The why and why not

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There’s a reason you searched “writing retreats” or clicked on something that led you here. Something that said Italy or Morocco or Mexico or Maine and yoga and wine and yes, okay, writing. Maybe it’s a bit of escapism — you’re sitting in your cubicle or at your kitchen table, wondering trying not to think of the dozens of “to do” list items you have that day and that evening and tomorrow and the day after that. Maybe the idea of scribbling in a journal overlooking the fields of Tuscan grapevines sounds like a great idea for a daydream. Maybe it’s crossed your mind that you’d love to be a writer but it’s too hard or it takes too much time or someone else must be way better than you. Maybe you don’t speak the language of whatever country you’re dreaming about and couldn’t imagine trying to navigate such a sea change.

Maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Something happens on our retreats. Not to everyone and not every time but frequently enough that we know we have something special going on. We’ve conjured the right combination of distance, time and beauty, and we call to the people who are ready to take a big step of faith into possibility, of believing that their light and passion exist somewhere inside even if they can’t quite feel it right then. We become each other’s magic.

We wanted this to be a different kind of retreat — there are places that offer in-depth critiques and there is a place for that. But we just want you to write, and to write without the pressure of it being “good.” We offer encouragement, positivity, and the cameraderie of creation. It can be a beginning point for a new piece of writing, a new direction for a current project, or just that — a beginning point, period. We write, yes, but we take the time to just be. Usually with yoga and probably wine and definitely good food and sometimes horses and other fun stuff.

We have space for you in Mexico, Maine, and oh, yes, we can still make room for you in Morocco. Come unlock your magic with us.

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Writing Prompts and Writing Retreats

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What’s the deal?

Why is it that we say we love to write, we want to write, we NEED to write and then, we don’t even sit down to do this thing that we love and want and NEED.

Or we sit down to do it, the writing that we love and want and NEED, and we don’t know where to start?

I have many ideas of what I want to write about, stories that have nagged at me for as long as I remember. Stories about shoes by the side of the road. Stories about the woman who lived in a tree.  Stories of the places that dead people go. And I’ve started many of them…

And then I don’t finish them.

We are just about the funniest things I know, us writers. Us people.

I’m not saying that all writers are like that. In fact, there are some writers that just hole up and forget to eat or smoke or straighten up their pen pots. I’m not one of them and I don’t hang out with them but I know they exist. I’ve read about them while I’m eating and smoking and fiddling around with my pen pot, trying to find the stream of inspiration to jump in.

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So I think the biggest reason that I created writing retreats is because I need help with writing. And it turns out that I am not alone – I’ve never gone to a writing retreat (either one that I created or one that someone else did) and been the only one there. And I’ve not been the only one who needed help holding still, help getting started, and help finishing.

Sometimes I like to be different. But when I am feeling insecure about something I want to do, feeling as though I am one of a glorious bunch of creative is like a divine boost.

Thank you to those who joined me in Tuscany.

I am so grateful for your help.

(Get) Made in Marrakech

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I don’t consider myself one of those people who falls fast in love with a place. Usually, I detest everywhere I go. So when I booked a week at an Airbnb in Marrakech with my husband and stepson this past February, I figured I’d mostly be in for a surprise. If anything, maybe I’d find it curiously fascinating. Educational. Cultural. Or maybe just a good, old-fashioned family challenge. You know, the kind of trip that goes down in a family’s history.  

We were not disappointed.            

I’ve been wanting to go to Morocco since I was eighteen and studying abroad in Spain. Back then it was (and probably still is) off limits and ill-advised for women traveling alone. It was a repeated refrain, set on surround-sound I’d heard from my parents, teachers and fellow study abroad peers: Whatever you do, don’t go to Africa.  

