There is a marvelous place on the shore of Lake Michigan in Door County known as "The Clearing." It was founded by Chicago architect Jens Jensen in the early 1900s, as a place where artists of all sorts could leave the soot and bustle of the city behind and restore their souls amid the splendor of pines and birches and tranquil sunsets and bonfires. With 130 acres of meadows and forests, its charm includes log cabins, hearty meals, fellowship, and the kind of quiet that comes with the woods. Not silence, with birds and tossing branches and lapping waves, but peace nonetheless.
My three stays there, over a span of six years, have been an unforgettable journey. I first heard of it purely by accident. A "soccer dad" I hadn't seen in several years and I ran into each other in the video section of the local grocery store and spent a few minutes catching up. He knew I had been a freelance writer years earlier, but had since gone to law school and was now working as a prosecuting attorney. I missed writing, I confessed, something I hadn't anticipated when I changed careers. He responded by telling me how his father in law, retired, had gone to this place called "The Clearing" for a week, and come back with a fuse lit that led to him publishing his own coffee-table book of nature photographs. I sped home, looked the place up on the internet, and signed up for a week-long writers workshop led by poet Norbert Blei. While I had laughed off an editor's suggestion fifteen years earlier that I pursue some type of writing workshop--how could I possibly with small kids at home!!--by now everyone was capable of making themselves a peanut butter sandwich. Surely, if I left home for a week, nobody would starve.
I arrived with a suitcase, a laptop computer that proved to have a faulty operating system, and a notebook. That first week, my exhausted, stressed-out soul started to refill, and the words began to pour. Not only did I complete the first four chapters of a suspense novel, by the time I was driving home my brain was simply crackling from the stimulation of classes and discussions, and the total micro-focus of reading small batches of exquisite writing--poetry and short stories--that had been the class assignments. I tend to "speed read" when I have time to read at all, but removed from the daily frantic pace of my life, I sat still and marveled at things I had bypassed before. Sort of like Henry David Thoreau spending all that time at Walden, watching the ants come and go.
I was crushed to find, the following year, that my work schedule wouldn't allow me to attend the writers workshop with Norb again. But I rented a cabin on the lake for a week anyway, and relaxed and wrote in solitude. I wrote about THAT experience in The Island on my Running with Stilettos website. But the year after that, I again got my vacation schedule to match up with the writers workshop at The Clearing, and set sail with a new laptop computer, a bag full of notes and chapters from the book I had started the first time and added to the following year, and the goal of writing another big chunk of fiction. This time the laptop was missing its power cord, and I was too cheap to spend $100 to buy a new one. Again, I worked with notebook and pen. Again, the setting was breathtakingly inspirational. Only in a different direction than I'd expected. Friends had talked me into blogging, and I had enjoyed some success with the essays I was putting on the website. Still, I longed to get back to "serious" writing. Or so I thought. Every time I tried to open my mind up to a new chapter of suspense...another essay swam into view. FINE, I thought. I decided to get out of the way of my own words and let the essays swim out.
Two essay collections, several awards and a few years later, I finally returned to The Clearing for a third time. This time, I knew, I would finally return to the "serious" work of fiction I had been yearning to dig into. The essays, of course, had just been something I had been killing time with. Well. How well we don't know our own minds until we really look. I opened up the laptop, dug out the old chapters, and started to polish them. And after two days, I found that my heart was no longer in that particular project. I found that I had lost interest in pushing that particular plot any further forward. And I realized I was no longer the same person I had been six years earlier, when I had started. At this moment, I admitted I truly ENJOYED writing the short pieces that have become my signature. And I enjoyed the networking that came with them, and the speaking engagements, and the conversations, and the feedback. And so, six years after I first showed up at The Clearing, ready to tear into starting a novel, I ceremonially closed the laptop, put it and the notebooks and chapters back in the car, and devoted the rest of the week to reading some really good writing by other people, taking slow walks in the woods, and enjoying naps on the beach to the sound of lapping waves and seagulls. And I felt my soul restore once again.
Causes Mary Wagner Supports
Washington County, Wisconsin Human Society
Crohns and Colitis Foundation
Chicago Writers Association