your own private retreat

Good morning to you, and happy June! It’s grey and coolish out my window this morning; a little respite from the heat we’ve been enjoying here in Oakland. How is this Monday morning meeting you?

Happy LGBT Pride Month, my friends. No matter your sexual orientation, you can participate in honoring those queer folks who have struggled and fought back against the forces of fear, oppression and normalization, helping to create a world in which we have far greater freedom around eros, desire, gender expression and family structure. Of course we still have a long way to go — just because we celebrate Pride doesn’t mean that the struggle is over. But I’m still going to invite you to bring a little (more) queer into your life this month. What would that look like?

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This weekend I made myself a writing retreat. For the better part of Saturday and Sunday both, I turned off the phone, kept away from email, grabbed a stack of books and dove into my current writing project (how trauma survivors can use writing practice for individual– and then communal–transformation). At the end of the weekend, I’d generated 150+ pages of new (hand)written work.

What do I want to say about this? This weekend I was quiet. I said no to a lot of other things I could have been doing — I didn’t join friends at birthday gatherings or at the pool. I sat in my dark apartment with the shades pulled to keep the cool inside, and I wrote.

I dove into the sort of silence that I need to let complicated writing emerge. I’d write for an hour or so at a time, then took breaks — made small meals, read, ran around Lake Merritt. There was time enough to listen to the rhythms my writing wanted me to follow — time to keep going after the timer went off — time to walk around the neighborhood when I had some difficult theme to try and untangle. I wrote early morning and I wrote nighttime. I pretended like I was away on an official writing retreat, out in the woods, say, with no internet connection.

It was deeply productive, and I’m wondering if I can’t schedule this sort of retreat now once a month (I’ll certainly need at least a weekend for the transcription of all these notebooks’-worth of writing). It did require scheduling (over a month in advance), and some fierce self-care/willpower/determination to protect that time for writing. And then, once I had created the space for myself, it was up to me to use it well: I could easily have justified going to a movie or an hours-long bike ride or a wade into the public library looking for just the right book. And any one of those might have been fine during another retreat weekend. But this weekend what I had intended was to fill at least one notebook with new material for my book, which meant I needed to sit down and engage in the physical labor of writing. By Saturday afternoon I was fatigued, and realized I was in the middle of a kind of writing marathon. I generally write for, at most, thirty minutes at a stretch, and here I was keeping the hand moving for an hour or more. Let’s be real: this was a working retreat. My right wrist is tender today!

I was afraid I wouldn’t want to come back into the world when the weekend was over: there’s a pile of email to respond to now, there’s a workshop to prepare for, there’s this immediate, workaday world that would like some attention. I was afraid I’d get lost in the gorgeous, wandery, generative place, and that I’d be frustrated at having to return to the life that requires focus and schedule. Does this make sense? There have been years when I didn’t want to go on vacation, because I knew I’d just barely get relaxed and then I’d have to come back to my regular (stress-filled and overwhelming) life — I’d get depressed, miserable that this sort of relaxed life existed and I didn’t get to spend any time there. Nevermind that my life was overloaded because of my own choices; I didn’t want to have to engage with my choices, or have to say no to anyone. It was easier for me to be miserable than to think about changes that might make others uncomfortable.

But I woke up this morning early, worked on the book for about a half hour, and then went out with the puppy for her morning playtime. I still feel the urgency of the book project, but don’t feel resentful that I can’t spend all day there. I’m grateful to be back in a boundaried/scheduled place with the project, actually. It’s fantastic to create the space to unfold the whole thing around me and see what I’ve got so far and generate as much as possible in a short timespan — and today, after a productive and nourishing retreat, I’m ready to be back in my usual, work-week routine.

Do you find yourself longing for a serious block of writing time? What would it take for you to create your own writing retreat? Could you sign up for a workshop with someone else? Could the kids go to a friend’s or relative’s place for the day/weekend? Do you have friends who have a cabin/vacation home that you could borrow for a day or two? A writing retreat doesn’t have to be an expensive or onerous undertaking — we can create this space for ourselves, and those who love us want to help our writing emerge into the world. The first thing we have to (get to) do is say yes to this desire, the next thing we have to (get to) do is ask, and then we get to show up into what we’ve asked for, and do the work.

Thanks for the ways you hold and honor others’ creative genius. Thanks for the space you make to honor your own. Thanks for your presence today, and thank you for your words.

2 responses to “your own private retreat

  1. Cynthia, thank you for this comment! I totally hear that frustration with self — you’ve got so much on your plate, and still there’s that inside voice telling you you should be doing more! Love reading about your visioning for this summer; time with the girls and time in your writing space alone. What a gift to give yourself and to give them.
    xo!
    Jen

  2. Thank you for this and all your posts. Your words are a balm to other writers like myself. Summer is coming, the kids will be home, many changes are ahead and I am angry that I have not used my spare time to write more, but I can work in the mornings, this summer, early, with the door closed and get something done. Thanks