Friday, August 8, 2008

I'm Converted. Writing Retreats Work.

I returned from Alaska to the reality of my impending move to California. There are many, many piles of STUFF to look at, make decisions about, pack tightly in shippable boxes...and I knew that I was going to get no writing done in the noise.

So I escaped, back to Rowe, for 2 and a half days. I brought one pair of pants and my laptop. Senior High Camp was happening, so I stayed mostly incognito. My goal: either finish what feels like a full draft of the novel, or get the manuscript up to 75,000 words. I did both! On the first day! I got more work done on my novel in those two days than in two months prior.

I've always had a little scorn for "Writer's Retreats." The main reason is that I have this impression that they are the selfish, expensive, last-ditch effort on the part of people who want to write, but don't have a daily practice. If there's no commitment to writing, there's not going to be some sudden upsurge of brilliance after three days in a cabin. "REAL" writers shouldn't need them. I didn't even know I was prejudiced until I decided to take some time away from everything to work on the novel, and felt shy and silly. Like I was buying into some myth that going into the woods will fix a block.

Now, I'm totally converted. I have a writing practice, a writing career, a writing life. I don't feel at all shy about calling myself "a writer" when people ask what I do. And like I said, I got more done in those two days than I had in the months prior, which means something special was happening in those days, and I think I know what it was.

There are three parts. Part one was that I successfully cut down on my distractions. I couldn't get online on my laptop for the most part, so when I sat down to work, it was only to work. I was alone for hours at a time with no cell phone and no piles of mail. Totally obvious. But somehow I thought I was a pillar of discipline and had never truly considered how distractable I am.

Part two was that I had an incredible amount of social support, built into my being there. I told everyone the reason I was visiting was to write, so when friends at Rowe took breaks from running camp they would ask me how my writing was going. I was getting checked on every few hours, totally unexpectedly, by people I care a great deal about, and that was surprisingly motivating. Because there is such a high value placed on creativity in that community, the air was filled with stories of the brilliance of the camp, and I think creativity works by osmosis, if you're deliberately permeable. Their great work helped me do great work. The legend of the lonely writer, who works best shut in a tower, just doesn't apply here. I'd prefer to be at a picnic table outside, with people all around doing projects, planning games, and occasionally patting my shoulders. At every mealtime someone I hadn't seen yet would come up and hug me. I had a perfect balance of silence and company.

Part three was a slightly more complicated abstract process of making my book feel more real by taking it somewhere new. I've worked on it mostly in Boston. I've done some writing in Los Angeles, where the novel is set. I've done some work on the cruise ship in Alaska. Each time I take the manuscript to a new setting, and try to re-enter the world of my characters, I have to ground their world even more carefully. I'm noticing new things in my own environment, and that leads me to think about new details of my fictional environment. Writing from Rowe, an isolated rural place, somehow turned the volume up on my reflections about being in an urban environment. I thought differently about the Los Angeles in my novel, being so far from it. I noticed how hard it is to eat alone all the time when you're in a city, as I ate family style in camp. I remembered a lot of noises I wasn't hearing--the distant horns and unfamiliar voices outside my old Hollywood apartment were replaced by thunderstorms outside Rowe's Farmhouse. I thought about how many pairs of shoes my characters needed to wear, because I was wearing the same ones for three days.

The grand sense of relief and the thrill of accomplishment hit me on Tuesday night, when a group of friends, some excitingly new and some with dear history, met me in the "smoker's tent." I'd brought a tin of fancy bourbon vanilla cigars for the occasion, and we had a hilarious fifteen minutes puffing away together in celebration. It was one of the more touching, silly, and fulfilling mini-parties I've ever attended. I felt surrounded by support and wished that everyone I know would both (1) start and finish big creative projects and (2) have a crew of chums like mine to help them along. Earlier in the day, I'd gone adventuring with two of them, to an enchanted swimming spot called Tannery Falls. We scrambled down a long set of wood plank stairs and muddy trail to a secret, shaded waterfall that looked about five stories high. The water was freezing. We got in! It was glorious! I ceremoniously dunked myself and proclaimed a new phase beginning. Then we cruised back to camp in time for dinner, wide awake and happy. I even got work done after that.

Now I sink back into revision, into the transition of moving back to California, into preparations for Burning Man, into the next, the next, the next.


  1. Hi Vanessa!

    You've said some brilliantly interesting things about your writing process here, would you be happy for me to link to this for friends of mine?


  2. Hi Juliax!

    Of course I'd be happy for you to link to friends! Link away. I had to take a brief hiatus to go into the desert for Burning Man. Now I'm back and will update in the next few days. Thanks for reading.