It’s the last night of my Writeaways adventures in France and Italy, and after walking five or six miles throughout Rome, I’m ready to curl up in my armchair and rest my feet on my own footstool at home, pen in hand, and write.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder; it also makes a writer stronger. I’m returning home a better writer and teacher, more knowledgeable not only about the world, but also about how writing works. There’s something about getting away from the familiar that allows you to see everything you thought you knew more clearly – and there’s something about taking risks abroad that makes it possible to take risks in your own writing.

I saw that adventurousness in each of the writers who joined us at Chateau du Pin for our Writeaway in France, and at Villa Cini for our Writeaway in Italy. Some arrived with no idea of what they’d write about. Others found themselves on unfamiliar journeys through places and experiences they’d thought they knew well.

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A Texas writer put away 20 chapters of a murder mystery he’d written to start again from a different angle. A writer from Florida discovered a depth of feeling in her writing that she didn’t know she had, a depth that fueled the delightful characters she’d created over the past year, and gave balance not only to her writing but to the way she saw herself. A writer from Singapore wrote a complete short story – her first since graduating college – and stayed up until 1 a.m. on our last night in Italy, submitting her story to some of the most respected literary journals around. Another, from Victoria, British Columbia, invented an older brother and created for him such a vivid picture of a family that I kept expecting to hear their dog scratching at the door of our villa to come inside (along with the cat who lived there, who seemed mysteriously able to enter the villa through locked doors and closed windows).

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A Pennsylvania writer in France found herself recalling previously unreachable memories about her family as she worked on her memoir. A returning writer from Texas used writing and revision of a long poem to deal with a deep and longstanding pain—weaving imagery with a new understanding. A North Carolina writer finished the children’s book about Manfred (a very vain and valiant mouse) that she’d begun five years previously at her first Writeaway while another North Carolina writer began a children’s book about a cloud named Miranda and her friend Sirocco the osprey, a book which deftly wove scientific facts with fiction to make weather concepts accessible to children and the parents who might someday read her book.

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Our workshops each day were astonishing journeys, too. All the writers, both in France and in Italy, were able to help each other’s writing be—as we often say—“what it wants to be when it grows up.” We talked about imagery and plot, about “speed bumps” that wake the reader from “the fictional dream” described by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction, and about crafting characters and ideas that would remain with readers long after they finished reading. After each workshop, our writers delved again into their work, discovering anew what they wanted to say in this journey not only to the countries of our chateau and villa but to the countries created in their imaginations, each with its own customs and language.

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And me, I wrote too, and revised, not my usual practice when we hold our Writeaways. But I had a book of poetry to complete, and a deadline by which it needed to be finished. I found myself looking at my own poems, some written several years ago, to see what they “wanted to be when they grew up.”

The distance from home allowed me to become closer to my own writing, as it does. This is something I wish for all writers, the chance to leave the home where you live to discover the home you create.

Photographs by John Yewell, Gayle Goh and Jean O’Neill, with permission by the photographers.