A Weekend and a Week: My Attempt at a Writing Retreat

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I don’t tend to vacillate between extremes. I like my mood steady, my palate balanced, my schedule organized. But all that had to change when I was finishing the first draft of my first novel this May. Just as I had finally dithered together a workable plot, I stalled out, with a third of the novel left to write. I knew my characters, their voices and relationships; I knew the sequence of events; I had a few themes to kick around, and yet I was blowing entire days, writing only a thousand words in the afternoon before cashing out to watch Good Eats and Say Yes To The Dress. And don’t let the number “1,000” impress you. Those thousand words were easy, merely coloring inside the lines, and I could crank them out in an hour—two if I didn’t turn off my Internet connection.

I was caught by my steady mindset, which allowed me to call myself productive because I’d hit a quota, and to piss away the rest of the day on Netflix as long as I also spent enough time with friends and family. In other words, behaving normally and comfortably was ruining my writing. Or rather, the diabolical layabout that I am, I used my normal lifestyle as an excuse for procrastination. How could I be lazy if I was hitting the minimum word count? How could I be making myself miserable if I took my mother to dinner and grabbed drinks with a friend? I thought I might be stuck in this creative purgatory for the rest of the summer: writing every day but never getting to the end.

Then life presented me with not one, but two extremes, diametrically opposed. My college reunions were at the end of May. My parents had a week without renters at their Ocean City condominium at the beginning of June. One promised a weekend of social overkill, a vacation with thousands of old classmates and no alone time. The other was a weeklong hermitage, a retreat from society, television, Internet, and other distractions. My reunion’s activities would be all-night rabble-rousing, dancing, gossiping, and seeing people I hadn’t seen or even thought about in years. My retreat would be filled with yoga in the morning, catching up on my reading, forgetting the world around me, and, of course, writing. Either by itself could have been a challenge to my psyche. But together? I thought I might go crazy.

And perhaps I did. Perhaps that’s how I finished my novel, by creating a collision of hot and cold fronts and throwing myself into the resulting tornado. That weekend and a week away removed me from daily rituals, daily comforts, and this served as a reboot. I didn’t feel like myself, and I took advantage of the fresh state of mind to create a new routine, heavy on the writing, when I finally settled, alone, into my parents’ condominium.

All of this is to say what so many writers have already said: it’s hard to write a novel and act like a human being. You can’t have a foot in both worlds, half in and half out of your mind. So some writers go on a solo retreat, some writers drink, and some writers wake up to write while polite society is still sleeping—in any case, they find a marker, something that signals that they are no longer in the old world. Haruki Murakami’s ritual springs to mind:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

I found my own method of hypnotism. I partied for three days. I saw old, dear friends. I had the last drop of my desire for human contact squeezed out. Then I locked myself away. I worked like a robot. I forgot about love and companionship. I made a lot of smoothies. And I finished my novel two days ahead of schedule.

I celebrated alone, out on the balcony, sucking in fresh air. I listened to the waves crash against the beach without ever once glimpsing the water. Then, mission accomplished, I drove home. I rejoined society, as if nothing had happened.


Image: Pasternak, Leonid. “Throes of Creation.” 1880s. Oil on canvas. 

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