story and photos by Carla Occaso
CRAFTSBURY COMMON — So. This winter I tried (as I always try) not to bring personal problems into the office, but sometimes they just follow me through the door. Nothing too serious: doctors appointments, school conferences, money problems, a car that three times just died while I was driving either to or from work — my car’s bumper (or lack thereof), a crack in my windshield and state law requiring annual inspection …
Lucky for me, I have the best boss in the world, Nat Frothingham, our publisher. He hired me to become managing editor in November 2014. Then, some time after the new year he received notice via email of a writing course to be held at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common for two weeks in July. July seemed so far away from our about-to-be renovated basement office that was so cold some days my hands became numb and useless as I tried to type. We all wore wool hats and sat in front of space heaters on those coldest days before scurrying home early in the darkness through snow and ice.
It was in this setting Nat offered to sponsor me to attend the writing course titled Writing In Place in one of the most beautiful towns in Vermont during the summeriest month. Nat had said he had participated in a discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear with one of the writing teachers, John Elder, a few years ago and that he was brilliant. Nat also said he thought it would be a nice break for me to get away in the summer, and I am always looking to learn more about the craft of writing.
Though it didn’t seem so when it was happening, February quickly progressed to July, we moved out of the basement office, launched several fundraisers and invented a youth-oriented newspaper in head-spinning succession, when suddenly it was time to go back to school for two weeks in July.
I had doubts and insecurities being a 50-year-old student among a group of students ranging in age from 18 to 29, but we quickly acclimated to one another and became deeply involved in the stories that slowly unfurled out of the ensuing sessions.
Program Director Pavel Cenkl presided over the first day, which served as an introduction. Who were we and why were we there? He asked us to write up an answer. We also got to meet Ben Hewitt, an environmental writer from Cabot who lives off the grid, raises most of his own food with his family and writes for a living.
Four of the students were there mainly as part of their courses of study as enrolled Sterling undergraduates, but one student, Julia Cavecchi, an 18-year-old student going into her sophomore year at Skidmore, came because she had read about Sterling in a publication called Orion, a magazine about nature, culture and the environment, and was intrigued. Her curiosity about the school, its students and programs, was infectious and I often followed along, for example on a tour of the “edible forest” led by student Natalie Bekkouche or to sit in on the all-school Wednesday meeting.
But as for the class itself, it was a banquet of ideas and encouragement. The first teacher, Lynne Anderson, left her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts to stay in her off-the-grid cabin near Sterling College. She is a chef-turned-teacher-turned-food writer (who also teaches writing). Following her was former Middlebury College professor John Elder, an esteemed nature writer, and then, coaching us to finish and polish was Jane Brox, a nonfiction writer who teaches at Bowdoin and Bread Loaf.
This was serious business. Although we were in an idyllic setting nestled among spectacular trees, flowers, berry bushes and people, we were pretty much working nonstop from 8:30 in the morning until late into the night.
We never thought we would be ready to stand before an audience in the Common House on Friday, July 24, but stand and read we did. I was so impressed with how the work of each student developed (including my own). I don’t think any of us knew what we had in us until we dared to dig deeply into our souls inspired by place and encouraged by accomplished writers. In the end, the experience was not a break in a sense, but it awakened my senses and brought me on an unforgettable journey.