For a week during the summers of 1995 and 1997, I left my husband and two sons to go to The Flight of the Mind women’s writing retreat Mackenzie Bridge, Oregon. Back then, especially the first time, this was a hard, terrible thing for me to do. First, it was hard because we were so often broke, and my leaving cost us plane fair, full tuition, some babysitting expenses, and a lot of arranging. The good news was that this retreat happened during the summer and my husband was off, and the bad news was that it happened during the summer. My husband had to take care of all the activities, the meals, the driving. In the summer, that meant three full meals to prepare—no school bag lunches or quick breakfasts. It meant swimming lessons and play dates and just all the long, hot stuff that goes on in kids’ lives during summer vacation.
I bargained, I prepared, and I bartered. I probably cried. I did all that I had to do in order to make it happen. At the time of the first retreat, I was living in a 650 square foot house with three other people, my computer on a card table in my bedroom. I was able to write only when my kids were playing or watching television. I was working five days a week at a local college, teaching five classes, participating on committees. Because my schedule was slightly more flexible than my husband’s, I was pick up and drop off person at the kids’ school; I was drive to tutor person; I was make the dinner person. I was still all those same people in 1999,but we’d moved to a bigger house. My desk was still in my room but I had more room.
But both years, I wanted so badly to go away for a week to study with writers. I needed it. The Flight of the Mind women’s writing retreat starred some amazing poets and fiction writers: Grace Paley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Naomi Shihab Nye, to name a few. The site was set in the most incrediably verdant, green swath of nature I’d ever seen. There we were, writing in nature, by a river, in the middle of green. I would be “alone” to write but also surrounded by other writers. I would be able to focus on something I was trying to focus on all the time but didn’t have enough space to do so: space in the literal and figurative senses.
We arrived by rented bus and we were,immediately in a different environment. From the moment we arrived, it was clear we were paying honor and homage to the writing process. It was important. Retreat was necessary. Retreat made a difference in our lives, our writing, our work. We needed to honor that, and we needed to focus on what other writers had to say, not just the teachers. Words were important. So were we. We had things to say.
Praise everything! I thought.
And it was at The Flight of the Mind that I met two people still in my life, two people important to my writing and my career. More importantly, these people are important to my soul. I can still see Kris standing in the Eugene Airport, her back to me, a tattoo on one tanned shoulder, her long hair flowing down her back. There is Darien, sitting at the table, even at 26 ready to organize the world. Today, they are there ready to read, to talk to comment, to share. I came home each time inspired, enthused, in love with writing.
I came home remembering that what I was trying to do—the evidence of which in the real world was only a handful of published poems and stories—was important to people out there. I realized it was and had to be important to me, too. And in the next year after that last retreat, I moved into a more dedicated writing practice, writing as though it were important and did matter, and by 1999, I had the draft of my first novel.
those two retreats, I wouldn’t have been able to jump over the broomstick into a relationship with my writing self. I would have been able to stand up from the desk and walk away, not able to remember it was something I wanted to do.
Jessica Barksdale Inclan