Summer 2013 Writing Retreat

Deirdre's House.jpgThe Summer 2013 New Directions Writing Retreat was once again held at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich, Massachusetts. Fourteen participants and our writing instructors – Deirdre, Catherine, and Lauren Wolk – along with retreat organizer Don Chiappinelli gathered from Saturday evening July 13 through Friday evening July 19 for dailywhole group writing craft instruction followed by small group writing response and revision groups.


Prior to the retreat, Don queried participants about desired topics of writing instruction for our whole group workshop time and based on the feedback received, Deirdre and Lauren worked with us on a number of writing topics, including:

  • structure
  • voice
  • point of view
  • sensory details
  • surprise
  • character development and arc
  • revision

Deirdre and Lauren.JPGFollowing much the same work format as the Summer 2012 retreat, daily whole group sessions began with texts that exemplified some aspect of the morning’s topic. Among the wonderful works we collaboratively analyzed were passages from Richard Ford’s Canada, I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith, Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, as well as poems by Tony Hoagland, Mary Oliver, W.H. Auden, Margaret Atwood, Bob Kaufman, Joseph Fasano, and Seamus Heaney.

Elizabeth.JPGWe then tried our own hands at addressing the issue under discussion by writing in response to prompts, for example, describing a mood through the use of sensory details without ever naming the mood, or making a character understood through describing the contents of her purse. We rewrote passages to understand what would happen when we changed from first to second or third person, and attempted to create surprise by juxtaposing unexpected images.


This summer, some participants came to the Retreat with definite writing goals. Mary Cummins, for example, knew which writing she wanted to focus on when she arrived. On the usefulness of the retreat for working on this piece, Mary said, “One of the things I found most helpful was the suggestion to try to see my story from the point of view of a different character.  The exercise of re-imagining every scene from that different perspective opened up so many more emotional choices for me.” 


Others came with no definite plans for their writing but with confidence that something worthwhile would emerge. Sharon Bisco commented “This year’s New Directions Summer Retreat provided me with an unexpected opportunity to reengage with an aspect of my writing that had been blocked for many years. I came to Cape Cod not knowing exactly what I wanted to work on and ended up revising a poem I’d written at New Directions in 2008. It was the combination of remarkable teaching and guidance by Deirdre and Lauren, plus the openness, encouragement and support of the members and other faculty, that allowed me to take what was, for me, an enormous leap in my growth as a writer.”


Yet another group, the one that included me, arrived believing we would work on one project and ended up doing something quite different. My initial plan was to consult on a professional writing project, but ultimately found much more satisfaction in returning to a memoir piece I had begun the previous summer.  In what was a writing revelation to me, Deirdre worked with me to make the writing more spare, which contributed to creating the atmosphere of simultaneous cruelty and caring I was attempting to achieve.

Deirdre and Ona.JPG

Differences from last summers retreat were less about the writing aspects of the week and more about social aspects. This summer, rather than sharing housing, participants arranged their own housing, which inspired many more people to bring along family members or friends for part or all of the week. The participation of family and friends at social gatherings made for some wonderful and varied conversation. A highlight was our shared dinner at Sesuit Harbor Cafe in Dennis where we ate lobster, corn and clams on the half-shell, talking and laughing as the late afternoon sun sank into a gorgeous sunset and the local fisherman in their boats brought in the day’s catch.


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Sylvia and Anne.JPG






Another change this summer was taking Wednesday as a day off, giving us an opportunity to rest or explore the Cape. Many took advantage of this for a day at the beach, exploring art galleries or going to the spa. Elise Blair, her husband and two friends ventured by ferry to Nantucket for the day. Elizabeth Trawick joined me in exploring the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port. As afan of Gorey, the only thing that was more exciting to me than the house itself was the discovery that Deirdre and Jack were friends with Gorey and that he designed their wedding invitations not long before his death.

Swim Team.JPG

Perhaps the most anticipated aspect of me returning to the Cape was to join Don and Billie Pivnick in recreating the magic of last summer’s early morning swims across Sand Pond. This summer, the word got out about the remarkable pleasures of that morning indulgence and our group expanded to five when we were joined by Joanie Lieberman and Elise Blair. After posing for this photo, we happily dubbed ourselves the New Directions Swim Team.

Group picture.JPG

On our final day of writing together, Deirdre talked to us about the importance of a commitment to revision as one of the most important aspects of writing. Quoting John Irving, she said, “I don‘t have talent.  I have stamina.” It is not difficult to find stamina for writing as well as pleasure, humor, and hope when writing among the warm and thoughtful participants of the Summer New Directions Writing Retreat. I’m sure that I am not the only person looking forward to the 2014 retreat on the beautiful Cape.

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