This week I’m leading la vie dure: living in a fifteenth-century French chateau surrounded by topiary, eating four-course dinners prepared by a French chef (Did I mention the three local cheeses each night?) and drinking fabulous wines.
Every year, I get to spend a week with my partner John at Chateau du Pin in the Loire Valley, teaching writers from British Columbia, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other exotic places. Some of our students are brand new writers, while others have been writing for years and have MFAs and a long list of publications.
We begin the week with conferences with each of our students to help them design the writing projects of their dreams. Some write poetry, some memoir, some fiction. In the five years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had a book about how money works; a charming children’s story about a vain French mouse with his own exercise equipment and a mirror where he can admire his muscles, a collection of poems written from the point of view of the poet’s grandmother, and an outrageous bodice-ripper set in our very own chateau, to describe a few.
Each morning, we begin with fresh croissants (always an inspiration) and coffee (definitely an necessity), plus an assortment of yogurts that make American yogurts taste like Elmer’s glue. We spend our mornings in the petit salon, sharing what each person has written the day before, and discussing what’s working and how that person’s writing can become even more effective. Afternoons are for writing, relaxing, visiting nearby wineries and touring the Cointreau distillery, a surprisingly small place from which Cointreau flows throughout the world.
At the end of this week, we’ll bid a fond adieu to the chateau, and travel to Italy by overnight train, sharing a sleeping compartment with two of our students, for what we call The Grand Tour: a week in France followed by a week in Italy. We’ll spend a night in Florence, gather up more students (including one from Singapore), and drive to our villa, where we’ll spend a similar week (fabulous breakfasts, writing projects, afternoon adventures, and four-course dinners)–only in Italian.
We also do something similar in North Carolina. I know: France, Italy…North Carolina? Trust me. It’s lovely, and has the added bonus of having a river in the backyard, and kayaks in which to explore that river. So we never feel particularly deprived.
These are our Writeaways, adventures we invented to help writers discover themselves far from the responsibilities that so often get in the way of writing. We wanted people to be able to come to irresistibly beautiful places they didn’t have to maintain, to eat fabulous food they didn’t have to cook, where we could offer them the guidance that would help them leap forward as writers.
When we started Writeaways, I thought I was doing this for other people–sort of a big, fabulous writing party that would give people a vacation to become the writers they always wanted to be. But over the past five years, I’ve discovered that these Writeaways are a gift to me, too. I teach writing year-round, to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as teachers and administrators. Though I love what I do, much of it seems to fall in the category of persuading people to do something they’ve always hated, to find that spoonful of sugar that helps the poetry go down.
But on a Writeaway, I get to teach at the highest level I know. Our workshops and one-on-one conferences force me to think about how writing works. The process of pondering my students’ challenges helps me to figure out how to make my own writing better. For these weeks, I get to stretch myself to understand the craft of writing in ways I’ve never considered before, in the company of strangers who become friends, and friends who become family.
And the fresh croissants and wine don’t hurt either.