Notes from the writing retreat

photo-110I’ve been revising the novel again. As it gets heftier, getting a full sense of all that’s in there gets tough. I really wanted to be able to read through the manuscript start to finish, seeing what works and what doesn’t, without mentally challenging interruptions.

In other words, I needed a writing retreat. My husband kind of owes me on the childcare front, due to some choices he made over the last few weeks. I called in some chits and took off for my favorite little town in the Poconos this past weekend. I listened to Indigo Girls CDs in the car driving there. I checked myself into a little hotel, and spent 48 hours wrapped up in the story of The Cortlandt Boys.

It was not a perfect retreat. For starters, I kind of assumed my hotel room would have a desk and — in this lovely spot in the hills — a view. It had neither. But I made do. There was a little end table and some chairs, and I could sit on the bed. There was a fridge and a microwave so I didn’t even have to leave for every meal. Which was a good thing, because there were 8 inches of snow on the ground and it was freezing! On Sunday, for instance, (I stayed Sat night and Sun night and came home Monday) I worked straight from 1:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. I got through the book start to finish, and solved a few problems that had vexed me. I’m still tweaking, but I could tweak forever. At this point, much of the tweaking involves omitting needless words, and choosing better words (writing tip from John McPhee: never use the thesaurus for finding better words. Use the dictionary! You’re less likely to get the wrong connotation).

When I was in college, I was accepted into the Creative Writing Department’s senior thesis program. Because I was not an English major, this meant I had to write my creative thesis — a novel — in addition to my public policy thesis. I wound up cranking out a draft of that novel over fall break when the campus was quiet. I got roast beef hoagies, coffee and 100 Grand bars (I remember that like it was yesterday!) from the Wawa for sustenance and wrote every day from about 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. I was in the flow. I was happy.

The retreat recreated a bit of that as I drank my coffee and picked at the cheese calzone I got from a local pizza shop (it was big enough to last two days). I hunkered down with the manuscript. I like many aspects of my life — snuggles from my 2-year-old in between her bouts of hell-raising, for instance — but I do miss some of the quiet uninterrupted, hours-go-by nature of creative work. On the way home, I was listening to the Indigo Girls song Language or the Kiss, which is about the supposed loneliness of being on the road for the creative, performing life. At one point Amy and Emily croon “Oh, the fear I’ve known/that I might reap the praise of strangers/and end up on my own.”

Well, there are seasons in life, and sometimes in life, you want a little more praise from strangers, and a little more time on your own. I got some of that this weekend, and was grateful for it.

5 thoughts on “Notes from the writing retreat

  1. That sounds lovely. I am due for another retreat (took one in 2012) but can’t do it until our construction is finished and our house is inhabitable again.

    Besides sleep, that’s one of the things I miss since having kids – LONG stretches of uninterrupted time for my projects. I’ve really had to retrain myself on how to work effectively in short time periods. And it’s still not ideal.

  2. Sometimes we do feel like being stuck in the thick of thin things and the one thing that we want to be doing seems to have been missing out as a result. Everybody needs and deserves a break. I am glad you got your retreat, and that feeling of being in the zone uninterrupted, despite the absence of the desk and the view.

  3. On MLK Day, I will send my younger daughter to day care and my older daughter to a gymnastics camp, and take the day off from work. After I drop the older daughter at camp, I will sit down to tackle one or more of my goals for the year- probably I will finish getting collections added to my Tungsten Hippo website. It is the sort of thing that requires more than an hour of uninterrupted quiet time, and one of the things I learned last year is that it is OK to use my paid time off at work to get that. To be honest, I don’t even get uninterrupted quiet time at work anymore- we’ve moved to an open plan office which means that even when no one is trying to interrupt me, chances are someone will interrupt me. I miss uninterrupted quiet time to let my brain work. I turns out, that is one of the things that keeps me sane. So I’ve started giving it to myself a few times a year. And maybe someday, I’ll be able to change my work life such that I get that at work!

    1. @Cloud – I love, love, uninterrupted deep work time. I can write in just about any circumstance, but I’m much happier about it if I’m shut off in the equivalent of a garret.

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