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Farming and conservation on the St. John River…and writing retreats?

26 Apr 2024 3:42 PM | Executive Director (Administrator)

The view of Tennants Cove

A generation ago, when Franz and Anne Von Ziegesar (Zuh-gay-sar) of Connecticut sailed up the St. John (Wolastoq) River into Tennants Cove, they passed by an idyllic 175-acre farm near Kars, NB, and they just had to see if it was for sale.

The owner was a 90-year-old widower with no children. He was a descendant of the original owners, first-generation loyalists named the Pickets, who first settled in Kingston, New Brunswick.

American author (and WFNB member!) Peter Von Ziegesar was 12 when his parents bought the property, and afterward, the family travelled up to Kars every summer from their Connecticut home to enjoy the peace and quiet of this rural farming community.

Peter Von Ziegesar

Born in New York City and raised in Connecticut, Peter was originally trained as a sculptor. Ten years ago, he published a memoir (The Looking Glass Brother, St. Martin’s Press, 2014) which chronicled his problematic relationship with his stepbrother, also called Peter. His stepbrother was a violin prodigy but developed schizophrenia at the age of 20. 

Peter is also a screenwriter, and several of his films are part of a collection belonging to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “It’s been a huge part of our lives, and my children’s lives,” he says, of the farm. “They grew up with the people in the neighbourhood, and their kids – who are real farmers, you know. It’s been a real positive thing in our lives.”

When Peter’s father died, he left the property to him, and he wondered what he ought to do with it next. (The acreage is now a Nature Trust of New Brunswick Conservation Easement, in which old fields, oak and cedar forests and 3.2 km of St. John River frontage are protected from development.)

Since he always felt like it was a great place to get work done, Peter teamed up with his friend, novelist and screenwriter Melissa Scholes Young, to establish Tennants Cove Writers Retreat, a five-day intensive writing retreat with consultations for a maximum of six people. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown), Melissa is currently an associate professor in Literature at American University. The movie rights for one of her novels has just been optioned by Sony.

Melissa Scholes Young

Participants work with Peter and Melissa on their memoir, fiction, or screenwriting projects. Their five-day retreat is uniquely tailored to writers who are working on their first novel manuscript or memoir, and who may feel stuck. “I spent a lot of time as an editor. I’ve worked on a lot of other people’s work, and Melissa has spent a lot of time working with other fiction and nonfiction writers. Together, I think we have real expertise in helping people find out where they’re heading, evaluating their work, and to help them find a direction for the rest of their manuscript. Melissa is really good at structure.”

Peter and Melissa have kept in touch with their authors and monitor their progress. He was gratified to say that one of the students from his first retreat has finally finished his novel, “one that he was really struggling over when he was with us two years ago. He’s from Toronto, and when he came to us, he was quite lost, but showed a lot of talent.”

At a retreat, students arrive on Sunday and gather for dinner. By this time, all their works-in-progress have been read by Peter and Melissa. They proceed with one-on one-consultations, workshops and writing prompts, morning and afternoon. They cover whatever is needed, even if it’s grammar and sentence structure. The sessions are a bonding experience. “By the end of the second day,” Peter says, “everyone is exhausted. They’ve shared their souls and have dug deep to bring out the truths that need to be revealed."

The retreat crew enjoying dinner

On Day 3, Wednesday, the group takes a break from consultations or workshops and spend the day writing, catching up and implementing what they’ve learned. They take the time to enjoy the farm and the surrounding scenery. Wednesday night, they usually have a talent show. “Everybody has some weird talent,” Peter says, smiling.

From songwriting to reading auras, to telling ghost stories, the talent show is a fun way to blow off energy from the hard work of the previous days.

Peter’s son and daughter also participate in the Tennant’s Cove Retreat. “My son is a bartender and chef, as well as a great guitar player, and my daughter is working toward her PhD in Philosophy--- she makes great vegetarian salads! This event has become quite a family enterprise.”

On Thursday and Friday, the participants take part in another round of one-on-one consultations, and people also start getting together for guided or spontaneous workshops. By Friday night, people are happy-exhausted, and hang out over homemade pizza. Even though they come from different places and perspectives and write about wildly different things, everyone bonds over the shared experience.

“Most people in New York at least, they know Nova Scotia, but New Brunswick is kind of an unknown. I’ve known about it all my life, but it seems like a secret to the outside world. Where we are, it’s just a real quiet place—hardworking, good people there with farms. What we’re doing as writers, we’re not really blending into what’s happening around us, but it is a good setting for writing, I think.”

Spaces are available for the next retreat on July 28 – August 3. The six-night, five-day gathering is $1500, including room, board, and consultations. They’ve never had a participant from NB before, and they would love a WFNB member to be the first. Check out tennantscovewriters.com for more details.

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