Eight hours prior to check-in for our inaugural summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat, I pressed my keycard to the front door of our facility, slipped inside, and—within moments—learned I wasn’t alone. Equally enthusiastic about the retreat was a house finch, who fluttered in after me, then disappeared down the hall.
For those of you who know me, starting my day with 40 minutes of uninterrupted time with a bird is about as good as it gets. But on this particular day—a day when I had more than a few matters to attend to—40 minutes with a bird was precisely 40 more minutes than I could spare. I gave chase, then begged that bird to reroute himself out of The Priory. When that didn’t work, I took drastic measures: lulling him into a stupor with one of my more boring lectures, then capturing him in a net and releasing him back into the wild.
Optimist that I am, I pegged that bird’s presence as an auspicious sign. Things were looking up!
But the following day, when a second bird couldn’t resist an uninvited tour of the facility, I’d had about all the “auspicious” signs I could handle.
Birds and all, our first go-round in our brand-new space was, based on the feedback I’ve received, a smashing success. Of course, like any working draft, there’s always room for improvement. And now we know exactly how to improve.
For me, the best moments were also the quietest: early mornings walking past the rec room to spot dozens of writers beginning the day’s work. They were as quiet as church mice, which seemed fitting given our location at a former monastery.
Throughout the day that silence gave way to spellbinding conversations, dozens of which occurred spontaneously as poets and prose writers gathered around their workshop tables, anxious for the chance to share and be heard.
In the evenings, we were treated to a keynote address (Max Garland!), live music (Eggplant Heroes!), and an adventure downtown (Pablo Center at the Confluence! 200 Main! The Lakely!). By Sunday morning—following a scorching day and a rainy one—we gathered in the Main Hall for the final craft talk of the retreat.
And then, just like that, the enthusiasm and life that had powered The Priory for three glorious days, suddenly faded. Ready or not, it was time to leave. Writers reached for suitcases, and after many long hugs and many exchanged email addresses, we returned to our normal lives.
I returned home exhausted and rejuvenated all at once. As I began lugging everything out of the car, I remembered the red "welcome" book I’d asked participants to write in during the opening day. “Give me a line or two about your experience here,” I’d said.
And they had.
Seated on my living room, I read the writers’ comments for much of the afternoon. Each note was a poignant reminder of why we do the work. And a reminder, too, that this work is essential.
"I have been writing for many years,” one writer remarked. “I'm a college professor...and direct the writing center on campus. However, it was not until this retreat that I find myself as a writer, not just an academic. A writer! The type of writer I wanted to be when I was ten years old but lost sight of over time..."
For me, his words were the purest explanation for why we needed this retreat. Because all writers—and all artists, I’d argue—need a place to go to find their truest selves. For the majority of our lives we live in a world in which art is viewed as a luxury. But as so many of us have long argued, art is no luxury, but an essential part of our humanity. It’s the kind of work that builds empathy, encourages dialogue, and demands serious thought that extends beyond a soundbite. Art can be entertainment, sure, but that’s only one of its functions. For the artist, art is the vehicle with which we move through the world. It is the gift we have to give, and the one that helps us find meaning, even in the mundane.
All of which brings us back to the intruding birds—which, by some measures, might be considered mundane. But not for a room full of writers, who saw that second bird and transformed him into a poem, a story, a song. By the time we waved farewell to one another, we were seeing the world a little wider than we had when we arrived. And there’s nothing more auspicious than that.
To continue this momentum, today, we humbly ask for your support. In honor of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday we’re pleased to announce our “Leaves of Grass(roots) Writers” fundraising campaign. Consider becoming a sustaining member for as little as 5.00 a month and watch your impact in action. In addition to funding our many creative endeavors, your gift also ensures the long-term viability of our program. This is the year we plant the roots that keeps our organization strong. With that stability will come new projects, as well as new opportunities to reach new audiences and new demographics.
Words are not cheap, and neither are organizations committed to words. Make today the day this Guild becomes YOUR Guild. And in doing so, help others rediscover that writer they always wanted to be.
Be inspired, inspire others,
Photo credit: Justin Patchin Photography.