Thursday, November 11, 2010

Writers' Retreats and Monasteries

Sandy Longhorn has a great post about how she came to be a recent visiting poet. I admire her bravery and tomorrow, I plan to write a post about other ways we might arrange for readings and campus visits.

Today, however, I want to write about writers' retreats. Over on Facebook, a friend asked several questions about Mepkin and how I came to go there. This post answers those questions, especially the theological ones, which may not appeal to readers here. Kathleen Norris fans will want to read that post and this one.

This is the time of year when many of us find out that we didn't get accepted for NEA grants and other opportunities, like writers' retreats. I remember carefully putting together an application to go to Hedgebrook, and I was so sure that they would invite me. But then, they didn't, and I felt that crushing disappointment.

In later years, I've come to realize that there are other options besides the ones listed in Poets and Writers. The problem with the most popular writers' retreats, of course, is that everyone is applying. Perhaps we should go to some of the regional literature and/or writing conferences and use them as a chance to write in a nice hotel. Or we could create our own retreats. Most church camps let people come to stay in the off season, although prices can be as steep as a resort, and the facilities may not quite match the price.

Most people don't think about monasteries as places to stay for a do-it-yourself writer's retreat. Most people assume that you have to be Catholic or committed or a religious freak to be admitted. But that's simply not true. Most monasteries have a variety of programs, for people who want to stay a week-end to people who want to stay for life; many religious orders take a vow of hospitality, which means they welcome everyone (although they may have limited facilities, which means they fill up early). Many of them simply ask for a donation, unlike fancy retreats, which may ask you to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. You will likely to be welcome to eat meals with the residents. You will likely be invited to be part of the services, although your attendance won't be required. For possible locations, go here and here.

Some things to think about: the lodgings are likely to be simple, perhaps Spartan; you may have just a bed and a desk and you might even have to share the bathroom. You likely won't have things like televisions and radios, since many monasteries value times of long silence; you may not get cell phone reception, and wi fi is slow coming to rural areas, where many monasteries are located. The meals will likely be delicious, but vegetarian. If you're the kind of person who wants a hunk of meat with every meal, you may feel deprived. You won't have a front desk at your beck and call; monasteries presume a certain level of self-reliance.

In short, you're not going to a spa.

However, you'll get some opportunities that you wouldn't get at a spa. You can attend services, lots of them, throughout the day. Even if you're not religious, you might find them beautiful. The success of the Chant series of CDs in the 90's shows the appeal of this ancient liturgy. Some monasteries have magnificent libraries. Many monasteries are located on extensive grounds, through which you can take long walks. You might find that you're the kind of person who gets a lot done without the online distractions. It's a spa for the soul.

And if you can't get away for a chunk of time or can't afford it, don't neglect the possibility of a one day do it yourself writer's retreat in your own town. Kelli Russell Agodon has an inspiring post where she tells us how her friends did one. If you're in the mood for solitude, tell people that you're leaving town for the week-end and turn off the ringer on the phone. Get groceries at the beginning of the week-end, and then let yourself enjoy a retreat at your own house.

Some of us don't even have that option, I realize. Children, pets, significant others, and housemates have their own demands. Even so, we could carve out a smidge of time. Smidges here, smidges there, and soon it all adds up. I think it's important for humans to have some down time, both daily smidges of down time, and larger chunks, where we have time to reconnect with our deepest desires.


Kells said...

My friend did an incredible retreat at Mt Angel Abbey in Oregon. It sound inspiring. I had never considered going to hang with the monks or nuns, now it's on my list to do.

Sandy Longhorn said...

You've inspired me to look around the area for a place to create my own retreat.

As for the Hedgebrook application, you put it so well. We invest our time, energy and FAITH in those applications, and we must believe at some level that we will be chosen or the effort wouldn't be worth it. Thus the crushing disappointment that ensues when we get the thin letters of rejection. Thanks for sharing!

oh, and thanks for the shout-out