National Writing Project

So Who Needs Natalie Goldberg? Reflections on the 2002 NWP Writing Retreat

By: Tina Humphrey
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 3
Date: May-June 2003

Summary: Tina Humphrey of the Denver Writing Project, humorously describes what it was like to attend the 2002 NWP Professional Writing Retreat in New Mexico, including the self doubts, the drudgery, and the surprise at finally beginning to write.


While the summer institute serves as the starting place to (re)introduce writing teachers to the practice of writing (as Karon Henderson describes in this issue), the writing project offers many opportunities for teachers to establish themselves as writers throughout their careers as writing project teacher-consultants. Among these opportunities is the NWP Professional Writing Retreat, an annual event that can induce the same kind of first-time-writer's jitters that many of us now recall from our summer institute experiences.

It's 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at Sunrise Springs Resort outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. I've been up since 7 a.m. and have been writing, revising, editing, or talking about writing or editing and revising someone else's writing since then. I did it yesterday, too. In fact, it all started Thursday afternoon. I'm beginning to get a bit of a headache, and I just found myself staring at the light switch on the wall for a good three minutes. My face is greasy, my hair has fallen, and my long-lasting lipstick took a hike hours ago. There's one water bottle, one glass of lemonade, and two soda cans sitting on the table beside me. I officially know what a writer feels like.

There are ten other people in this room, sitting trance-like themselves in front of a PC or a laptop, clicking away on the keys or staring at that light switch that seems to be fascinating all of us. Fourteen more people sit outside on the patio, the dry New Mexican sun blanketing them as they write or talk about writing or edit and revise some writing. We're all writers. We may not know exactly what we're doing, as we're sure to admit at our daily "check-in" sessions, but darn it, we're doing it, and isn't that the toughest part? Welcome to the 2002 National Writing Project Professional Writing Retreat.

As I drove the six long hours on the winding mountain roads that connect Denver to this "Land of Enchantment," my mind would not rest. The chatter in my head was a constant banter ranging from, "Hurry up and get there!" to "I'll bet they messed up, and your application was accepted by accident . . . they'll probably politely send you home." As the green sign on the side of the road began to pull my destination closer—only 28 more miles—my thoughts replayed my doubts over and over.. "I am not a real-life writer like these people. I only teach seventh grade, and I've only done that for three years. I'm 26 years old; no one will take me seriously. What if no one likes me? What if I don't come up with one word while I'm there?" Like a bad sci-fi movie, the thoughts came louder and louder even as I turned up the stereo in an attempt to allow The Indigo Girls to bring me back down to some place of calm. But instead, I kept thinking about this weekend looming before me and how I would be surrounded by "real" writers and away from my comfort zone in Denver where my friends loved me and said marvelous things about my writing because they had to. I'd be arriving at this "resort" in the dry lands of Santa Fe and these "real" writers were surely going to read my work and discover that I was a fraud and they'd put me in the middle of some strange circle where they'd move around me and chant "fa-ker" over and over before sending me back to the Rocky Mountains where I should have stayed in the first place.

I arrived early. I turned down the voices as much as I could and took a stroll around the many acres that were to be my home for the next three days. This magical place was peaceful and serene in ways that surely would have left Natalie Goldberg, with her insistence on peaceful and serene writing places, enthusiastic. But the setting did not put me at ease.

At 3:15 p.m., I found myself back in my room, My roommate had not yet arrived, and I was frantically changing clothes. What do writers wear for God's sake? The full suitcase that seemed sensible and full of solid combinations when I left my apartment seven hours ago suddenly seemed to be filled with foolish choices . . . clothes that a child would wear . . . no linen, no funny looking strappy leather sandals, no turquoise jewelry . . . isn't this what Natalie Goldberg would have in her suitcase? Before I had time to try on one more combination, the door of my room opened and my roommate entered. For weeks I had tried to imagine this woman. I was convinced that she'd be a wrinkled-up 95-year-old who blamed our country's poor education system on new teachers (like me) and who would walk around naked all the time, refusing to talk to me. Instead, in walked Kay Foret. Sigh of relief. Kay's straw hat (just exactly what a writer would wear) and soft, Louisiana drawl was the hug I so desperately needed at that moment. She immediately started talking and telling me the riotous story of her trip to the resort, sadly similar to mine. As we walked to meet the rest of the group, I didn't even realize that the voices in my head had shut up for the first time in days.

We entered the "Meditative Arts Building" (the what?). As participants began to filter in, I could imagine their muses riding on their shoulders. My doubts accelerated. Where was my muse? Probably at the bar in Denver.

We were instructed to introduce ourselves to the group. Immediately, I had my story . . . "Hi, my name is Trixie, and I just flew in from a book signing in L.A. where my agent, Rob, is hooking me up with Steve (as in Mr. Spielberg) for the rights to my book for his latest movie which would star Meg Ryan as the teacher/writer who saves the day in an inspirational and unexpected way." When it was my turn, I instead mumbled, "Hi, I'm Tina Humphrey from the Denver Writing Project. I've taught seventh grade for three years. . . ." Damn. As we moved around the room, other people spilled out imposing resumes: "I'm the director of our writing project," and "I've been a professor for 15 years . . ." and "I'm working on a book about . . . ." Oh, boy. An impressive group of people had taken up positions in the Meditative Arts Building. I couldn't believe I was one of them. My name was even on the roster. Whoa. I had survived.

We were assigned to writing groups on Friday, and I was placed with three others who were working on professional narratives. Our group of four found a shaded area under the trees by the healing garden, and we began by chatting. Here were three accomplished and talented people whom I had never seen before but who were sincere and polite and interested in me.

Then, somehow, as I began to write, the words came, almost effortlessly. I'm not sure if it was the spiritual setting, or the influence of prolific writers sitting next to me, sharing pretzels, or the uninterrupted space of time that allowed me to write, but whatever it was, I'm grateful for it. I felt like there was nowhere else on earth for me to be on this weekend. I was a writer, surrounded by other writers; who admitted their own moments of fear, their own absences of words, their own days of self-doubt. We were all doing this difficult, dangerous, dirty work together.

So it's now 5:05 p.m. on Saturday, and I've been writing all day long. Today has been the marathon. Other than stopping for food fuel, we've been going all day, but I haven't felt this good without lipstick or chocolate for a long time. I'm doing it. I belong. I don't want to go home.

Saturday evening was the moment that needed to be frozen. After our group picture and walk back from the dining hall, we formed a circle in the room of the Meditative Arts Building and began to read the words that we had toiled over for the previous two days, stories about our work read in accents from all over America

A drink was shared after the readings. We had all shared something this weekend . . . even if it was a silent sharing . . . just sitting next to one another as we clicked out the thoughts in our head onto our own computers. I didn't want it to end.

But it did end. After closing words spoken by each participant, we said good-bye through hugs and promises of email connections for the rest of our lives. I look forward to seeing these names in print in the next few months and poking my colleagues at school as I brag and announce, "Yeah, I spent the weekend with her in Santa Fe."

About the Author Tina Humphrey is a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project. She teaches English at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

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