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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Featured Poet: Patricia McMahon

Today’s featured poet is Patricia McMahon, who writes — aside from poetry — wonderful children’s literature, both fiction and non-fiction.  If you’d like to see her official bio on the Houghton Mifflin site, click here.  I first met her when her son Conor was in my 9th grade English class many moons ago, and I was delighted with her willingness to come and speak with my classes — more than once — about writing and being an author.  She’s someone I admire very much, and when my children were little, her non-fiction title Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-authored with Conor, in fact) was their favorite bedtime book.

 

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Alchemy or
Perhaps a Love Poem

For my hot dog darling

 

Not to worry, honestly
my new found dear,
transmutation is not my normal line of work
nor would I be fool enough
to think there was ever a chance
that the gray from the sea shore
stone of yourself
could ever turn to gold.

No, this spell I’m weaving,
best say I’m giving a go,
this alchemist’s chant
has nothing to do with you.
I seek a different transformation
curious if the spell might even exist,
to turn this lover of soft metal
into a seeker after stone.