Two years ago I cracked the sads when I had to leave Djerassi. On my return home, I was bereft. Looking back, I think a lot of it had to do with the state my life was in at the time, but it was also due to the fact that it was the first time since I’d started seriously writing that I let myself be only a writer, one hundred per cent, if only for a week.

I started my first novel before I got pregnant, but at the time I was working full time as an IT project manager; writing was just something fun to do when I was stuck on an aeroplane or in a hotel room and didn’t feel like preparing for my next meeting. Then, I pretty much stopped writing for a year and a half after I found out I was pregnant, and when I picked it up again it was only for one day a week. The first time I went to Djerassi, I didn’t know anyone and spent most of my non-workshop time alone in my studio, revelling in artistic freedom and inspiration. Leaving was hard.

Last week, I returned for the first YA alumni workshop and everything was different right from the first moment:

Djerassi before and after

The drought was over and the landscape was so green it no longer reminded me of Adelaide, but of Scotland or Ireland. And it was clear, all the way to the ocean; on the drive up the mountain, my breath caught as I took in views that had been obscured by heavy fog the last time.

But the biggest difference this time was that I knew—we all knew—what we were in for. I had none of the nervous jitters about spending a week with strangers; I’d kept in touch with the women I met the last time, and more than half of them had returned. Part of what had made me so sad to leave in 2014 was that I wasn’t sure I would ever see these women again. But, as fate would have it, one of them had missed her flight from LA to SFO and we ended up on the same plane, giggling and gossiping like teenagers all the way. (Sorry to everyone that flight. But not all that sorry. Totally worth the dirty looks.)

Maybe it was because we were not new to the place, and each other, or maybe it was because Nova knows how to handpick a naturally cohesive group, but this time, even though we started the workshops on the first full day, none of us got much actual writing done for the first three or four days. I tried, but I couldn’t stay in my seat. I was assigned to the choreography studio, and I built myself a little writing cave out of mirrors (it was too weird writing with my back to a huge empty room). The deer wandered about, grazing within metres of me; the sun shone in and warmed my skin which was pale at the end of a long Norwegian winter. Everything was there to inspire me, and I was fired up to work, but I couldn’t settle on a single project. There was revision on a complete novel, drafting to do on a new one, short stories for anthologies that needed work . . . but there were friends I hadn’t seen in two years, and new friends I wanted to get to know. Writer friends who were all at different places along the same journey. There is inspiration to be found in learning about those journeys, and most of us eased our grip on our writing goals in those first days long enough to enjoy one another’s company.

On the evening of the Spring equinox, we chose spirit animals, offered up gifts of the earth, and made our intentions known to the universe in a ritual celebrating the convergence of positive female energy. It also happened to be a full moon that week. I tend to be a little cynical about things like this, but whatever it was we experienced together, it was powerful. The simple act of stating our creative intentions aloud bound us together in a way I can’t really describe without sounding a little fruity. I will just say that I was profoundly moved by the experience.

A couple of days later was my birthday. I don’t like birthdays, as a rule. Like new year’s eve, they tend to build expectations that are too easily dashed. I was happy to be spending my birthday at Djerassi with good friends, but as usual I avoided forming expectations. It was enough to be in a creative place with the freedom to do as I pleased with the time. But, to my surprise and delight, I was given gifts, the resident manager made a banner, there was chocolate cake and stewed pears and ice cream, and everyone sang.

If you had asked me the first time whether that first week at Djerassi could have been better, I would have responded with a resounding no. I would have been wrong. Yes, I missed the women from the first workshop who couldn’t be there this second time, but I also met new amazing women. We laughed SO MUCH. We knew how to critique each other with more consideration, with more emphasis on empowerment, and we knew when it was time to take a break and just be there together.

Nova is running another YA workshop at Djerassi in 2017. If you are a YA writer and have ever considered this type of retreat, I strongly urge you to apply. My experiences there, and the friends I made, have literally changed my life.