The write stuff: Writers' retreat was "perfect class at perfect time"

Tami Oachs always wanted to make writing a career. But, she says, "I just didn't have the confidence to do it." Now, thanks to a retreat she took last summer through the College of Continuing Education's Split Rock Arts Program, Oachs (shown) has finally found the confidence she needed.

Tami OachsFor several years, Oachs had been working on a memoir about the effect of her father's childhood experiences on her family. "At age seven, he was torn from a loving foster family and reunited with a mother he no longer knew. It was devastating," the Faribault woman says.

Oachs wanted to fit her family's complicated dynamics into a narrative, but she wasn't sure how to do it. "I knew where I wanted to go, but I didn't know how to get there," she says.

Then an artist friend who had participated in the Split Rock program showed Oachs a course catalog. She was immediately drawn to "Into the Country of Memoir," a weeklong writers' retreat at the Cloquet Forestry Center led by award-winning writer and form Star Tribune travel editor Catherine Watson. "It was the perfect class at the perfect time," Oachs recalls.

But first Oachs, a single mother of two teenage boys, had to come up with the tuition. Her friend encouraged her to apply for a scholarship, and Oachs received both a Mucke-Roff Scholarship and a scholarship from the Women's Fund for Continuing Education.

During the week in Cloquet, Oachs learned to approach her project by breaking it down into manageable bites. She also learned how to create a narrative that would pull readers in and keep them engaged. "Catherine made the class a safe place for students. Her feedback was constructive and positive," Oachs says. "I get nervous when I have to share personal things with a group, but my classmates were kind, attentive, and incredibly validating."

Oachs and her classmates have kept in touch by e-mail and on Facebook. And they're trying to organize a writers' group for the Minnesota participants. "The Split Rock experience enabled me to join a family of like-minded writers," Oachs says. "It was truly life-changing."