I wish I hadn’t listened. Morocco is like that old, new pal I wish I’d known sooner. I don’t know how I’ve lived this long without knowing the place. Something inside me was set free the moment I stepped off the plane, arriving into Marrakech’s Menara Airport. The plane pulled up and parked on the tarmac in front of the fancy, modern airport like no big deal. Without much delay, the passengers deplaned like capable adults instead of being treated like over-protected sheep, shuffled and herded onto a bus only to go three feet to the terminal.  It was unlike anywhere I'd ever been: We simply got off the plane and walked towards the airport -- no barriers, no orange cones, no bus, no people directing us where to go. No hullabaloo health and safety regulations, Hallelujah. Stepping foot into the warm February night was liberating. It’s what I envision travel used to be in the old days. Glamorous. (Maybe even fun?) I was flooded with relief that freedom without the anxiety of so-called ‘safety’ might actually still thrive in the world.

First moments in a new country are so trustworthy. If I think of all the first moments I’ve ever had arriving somewhere new and foreign -- they provide the perfect preview of a place. In Spain, it was gawking men and cigarette smoke. In New Zealand, a blast of greens and blues and birdsong. In Belize, thick, slow heat. In Egypt, windswept and wonderfully lunar. Marrakech was no different. It twinkled in a wide open, intoxicating abundance.

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Weaving in and out of Marrakech’s souks in the medina will teach you everything you need to know about life. In about five minutes. Who to trust, who not to trust, how to keep your wits about you, how to be lost, how to get found, how to haggle (and realize later you’ve lost), how to haggle (and realize later you have the hang of it), how easy it is to get ripped off, how hard it is to say no when you want something and how not to get hit by a donkey while a motorcycle whizzes past. If you don’t know a whole lot about life, the world or yourself, you’ll soon find out. All at once.

Incredibly full of flavor and people, scents and surprises, Marrakech is a warm, standing invitation, one that has been waiting patiently for you to say yes. And when you say yes, you enter into a contract, a covenant: here you are expected to fully embrace your part in the game of discovery. And if you are willing to be curious, to poke your head around walled entrances, to put your faith in strange, unsettling situations, Marrakech unveils herself to you unabashedly. Marrakech is a dazzling teacher, bringing out the wild, beautiful parts of yourself you hadn’t known you were made of.

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Come along with us November 4th - 10th for seven days of writing, yoga and filling our creative wells with the delights of the enchanting city of Marrakech.  The morning begins with rooftop yoga for all levels, followed by a locally-sourced breakfast. The days will balance writing sessions with opportunities for guided feedback while soaking in all that the city has to offer.  Evenings will be spent gathered together over a shared candlelit deliciously made meal, stargazing from the rooftop, or reading by the fireplace. Together, we will build a community where, regardless of your writing background, you will have the freedom to explore the story you need to tell.        



 

       

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Camp Cushy

 Camp Cushy by Watershed 2017 by Bart Vermeulen

Camp Cushy by Watershed 2017 by Bart Vermeulen

You just never know what’s going to conjure from seemingly small things, do you.

Some years ago—okay, around 25 or so to be truthful, I met a young woman, a friend of my daughter’s, a young wild child that while I was very taken with her independent spirit, I did not want my daughter to hang with her unsupervised.

You get what I’m saying here.

I got to know her better over the next few years, came to understand more about how she came to be such a whirling dervish of a girl, and I even got to be part of encouraging her to go to college, to Goddard College to be specific, a school I had wanted to go to back when I was a whirling dervish about to graduate from high school.

We stayed in touch, more some times than others. She moved to Europe, finally settling in The Netherlands. I stayed here in Maine. I wrote her that I was finally going to Goddard myself for an MFA. She started an organization, Watershed, in Eindhoven to promote literature in all its forms. I started a company, Wide Open Writing, in the U.S. to nurture creative expression through writing, yoga and travel.

She had a child. I had a motorcycle accident.

She wrote me to say how awful and to ask if, when I recovered would I be interested in coming to Eindhoven to teach in her Watershed summer workshop, Camp Cushy. I could not imagine recovering, really, but I said yes as much out of hope and habit as anything.

Juliet and I are now in our second year of Camp Cushy. I don’t believe that either of us could have imagined this and I continue to marvel at the mysterious and circuitous routes by which we came here. This podcast is part of a Watershed project called Radio Slik.

I still don’t know where all this goes. I don’t know why I didn’t die in my accident anymore than I know why she wasn’t destroyed in the years when her life was a fucking nightmare.  I just know that now we work together bringing Camp Cushy forward, both getting to watch the unfolding.

