Monday, March 12, 2012

Writer's Retreat

I have been looking forward to this week for months. I’m going to England, to spend a whole week immersed in the 20th anniversary Kindling Words retreat.

Note that a writing retreat* is very different from a writers’ conference. A conference provides lots of presentations and workshops. You take tons of notes and soak up as much information as you can. You also make connections with other writers and illustrators, and maybe even meet an editor or agent, and possibly even come away with permission to submit to a particular person with the “I met you at SCBWI-NE” as a ticket out of the slush pile.

 At a writing retreat, you write. Depending on the format (and there are several quite different approaches) you may have some kind of instruction at some point in the day – maybe an inspiring talk, but just as possibly an unusual activity intended to open up your creativity: drumming, tai chi, dancing, drawing, role-playing, dream mapping – you get the idea. Retreats often also offer an opportunity to gather with other retreatants and share the day’s work. But for the most part, a retreat offers space and silence and solitude, a place and a time to just work.^ This is both exhilarating and intimidating.
Lodore Falls Hotel webcam shot 11 March 2012

I’m taking “the novel” – the historical fiction piece I began in 2003. It’s had one good rejection and a positive proposal critique. It was supposed to be last summer’s project, before my world fell apart. I’m hoping by the end of the week it will be ready to send out again. I have high hopes.

I also have nagging doubts. This is not the first time I’ve put this novel through this process! I took it to Ghost Ranch for the first KW West week, with equally high hopes, and wound up – foundering. I wrote a couple of new scenes, dithered around the edges of the story, went home and put it back in the filing cabinet. How to avoid doing this again?

Well first of all, I recognize that I need to lower those expectations. The point of a retreat is the process, not the result. The retreat gives the artist and the work time to just BE. To grow and change and evolve and all those scary, amorphous things. To tell your brain at the beginning that you intend such-and-such an outcome at the end could well suffocate that process. So I need to relax, put aside all thoughts of HOW MUCH MONEY THIS IS COSTING, and just “BE” with my characters, setting and story.

 Secondly, and perhaps conflictingly, I think I need to impose a structure on my retreat. This will be my third week-long KW retreat: at the first one, I wrote more than a third of Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures. Now that was non-fiction, which I find much more comfortable than fiction. But as I try to recall why I was able to be so focused during that week, I think it was not only because I had “measurable goals” but because I had a routine, a discipline as it were, that made me “get to work.” I think I need to develop a discipline for this week in Borrowdale, something that
fits the revision process (a words-per-day map is not appropriate) that will keep me from dithering away my time the way I did at Ghost Ranch. I’ve got Darcy Pattison’s and Cheryl Klein’s books on revision in my suitcase – maybe I’ll move them into the carryon.

Third, and hardest of all, I know I need to let go of the book. I have been writing long enough to know that you cannot fall in love with your own words. That the phrase or scene you are most enamored of is almost certainly the one you most need to cut. That clinging to anything you’ve created, insisting that it is somehow untouchable, is to condemn it to static death. (Those of us who write for religious markets are familiar with the person who believes that God gave them their words, so they can’t be changed. Those who don’t necessarily believe in a God-who-dictates can also fall into this trap.) If I want the book to grow and blossom, I need to stop coddling it. I need to be prepared to prune. When the trimming guys leave our orchard, it always looks like there are more branches on the ground there than on the trees. Cutting away perfectly good wood lets the remaining branches flourish. This is what I fear – a very good indication that it is precisely what I need to do.

I’m off to pack . . .
*Side note – Kindling Words is also for illustrators and editors. But I have no idea what they do.

^Not to mention the “someone else cooks and cleans and the phone doesn’t ring.”

ps - sorry about the weird formatting, Blogger is being weird and I really do need to go pack . . .


Mur said...

Have a blast--i.e. a blast of productive writing.

Diane Mayr said...

I hope you're taking a camera and will get outside--what's the point of traveling 6 air hours to get someplace to just sit in front of a laptop. You could do that in Pittsburg!

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Hope it is a productive time for you. I, too, need to set goals when on a writing retreat. Be it pages per day written or edited, it's motivating. Good luck!

Sally said...

Diane - actually debating on whether to bring a camera or to rely on the very good one that is built into my nifty tablet. . . The tablet doesn't really fit well in my pocket, that's the only drawback. And yes, there will be lots of touring opportunities - it should be spring in the Lakes District, and I know at minimum Beatrix Potter's house is on the schedule. No fear of it being all work and no play!

Barbara said...

Have a great time, Sally! England in springtime. A perfect place to regenerate the novel and yourself. Have fun!

I'm Jet . . . said...

I find this post very touching and heartfelt, Sally. You lay it all out there for those of us who have many times felt the way you're feeling now.

Good luck with the work! I'd have trouble settling down to it in a place like that. I'd be out walking all the time! Have you thought about getting a digital tape recorder? I love my Sony PX312.


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