Jacqueline Sheehan’s Life-Changing Retreat
Where do your stories come from? This is the question that I am asked more than any other. In the case of my new novel, The Center of the World, the answer is as strange as life itself.
I stepped into the water taxi on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala in 2006 to attend a writing retreat. During the previous six months, my mother died, I spent two weeks volunteering with the Red Cross in Mississippi after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, my daughter married and moved 1000 miles away, my two cats of 18 years died, and my job directing a college counseling center in Massachusetts had lost its glow. I had nearly finished a draft of my second novel but I had no idea if it would sell. (It would later sell over a half million copies and make the New York Times bestseller list.) To say that I was hollowed out would be an understatement.
Over the course of the retreat, I met some of the Mayan people who lived in the villages surrounding the massive, high altitude lake. They had survived attempts at genocide, natural disasters, and poverty. They greeted me with the kind of warmth that melted my heart. They were survivors. I met ex-pats who had stepped out of their proscribed lives in the US (find a job with benefits, stay in the job at all costs including your soul, buy a house, work 60 hours a week) and instead, they lived in haciendas along the steep hillsides and pursued their deepest loves of writing, painting, starting schools for remote villages, or creating clean drinking water systems.
One morning, as I watched a heron fly low over the lake at dawn, I realized that if my truest love was writing, then I would follow it as fully as I could, just as people had done along the lake. That day, I met with a Mayan shaman who told me, “You will come back. You will learn here.”
I returned to Massachusetts and resigned from my full time job. It felt like I was leaping off a cliff, yet I was somehow sustained by the spirit of the people I met at the retreat.
It has taken me 10 years to write The Center of the World, the novel that blended the lives of a North American woman caught up in the war in Guatemala, and a Mayan girl, and stretched all the way back to Massachusetts. I wrote and published several other novels in between then and now, but this story never left me, not since the moment a new life opened up when I stepped onto a boat along the clear waters of Lake Atitlan.
Jacqueline Sheehan, Ph.D., is a fiction writer and essayist. She is also a psychologist. She is a New Englander through and through, but spent twenty years living in the western states of Oregon, California, and New Mexico doing a variety of things, including house painting, freelance photography, newspaper writing, clerking in a health food store, and directing a traveling troupe of high school puppeteers.
She is the acclaimed author of the novels The Comet’s Tale, a Novel about Sojourner Truth; Lost & Found; Now & Then; and Picture This. She has also published travel articles, short stories, and numerous essays and radio pieces. She lives near Northampton in central Massachusetts. Her website is www.jacquelinesheehan.com.
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