Stay tuned, Dulcie. Stay tuned, Juliet, the conjurer says. There’s more to come.  

 Camp Cushy by Watershed 2017 by Bart Vermeulen

Camp Cushy by Watershed 2017 by Bart Vermeulen

WOW Wallooning

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It started as most things seem to do for us, a “hey, why don’t you…?” invitation that led to a “could we…?” and we found ourselves together again at the Walloon Lake, Michigan home of our good friend, author Robin Gaines. We intended it as a summit of sorts, a planning and strategy session, and we did some of that. But it went as it goes when we get together, an alchemy that churns and spins our souls into some kind of special collective gold. It sparkled in the sun and rain. We came together from faraway, through time zones, air and water, each of us carrying the bumps and twists of rocky pathways, knitting our distinctive selves. We share and reconnect. We conjure and we are just simply there together and somehow we see more clearly.

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While we were there, we visited the nearby Sweetwater Lavender Farm owned by another good friend (and Robin’s daughter) Kalin Sheick & her husband Matt. We pinched lavender between our fingers, the scent of hard work and passion and a little bit of luck. Setbacks happen, like the April snowstorm that wiped out a painful percentage of their lavender crop this year. They kept going. They continue to shape their farm into the vision they have for it. Meanwhile, there are flowers and weddings and daily living to be done.

Each of us – of you – work through our own snowstorms, metaphoric or not. They come. The weather changes, the pressure drops or intensifies, lightning strikes. We try to manage our daily lives while buried under three feet of snow. It’s never easy. Sometimes we pick up a shovel and get to work right away and other times we watch the light dancing on the crystals and wait. Sometimes we put pen to paper. Sometimes we open a bottle of wine and have a dance party.

We’re so grateful to Robin and Kalin for hosting us and giving us this time to breathe and see the light and magic of the lake and ourselves. We continue to shape our organization into what we envision, building our retreats and travels and offerings, and we look forward to having you become part of our beautiful, intricate tapestry.

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Resist Through Writing

Dear Wide Open Writers,

While on the beach today a gust of wind lifted one of those gigantic pink flamingo floats up into the air and deposited it on the water's surface, just beyond reach. The entire beach stopped to watch the big pink bird twirl like a ballerina, dancing quickly across the makeshift water stage before us. The flamingo glided quickly across the surface; complicit and maybe even gleeful in the escape.  

Among the people watching, there was a collective and felt moment of, "Now what?"  

I was further along on the beach, down wind. Hating the thought of more plastic in the sea, I calculated my chances of recovering the float. If I acted right then, making my way quickly across the rocks stones and pebbles to charge my way into the cold English Channel, I probably could have caught it and returned it to the squealing child. I envisioned myself doing just that but didn't move an inch. Instead, I watched as a woman photographed the float, seemingly entertained. There I was, distraught, paralyzed about what to do, while she was accepting there was nothing that could be done. Maybe she figured she'd at least get a good Instagram shot out of it. 

By the time I completed my thoughts, the float was too far gone to be recovered. It cartwheeled into the distance. I watched it long after everyone else had gone back to their regularly scheduled beach life. As it grew smaller, I felt a slight sense of guilt and regret. I wished I had acted when I'd had the chance. Instead, all I could do was watch it until it became a tiny pink speck on the horizon before it finally vanished.    

This scene feels like a metaphor suited for so many things, especially right now with mayhem and mistrust going on in the world. We’ve heard this, by now, ad nauseum and it's true: as writers and artists, more than ever, we must seize the moment and take action while we have the chance. It is in creating that we do our part, in writing that we contribute.  

I will admit that it has been difficult to find the energy to carry on writing when everything feels like it's tumbling farther and farther into a distance beyond reach. I will admit that I haven't felt much at all like writing and so, well, I will admit, I haven't. Not much. But feeling that guilt and regret today was enough to shake me into remembering myself and my place. From where we are, hard as it is, we can and we must do something. We have to take action. Resist through writing.

Will you join us? Feel free to respond to this blog and tell us what you're writing. 

Write on,
Regina and Dulcie
 

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How it happens

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Usually it starts like most things do. First as a distant idea, then maybe dismissed as a pipe dream or a passing fancy until it reemerges as a spark that lights a question:  

What if?

