Going Together: Reflections on the 2022 GoodLit Writers Retreat
My oatmeal soap is dwindling. In August, I was fortunate to attend the GoodLit Writers Retreat in Stanford, Kentucky. When I arrived in my sunlit room on the second floor of the Givens House, I found a gift box of goodies from Kentucky Soaps & Such sitting on my bed (thanks Angela Correll!). Fine soaps and lotions are not generally my thing (my wife scored the gift box), but there was one item I did enjoy: a bar of oatmeal soap.
It's hard to say what, exactly, appealed to me about it. Maybe the visible rolled oats embedded in the bar? Maybe the fact I eat oatmeal most every morning? Perhaps the heightened prospect of breakfast that comes from lathering with those beloved grains? In any case, after using the soap at the retreat, I brought the bar home with me, and I’ve continued using it since. But, just the other day, I noticed it was dwindling…
Of course, I can always buy more soap, and maybe I will, but the shrinking bar reminded me I hadn’t yet written anything about the retreat. To some extent, this was intentional: while I knew immediately the retreat was a high point, I wanted the experience to sink in a bit before committing to words what it meant. Somehow the slimming soap was a sign it was time to write.
The retreat was packed with memorable experiences, times that, in retrospect, seem part of a movie, filmed during the golden hour, set to a soundtrack soaked in joy:
Leaving Glendale, California, at 5:15 AM in a car with two strangers and arriving in Stanford at 10:00 PM with two new friends;
Dining on the back terrace of the Cerulean, patio lights strung overhead, lost in conversation with like-minded writers;
Bathing daily in a steam shower that felt like an exotic spa treatment (with oatmeal soap, of course);
Tractor-touring an organic cattle farm at sunset and eating a tasty meal on the back porch of a gracious southern farmhouse;
Visiting Wilderness Trail Distillery and tasting 140-proof “white lightening” (Moonshine, anyone? Burns all the way down!);
Listening to powerful poetry, written and read by Maurice Manning;
Absorbing sessions on writing craft with superstar novelist Bret Lott; and
Gleaning publishing tips with Becky Nesbitt, superstar acquisitions editor at Penguin-Random House.
But, if I had to say what lingers most, it’s two less obvious candidates for the highlight reel. The first was an evening around the fire pit reading to each other short pieces we’d written. The work of my talented fellow-writers inspired me, and their cheers for the piece I read were electrifying.
The second experience started out mildly negative. Before the retreat, we learned there’d be an optional mid-week workshop to discuss fifteen pages of each other’s writing. The workshop seemed like an excellent opportunity for growth, so I sent in my fifteen pages. But then, three days before the retreat, the 156-page packet of everyone else's submittals arrived by email. I didn’t have time to read it beforehand, so I ended up reading it during the “writing time” allotted to my first three days. This felt frustrating at first, since I’d hoped to use that time to write, but when the Wednesday workshop rolled around, I was glad I’d done the reading. Once again, the experience of engaging with the work of my fellow writers and receiving their feedback was incredibly rewarding.
There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If I’m honest, most of the time I want to go fast. Part of my (mild!) frustration during the retreat was that I wanted to hole up and use that rare time to push fast-forward on a writing project. In general, this didn’t happen (though I did start a new short story).
What did happen is that I bonded with a bunch of people with whom I’m now on a common writing journey. I have a writing community I didn’t have before the retreat, a cohort with whom I can exchange feedback and encouragement. As I reflect on the retreat, this result seems far more important than any writing I did or did not get done that week. I finally have a group of writers with whom I can go together. And my sense is we’ll all go farther for it.