experience of attending my first-ever real writing retreat, Moss Wood in Cape Rosier, Maine. From a Wednesday to a Sunday during one glorious week I escaped the heat of Texas, trading it for the jacket-worthy chill of Penobscot Bay.

The Moss Wood Retreat occurs in a house right on the water, above a pebble beach and backed up by a forested hill whose spongy ground sinks beneath your shoes when you go for a hike.

The ground looks hard, but the forest floor gave way just as much as the bright green moss suggests.

 

The house is generously sized, with an inviting living area warmed by a stove furnace and a large, furnished, screened-in porch overlooking the water. The upstairs boasts several bedrooms and a bathroom for the writers attending the retreat. As soon as I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and went up to my room, I was arrested by the stunning view from my bedroom windows, which lined an entire wall. I was not in the big city any longer, which should have been obvious, but for someone like me who hardly ever gets out into nature enough, it took me a while to fully appreciate the tectonic shift in my body as I adjusted to my new environment.

I think I must have stared out the window for fifteen minutes when I first arrived, just listening to the water from the second story as it lapped at the pebble beach below the house.

 

The retreat leader the week I attended was Gregory Maguire, one of my favorite authors and an extremely gracious man.

Selfie with Gregory Maguire, author of many, many excellent books, including the Wicked series, Lost, and his newest, Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

 

There were seven other writers there, including myself and Moss Wood’s director, Patricia McMahon, and assistant director, Conor McCarthy. Each day and evening offered our group hours of high-level conversation about literature, narrative craft, our own individual journeys as writers. And the attendees were an excellent mix of published and competent authors. We workshopped, we shared, we wrote new material. I came away inspired, validated in my work but also enriched by what I’d learned, ready to grow.

Selfie with Patricia McMahon, Moss Wood’s director and the author of so many wonderful books for children, including Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-written with Conor McCarthy), One Belfast Boy, and The Freaky Joe Club Mysteries.

 

The setting at Moss Wood offers tremendous opportunity for indulging in the natural world for those who are interested. If I wanted to spend all my downtime hours working away on a manuscript, I had the full support of everyone there, and there were times when I did this. But the siren call of kayaking on the bay and hiking the hill with my fellow writers snagged my attention, too, and I loved every minute!

The view from the shaded pebble beach on a clear day, where we collected seashells and unusual rocks.

 

About half the time we had spectacular weather, cool and sunny and relaxing. The other half the time, we had foggy days and sometimes cold rain — and I loved this too. The difference in temperatures between what I had left behind in Houston and what Maine was giving us could be measured in dozens of degrees. It was my favorite kind of weather, no matter the weather, all week. I loved the novelty of needing a sweater and a scarf on a mid-June afternoon!

This was the view from my room on the morning I woke up to fog. The horizon seemed to have vanished, as if swallowed up by The Nothing. It rained some that day but cleared up enough for kayaking later.

 

At night, the view from my bedroom window was a void, the darkest expanse I could imagine, with no lights to penetrate the landscape. And while there were stars aplenty when the clouds dissipated, I couldn’t really even see them well through my window screens. One evening, around 11:30, as I puttered around getting ready for bed, I happened to notice a fiery orange light across the bay. I wondered if one of the houses down the reach had turned on a strange floodlight or something. It was odd and, in the unfamiliar, abject quiet of a near-sleeping house, disturbing. I speculated on what it might be, each product of my overactive imagination slightly more unsettling than the last. As I watched the horizon, it occurred to me the light couldn’t be a massive flame because it was stable — but it was growing.

A few minutes later I realized this light was the moon, a burnished copper bowl rising like a cheshire smile from the water, its visible half so breathtaking and enormous that I couldn’t stop watching it glide upward. The next morning at breakfast, I mentioned this to my colleagues, and one new friend, Elizabeth, said that sounded like something she’d love to see. So I checked my phone for what time the moon was scheduled to rise that night, and we hoped for clear skies. She said to come to her room a few minutes before, and if she was still awake, she’d join me.

At the right time, I went across the hall and saw the light was on under her door and knocked softly. She came over and we watched the moon together, observing as it heaved itself silently from the invisible water and dripped its reflection back down. It was a profound sight. Elizabeth, who lives in Manhattan, can’t see the moon from her apartment, and I just love gazing at the moon when it’s so low to the horizon, enormous and gold and close enough to float up into the sky while we watch. This isn’t something I can see very often in my city, either, as flat and clogged by buildings as my own landscape is.

 

Selfie with Elizabeth Lim on the last day of the retreat. Her new book Reflection: A Twisted Tale, comes out March 27th.

 

Going to Moss Wood was about more than just making new friends and colleagues, although it was definitely that, too. Having time to engage in the art and practice of writing — and in the business of writing — is more than a challenge from August through May due to the intense and demanding pace of life as a full-time high school teacher. Not being able to do my own writing enough during the school year is not only detrimental to my mental health, it hampers my ability to be creative in the classroom. All of the classes I teach are either writing classes specifically or have a very heavy writing component, and the more I work to improve my own writing skills, the more effective a teacher of writing I am. I have seen this circumstance play out frequently over the last twenty years of my career in education.

