by Cassidy McCants
Every six months, writers from all over the South and the Midwest come together on the banks of the North Fork of the White River in Tecumseh, Missouri, for a weekend in the Ozarks. River Pretty Writers Retreat, started in 2012 by alumni of Missouri State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, offers generative workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; panel discussions; informal talks; and readings by faculty members and participants. Retreat attendees also have the opportunity to share samples of their writing with faculty members who offer individual manuscript critique sessions.
Participant Bailey Moore reading at RP 13
I’ve just returned from RP 13, my third consecutive retreat in Tecumseh. After all the news about—and the reality of—natural disasters lately, my mind’s been on last spring’s RP 12, during which we endured a flood, the result of a powerful storm system that put much of Arkansas and Missouri underwater. Last spring we had to retreat from our retreat; this fall’s stay in the Ozarks was the more tranquil experience you’d expect from a weekend in the Ozarks. The flood damage earlier this year wasn’t nearly as devastating as it could have been. Our flood provided just a glimpse of the potential effects of a natural disaster.
On Saturday afternoon, day two of RP 12 in late April, we watched the rain fall on Dawt Mill, the retreat’s riverfront site, which includes a restaurant, a bar, a general store, cabins, and an inn. By dinnertime the storm had strengthened, and it was clear that the basement of the restaurant would be underwater soon. We’d expected the rain, but the forecast hadn’t prepared us for the storm raging in front of us, feeding the river that grew visibly closer each hour. After dinner it looked like time to move up the hill, so we gathered at the inn, which is quite a bit farther up the bank. At this point we’d lost electricity, and some of us were without phone service. We were told by area police to stay on the hill but not to attempt to drive away from Dawt Mill, as several roads nearby were completely flooded already. I’d been enjoying the rain, but fear and anxiety were creeping up for me and for my roommates. A few friends had planned to camp, and we offered to share our space at the inn with them; we tried to keep calm as they moved in their bedding, their food, their personal items. Some of us spoke openly about the fear setting in; some of us were quiet, waiting anxiously for any indication the storm would end soon.
One “cowboy comedian,” a Dawt Mill entertainer, serenaded us that evening as the rain kept at it. Because he couldn’t leave the mill either, it seemed that he was stuck with us for the night. During a break in the music, just as the last bit of daylight left, I walked onto the porch of the inn and saw something I think I might never forget—I saw the cabin in front of me, just maybe forty feet away, wash away into the river. Dawt Mill was nearly unrecognizable—much of it had been taken by the water, only an hour or so after dinner. I wasn’t yet afraid for my life, really, but I knew we might not be able sleep in our room that night. I didn’t know where we’d go. The storm wasn’t giving up.
Soon, fortunately, local firefighters found a safe escape route for us and led a caravan to the firehouse. Most of us slept a few hours that night in our cars in the parking lot there. In the morning the firemen prepared us breakfast and let us know as updates came in about the state of the roads nearby. I’d ridden to the firehouse with my friend Bailey, so once it was safe she took me back to my car at Dawt Mill. The river hadn’t touched my car at all, and though Bailey and I were relieved to see that most of the buildings still were standing, the damage was pretty devastating. The inn was there, but it was soggy, smelling of wet wood; debris covered the grounds where cabins had stood. Thanks to local firefighters and police, the Dawt Mill staff, and River Pretty faculty, no one in our group was hurt or lost. Everyone survived, but it was clear everyone was shaken by the reality of the water’s power. I know I was. This was the closest I’d been to a life-threatening natural disaster—and I live in Oklahoma, land of tornadoes. Water is pretty, and water is powerful.
I wasn’t sure we’d have a place to gather for this fall’s retreat, but Dawt Mill was open and ready for us the first weekend of October. I also wasn’t sure how many people who’d endured the flood would go back—the experience surely caused some trauma. But I found that many of the attendees from the spring had readily returned. I spoke with a retreat-goer and friend, Hannah, this past weekend about the experience—she said, “I felt like I had to come back after that.” I knew exactly what she meant; the force of the flood had brought us all together. It was a terrifying experience we all endured, and RP is just the place to share those stories. We’d seen nature’s power, its rage, and we’d survived.
RP 13, though, brought us beautiful weather, low water levels, communion, and free time to write in the Ozarks. This fall’s guest faculty members were Robert Vivian (pictured) and Rick Jackson, both faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their readings, as well as those by River Pretty faculty (Ian Bodkin, Lee Busby, Rich Farrell, Chaz Miller, Jen Murvin, Steve Rucker) and retreat participants, created a warm, cozy, and inspirational atmosphere as soon as we gathered.
If you’re a writer in the area, I hope you’ll consider attending a retreat in the future. I’ve always loved autumn, but now that I have River Pretty—even after a flood!—and the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers to look forward to, I eagerly await October all year long. I think it’s all about coming together with a community that makes you feel at home and that encourages and inspires your growth. Together we thrive.
And now it’s writing conference time for Nimrod! Join us in Tulsa this weekend for the Conference for Readers and Writers, and join the River Pretty crew next spring.
Cassidy McCants, Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.