I arrived at Rivendell Writers’ Colony for the first time one November weekend just as the sun was setting.
Signs along the long, winding gravel drive warned of a seven mile-per-hour speed limit. Apparently, I was on Rivendell time now. From the final bend in the driveway, a 7,000-square-foot, three-story sandstone manor appeared. Set on the edge of a cliff, views of southeast Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau extended in almost every direction.
I’d never heard of a writer’s residency before 2014.
The literary world was foreign to me at that time, abandoned as soon as I’d graduated college. I was working in healthcare marketing, promoting outpatient surgical solutions for incontinence. Based in Nashville, I traveled the country meeting with urologists, OBGYNs and colorectal surgeons touting the benefits of an implant (“the size of a Peppermint Patty!”) proven to eliminate certain kinds of incontinence. I was 28 and at a professional crossroads.
Returning to the writing life
In the years I worked in marketing and public relations, I wrote a lot. Press releases, social media posts, email campaigns and oh my, the project status updates. But an essay? A poem? Absolutely not.
The only thing creative about my writing was trying to make something I’d said a thousand times before sound like something I was saying for the first time.
Motivated to expand my creative writing horizons, I reconnected with my high school creative writing teacher the summer of my 29th birthday. I told him I would sign up for the poetry workshop he was leading the following weekend. I didn’t end up writing anything worth remembering, but I wrote. I didn’t die. I didn’t even leave at the break.
St. Louis, Chicago, all of Florida — I was racking up miles and spreading the incontinence solution gospel. I’d hammer out a blog post once a week on a blog I’d started that September, but that was about the extent of my writing. I knew how to write to sell, but could I move from incontinence into introspection? Bladder control into a body of work?
When an email arrived later that summer from The Porch Writers’ Collective, the non-profit writing organization in Nashville that hosted the poetry workshop, I opened it, hopeful some new class or workshop would speak to me.
They were holding a weekend writing retreat at Rivendell in November. Unfamiliar with writers’ residencies and curious to learn more, I checked out the website. Best I could tell it was a place where writers far beyond my skill level went to write in peace.
It seemed at once both overly self-indulgent and like something I had to try. Nervous, but bolstered by my commitment to try something new, I signed up.
Coming home to a place I’d never been
I was easily the most novice writer in our group of ten. One attendee was an accomplished young adult fiction author working on her latest manuscript, another a prolific poet writing a memoir.
I felt like I’d snuck in with my blog posts and journal entries.
That first night, the then-managing editor of the Sewanee Review, Leigh Anne Couch, stopped in to read from her latest collection of poetry. A fire blazed and I sipped hot tea while marveling that an entire world I knew nothing about — Sewanee, residencies, literary quarterlies — existed just an hour and a half from my home in Nashville. I went to bed that night in the Flannery O’Connor room, two twin beds pressed against opposite walls (the way I think O’Connor would have liked it), intimidated but grateful.
If I’d snuck in, I was going to enjoy it.
In the morning I flipped through the Sewanee Review and read Wendell Berry for the first time. His words — and this place — felt familiar, like a home I was returning to after a long time away.
I joined in the craft talks, even shared a short piece I’d never allow to see the light of day today. I walked around the expansive property enjoying the company of my fellow retreaters and the sound of my boots on dry leaves.
Rivendell had a way of pulling you in, as if the house and grounds were rising up to meet you, were making space for you to join in its history and its magic.
I certainly had nothing to compare it to but Rivendell did feel different. That intimidation of the first night was replaced with the feeling that not only was it okay for me to be here but that I was actually supposed to be here.
Driving down the mountain the next day, headed towards home, I knew my incontinence marketing days were numbered.
Leaving the corporate world
Over the next few months, I doubled down on the writing life.
Nights in hotel rooms and layovers in airports were spent reading, writing and preparing my application for an MFA program at the University of the South in Sewanee. The company I worked for was sold and while my job wasn’t in jeopardy, I didn’t see myself as part of the new company’s future. During a work dinner in Florida I received an email that I’d been accepted to the MFA program. I stepped outside, called my best friend, then emailed Rivendell begging for a room.
Just before classes started in June 2015, I quit my job. What would come next, I had no idea, but it was time to go.
I stayed at Rivendell for eight weeks that summer. In the mornings I read by the pond while herons, patient and stoic, waited for breakfast to swim by. I wrote on the back porch at dusk and observed a mother skunk and her babies trot across the lawn. Deer grazed along the cliff’s edge and bullfrogs trumpeted their virility with deafening urgency. I breathed differently here. I heard differently here. I wrote differently here. I didn’t want it to end.
As the eight weeks came to a close and with only a rough outline for beginning my new life writing, I hammered out a plan for me to also put my skills to use for Rivendell. I needed to pay my bills, but I also wanted to share the Rivendell experience with others. I’d experienced something life changing. How could I keep that to myself?
In 10 months I had gone from unlikely retreat attendee, to student and writer-in-residence, to part-time something-or-other (we’ve never landed on a title).
Today, now over two years since my first visit to Rivendell, I get to be part of a place that values potential as much as publication, that offers community but never forces it. A place that insists on honoring the vocational nature of the writing life.
A place where people feel like they are returning home.
Have you ever attended a writing residency? Share your experiences in the comments below.