retreat noun re·treat | ri-ˈtrēt 1 : an act or process of withdrawing 2: a place of privacy or safety 3: a period of withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction
For five days, I woke not to the alarm on my phone, but to sun pouring into my room at dawn accompanied by the musical conversation of birds in a gingko tree outside. For five days, I drank tea, read essays, practiced yoga, and took leisurely hikes through frozen woods. For five days, I slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, and spoke to almost no one. For five days, I worked on a manuscript that has been a major focus for nearly five years. It was my first writing retreat.
It wasn’t all bliss, but it was the most beautiful solitary confinement imaginable. Though I regularly desire and require time alone, I am a social creature, prone to distraction and procrastination, and often have days so jam-packed and busy, I forget to take a real breath until I see a stunning sunset pinkening on the horizon on my way from work. Having only myself and my writing to attend to sounded like paradise, and it mostly was.
In my lovely high perch called the Eagle’s Nest, a unit atop a cottage in the woods with a spectacular view of mountains, I warmed up by reading an article on “deep work,” which just happen to publish in the New York Times that day, followed by a helpful recent post on Jane Friedman’s site about point of view in memoir by Sarah Chauncey. Last, I reread Kurt Vonnegut’s extremely succinct “writing advice” as guiding principles:
- Find a subject you care about.
- Do not ramble though.
- Keep it simple.
- Have the guts to cut.
- Sound like yourself.
- Say what you mean to say.
- Pity the readers.
I really clutched Number 7 to my bosom while I performed surgery on my manuscript, chopping away redundancies, embellishing areas I knew needed more meat, organizing and reorganizing, calling myself out when I used too-fancy adjectives, went on too long, or was hiding from the truth. Being able to stay immersed in my tome for the duration, instead of dipping in and out as I had to do for many months, provided for the first time a clear sense of what my book could be as a cohesive whole rather than a lot of related pieces.
When I needed a break, I took one. In order to avoid my phone, I studied the chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice (titmouses?) at the bird feeder or turned to the pages of a fantastic, efficient little book I pulled from the shelves of my borrowed room: Long Life by Mary Oliver, which I learned later I finished on the day she died. When I needed air, I bundled up and meandered through the trails of the property, studying woodpecker holes in tree trunks, peeling curls of birch bark, and swirly patterns in ice.
My protective bubble was burst once: On my second morning, a legitimate, but entirely unwelcome communications crisis at work derailed me for half a day. By the third day, I found myself unpredictably lonely and was thankful for an invitation for a “wee visit and a cuppa” from my delightful, wise host, the poet Patricia Lee Lewis. By day four, I had accomplished more than I had thought realistically possible, and paced back and forth between my two-room world anxiously that evening, wine glass in hand, freaking out about actually doing the one thing I desperately came to do: finishing.
End goal in sight, I felt suddenly terrified. I considered calling my husband, my mentor, and my dad. I thought about just calling it quits and being done with the retreat. I had been so productive already, after all. This deep work was seriously hard, and I was officially exhausted. Instead, I talked myself down, knowing I would have approximately five hours the following day before check-out — surely enough for the small final tasks at hand — and if not, whatever, it was OK.
That last morning, Patricia knocked an hour before I had to leave for a goodbye hug. “Guess what?” I asked her with the glee of a little kid.
“I just finished!”
“Oh, my dear, it’s like giving birth!” she exclaimed, and gave me a second hug. “I know.”
There is still work ahead, especially if I am lucky enough to get this baby out into the world, but right now, I feel as satisfied and peaceful as I have in a very long time. The relief of seeing a major project all the way through is quite something.
I am full of gratitude for those who made my retreat and the completion of this manuscript possible, as I realize again that great accomplishments often require great community. Patchwork Farm, Straw Dog Writers Guild, and my friend Sarah who sent me the original email encouraging me to apply, thank you.