The writer on retreat

Here’s the writer in her chair mulling over Charles Baxter’s essay, “Defamiliarization” (Burning Down the House) as she tries to “think” the words on the page instead of just letting the pen flow. She knows what to do—a prompt, a timer and let ‘er rip—but she’s in resistance mode, a not unfamiliar place she’s found herself these last weeks at the cabin in Idyllwild.

Outside the squirrels and tiny chipmunks scurry-search the hillside for grubs or seeds or whatever will feed them. Not unlike her mind frantic-digging into phrases, images, looking for one good word. Inside, the fan whirs white noise as she stares at her page, bare feet propped on footstool, lapdesk propped on knees. She chews her lip. Probably before long she’ll get up, fill a bowl with nuts and dried berries; she’s done that before, too. And an ice tea so long as she’s in the kitchen, and then there’ll be the ice cube tray to refill, the cupboard to wipe down. And so on and so on.

She considers making a phone call, considers taking a nap, but somehow through the fog and white noise, she remembers Ron Carlson’s vow to sit in the chair for twenty more minutes (Ron Carlson Writes a Story) and how her teacher told her to “stay in the room,” and she doesn’t get up, doesn’t bolt, doesn’t throw her notebook at the squirrels outside the window and shout “Just shoot me.” Instead she turns to a fresh page and runs her palm across its blue-lined face. She thinks of the girls and boys in Africa or Afghanistan who have no paper or scant amounts, considers the trees that have been sacrificed so she can scratch out her pitiful words on their remains and begins:

“I think we should find an apartment together,” Sarita said.

… and so it goes. Seven messy, scribbled pages later, she puts down her pen, stretches her legs and gazes out the window, stunned by the blue of the sky.

Q: How do you overcome resistance?

“If I could just get away . . . “

Our Mountain Retreat

Definition of irony: I am taking time away from my time away to write about getting away. That is, I have holed myself up in a mountain cabin in Idyllwild with my friend Dian for a month-long writing retreat. No Internet or cell-phone service unless I go “down the hill” as the local say, to a café, and no television only my Rodney Yee yoga DVDs and my laptop, a few of my notebooks and a firm commitment to finish the third draft of my novel.

You might say I’m in heaven.

Though by far my longest “time away,” this isn’t the only writing retreat I’ve created for myself this year. At least once a month my friend Jill and I make a date for three or four hours at her house or mine to devote to our writing, in May she invited me to her ranch for a glorious and productive three-day retreat. I also consider my monthly Saturday Series gatherings with a dozen or so other writers a retreat; I even include “retreat” in the title of the series, and certainly the twice-yearly, day-long writing marathons at The Ink Spot are a time-out-of-time, rowdy and rambunctious as they can sometimes be.

Fellow Retreater

To my mind, a writing retreat is the time I take out of my ordinary day-in and day-out routine, when I set everything aside and give myself over to my writing. It’s where I go when I remove myself from the ordinary and move into the extraordinary. So, in this sense, the hour-long Thursday Writers sessions and Tuesday Brown Bag group I participate in could be called mini-retreats. Even my daily writing practice can be turned into a retreat when I create the right container for it—that is, setting aside time, creating space (for me, that means lighting a candle) and entering the time and space with intention.

Much as I believe that the idea of a writing retreat will always include “getting away” (I expect secluded mountain cabins or private, distant seashores will forever remain in my writer’s mind’s eye), I also believe it’s important to create other, less extensive writing retreats that can refill and restore us, open us to creative expression and allow us to dip into the solitude we need. Consider this:

• that a writing retreat is not necessarily a place, but a concept.

• that the word retreat is both a noun and a verb.

• that time can be measured not just in length, but in depth.

• that the idea of being alone isn’t about being distant from people but not allowing others to intrude on your solitude.

When was the last time you gave yourself the gift of “getting away”?

*some of the material was previously published in my kit, The Writer’s Retreat Kit, a Guide for Creative Expression & Personal Exploration.