Career Opportunity – George Saunders & Mary Karr

August 31, 2018

I found THE LIAR’S CLUB by Mary Karr at a garage sale on a table labeled “Books So Good I Shouldn’t Sell (And Will Probably Regret Selling Later).” I bought the memoir for a dollar and read it cover to cover in three or four breathless sessions. I’m typically a plodding reader, and the experience left me awestruck.

I thought: If this author is still alive, I must learn from her.

Mary Karr was alive and well and teaching at Syracuse University along with George Saunders (!). Would I have to get my MFA? I really didn’t want to. A miracle dropped into my Twitter feed: A retreat opportunity with Mary Karr and George Saunders.

Not a degree. A party:

The Greek Island Dream Story Dance Party

Ten days on Patmos, Greece with two of my favorite writers? I immediately applied for the Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission (thank you OAC/OCF!).

A few months, four international flights, and a 9-hour ferry ride later, I was on the island.

During our first session, Saunders told us:

“I’m going to try to give you an MFA worth of material over the course of this retreat.”

Saunders met his end of the bargain. I was stunned and transformed by what I learned – – but even more so by the other writers who had come to learn.

Full disclosure: I approach any retreat with a certain amount of unease. Like – that many WRITERS? So how will I escape? I like retreating so much I often retreat from my retreats. Maybe it’s a misfit thing. As if anticipating this, coordinators Dan and Jenny explicitly told us: “I know you may want to explore on your own. But please don’t do something like – you know – rent a scooter. They’re dangerous. You’re likely to crash. We’ll be together as a group. All the time. That’s the point.

We will EAT together. TALK together. LEARN together.”

I’m suddenly at the Overlook Hotel: “Come play with us Danny. Forever!”

I panic-rented a scooter on day one.

Ooooo baby. What could go wrong??

I was asked – do you know how to drive a scooter? Sure, I said. I drive scooters all the time. I even do that “low wave” thing. I’m Mr. Scoots! Then I throttled myself into the intersection and almost splatterpainted myself on the wall of a kebab shop. On the three mile ride back to the retreat, breathing that clean Aegean air, I briefly complimented myself on my scooting acumen. A few minutes later I attempted a hairpin turn and found myself airborne. As I floated through space, I located my scooter spinning across the pavement in one direction as I moved off in the other.

I retained consciousness. The scooter still worked. Mostly. So with two legs full of road rash, burns, ripped shorts, and broken sandal, I drove back to the retreat, nursed my wounds, sipped Ouzo, and was **trapped**. Horrifically, hopelessly trapped with the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Dazzling, brilliant, daring, wild, creative, soulful, beautiful people who wrote poetry and read it aloud and drank wine and sang ballads and our very first night declared with unremittent glee — Let’s talk about drugs! Let’s talk about sex, death, ghosts, and despair!

I couldn’t be intimidated away. I couldn’t hide. Thank God I could not leave. A strong case study in some of the best advice I’ve ever been given:

You don’t always have to run away.

And a good lesson in running toward. Over the ocean. The importance of the chase. If you’re lucky enough to find something you love, it’s worth pursuing on foot, ferry, plane, and scooter. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to get trapped for a while.

Thank to Dan and Jenny at Goodworld Journeys for shining a light bright enough to draw us from all ends of the globe, to the Oregon Arts Commission and The Oregon Community Foundation for the grant, and my neighbors Eve and Zak for selling The Liars’ Club on that fateful afternoon – may you have no regrets.

Some of the most wonderful people I know.

Aspiring Thief: The Catmos from Patmos

It’s blurry, but that’s me and George. Not a dream, but it felt like one.

Contact J.C. Geiger

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