That’s the question from which most WOW manifestations are born. We wonder quietly inside ourselves then we raise the question out loud to hear how it sounds.  

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What if Dulcie and Regina met up in Iceland? 

What about doing a retreat on a colorful, sandbar island in Mexico?  

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What if we went to a tiny Mediterranean island in Italy?

Yes please, to all the above.

One of the most thrilling parts about what we do is discovering the magic as it emerges when we start tinkering with ideas. Whether it’s in locating the perfect retreat accommodation, designing the content for the week or fashioning a webpage around what we’re doing, conjuring is definitely one of our favorite pastimes. The biggest thrill, though, is when people say yes to our yes. When strangers who’ve never even met us are brave enough to join us in our willy-nilly, wild writing adventures.    

So much of what goes into the making of our retreats is about what we want for our own Writer Within. We think of all the things we consider ideal or essential to our writing practice and we go out and see where we might find them. We love evocative views, sky and nature in abundance, being outdoors, the sense of being ‘remote’ yet without too much travel hassle. And usually, where we end up has a bit of cultural mystique, like our Italian and Marrakech retreats.  

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Oftentimes, we don’t have to go out searching too hard; retreat locations find us. Like when Nancy and Dulcie were on vacation in Isla Holbox a few years ago or when Regina was traveling with her family in Marrakech this past February. We find ourselves falling in love with a setting and wish our way back so we can re-experience a place in the company of other writers. We want to experience a place as artists, not just tourists.    

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So, aside from the obvious, why do we do all this? Besides wanting to write out in the world, we believe in the power of writing and the creative process. We believe that the practice and process of writing are as important and relevant as the end result it. Whether that result is just to get it out on the page and out of the body or to create a polished, finished piece, we want to make space for people to feel supported and encouraged to write whatever emerges. We believe that when the urge to write arises, it’s because there’s the need for whatever comes to be written, to be outside of us, in whatever form.    

We are excitedly mapping out much of 2019. Just this past weekend Nancy and Dulcie checked out a coastal gem, an old Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine as a potential location for June 2019. And next month the women of WOW are all headed to Walloon Lake in Michigan.  We hear Hemingway liked it, so we probably will too. We hope to scout out the perfect place for you to fill your pages and ignite your writerly spirits.

Of course there will always be Tuscany (and by the way, there are a few spots still available for this year), then there’s Marrakech in November and next March there’s two weeks to choose from in Isla Holbox. And for those of you who are interested in US retreats, we’ve got a few more ‘what ifs’ brewing. So stay tuned and keep writing.  

With love,

The WOW tribe   

Water/ by Laurin Bellg

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This prose poem is from the prompt Water we received on the second day of the retreat on Pantelleria. I brought a struggle with me to the gathering, a pivotal decision to be made about my future. And there on that sparse, volcanic island – closer to Tunisia than Italy – I was able to see more clearly through Water than I was ever able to do with the charts and statistics I’d laid out neatly and collated logically to help me decide. The logical charts hadn’t helped me at all and kept bringing me back to the same thought that to follow my heart makes no sense at all. I had to go halfway around the world to understand my dilemma and sort it out. The WOW retreats do that – take you to places where you have no choice but to unplug, and thus unfettered, allows you to look at things differently and see what’s really there. I am not a poet at all. Far from! But, even having words come out of me in a different way in a different place with different people was useful to render clarity.

Laurin Bellg

Appleton, Wisconsin

 

Water

I’m in control until I’m not. And when I’m not I struggle,

fighting the water; gasping when it rushes right into me.

I’m reminded I forgot to breath before it hit. Damn.

I drown. I go down. Now thoroughly and completely down,

I find out – what’s down there. What’s down here,

where I am now. Down in the layers of muck and sediment,

among fossils of the non-living, who once lived but now

they just don’t because they can’t.

 

Their choice of fuel was always going to be self-depleting,

and once it’s gone, well – it’s gone. That’s it then.

There’s nothing left to do in that fuel-less place but die

and become shells of ourselves. And I do that.

I die, but I will not be committed to fossil and shell.

