Jul 29 2012

A Writing Conference in Maine

I spent the first two weeks of July in Bar Harbor, Maine, attending the Johns Hopkins 2012 Conference on Craft.

A view from the Bar Harbor sandbar.

My time in Maine was a mix of school (since I’m a student in the M.A. in Writing Program, I received credit for an entire semester), vacation, and personal writing time.

We had class for a few hours each morning and craft workshops each afternoon. I registered for a reading class focused on the works of New England writers, including Edith Wharton, Sebastian Junger, Monica Wood, and Henry Beston. It was interesting to discuss how the landscape of a region can influence the sense of place in a work. One of the the best lessons I took away is the ability to see multiple meanings in everyday things–a dead tree in the yard, a leaf glowing with crimson and gold in a forest of green, the fruitless quest for a starfish on a rocky beach.

The conference featured guest instructors for the writing workshops: Robert Wilson for nonfiction, Amy Hempel for fiction, and Rachel Hadas for poetry. It was inspiring to hear them all read from their work at the faculty reading night. My favorite bit of advice on “the writing life” came from Rachel Hadas, who said it’s valuable to have a day job in addition to being a writer. (Her other job happens to be teaching.) Since I find time to write outside of my full-time job, this was good to hear.

Bob Wilson reads from his new book.

Most conference attendees stayed in the Seafox residence at the College of the Atlantic and, except for an inconvenient toilet paper shortage, I thought it was fun to experience dorm life again. The communal living space, the group activities, and the forest setting made the conference feel like a summer camp for writers.

As for the vacation aspect of the trip, Bar Harbor was charming, relaxing, and fun, and I would go back again in the future. The 4th of July fireworks went off despite the fog that day. They were pretty spectacular, even though, as one of my friends pointed out, it felt a bit like we were in the movie The Truman Show, with a white dome effect in the sky. But other than one day of fog and two or three rain showers, we lucked out on the weather Рapparently it was unseasonably warm and dry for Maine.

Fog on the 4th of July

One of the highlights for me was a whale watching trip. I’d been whale watching off the coast of San Diego, and the experience in Bar Harbor was far superior. Two humpbacks, named Lace and Partition, spent about an hour near the boat, entertaining us as they repeatedly dove and flashed their flukes in the air. We also saw a seal curiously swimming alone and a pod of dolphins jumping in and out of the boat’s wake on our trip back to shore.

I also recommend the comedy show at ImprovAcadia, a sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd, and hiking in Acadia National Park.

Sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd.

On the last night of the trip, the sky was so dark and clear I could see the lights of millions of stars and the sweeping flourish of the Milky Way galaxy. I thought of something one of the other writers had said earlier that day: “This will never happen again.”

I’m grateful to have been a part of the experience. I learned why it’s so important to be a part of a community of writers. I learned to see deeper meanings in the small things I observe as I go about my day. And I learned what it’s like to experience the kind of wonder that only nature can instill…the kind of wonder that can carry you through the dull ache of everyday life and inspire you to create something beautiful.


“With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars?” – Henry Beston, The Outermost House