How a weekend in the woods changed my life

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” – C.S. Lewis


It was a dark and stormy night. Or perhaps I should say “morning” that turned into a gray and drizzly day.  That was the night/morning that my husband and I crawled out of bed at 3:00 a.m., loaded our luggage into the Land Rover, drove to the airport to get on a commuter plane to switch at another airport to fly half a country away to then drive an hour and a half further to get to the middle of nowhere in the piny woods of Texas. 

Not being a morning person or much of one for travel, the entire relentless time in transport from Maine to Houston, I was thinking, “This better be worth it.”

It was.  The C.S. Lewis Southwest Regional Retreat & Writers Workshop at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas (October 27 to 30, 2011) was the beginning of something remarkable in my life: friendship.  

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”  – C.S. Lewis

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have many dear, close friends who have been “knit to my soul” through years of shared joy, pain, and sheer hilarity.  What is remarkable about the friendships forged through this past week is what is remarkable about all friendship – that moment of recognition, of “You too?” 

What makes the CSL workshop so worthy of remark is the sheer pace and rapidity of those “You too” moments.  I suppose it was to be expected.  The conference drew folks who were there for their love of Jack Lewis and gang (Tolkien, Barfield, other Inklings), and writers who wanted to develop their craft.  How could I not find kindred spirits among such a crowd?

Friendship is always worth a grueling trip.

“You can make anything by writing.” – C.S. Lewis

I am still a bit too close to this event to tell you what it looked like.  It’s sort of like that old fable of five blindfolded people asked to describe an elephant by touch, and they come up with five very different animals.  Sort of like that, but not really.  I can tell you a few specific things I walked away with, ways my life will change as a result.  And that is not nothing.

MiniWriMo. Five hundred words a day for the next thirty days. That is what I have committed to, with accountability, feedback, and support from two other like-minded friends I found lurking among the Texas pines.  It is my version of the vaunted NaNoWriMo(National Novel Writing Month in which writers from around the globe attempt to pour out 50,000 words each toward a draft novel), but I am not going to write a novel and I’m not going to aim for 50,000 words.  Always doing it my way.  I want to use this focused energy and accountability over the next thirty days to flesh out my vision, mission, goals, and values that make up All Nine, my consulting business.

I have sculptor/author/speaker Bridgette Mongeon to thank for this gem.  I attended her session on “Getting Past the Voices in My Head” with expectations of a nice pep talk and walked away with this very practical challenge.  

The whole conference was like that; expecting one thing, getting something altogether different, much more necessary, and terribly practical.

Servant Authorship.  Several speakers spoke on the importance of writing for your reader, but nobody provided a more clear, consistent, and (again) practical message on the matter than Thomas Umstattd, Jr.  Umstattd, owner of Umstattd Media and author of Author Tech Tips, provided a clarion call to view your writing platform as a servant leadership role.  More importantly, he showed how to do this by example.  Over the next month, I intend to reread all my notes from his sessions, imbibe everything he has written on website and e-newsletter design, and do everything he says.  Watch for changes to the All Nine web presence!

Spontaneous bursts of creativity.   One of my favorite moments of the workshop/retreat was the “Villanelle Throw Down” at Bag End (the informal fellowship and sharing of artistic gifts at the end of each night, hosted by Andrew Lazo) on Saturday night.  Earlier in the day, I was chatting with my friend Dr. Holly Ordway about how writing is both a communal and a solitary act, how all writers are responding, reacting, and building upon other writers both past and present.  We talked about how John Keats and Leigh Hunt, two English poets of the Romantic era, would set up little competitions between the two of them for fun. And then it was, “Hey, we can do that! Let’s each write a villanelle and read it at Bag End!” 

And so it was on, and that is what we did between sessions throughout the day, in spite of the fact that I have not rhymed in years (my main focus as a poet lately has been haiku) and Holly has been steeped in sonnets.   The funniest memory is catching us both simultaneously counting our iambic pentameter on our fingers as we were attempting to meet the challenge.

We stood together that night, Holly and I, and as we each read our offerings, I was filled with deep joy.  It was truly a splendid moment of realized spontaneity, and indeed, we both won that throw down.  I intend to throw down more challenges in the not too distant future to unsuspecting friends, for the sheer pleasure of creative spontaneity.

If I had to sum up the whole experience, I would say that I was reminded that anything that matters in life – like friendship, service, leadership, and really solid writing – is worth a bit of trouble, even getting up in the middle of a dark and stormy night.

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