By Julie Moir Messervy
Two of my three children always loved going to sleep-away camp each summer; in fact they treasured it so much that the other 10 months of the year were spent waiting to return to their “real” existence. Not having been much of a camper myself, I never understood how they felt until now. I just returned from a week away at “writers’ camp” and what a wonderful experience it was! During the depths of our long Vermont winter, I realized that it’s been way past time that this presenter be presented to and that I seek out the help I need to finish my most important work of all: my book on spatial archetypes. With a little research I discovered the perfect place for me: the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
St. Mary’s College, located about two hours southeast of Washington, DC, on a spit of land between the Chesapeake Bay and St. Mary’s River, is a beautiful small liberal arts school that’s been designated Maryland’s Public Honors College. Located just north of St. Mary’s City, the site of the fourth permanent settlement in British North America and Maryland’s capital for 60 years, the school’s elegant Georgian architecture is set amidst rolling hills and lagoons, and so served as the perfect backdrop for learning.
Director and fiction writer Jerry Gabriel (Drowned Boy) ably organized full days of lectures, craft talks, readings and workshops by the five faculty authors, including fiction writers Patricia Henley (Hummingbird House) and Matthew Burgess (Dogfight, A Love Story), poet Elizabeth Arnold (Effacement), children’s author and cartoonist Matthew Henry Hall (Phoebe and Chub) and author Ana Maria Spagna (Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey).
It was such a thrill to be among people who care, as much I do, about where to insert a comma or using just the right word in a phrase. One evening, Patricia Henley gave a fascinating lecture about the writing of her new memoir/diary. One of the entries she read explored the idea of the elder woman as crone, defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as a “withered old woman.” She and others have embraced the new feminist definition of crone as a wise old woman whose childbearing years are over and the third aspect of the Triple Goddess—Maiden, Mother, and Crone. No matter how it gets redefined, I can’t help but have a natural antipathy to the word. So I decided to find a word that better describes what I feel like in my early sixties as I (in my parlance) wend my way up the Mountain of wisdom towards the Sky. The next morning, it came to me: I am not a crone, hag, or harridan; I am a grandwoman. My husband is not a geezer, codger or graybeard, but a grandman! I intend to get this new word for wise elders adopted and put into use to give our cohort the most positive and respectful word for our mature and experienced status in the world.
Seven of us were lucky enough to have Ana Maria as our creative non-fiction workshop leader every afternoon. To get into the conference all participants submitted up to 10 pages of their work, so I had sent in my Island chapter. For three hours every afternoon, we’d meet to workshop one or two people’s essays or memoirs, along with the short lectures and exercises that Ana Maria would lead us through. When it was our turn, we’d start by discussing an essay that we particularly admired. I chose my intro to Contemplative Gardens in order to present a synopsis of all seven archetypes to my colleagues, along with short excerpts from Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, and Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia. Then Ana Maria would ask us what questions we needed answered about our work, returning to this list at the end of our hour to make sure each was successfully answered. In our critique of each piece, she asked us to consider the following: a) What’s to admire? b) What’s it about? c) What questions do you have for the author? d) What suggestions do you have? With the author listening quietly and taking notes, the rest of us would take turns answering each question, creating a positive and safe atmosphere for us all. At the end of the hour, the author would have a chance to ask questions and clarify issues.
Each one of my workshop colleagues offered some fascinating writing for us to work through. Three young writers 24 and under combined with four of us who were 50-plus to give our group a breadth of perspectives that we couldn’t have received any other way. Ana Maria’s structure and my colleague’s astute observations gave me a clear roadmap for all the work ahead to finish the book. I’ll be waiting to return once more next year, perhaps with a completed book in hand. Thanks to this little piece of writers’ heaven, I’m ready!