Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Guest Post By Robin Black: RETREAT and ADVANCE
I've just come home from a week-long writing retreat with six friends. It was an extraordinary time. For seven days, it seemed as though all the issues and complications we had left at home - children, jobs, partners, parents - had been stilled, stopped in time by some Good Fairy with an interest in supporting the arts.
I want to blog about the experience because I think that one of the best assets every writer has is other writers. Leaving aside critiques and advice, we help one another be writers, because we believe that's an important, valid thing to be and because - unlike too many non-writers - we understand that being a writer isn't a matter of how much you've published or whether you have a website that says you are one. Or even whether you write every day. As most writers understand, being a writer is a matter of needing to write and trying to write and maybe also of understanding how very difficult it is to do. And it can be hard to feel confident with the identity all the time, even for those of us who have publications. And that is where other writers - the generous sort - can help. I didn't actually produce a lot on the page during this retreat, but I felt both nurtured and strengthened in my writerly identity, and am reminded once again of how crucial that is if you're in this for the long haul.
It can be tricky, though, getting a bunch of people of any kind in a house together. Even without the deaths and attempted impregnations of a Big Chill scenario, there can be dramas aplenty - and I mean off the page. Some years ago, I went on that kind of retreat with friends. We seemed to have packed our bags with interpersonal angst. We spent our days together rubbing each other the wrong way as surely as though we were all wearing sandpaper suits. Far from feeling nurtured, I came home feeling as though I needed to heal. Far from being strengthened in my writerly being, I thought maybe it was time to return to law school.
Now, as I look over the two trips, I can see some surprisingly practical reasons for the difference between them, and I want to share those in the hope that they'll be of use to others. So here is a list of suggestions for your consideration:
1. Have sleeping accommodations that are comparable for all. My earlier, less successful retreat began with the realization that one of us - which one? - would have a private bed and bath, while others of us - which ones? who would be left out? - would share a bedroom and other of us would be sleeping in a public area. So though we all tried to be gracious, there was friction over that from the start.
2. Make plans ahead of time about how chores will be divided. On this last retreat we had seven people and seven nights, so the question of who would cook (and pay for) dinner was easily decided: one per night. And that led to a quite beautiful ritual each evening, as that night's cook gave what amounted to a gift to the rest of us. In fact, at some point during the week, I thought about the often-asked question: for whom do you write? Yourself or other people? And I realized that cooking for the other writers in the house was a good analogy to my own response. I was doing it for them, wanting to please them; but the best way I knew how to do that, since I didn't really know their tastes, was by trying to give them something I myself would want.
3. Consider leaving home people with whom "it's complicated." Perhaps the greatest contrast between the Unfortunate Retreat and the Magical Retreat is the relationships between the people on each one. The group of us on the first one were all close, maybe a little too close. Close enough to squabble and close enough to have agendas with one another that had nothing to do with supporting each others work. We were Big Chill close. And in the end our time together was much more about our relationships than it was about fortifying our identities as writers.
4. Don't make this a time to critique each others work. There are plenty of opportunities for that, but one of the best aspects of this recent week was how safe we all felt, how unjudged. Every writer needs that from time to time, if only to bolster that part of herself that might take those all-important risks in the work. And in the end, I would suggest, a retreat is as much about strengthening your sense of yourself as a writer as it is about whatever pages you produce while there.
I hope this is helpful and I very much hope you are able to give it a try. I would love to hear about other people's experiences and advice. And whether you can go on retreat or not, I strongly recommend finding those people in your life who understand how important writing is to you and spending time with them, taking in their support - and then doing the same for someone else.
Huge thanks to Aggie for inviting me back!! The picture above, taken by a friend, is of where we were on the Jersey shore. One more hint: off-season = affordable.