This week, immediately after turning in my final grades, I flew east to visit old friends in New England and to attend a writing workshop. While I sometimes worry that writing personal essays will take time away from my scholarship, I’ve discovered that they renew my connection to literature and narrative, as well as provide a welcome respite for the demands of academia and motherhood. Over time, I’ve found that my more “creative” efforts influence my academic voice — giving me a greater sense of audience and a closer attention to language. But perhaps more importantly, attending these workshops lets me experience being a student again. I relish being a recipient of an instructor’s energy, letting someone else “fill my cup” for a change.
This particular workshop was excellent, partly because the participants were all avid readers of the Sun  magazine and hence shared a common aesthetic and commitment to “show that powerful teaching can be found in the lives of ordinary people.” In addition, the conference center, in the rolling hills of central Massachusetts, is a Unitarian intentional community that emphasizes egalitarian community building along with gourmet vegetarian fare (with no cell phones reception or wifi!)
The majority of the writers there were women, mostly middle aged, and so there was something particularly charming about having satisfying, wholesome food served to us three times a day. Being fed well, being taken care of by strangers, feels nurturing on the most primal level. While one woman writer was there with her one year old, and another was 8 ½ months pregnant, most women left their families, their jobs as nurses, social workers, and teachers etc. in order to claim this short time to write.
As a teacher interested in building community, I watched as on the first day folks scoped each other out, began tentative conversations, and forged bonds. I was struck by how socially unsure we all are, even those of us who are established in our chosen professions. Alone in a group of strangers who don’t know our affiliations, our history, or our charms, we are forced to present ourselves anew. Once the first writing session started, I noticed the tension emanating from one older woman as she volunteered to share her writing. Her voice quivered slightly as she read a powerful piece and she sat back exhausted but beaming when she finished. It takes a lot of courage, even for adult professionals, to reveal oneself to a group of strangers. I realized how much of my undergraduates’ energies are consumed by the effort to find their roles within the campus community, and how necessary it is that we establish safe, respectful spaces in the classroom.