This is the second part of the Q&A with my friend Anitra following my return from my month-long writing retreat in Idyllwild, a small mountain community in Southern California. While there I worked on my new book, Wild Women, Wild Voices, which will be out next Spring.
Anitra: Did work come out of that concentrated time that might not have in your normal life? Or did it just come faster because you could concentrate more?
Judy: I definitely got more work done in the concentrated time than I would have at home in my “normal” life. I averaged five or six hours at the writing desk each day, in addition to the reading, research, and notes outside of that. The length of time is not so surprising, but the day-in and day-outness of it is something I don’t have in my life at home.
Because I was able to have that time, and because I was isolated—no distractions—the work stayed alive. Mornings began with pages and pages of journal writing with coffee, and thoughts and ideas and doubts and confirmations about the writing and the project itself filled my journal each morning. At the end of the writing day, I often turned to my journal again to write “outside the story,” threads that developed during the writing that I wanted to explore.
Several nights, I had dreams about the book, and it seemed that even the books of poetry and the novels I’d taken as “off-time” reading related somehow; occasions of synchronicity were common. This concentrated time away is the primary reason I go on retreats even though this one was longer than I’m usually able to take.
Anitra: Did the rhythm of your writing on the page slow down from being in a peaceful place? Was your focus clearer in the woods?
Judy: I appreciate the idea of the mountains and the woods being a peaceful place, but in reality, this wasn’t the case for me. At least, not always. Maybe it had to do with the isolation. (What’s that Rilke quote about to be a writer you have to be able to stand the solitude?)
We had terrible winds for several days the first week I was there, and the pines are not peaceful when they’re disturbed by high winds. They complain. Loudly. And pieces of them break off and fall onto the deck and the roof. And at night, critters scamper across the roof with their scampering little feet. Plus, for a week while I was away, wildfires raged at home, which added to my anxiety.
Winter wasn’t finished with Idyllwild either; temps went way down and, SoCal gal that I am, I’m not used to that (please, no teasing from my friends to whom the 40s is right nice weather.) And then there was the thunderstorm, with lightning and hail! Not something we ever have in San Diego.
There were lovely days, too, when my morning started with yoga outside on the deck, breathing in the scent of pine and clean air and long walks in the afternoon, when I took a break. The squirrels outside the window my writing table faced were entertaining, too, and the birdsong, a nice accompaniment to the rhythm of the keyboard.
But for me, the most peaceful times I experienced were those times I was so lost in the work I was unaware of much of anything else. This is when my focus is always clearest. Into the woods or at my writing table at home, a crowded cafe or a roomful of other writers… let me get myself out of the way so the words can come through me.
I’m going back up to Idyllwild at the end of July with my regular Idyllwild retreat partner, Dian and it will be a completely different experience. The anxiety I experienced in all that solitude will be alleviated by the presence of my friend and I’ll only be there for five days this time, but these will be the five days that I finish the manuscript for the book and hit “send.”
I hope I don’t sound whiny or unappreciative of this gift of time alone that I gave myself. I got so much work done and learned a few things about myself, too. And I returned with a deeper appreciation for home and a vow to make my writing time and space there as comfortable and nurturing as possible, and to protect my time so that each time I go to my writing space I can feel like I’m on retreat.
Would I go away for a month at a time, by myself, on another retreat? Yes, but I would invite a writing friend to join me for a few days, and then another one for another few days. Or if I were going to a retreat place that included others, each of us with our own spaces, but communal opportunities, too.
You? Have you created a nurturing space for your writing? Do you find it hard to protect your writing time?