I’ve talked about it for longer than I can remember. A writer’s retreat; not attending a retreat of writers, but finding a remote location and going solo, just me, my laptop, notebooks, and favorite pen—because I still need to scribble plot structures and work out rough patches on paper. I think it’s so I can crumble the failures into tight little balls and pitch them at the wall.
Anyway, when the opportunity came to stay in a friend’s studio office during a vacancy I started packing my bags. A little tip here to help you avoid over packing—whatever you put in your suitcase, take out half of it. Then wait a little while and take out a more. Writing in seclusion does not require a wardrobe.
With my (over) packing done and the open road waiting I wasn’t prepared for the inner struggle and determination it would take to actually get out the door. I knew the little studio had no Internet connection and no television. The prospect of a week alone with nothing but my thoughts to keep my company was suddenly intimidating.
I considered tucking a few DVD movies into my bag, but my inner taskmaster nixed the idea. Oh come on, just something to watch late at night. A little amusement to quiet my mind after all the writing and help me fall asleep? The answer remained a firm no.
Turns out I didn’t need the distraction to help me relax. Without the constant buzz of electronic information in my ear, there wasn’t much to wind down from at the end of the day. It was early to bed and early to rise with nothing but sleep in between.
Still, I didn’t amass as much writing as I’d hoped. At least not on my novel, which was the whole idea of secluding myself for a week. However I did write several journal entries, a few poems, the eulogy for a fondly remembered aunt (who recently passed on at age 98), a heartfelt thank you to my hostess, and this blog post.
All of this is not to say that my progress on the novel was nil. I’d already completed the first draft in one month, during NaNoWriMo last November. Writing 50K-plus words in 30 days makes for a very rough first draft, with a lot of parenthetical notes reading: Figure this out later. I still have some figuring to do–or maybe conjuring is a better word.
Writing is some kind of magic—the projection onto the printed page of a specific place, time, and story that exists only in the form of thought energy. The energy is transported through literal time and space (even years after the author is long since dead), manifesting a visceral reaction in the reader—a complete stranger to the writer. You have to admit, that’s some trick.
So if my simple retreat ended without seeing the great leaps and bounds I’d hoped for in the progress of my novel, it was not a total waste. Leaving behind all that day-to-day stuff that spins my wheels and mostly gets me nowhere, left me able to slow down for a time and take in everything around me.
I sat at the edge of the great Mississippi, a river that has inspired countless works of art, poetry and literature. I walked steep wooded trails, drove through the rolling hillside on winding country lanes flanked by farms rich with black, river basin soil. I rolled down my windows to greet the Black Angus cattle, Guernsey cows, newly sheared sheep, barnyard chickens, and one very relaxed tiger tomcat stretched out in the sun.
I stood at the foot of the sheer cliffs rising above the valley, and then perched on the highest bluff to see cut of the river through the land for miles in each direction. These are the perspectives, the sensory bits and pieces that make great novels. Hopefully, at least one of them mine.