Lessons in Learning: Four days at Squam Lake

I arrived at Squam Art Workshops (SAW) last Wednesday afternoon, after a surprisingly fast drive from New Jersey. I stopped twice - once for gas, once to get a sandwich from a Subway somewhere off of 84E in Connecticut - but otherwise had a steady foot on the gas pedal of my rental car and sang along to radio tunes until the spotty signals past Route 93N had me switching to my iPhone for music.

I do love that solid purposefulness of a road trip, how I keep my eyes focused right in front of me, and where I'm called to practice a very particular kind of attention. I love how when I am driving alone, I let myself unleash my voice, belt out songs at the top of my lungs. I love the accessibility of everything I could possibly need - the proximity of the cup holder for coffee or a bottle of water, the little change well for unexpected tolls, the sun visor when noon hits with its bright, piercing light, air conditioning and heat at the touch of a button. I love the hum of the engine, the lines in the road, the containment of it all. And so I drove up north in a state of contentment and calm, loosening myself from the grip of a very full past few weeks and months, which have included planning for a summer writing retreat, starting a new business, and making the difficult but necessary decision to move - all of it bookended and threaded through with the micros and macros of partnership, co-parenting, creative work, and making a living.

When I arrived at the road that would take me to Rockywold-Deephaven Camps, where SAW has been held for the past 5 years, I found myself switching gears again. I was coming to teach a class called "Raw Matters," which has to do with building stories from the ground up, unraveling and rewinding the writing process and re-entering it with a refreshed palette of techniques and tools. I didn't know it then, but as the days by Squam Lake unfolded, I found myself in my own space of revision and revisioning, practicing the radical act of starting from scratch and taking in the lessons one by one.


The first: In a sea of fabric artists, textile wizards, and painters, I was one of only two writing instructors. This Squam gathering is a veritable smorgasbord of what weaver John Mullarkey calls "thread assessment." The retreat draws people from all over the world who come expressly to commune over their love of fiber and fabric. I hadn't picked up knitting needles since I was 16 and a family friend offered to teach me to crochet. I lost my patience after completing exactly one quarter of a scarf. The closest I'd come since then was making a sock monkey or two and re-sewing buttons on shirts I couldn't bear to part with. But here I was with artisans, actual professionals who sat around in circles every evening, assembling complicated sweaters and shawls with Old World stitchery. There were names for things I'd never heard of, tools whose use I couldn't have deciphered, and a host of insider references and stories that could have been about Martian life forms for all I knew.


What was interesting was that in the midst of what I saw as a certain kind of eccentricity, I was the eccentric, a wordsmithing weirdo wandering campus with a typewriter in tow. It became clear the moment I set foot at registration just how far on the outskirts I was: our welcome tote bag contained not a notebook-and-pen set or a poetry journal but skeins of brightly colored yarn. Around me were dozens of women wearing clothes they had made themselves, ornate constructions that left me feeling like an oddball in the jeans and t-shirt ensembles I'd packed for the week. And all over campus itself, little - and not so little - acts of knit-bombing everywhere.

There is much to say about the hours that followed: the feeling of mild anxiety and estrangement entering a full dining hall at the apex of dinner hour. The buzz of happy campers reuniting. The smell of a quiet pine cabin. The woods and their feeling of history. The season's first mosquitos, nipping at my heels. And this: the majesty of Squam Lake at dusk.

I didn't have a class scheduled until Friday afternoon, so I spent the bulk of Thursday alternating between reading (The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides), lying on the Eldorado dock, walking the maze of paths through the woods, and - in a burst of optimism and adventure - deciding to teach myself how to unicycle.

I'd brought one up to use as a prop for hanging poetry keychains at the vendor night on Saturday, so it was in the car, just waiting to be engaged. It turned out the tire was flat, so the first task was finding a bike pump. It took less than 10 minutes - one of the young men who work at Squam drove a golf cart to the on-site machine shop and dug one up. Then he drove me to one of the tennis courts on campus, and I spent a sweaty hour clinging to the net and attempting balance.

Lesson number two and three and four and more: Curiosity is a vital ingredient for learning. So is commitment to the process. With very few exceptions, there is no shortcut between not knowing something and knowing it. There is a beauty to awkwardness, a wisdom in the wobble. Making our vulnerability visible helps us redefine success not as mastery but as meaningful action. It doesn't matter when or where or how we start, just that we do. And even more: The hardest permission to grant is the one we grant ourselves. Fear is largely a state of mind rather than a state of body. And falling is not failure.

That hour wobbling and weaving on the unicycle prompted me to offer up an activity for the following morning - a Writing Treasure Hunt - for those who might be itching to try something new, too, but simply needed the invitation. I typed one up on yellow lined paper and left the typewriter on the bench outside the dining hall before dinner, so that everyone would see it walking in.

After breakfast on Friday, I scattered Magnetic Poetry words and little plastic gumball machine toys and random bits and pieces near the dining hall to serve as prompts. I placed them on branches, on rocks, on steps, on window ledges, in planters, and any nooks and crannies I could find.


Six brave souls came to play, trudging outside in the rain to search for these little treasures, and then we wrote in silence for 40 minutes before sharing our stories. I loved the sweet camaraderie, the easy rhythm we slipped into, and the feeling of accomplishment after our time together. It was a perfect prelude to my writing class that began that afternoon after lunch, when the rain continued in earnest and a new group gathered in a lakeside cabin on the other side of camp. I lit a fire in the fireplace and we began a series of short exercises to ease us into our writing, though by late afternoon, the sound of the rain and the smoky heat of the fire made us all drowsy. More lessons here: Diving in is hard work. Tiredness is inevitable. Rest is essential.

Our class continued the following morning, when it cleared up enough to write outside. The theme of the day was scale and structure. We wrote blackout poetry on one of the furthest docks, followed by letters to our younger selves on large-size art paper, and story snippets on Post-it Notes.

Here's what I love about teaching: creating accessible, digestible exercises and activities that little by little open up a space inside to make contact with creativity every day. I love watching people encounter their stories, uncovering and discovering and recovering what makes their hearts and heads tick. I love witnessing their wisdom, their fresh insight, and most of all the nourishment they get because they have gathered at the literal and figurative table to devote themselves to investigating language and story and craft and everything that weaves in and out of these.

I am so grateful and honored to have these opportunities to spend time with people willing and curious enough to get closer to the bone of their writing. And I am eager than ever for my upcoming 4-day Summer Writing Camp for Adults in Amherst, Massachusetts July 14-18. Summer is such a perfect time to lean into the leisure of exploration, to practice focus in the midst of relaxation and rejuvenation.

I am back home in New Jersey now, watching whatever storms that just traversed the Midwest make landfall here. I am thinking again of the wonderful metaphor of the unicycle, the poise and balance required to stay upright and the acceptance that that work takes practice. I have come, in fact, to see life as a series of experiments, a continuous process of discovery, and I have become more adept at navigating new territory with more curiosity and courage. Joy and success don't merely come as the final reward, but arrive out of the steady connection to the commitment itself.

And so, the final lesson: It's never about outcome. It's about learning.