I decide. There is nothing left to do but sever bindings.

So, I grab them. Rip them. Leave them there and float up.

And it’s easy. I’m surprised that it’s actually – easy.

 

I’m amused that it took that long to realize, to know I had that –

that shell. A shell, it turns out I don’t even need. I thought I did,

but now I know. I don’t. Funny, I did not even see it –

did not realize, until I lost it, that I ever had it in the first place.

That’s how the sheer weight of the thing – that confining,

limiting shell – can go unnoticed, or if I do notice, how I

convince myself of its usefulness to me. How maddening.

What a stupid construct, really, that somehow

I thought I needed it, but now that it’s gone I am so light –

Light and light – a self-illuminating, auto-renewing

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luminescence in water floating up

 

from deep and pressing water to something I can actually tread.

Once I know that, I can move in any direction I choose. And I do.

I choose – to move. Away. Away from the safe shore I’ve sold myself

as logical to that one – the one I feel is out there, just beyond sight.

I am certain it’s there because, having dwelt in water for so long,

I’m an expert. I know water – how it moves, how I fight it, how it

flows around me when I let it. So, I find the path, that synchronous current

that I don’t have to fight to navigate. It moves me forward with ease,

with a hum and a flow. A flow that I know

would move away from me if I tried to control it.

 

So, now that I have died, escaped the shell, left it there and floated up,

It’s clear that I’m not really moving away from but going toward.

 

  Laurin is a critical care physician living and working in Appleton, Wisconsin since 2002. Medicine is her heart, but writing is her soul. She is married to a poet (not his day job), who is looking forward to attending his own WOW retreat in the near future, since Laurin – the test case – made it back alive. He noticed she was changed after WOW, but decided it was for the better. They have two daughters, a rescue dog, a feral cat, a hamster too pedigreed for its own good and a few fish. Laurin is an award-winning author of the medical memoir Near Death in the ICU and continues to throw short stories and essays at contests, because, well, you know – deadlines. That’s the trick she plays on herself to hoodwink a regular writing schedule. Occasionally, they win – the contest entries and the hoodwinking. Next goal is to try her hand at journal submissions. She went to Pantelleria fighting the urge to peruse an MFA in creative writing for the pure pleasure of it (as the answer to a long-time dream and a gift to herself so her writing soul won’t rot), but it’s never made sense on paper. She came back from Pantelleria thinking – we live, we work, we die, so get an MFA and see what happens. Could it be that simple? The WOW writing retreat was pure magic for her and felt like home. She can’t wait until the next retreat, thinking she may have found her writing tribe among these fine, creative folks – many of whom seemed to be the same kind of creative crazy that she is.

Laurin is a critical care physician living and working in Appleton, Wisconsin since 2002. Medicine is her heart, but writing is her soul. She is married to a poet (not his day job), who is looking forward to attending his own WOW retreat in the near future, since Laurin – the test case – made it back alive. He noticed she was changed after WOW, but decided it was for the better. They have two daughters, a rescue dog, a feral cat, a hamster too pedigreed for its own good and a few fish. Laurin is an award-winning author of the medical memoir Near Death in the ICU and continues to throw short stories and essays at contests, because, well, you know – deadlines. That’s the trick she plays on herself to hoodwink a regular writing schedule. Occasionally, they win – the contest entries and the hoodwinking. Next goal is to try her hand at journal submissions. She went to Pantelleria fighting the urge to peruse an MFA in creative writing for the pure pleasure of it (as the answer to a long-time dream and a gift to herself so her writing soul won’t rot), but it’s never made sense on paper. She came back from Pantelleria thinking – we live, we work, we die, so get an MFA and see what happens. Could it be that simple? The WOW writing retreat was pure magic for her and felt like home. She can’t wait until the next retreat, thinking she may have found her writing tribe among these fine, creative folks – many of whom seemed to be the same kind of creative crazy that she is.

Wave/ by Kristen MacKenzie

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“Holbox” means black hole, and I came here to feel again. During the first group circle, the theme of the retreat was explained: exploration through the five elements – water, earth, wind, fire and void. I began without much expectation, just held on to a willingness to show up for whatever might meet me on the page. What arrived was a startling alignment with the chosen energetic space.

