I just returned from a four day solo writing retreat.
It was AMAZING.
It was brutal.
It was like going off to summer camp in paradise, except I was the only camper and instead of riding horses and making lanyards I banged my head against a wall for ten hours a day.
Here’s what that wall taught me:
Setting a Word Goal was a Good Idea
I knew what I was going on retreat to work on, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I was going to be able to do it. I was worried that I’d get bogged down trying to make each sentence perfect as a way to avoid working through the story. Perfectionism is a procrastinator’s best friend, after all. To combat this, I set a word goal (20,000 words) and I made it public on social media.
This might not work for everyone, but for a gold star girl like myself, I knew that the fear of failure would keep me writing, even if half of what I wrote would eventually end up in the trash can of my hard drive. This proved extremely useful during the
10,000 several times I found myself stuck and scared to keep going. I had to keep going because I’d said I’d keep going, and I was posting my progress.
I didn’t, however, vow that the “keeping going” would be anything worth reading. Which leads me to my next lesson…
A Poor Start Doesn’t Promise a Poor Ending
Turns out my writing is like an old car with bad gas. It takes a while for me to sputter through all the crappiness and misfirings and land somewhere like a smooth ride. I’ve got to pull towards the bushes on both sides of the road before I can find my groove.
At least eighty percent of what I wrote during my first day and a half will be burned (electronically) before it can ever be traced back to me. God willing.
But, given enough time to wander, I eventually find my way. Not that my way is clear cut, or unburdened with a gazillion cliches and bad transitions… but it’s at least worthy to be what Anne Lammott calls a “shitty first draft.” Perhaps not ideal, but a hundred times better than the thousand words before which could be called at best a “shitty kindergarten mother’s day card.”
Alcohol is a Frenemy
I started this retreat just days after my Lenten alcohol fast ended. The first night I was amazed at how little I drank (just one small glass of wine) without the stressors of three whining preschoolers and two moody preteens.
The next day, when I got stuck and scared around 3pm, there were no dinners or bedtime stories to be tended to and I could think of no better respite than a glass of the bottle of wine that had been left for me. It made it easier to dig into the hard parts. By ten pm that bottle was long gone. I woke up the next morning trying to remember how to type.
True, staying up until 2am watching bad TV was an experience I just couldn’t get at home, but given the number of sputtering engine hours the next day, I don’t think it was worth it.
When All Else Fails, Go For a Walk
Ok, so I didn’t exactly learn this. I already knew that getting a little fresh air was a better strategy than, say, drinking a bottle of wine (ahem). There’s actually tons of research on the link between walking and creativity (here’s one) and of course it comes highly recommended by the likes of Woolf and Wordsworth. Still, at home I’ve got a very limited amount of time for writing (read: five minutes) and I’m not likely to use it wandering my suburban streets, no matter how good it is for me. But on retreat there was plenty of time for poking around in the woods. I spent at least an hour each day marching through nature and I discovered that all those smart people were right: I could walk myself out of a jam. Go figure.
You’re Never Too Old to be Homesick
I haven’t spent four and a half days away from my family since I made my family. Dreamt about it sure (long, lusty dreams), but never actually done it. Imagine my surprise, when on day three, I woke up missing those rascals. Like deep down aching in my bones missed them. By evening I had a fever. Alright, that may imply that there was something else going on, but I choose to believe that I’m just such a dedicated wife and mother that I got sick in their absence. Work with me here.
We will conveniently ignore the fact that I was pretty worthless when I got home too. Details.
Here I am, back home in my familiar library chair with 20,000+ words under my belt. I’m thrilled to be surrounded by all these hollering kids. Thrilled to be making dinners, and teaching math, folding laundry and wondering what I just stepped in. Honest, I am.
In fact, I’m so thrilled that right after I throw together some breakfast I’m going to go lie on the couch and have myself a long lusty dream about going away again.
Maybe every month.