Driving south to Key Largo, I rolled down my windows. Bird nests swarmed the telephone poles. The miles stretched on. No stoplights. "Best key lime pie!" screamed a billboard, right beside a strip club. "Live bait," said another in squiggly hand-painted letters. In my trunk, I'd packed my laptop, a Ziplocked bag of El Diablo coffee, and a dozen new Radiohead tracks on my iPod. I'd never spent the weekend, locked in a stilt-legged house with an all-girl group of young adult novelists.

What could I expect?

--Manatees cartwheeling in the canal, every morning. Every time we sprayed the garden hose into the canal, they bobbed their whiskery, sock puppet faces on the surface.

--Jackie's cardboard box of curry spices in the kitchen, her "manga pens" scattered on the table

--sunset walks in the sand with Danielle, Jessica, and Marjetta...(sipping from plastic cups, keeping it classy on our palm-shaded picnic bench).

--Megan leaning back on the boat docks, whispering about the silent colors of the Northern Lights.

--Mimi's motorcycle tips ("You speed up to turn...") and her pink Converse sneakers, perched on the steps

--Amanda, our wisecracking "house mother," who set up the writing retreat. "It's your time...whatever you want it to be," she told us.

Every writer shared something in common: a stubborn refusal to grow up. (Maybe that's why we tell stories about teenagers?) Still, we write in different voices and genres. We approach the writing process in our own unique ways: Many of us typed on laptops. Others wrote by hand. Some revised by re-typing the entire manuscript, start to finish. We craved music or silence. All of us daydreamed and wondered: Am I the only one who feels this way?

For once, we weren't alone.

As kids, we read the same books: Below The Root. The Last Unicorn. Howl's Moving Castle. And my ultimate favorite, The Changeling.

We had lots of friends in common--fairies and elves and ghosts of dead princes. It makes me wonder: Who's reading those books--right now--and dreaming the same dreams?

All of us share a neverending conversation. Now we have our own stories to share.

It reminded me of Christian Marclay's "The Clock," a film I'd watched at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. The director gathered bits and pieces of existing films and stitched them together, matching each character's imaginary clock time to ours. It was the closest experience to flipping pages in a book. Watching those characters on the screen, I became aware of myself as a spectator, sitting on the floor, staring at a screen, surrounded by strangers.

Reading is the ultimate virtual reality. You take snippets of your own memories and plug them into other people's lives. It's our way of making sense of the world--making up stories and writing them down.

When I got home, I felt ready to tackle a new project. My own personal strategy? Drawing characters from my imagination. As I sketch, I talk to them, shooting off questions like a TV interview. Sometimes they keep quiet. Most often, they have a lot to say.

Trent has a thing for goofy hats, just like me.

My first doodle after the retreat.

Sometimes I need a break from words, just to find them.