We all come here through water: womb to world/ ocean to island, and so that’s where we started. Monday was the day for water and I passed through a personal rain storm that kept me curled up in child’s pose long past the end of yoga on the beach. By the end of the first writing exercise, I understood that there was a tidal wave sloshing around inside of me that needed to smash through; there were walls I was ready to have broken down. This is what I wrote:

"I feel like a slow-moving insistent wave, pushing past and over and through anything that rises up in front of me. It isn’t a greedy wave or a selfish one. It feels like a gentle force but it isn’t asking. I’ve given it permission to be here, to start and to keep going until its met the end, whether that’s a limit of space or time or resource. And wherever that end is, it’s okay.

I live on a beach but rarely go out to it. I seem to always choose to be near water; near but not in. I move from one island to another. I take the kayak out but only push hands and paddle through the surface then splash ashore and go back inside where I can watch the waves again.

If water frightens me, it’s because I don’t want to get swallowed up or overtaken. But yet when I’ve reached my own limit, it’s the all-encompassing nature of water that I want to surrender to. I want to be crushed and absorbed, washed around and away until all trace of me, and whatever made me want to go into the water, is gone.

All day here I feel the strange water of being sweeping over and through what I think of as me. It seems to be washing away the buzz and the grind, the push and the edges. And what’s left behind is something fragile and mute that’s beautiful, perfect that way, like an empty bird’s nest or a shell.

This isn’t a numbing or a stupor or an absence. It’s an enormous wave and the unfamiliar space of surrender. I can rest here in this place that has nothing to do with whatever normal life was, but has the same stars shining overhead, as if I’m at home, dreaming."

Kristen MacKenzie lives on Vashon Island in a quiet cabin where the shelves are filled with herbs for medicine-making, the floor is open for dancing, and the table faces the ocean, waiting for a writer to pick up the pen. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Rawboned, GALA, Extract(s) Daily Dose of Lit, Maudlin House, Cease, Cows; Crack the Spine, Eckleburg, Referential, Bluestockings, NAILED, Knee-Jerk, Minerva Rising, Mondegreen, Prick of the Spindle, Crab Fat, Wilderness House, Poydras Review and Diversity Rules. Her short story, Cold Comfort, placed in Honorable Mention in The Women's National Book Association's annual writing contest.

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Interstitium: Looking into the space between

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Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Interstitium.

Who?

Interstitium.

I don’t know Interstitium.  Go away.

*

Knock knock.

I said go away.

I can’t go away. I’ve been discovered.

Well, I guess you’ll have to come on in and justify yourself then.

*

The last day of our writing retreat on Isla Holbox was dedicated to the fifth of the Five Japanese Elements -  Sora or Void. We’d written with Water or Mizu, Earth or Suchi, Wind or Kaze, and Fire or Hi.  We’d written of love and loss and dreams and bodies.  We’d shared stories of death and love gone right and wrong. Through prose and poetry, memoir and fiction and essay, we explored what it meant to be alive and to be given time and space to write about it.

And then we came to Void, to Soru, to what could now scientifically be called Interstitium – the space between. I could have written all day, maybe all weekend and still I suspect I would have felt much like I do now, like I’m just getting started and I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t know how to get there.

When I am at my best, there is nothing that turns me on more than setting off into the mystery. I love to wake up into a day that belongs to me knowing there’s no telling what’s going to happen. I trust myself to accept with gratitude the gifts that I am about to receive.

But when I am off kilter, when I am hungry angry lonely tired or any of the other array of uncomfortable options, the Void can be a scary place to set off into. I think I am not alone in this.

We came to the end of our week together and faced the Void. We all recognized that it is a place you have to go by yourself and that as humans (and maybe even more so as writers) we float in the midst of nothingness and search for meaning, for truth, we search for the something in the nothing. And then we put words to it. And we share that with trusted others. The experience is both humbling and exhilarating, at least for me.

I came home from Isla Holbox to the news that scientists have identified Interstitium as a new organ in the human body, an organ that bears the qualities of Void, the space between.  I’m interested to see what we will do with this as humans. 

Me and the other writers from Isla Holbox already got a jump on it.