Thursday, February 2, 2012

Practice Thursday—The yoga of writing

The first time I went on a writing retreat, I had no idea what I was doing. And get this: I went for two months! I arrived at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, in the winter of '94, with my clunky Mac Classic in tow, a box of books, a sack full of travel journals, and lots of big ideas about writing.

I soon found out, rather painfully, that big ideas about writing often lead you nowhere. Those big ideas sit in the middle of the room, daring you to write something good. Something good and something long. They glower at you. They grumble and complain. They make you hungry just an hour after breakfast. They give you a whopping headache. They make you look at the clock and wonder if anyone would notice if you just headed home, say, 7 weeks early.

The cottage had a padded windowseat, a sleeping loft, a tiny woodstove, and a long desk by a window that looked into the woods. The cooks brought your lunch to you in a basket and tiptoed away. You could bicycle to Useless Bay, take long walks there accompanied by sandpipers. You could lose yourself at Useless Bay, and find yourself, and wander every which way in between. You could feel what it was like to be perfectly useless.

The pure beauty and generosity of the place made you extremely grateful and, if you're a neurotic like me, extremely guilty. What had I done to deserve such beneficence?

But though I spent much of my time at Hedgebrook fighting off my own demons, I did write my first major braided essay there: "Basha Leah", an essay that is wholly dependent on the space that grew in me during that time. It's a lyric piece that told me, gently, that I had to give up my "big ideas" and pay attention to small details instead. It told me to sit still, to wait. It demanded that I simply be quiet.

Back then (sorry kids, here's grandma going on about the "good ol' days again....), you really had to dive into yourself on a writing retreat. There were very few distractions--no email, no internet, only a pay phone in the woodshed. You didn't get much mail because you wouldn't be there for long. You had yourself, and your other self, and maybe another self for company during the day (a tiresome group at best....),so you looked forward with inordinate glee to conversation with other writers at the farm table at dinner. Sometimes you wandered into the kitchen early, asked if you could chop a carrot or two, just so you could feel productive at something.


I've been on many, many writing retreats since then, but the nature of retreats for me has changed gradually over the years. They've grown shorter, for one thing (thank god), and I often now go on writing retreat with a friend, at a place called The Whiteley Center where we fall into an easy routine, supporting one another in our work. I'm finding that I no longer need to see writing as a purely solitary act; in fact, I can get too mired in myself.

And now it's rare to find a writing retreat where wi-fi is not on tap.
I resisted this for a long time, stubbornly trying to maintain inner quiet, but I always succumb. I think this sense of being constantly connected has changed what I write—I don't really know if I could write an essay like "Basha Leah" again—but new forms emerge when I do a dance with technology rather than try to wrestle it to the ground.

For instance, the last time I was at Whiteley, I stayed for a mere five days (I now can't be away from this face for long). --------------------->

And in that time, I ended up writing an essay called "36 Holes", and I wrote it almost entirely while glued to the internet. I was watching a live video feed of the rescue of the Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for months. I watched, I cried, I wrote, I watched some more. I couldn't tear myself away from the internet, so I allowed the internet to tear into me.

Something new was forged in those five days: a peace treaty, perhaps, an inching toward a truce. I'm still working on it—in my writing life and "regular" life—trying to find some kind of balance between outward and inward connection.

What about you? How do you write in a connected world?


  1. this is right on. the big ideas can derail us from the better ideas that emerge if you let them. more and more i'm love small moments and not thinking about the big picture.

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  3. Right on lara! The small moments are where the big stories reside, I think. I wonder if the Internet reflects that as well: all these small bits adding up to a bigger story? or is it diluting the bigger story? I don't know....

  4. Sounds like you were at Hedgebrook right after me. I went for 3 weeks in Sept. of '94, then went again in November of '99. (In Waterfall the first time, and Oak the second.) I wrestle with the net thing bigtime at home, but when I go on writing retreats(some awarded/funded, others that I design and pay for myself) I just leave the laptop at home. This doesn't work for most people who write on the computer. But I've always done first drafts of stories and books and essays long-hand. So I go with lots of paper and favorite pens and I really unplug. Days are LONG without checking one's email. I try to fill the extra hours with things I don't do enough of at home--being out in nature and reading fat books for hours at a time, cooking slow soups. But you're right, it's the rare writer's colony now that doesn't have wireless right in your studio. It's pervasive. Sounds like you've learned to merge the on and offline time well, and work it into the writing. All good. I laughed when I read your sentence above about leaving seven weeks early. I spent the first week of my first three-week stay there feeling guilty, too--unworthy--like surely a mistake had been made.

  5. Thanks Melanie! I was in Cedar the first time and the Meadow House the second. I know that I would love to leave my laptop at home, but the thought of it actually makes me sweat!
    I think I'm in a phase right now (internet based; outward focused) and that another phase will emerge from this one. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  6. Hmmm....I've never been to a writers retreat. I didn't really know they had them. It sounds interesting. When I write, I as well prefer long hand. I write everything long hand first then go to the computer later. I even journel in *gasp* notebooks with pen and paper. haha. As for the internet, I may listen to some music, that's all. I tend to have a one track mind when working on things so watching a video and writing is out of the question. It's one or the other. I am starting to branch out and put my writing on the internet to connect to others, though. :)


What say you?