Freedom’s just another word…
“So that’s your first assignment,” the teacher said. “Go find a comfortable place to write and come back with a first draft in two hours.”
I don’t remember what the assignment was, but given what I do remember of the summer, it likely had something to do with a small, traveling circus.
It was July 1992 and it was one of the first days of a program called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (PGSA) – a now defunct, tuition-free, five-week residential program for high school artists of all varieties. I was 16.
There were ten or so of us fiction writers and another ten or so poets. Our workshops were held in unremarkable classrooms, but when given time to write, we had access to the entire campus of a small college tucked into the corner of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Over the summer we fanned out across the grounds staking claims at the base of trees or in the grotto next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of us went to the main building to sit in comfy chairs and enjoy the air-conditioning. That first morning though, we all stayed within eyeshot of one another.
We had been told at orientation that we were the “best of the best,” but we were also told of an experiment the program had done several years earlier – they had invited students who didn’t seem to show the same amount of promise as everyone else. They wanted to know if being surrounded by the “best of the best” would positively impact the other students. I don’t know if any of us remembered hearing the outcome of that experiment. We were all too busy wondering if that were their subtle way of telling us: The experiment might still be going on and some of you might be our test cases.
That first morning we sized each other up. Was I the test subject? Was he? But that wasn’t the only thing bothering us. After just a few moments of trying to write in our own little locations, we started to gravitate towards each other. Awkwardly, we tried to talk.
Then one of us said what we were all thinking: “This is so hard. Give me a pre-calculus assignment and I’ll write you six poems, but tell me to go write a poem and I freeze.”
As high school students, we were use to sneaking time to write. Personally, and my 7th grade math teacher can attest to this, I always had two notebooks open. One for taking notes and one for writing stories. No one had ever given us permission to prioritize our writing. If writing was our dream career, high school was our job. We had to get used to our new freedom.
Earlier this month, I was reminded of that summer, and what freedom to write really means, when I had the opportunity to “unworkshop.” An unworkshop is a self-directed, writing retreat, held at The Highlights Foundation, a rustic collection of buildings tucked into the corner of Northeast Pennsylvania. Writers are given a clean, cozy room of one’s own, plus three delicious meals a day, unlimited snacks and beverages, great conversation in small doses, encouragement from every direction (including from the chef and servers) and an unspoiled countryside for wandering.
As a wife, mother and full-time-plus employee, it was the embodiment of permission to write. Unlike my experience at PGSA, it took no time to get used to. I dove right in. I wrote 9000 words in 47 hours. I plotted the rest of the manuscript by a stream. I figured out how to fix another manuscript. I made friends. I got wonderful advice. I was my true self.
When I told a writer friend that I was going to Highlights, he suggested it might be more economical to get an AirBnB in the town where we lived. I believe he suggested getting cereal and Ramen noodles and just powering through a weekend. I considered it. But in the end, I made my reservation at Highlights. It was the right thing to do.
I had no way of knowing that being taken care of (in the way I was at Highlights), would fuel my writing. It wasn’t just that I’d been given permission to write, it was that everything there was set up to benefit and support my writing.
Was I the “test subject” at Highlights, eating meals with “real” writers who had agents, book-deals and best-sellers? Yea! But they were so welcoming and eager to heap advice on me that I was happy and honored to be carried forward by their talent, experience and generosity.
Unworkshopping is relatively inexpensive at $129/night. That’s a new price as of June 1, but it is inclusive of meals, snacks, local transportation and wifi. If you have the means, make this happen for yourself. You will not be sorry. But, even if you aren’t able to make it to Highlights, consider finding another way to give yourself permission to prioritize your writing. While it was terrifying as a 16-year-old and actually froze a few of us up, as an adult, it opened a floodgate of creativity right when I desperately needed it.