Write Before Waking | Reflections from a Maine Writing Retreat

Hermit Thrush Writing Inspiration

You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world.

Sarah Orne Jewett

On the day after my summer MFA residency, I woke to a saturated state. The air was listless and clammy, and the once-crisp bed sheets had wilted from the humidity and eight nights of restless sleep. I was ready to go home, my bags packed next to the door, but there was one thing that had to do. I heard Susan’s voice in my head. “Get up and write.”

I was in Maine to attend the Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts program for Creative Writing. Susan is Susan Conley, author, Stonecoast faculty, and leader of the writing workshop I’d just completed.

“I’m too much in my head,” I’d moped during writing prompts. Her advice was to break my routines, to write upon waking before exposing my mind to the world, or the dog that needs walking, cats that need feeding, social media screaming, and, worst of all, the news of the day. Coffee could be the only exception.

I took a careful sip from the still too-hot brew and found my glasses and journal on the table by the window. Mackerel Cove was invisible as it waited for the sun to burn away the thick morning fog. My body, too, was still in that half-awake space. I rubbed the grains of sleeping seeds from the corner of my eyes and picked up my pen.

Perched on the edge of a delicate, vintage caned chair, I waited for my thoughts to take flight like the squealing and chippering gulls over the cove. It was barely six a.m. and, for a few moments, I got lost in an orchestra of bird sounds, unable to discern any of their calls. What kind of birds? How many? Are they native or just passing through? I wanted to know their names and to exclaim, “Oh, the Hermit Thrush!” with great ornithological confidence. But I’ve never spent the time to learn about birds.

“What are you passionate about besides writing?” Susan had asked us in workshop a few days earlier. I struggled to answer. Passion is a strong word. I have many interests, but do any rise to that level? To be so curious and excited about a thing that you take the time to learn it, that you risk being not good enough, smart enough, young enough to try it—so passionate that you aren’t afraid to fail at it. Besides writing, I want to know how to take great photographs, play the guitar, knit, garden, and yes, to name birds.  I had come to Maine to learn how to write. My pen hadn’t moved.

It’s always been a little fantasy of mine to have a writer’s cottage by the ocean. Despite this summer’s necessary virtual reality of online learning, I went to Maine anyway—to be by myself, to find the writing. In Midcoast Maine, I felt the energy of E.B. White, Robert McCloskey, and Sarah Orne Jewett in every coastal farm, swift ocean channel, or stand of tall pines on a rocky shore.

The previous night’s downpour dripped from the roof on to the metal café table outside, percussing a rhythm track for the avian woodwinds. Deluges of much-needed rain had left puddles on the lawn, and the grass was remembering it wanted to grow. The weeks-long dry spell, where seeds couldn’t sprout, and weeds went ignored because, well, at least they’re green, has ended, but now, there was too much to absorb. My mind was also saturated, ideas spilling over from the week of writing, learning, listening, and connecting to language and to writers who I imagined know all the birds and how to translate bird sounds.

The week of MFA residency was intense. We wrote hard things and read them out loud, trusting our cohort to hear only the way in which we strung the words together—to judge nothing but the writing. Was there scene and tension and heat and thisness? It wasn’t what we revealed about ourselves, or our thinly veiled characters, but whether we were willing to reveal anything at all—enough to have made the reader care.

“What is one essential truth about you?” Susan prompted. “Take three minutes to write about that.” I glanced at the six faces on my laptop screen, minds flittering via Zoom video conference, and turned off my camera to think. I saw nothing but fog. I couldn’t find a way to respond that would be all at once writerly, authentic, inspiring, admirable, and heartfelt. In other words, despite the assurance that there was no “wrong way to answer this question,” I was afraid to take a risk.

Writing is art and craft and magic. One reader might ooh and ahh while another says, “I am not interested in your narrator.” My eight-day MFA residency was a welcome torrent. Think “in medias res;” drop us into the middle of a scene. Hook us from the start. Show us your world. Trust the reader. Slow down. I had to remind myself that I was learning—that I will always be learning—and that learning requires patience and vulnerability and forgiveness. I had to get over the idea that I was an old woman who couldn’t learn new tricks.

Every writer has these doubts, I am assured. Yet they sit down to the page and write every single day.  E. B. White calls writing “an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”

On the last morning in my writer’s cottage in Maine, I watched as low clouds moved closer to the shore and obscured my view—my eyes were still heavy and threatening to do the same. I took another drink from the coffee cup, and before the caffeine kicked in, I began scratching letters on the page. I identified words, strung them together, and urged the sun to burn away the fog while leaving the birds to wake up the world.

2 responses to “Write Before Waking | Reflections from a Maine Writing Retreat”

  1. Love it Cathy. I can visualize it all.


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