The Moment of Truth: Eleven Authors Share Stories of Life-Changing Retreats

Kevin Larimer

Shaken-Baby Syndrome

I walked into my second year at the Voices workshop in 2010 feeling really full of myself. I’d had a superproductive year that included finishing a novel and cowriting a book for social activists. My arrogance was only encouraged by being accepted into Chris Abani’s advanced fiction workshop. On the first day Chris silenced the class effortlessly with a glance. His thick-fingered hands folded on a stack of papers, he asked, “Why do you write?” I shot my hand up. “It’s the air that I breathe.” Chris smirked. “Yeah, that’s that flowery shit you’ve been told. It doesn’t answer the question.” “Why do you write, Vanessa?” Chris continued. “You could have done anything else—paint, take pictures, whatever—but you chose to write. Why?” I stammered. None of my answers were enough. He kept pushing. I felt like a serial killer being interrogated by the FBI. Finally, in a cracked voice, I blurted, “Because on the page I could be myself. I could shut out those voices that said I was too much, that girls shouldn’t act like that.” Chris softened. “So you write to take back your power.” When he dismissed us, I ran to my room. All that confidence I’d come to with was smashed. I write to take back my power? What the fuck does that mean? I didn’t resurface until late evening, when my hunger pangs were unbearable. The next day, brooding over my morning pages, I realized Chris’s motives: I had to remember why I started writing to understand why I kept writing. He needed us to see that writers write from the same place—a wound. I walked up to him when I entered the classroom. “You messed me up yesterday.” He smiled. “Seriously, I was rattled, like I had shaken-baby syndrome.” We stared at each other as that image set in, then we both burst out laughing.“Thank you, Chris,” I said. I’ve been back to VONA every year since.

Vanessa Mártir is a New York City–based writer and educator who is completing a memoir-in-essays titled “Relentless.”


Ghost Story

Two summers ago I did a residency at the Studios of Key West. An article in the local paper described the residency as a chance to “live in paradise.” Until the haunting started, it was exactly that.On my third night I was awoken by footsteps outside my window, strange movements in the bushes, shrill cries. The sound of someone walking the gravel path that hugged my cottage. Every night the noises continued. Once they were so violently loud, I hid in the shower until dawn. I had come to Key West to confront my novel. I had not expected to confront a ghost. The haunting lasted for two weeks. I stopped sleeping. I started swimming in the ocean because it was the only thing that kept me awake. One morning I came up for air knowing what I had to do with my book. Back at my desk, I deleted the last hundred and fifty pages. I saved nothing. I started over and felt as though a great weight had been lifted. Halfway through the residency the matter of the ghost was settled. Other residents had been plagued by the night noises; a casting-out ceremony was held—and it worked! But for those two weeks, a ghost was just what I needed. I spent those nights full of fear and, in the light of day, I couldn’t stand to be afraid of my book any longer.

Laura van den Berg is the author of a novel, Find Me, (FSG, 2015), and the story collections The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009).


Magical Meetings

In 1988 I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time, astonished and a little intimidated to find myself in such ambitious and gifted company. The list of fellow fellows was a mini Who’s Who in that moment, but the transformative encounter, the meeting that changed everything for me, was the meeting with Carole Maso. I don’t recall how we actually met, whether it was at dinner or someone’s event, but Carole likes to remind me that she said we’d be best friends—and that I looked back at her blankly, as if to say I doubted it. As it turned out, we were both headed overseas for further art-colony time (at the Joseph Károlyi Foundation, in Venice). We became close and, as she had been thinking about experimental literature and feminism longer, harder, and much more effectively than I, I had the chance to learn from her about writing, teaching, and life. But it was in that first winter (I think it may have been February) that I read her book Ghost Dance and then, in manuscript form, her brilliant hybrid novel The Art Lover. The first book floored me and the latter changed—as it did for so many others—my understanding of the way forward for American literature: In The Art Lover, genre restrictions dissolved before the great power of language as exquisite as it was bold. I would never have dared write my book The Tales of Horror, to begin the great adventure of writing not toward given expectations but as a way of finding out what can happen, without her example and friendship.

In 2003 I went to MacDowell for the last time. It was a bit of an emergency: I had a book that needed finishing (and a relationship that probably needed finishing too—but that’s another story), and I snuck in a couple of weeks in January. By great good fortune, I happened to overlap with the composer Jason Eckardt. Again, I’m not sure exactly how it happened: that mysterious shift from pretend acceptance (anyone not superfamous usually exhibits a vague general friendliness at meals) to real recognition and trust. For Jason a key moment came, I later learned, when he, having worn out his interest in the CDs he’d brought to MacDowell, asked if anyone had anything they could loan him, and I just happened to have the complete Xenakis chamber music (tucked in there with Hole and Modest Mouse). I think we’d already established a certain level of understanding—we shared a desire to talk seriously about life and art—but that opened the door to an exchange of work, leading to me reeling around in the icy bare trees at dusk with Jason’s “After Serra” pouring through my headphones, the strict geometry and passion of his compositions seeming like the audible manifestation of the stripped-down landscape, or the combination filling me with a kind of holy euphoria. And then Jason saw the manuscript that would become my book Subject before anyone else—and set the final poem as a song cycle, which premiered at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre and then at the Musica Nova festival in Finland.