The Moss Wood Writing Retreat was a generative, nurturing experience, and a marvelous escape from the daily minutiae which seems to dominate my life. Although I missed my family very much — and will be forever grateful for their support of my going — I think the last time I didn’t have to worry about the constant barrage of household tasks and parenting obligations for so many days at a time was my and Aaron’s honeymoon, which happened some time around the turn of the century. So it was nice to get away for a bit and do something radical just to care for my own creative self. In fact, it wasn’t until I had been at Moss Wood for a couple of days that I realized this is what I had done. (I pushed away the mom guilt by reminding myself how important it is to be a good role model for my kids, a woman who doesn’t constantly put herself last. My therapist would have been proud.)

One of the things I appreciated most about being at Moss Wood — and understand, there were many things to love about it — was that I felt intellectually and creatively nourished. Here I was, in an idyllic setting for five days with a small party of similarly passionate writers, with no other obligations than to write, to talk and think about writing, to enjoy my surroundings, and to eat delicious and lovingly prepared food. (And oh my goodness, the cuisine was amazing. I still miss it!) Attending Moss Wood made me feel like a version of my best self. And as happy as I was to get back home to my family, I could have stayed at the retreat for several more days, too, maybe just to kayak once more or feel the cold wind after lunch or finish writing a short story I began while I was there.

As you plan out this year, if you are a writer, consider Moss Wood. In my perfect world, I would snag all my best writing friends and head up there every summer. In fact, I haven’t given up that ambition.

Ah, well. Maybe one day.

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Witches #1

It is October, and even though the temperatures here in my tropical part of the world have dipped only into the low 80s — and we’ll take it, happily, because it’s what we can get this week — the Hallowe’en season is in full bloom. This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season on my blog by covering the topic of witches.

The popular image of witches, of course, is kind of insane: hags with green skin, stringy hair, warts and toads, flying on broomsticks while cackling and manipulating other people’s lives in nasty ways. The closest thing I can imagine coming to that in real life, honestly, is a middle school bully. I suppose we can thank The Wizard of Oz for the green skin and Macbeth and Greek mythology for the rest. When I went to college I met real witches, actual pagans, and I discovered not only that witches were real, but that they had absolutely zero to do with the fantastically grotesque Cotton Mather holdovers imprinted on our Early American cultural DNA. As one person put it to me, “No, we don’t follow the devil. Satan’s a Christian thing.”

October always makes me think a lot about witches, what they’re about. Their image is everywhere — or images, since there’s not just one picture of them anymore. We’ll cover the “witch as archetype” unit in the spring in my AP Gothic Lit. class. I’ll try to lead my class to explore what literature’s view of witches says about the Human Condition, what the humanity or lack of it in those witches reveals about the authors and readers dissecting them. We’re going to hold them up to the sparkling light of analysis and see what filters out.

One of the most famous witches in our popular consciousness is, of course, The Wicked Witch of the West, a wretched fiend who would destroy someone else’s dog on a good day and whose obsession with fashion might lead her to murder. If you’ve never read Wicked by Gregory Maguire, I suggest you should. It was transformed into a Broadway musical, one of those things that puts an author on the map, and while I enjoyed the musical and am extremely happy for Maguire’s resulting success, it doesn’t hold a candle to the novel (which ended up being the start of a critically acclaimed book series).

If Maguire had been a less kind man, if he had been able to stomach such a horrendous historical figure, this book would have been about Hitler. Let me explain.

During the (first) Gulf War, a traumatically awful case involving two adolescent boys and a toddler boy they’d abducted and murdered was making gory headlines in the UK. I won’t go into the details of what they did to this child they lured away from his mother in a shop, but suffice it to say the bodily things they did to torture this child before they put him on a train track for him to be squashed would give Hannibal Lecter nightmares. They perpetrators, middle-school aged boys themselves, were caught, tried, imprisoned.

But they were minors, and so eventually they got out of prison, as young adults.

Now, their names had been splashed across the media for their heinous crime. But when they got out of prison, they wanted to start over in life. They wanted new names. There was a debate over whether they should be allowed to have new names, or whether they should have to be saddled with those marks of Cain forever.

This got Maguire thinking about names, identity, villains, sympathy. Those boys were in the news. Saddam was in the news. Maguire thought about writing a book about someone who had to live with a villainous moniker — and wondered what it might be like if that person didn’t truly deserve that notoriety. What would it be like to write that person as a sympathetic character?

Well, when you want to think of a name that inspires horror, what name do you think of? Hitler.

But Maguire, rightly so, couldn’t stomach the idea of imagining that particular figure in a sympathetic way and sure didn’t want to write a book that might lead other people to do so.

So then what other name inspires fear and loathing? (Remember, this was before Harry Potter was published.)

The Wicked Witch of the West.

So he wrote Wicked.

WICKED cover

I loved this book because it did what I’d been trying, as a writer, to do in my own work: it told the swept-aside story, illuminating Otherness in a profound way. It broke down a flat image and built it roundly back up again, creating something gorgeous and meaningful in the process. In Elphaba I found myself, a girl who had always been different but not in a way valued by any other kid with social standing. There’s so much more to this character, as Maguire imagined her, than a cackling “I’ll get you, my pretty.”

more to Elphaba than you think

Maguire’s writing is, as always, imaginative and intelligent. The story is good, but the writing is, too, down at the level of word choice and sentence structure.

If you’re looking for something witchy to read, I highly recommend this book.