DMWW Writers Retreat: Tradition Loves Company

By Matt Snyder

Writing is a lonely business. You go somewhere quiet to drown out the world so you can create whole new ones for yourself.

It is an exercise in isolation, measured more in counting words than crafting them. You reward yourself with self-doubt. Self-discipline drives your slightly dreary routine. You demand coffee or booze. You suffer lost sleep. You learn what writers already know—that these things are the fun part.

Is it any wonder you tend to be an introvert who retreat into your own daydreams until you’re exhausted? This experience—you keep telling yourself this—is something others don’t quite understand. You’re wrong.

* * *

There were a lot of roads travelled to Panora, Iowa, for this year’s Des Moines Writers Workshop retreat. Mine took me down Highway 44 on a mild November day, tearing down the road with the windows down at sunset somewhere between anxious and excited.

I lugged clanking wine bottles and snacks into the little lobby at The Port with a western view of the lake. Faces familiar and strange greeted me. Some chatted, some quietly focused on their glowing laptop screens. My sense of it was a palpable nervousness from nearly everyone.

Pizza arrived. Everyone ate. We corked that wine and poured some whiskey. Mike bought beer. Slowly, surely, words flowed. Not writing, but talking. Nervousness gave way to curiosity. In a corral of chairs, we introduced ourselves, though many knew each other already. Writer by writer, we got to know each other as we wove an absurd narrative that imagined how each of us died in a haunted horror flick of the night to come. We laughed. We even shed a tear or two over old stories. We laughed again.

I’m new to the group this year. I’ve read and critiqued about half the retreater’s writing. That’s a little like peeking into their head, a glimpse like catching someone’s reflection in a mirror. But I hadn’t heard them laugh like that. I never heard them explain why they do this lonely art. I went to bed with a warm bellyful of wine, eager for the next day.

The day came, and words flowed again—real writing this time. We typed furiously for a few hours, each a lonely writer amid some newfound friends. Discipline becomes contagious like that. No one wants to be the one staring off at the wall while the keyboards clack all around.

We came up for air—well, actually cold pizza and cookies. We celebrated the group with a special and well-deserved award for our dauntless leader, Beth. Michelle made a cake (decorated as an open book, of course). That’s the moment I knew I’d entered something special. I watched a tradition being born, and with it a kind of kinship that my introverted self welcomed in, all defenses down.

We wrote until the sun went down again, then re-opened the wine. By dinner, our introversion was in full remission. I wondered how I had labored so long and failed to find people who laughed at my cowboy lingo books and got half as excited as I do about certain translations of the Iliad. I listened to remarkable women talk about travelling the world. I laughed a hell of a lot and heard the same from others. Our ring of writers returned to the lobby and talked like half-drunk college kids into the late hours.

I spent the weekend writing the first chapter of a new book. It was also the start of something else.

* * *

You live in a universe of universes, and you hope your writing signal gets intercepted by minds out there who will love what you say. You seek approval that rarely comes. You convince yourself no one else understands this. But they do.

Beth Burgmeyer

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