By Susan Odgers, Local columnist
---- — I went to summer camp this year.
I lived in an accessible cabin on the campus of Interlochen Center for the Arts and attended the adult writers retreat.
I left behind most of the distractions of home and work. I simplified my exterior life so I could focus on my interior world.
Just because I wanted to go, didn't make it any less scary.
The night before the first class, I couldn't sleep. Excitement as well as panic fueled my entire body. What if I wasn't a good enough writer? Could I manage the schedule? What would the physical access be like? Would the environment be highly competitive? Was the effort and expense worth it? Might I long too much for my husband and home? What if I emerged from the experience with the tools to write my first book? Then what?
Each morning, I prepared my basic breakfast in my cabin and headed across campus to class. I selected the memoir genre from the four possible areas of study. My memoir classmates and I began each day by learning from our teacher and writing for several hours. Then we went to lunch which was followed by more class and writing.
In our late afternoon session, we had the opportunity to learn from one of the other genre teachers. By then it was our dinner break and the chance to write on our own. In the evenings, one of the six or so teachers read from their work. After that, there was time for more writing alone. Sometimes there were arranged social gatherings. Then the day was done and it was time to sleep.
On many mornings, I awoke to the sounds of the advanced music students practicing scales on their wind instruments right outside my window screen. In the evenings, I went to sleep listening to theater students lying in their hammocks rehearsing lines from "A Midsummer's Night's Dream." Sometimes instead of using the free writing time to write, I went to student and faculty free concerts. I felt nourished and immersed in all things beautiful and artistic"¦including the natural environment.
As each day passed, I overheard my classmates describe very similar fears to my own. Each was at ICA for their own reasons and many had to work really hard to leave the responsibilities of their other life behind. Whatever specifics each of us needed and wanted to write about was tied to our universal experience of being human.
Attendees came from all over the country and stayed in all sorts of accommodations"¦including a state campground teepee. Many of the participants were older adults who needed and benefited from universal access.
Overall, ICA was mostly barrier-free. And when and where it wasn't, those in charge were pretty open to suggestions.
As a generative writers retreat, one of our key tasks was to create two new pieces by the end of the retreat. One of the pieces we were to read and have critiqued in our genre classroom. The other piece was to be read before the entire group without formal critique.
The night before the two pieces were due, I was up working until almost sunrise. In my frustration, I emailed a writer friend living abroad. I told her I wasn't sure I could finish the pieces. Nothing was working. I was trying to write about a major and minor transformative life moment and I could feel myself holding back out of fear. I was anxious to share face-to-face so much of myself with strangers.
My friend basically told me to "snap out of it and finish. I could do this. I did it all the time in my column. I must do this. Everyone was afraid. I needed to hang in there."
In the end, weary beyond belief, I delivered both pieces. I was even proud of them. I also made a few new friends. In addition, I helped make ICA more accessible. I built my writing skills and received all of the affirmation I needed to keep writing.
The writers retreat gave me a place to get really quiet within myself and listen deeply for what came forth. Sometimes what came to the surface erupted with the force of a flood. I remembered and thought about things I hadn't considered for a long time. I was surprised and heartened by what emerged.
I didn't compete with others, I challenged myself.
I now know, beyond any doubts, that I want a bigger writing life.
As we approach Labor Day, many people will ask "how was your summer?" Few ever ask us about our lives specific to the other seasons"¦no one says, "How was your spring?" There's an expectation for our summer"¦. that summer will awe us with its promise.
I hope yours did as well.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.