Laura Mullen is the McElveen Professor in English and the director of creative writing at Louisiana State University. Her most recent book is Enduring Freedom (Otis/Seismicity, 2012); a new collection, Complicated Grief, is forthcoming from Solid Objects Press.


The Mimes of Bogotá

The Mayo Clinic Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, was full of artists. In a hospital conference room, Jack Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Forecast Public Art, told us about the mimes of Bogotá. A former mayor of the Colombian capital, Antanas Mockus, made art public policy when he hired roughly four hundred mimes to replace police at traffic intersections to parody people who did not obey traffic rules. Within a year, performance artists had reduced traffic fatalities. The idea was compelling: art integrated into the wellness of the city.

I’d come to the Mayo Clinic Arts in Healthcare Symposium to present a paper on ways to use creative writing in a medical setting. I plan creative writing classes that take place in hospitals; medical professionals often ask me what impact narrative programs have on a patient’s health. I tell them that creative writing can enliven patients and create opportunities for catharsis and empathy.

Jack Becker’s anecdote about the mimes of Bogotá called to mind a deeper truth I hold about narrative: that stories permit one to imaginatively leave the hospital. I know this from experience. When I was seventeen I was hospitalized with a collapsed lung. The diagnosis was spontaneous pneumothorax: One day, I simply couldn’t breathe. In the hospital, I had a tube in my chest the size of a large drinking straw. On my last day there, a mime walked into my room. His face was painted white and black, his lips a cherry red, and when I saw him standing in the doorway, I was suddenly reminded that I was a patient. Until that point I had been reading, absorbed in a book. In my hospital bed, stories had comforted me. Reading had granted me an escape from the boundaries of the walls that surrounded me. I hadn’t recalled that moment for years. Becker’s talk at the Mayo Clinic Arts in Healthcare Symposium gave me a much-needed reminder of the importance of writing and literature.

Kathryn Savage works at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and has received scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center.


Match Made in Paradise

Thisbe Nissen and I met at the 2006 Writers in Paradise conference in Florida. Thisbe taught a short-fiction workshop; I drove the faculty van, which I managed to get stolen. When the van was found—a campus custodian had commandeered it—I used it to woo Thisbe, who was approachable but, I eventually learned, not wooable.

The conference ended. We went our separate ways. We corresponded and swapped writing. We visited. A working friendship turned whirlwind courtship. As the 2007 Writers in Paradise conference approached, we talked marriage—not if but when, how, and why. Thisbe suggested to the organizers, Sterling Watson and Dennis Lehane, that she and I teach her class together. I would once again drive the faculty van (Sterling implored me to keep better tabs on it this time) as well as introduce Thisbe’s faculty reading. I felt obliged and obliterated—here was my chance.

On the day of the reading, I was a mess. My mom was going to be there! I drafted a marriage proposal, but the last thing I wanted was a public display. My idea of living hell is being the center of attention. But Thisbe, while a successful fiction writer, is first and foremost a failed showgirl. Her first love is musical revue. She adores a good show and even appreciates a bad show. I drove a van full of rowdy novelists and poets to the reading, having a hard time remembering my name—let alone the way to the auditorium. I reminded myself that my passengers—a lot of them repeats, a number of them couples—were pulling for Thisbe and me. Master writers, they recognized before we did what a good love story we’d make. Beth Ann Fennelly leaned over my shoulder. Her husband, Tom Franklin, would read first that night. Ribbing me, she said, “I’m reading a love poem to Tommy for my introduction, Jay. How’re you gonna top that?”

I steered and shrugged. I sweated. My proposal smoldered in my pocket. Blanking my way through Tom’s reading, I found myself onstage. Behind the podium. Groping in my pocket. There, I fingered my notes. Also, the little plastic ring I’d won, in secret, from a gumball machine at a Florida dive of a diner, Skyway Jack’s, where Thisbe and I ate brunch and ogled the sexagenarian waitresses subjected to the indignity of their T-shirts: a pair of sunny-side-up eggs emblazoned high above their low bosoms.

Gathering myself, I glanced at the audience: a hundred or so faces. Sterling nodded. My mom beamed. I faltered. No one but me knew what I had planned—I could still back out.

“After Thisbe’s reading,” I said, plowing ahead, “there will be a Q&A. But while I have the microphone, I’d like to ask my question before someone beats me to it.” I turned to where she waited. “Thisbe Nissen,” I asked, “will you marry me?”

I took a knee beside the podium, shut my eyes, and offered up the kitschy ring.

The crowd, myself included, waited. Thisbe, her cowboy boots striking hardwood, bounded onstage. She kissed me and claimed her ridiculous ring. Leaning into the microphone, pausing a moment, she said, “Yes.”

We wept. A hundred people—Sterling, my mom—hugged and applauded. We took our seats and sat rapt—the show must go on!—as Thisbe launched us, with gusto, into her reading and our lives together.

Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of the poetry collection Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012).


Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.