Thanks to Christina Kapp, who facilitates TWC’s Poets Circle and teaches our Wednesday Young Storymakers class, for sharing her retreat journal with us!
It was definitely not a good time to disappear for the weekend. School had just started for my kids and I had just started teaching. Everything was new: New grades! New teachers! New schedules! New activities! New names to remember! Every moment felt like a bungee jump. Would we or wouldn’t we hit the bottom? Honestly, I gave some thought to flaking out on the retreat. Also, I will confess that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While the writing conferences that I have attended over the years have always been wonderful, they can also be draining experiences, jam-packed with readings, seminars, workshops and new people.
I couldn’t manage that. Not this week.
However, I knew that The Writers Circle retreat wasn’t a conference and it wasn’t supposed to be packed with activities. It was intended to be time and space to write for people with busy schedules. That’s me.
So I drove out to Mendham, late, harried, and frustrated by the Friday afternoon traffic.
I showed up with a bag full of papers to grade just as everyone was sitting down to dinner. I don’t quite know what I was thinking by bringing it—it might have been some kind of defense mechanism, as if giving my excuses physical weight made them easier to justify.
Dinner was low key. I was relieved to see some familiar faces and put some faces to names I knew only via email. As we finished Sister Eleanor told us a bit about the retreat house (formerly an orphanage) and communicated a few rules (turn out the lights when everyone goes to bed). She also suggested that we “adopt-a-mug” from the wall of mugs and hang onto it for the weekend. Coffee was available more or less all the time (someone in our group was taught how to make it if no one from the kitchen was around) and having our designated mug would make life easier.
Sounded good to me. I do love easy access to coffee.
Then we took turns introducing ourselves to one another. When it was my turn I said something about working on a group of poems I had roughed out over the summer. I think my project sounded pretty good, but it also may have sounded like I was just making stuff up, which to some degree I was. I had written those poems/ideas/notes in a completely different mental and physical space and it was hard for me to even remember them now, even though it was just barely a month later. And yet, that was what I felt my next “project” should be—designing a chapbook-length work of poems about returning to the place where my grandfather died on our family vacation, and the strange tension between creating new, fun experiences while also honoring so many old, often sad memories. And yet, I couldn’t quiet connect with it. I was far too steeped in the insanity of September to put myself back in that frame of mind.
After dinner, several people went to write on their own, and the rest of us gathered in the library. When I got there, Judith, Michelle and several others writers were looking at board games. For a few minutes I thought they might get a game going, but people seemed to opt for just sitting and talking, which was kind of nice. Being the oddball that I am, I spotted a full Encyclopedia Brittanica and immersed myself in browsing, fascinated by the snapshot of history offered by an encyclopedia published in 1977. Talk about a writing prompt! I read all about Soviet Moscow and pre-earthquake Haiti. Also something about Newton and mathematics that was well beyond my English-major brain, but was entertaining anyway.
One by one, people drifted out to write or head to bed, so I found an unoccupied sitting room and put my feet up. I opened my laptop. Here it was: Go time. I had space, I had quiet. I had a pretty room to sit in. Comfortable couch. Laptop. Coffee. Chocolate. (There were lots of snacks, thank goodness, so I didn’t need the to resort to the Cheetos and mini-muffins I had stashed in my room.)
But now what? I opened the file of roughed-out poems and felt like I was going to panic. Really? Was this what I was going to do? I felt cornered, unsure whether I should fight or run, with no idea how to begin to communicate with my own shards of lines. It felt, quite frankly, just too hard.
I sat and wallowed in a bit of self-loathing. Then I sent my husband a text, something about the “adopt-a-mug” program being pretty funny in a former orphanage, especially given the amount of mental angst, insecurity, and indecision that went into my choice.
Sending snarky texts seemed far easier than actually committing myself to a piece of writing, but really, that wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
I still had all this anxiety. Writing anxiety, being away anxiety, new place anxiety. Oh let me catalogue the anxieties! But it was time to write. This was where the fingers had to meet the keyboard, so to speak.
As an opening (or an escape—you decide), I opened what I call my “Daily File” and started journaling. My Daily File isn’t really a journal, per se. It’s just a place where I can jot down ideas or words or rants or grocery lists or a bit of poetry I’ve stumbled across. Like this, for example, which I found in a textbook while I was planning this semester’s classes:
You Fit Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
This feels like my relationship with writing. In any case, I decided to start freewriting, so I wrote about whatever came to mind: coming to the retreat, my lifelong fascination with nuns, thoughts about bicycles and boarding schools and orphanages and Jane Eyre-ish things. I wrestled a bit with the slippery nature of good and evil, just for kicks. Mused on how much we don’t know the difference when we see it; about Keats and negative capability. About falling through life.
And that’s how I started thinking about a story.
I have less to say about Saturday. I wrote all day. Yes. All day. We had some nice eggs for breakfast and then I wrote a story that’s not quite 4,000 words. I felt slightly guilty about not working on my poems but I had a wonderful time spinning out this story that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. What a wonderful feeling at the end of the day to have something whole that did not exist before! How affirming it is to discover that I actually have that much focus, that much endurance! Whether it is any good or not I can’t say, but the ego boost that comes from producing new work is absolutely phenomenal.
In any case, if I’m recording the day, it looked something like this:
7:30: Wake up, stare at ceiling for awhile (not a morning person)
9:00: Write in Daily File a bit (mostly more “I’m up and have had breakfast so what in the world am I supposed to do I do now?” kind of stuff)
9:15: Start story
10:30(ish): Take a break to chat and go for a walk. Walk the labyrinth and have an old (yet requiring constant reinforcement) epiphany.
11:15(ish): Get computer and go sit in garden
11:20: Get string of emails and realize there is wi-fi in the garden! Return to pondering the slippery nature of good and evil.
11:30: Write in Daily File about labyrinth experience and, given the newfound wi-fi, look up connection between Mary and seashells, because there were shells outside the little Mary chapel by the labyrinth and I’m curious. (Symbol of pilgrims and baptisms in case you were wondering.)
11:45: Work on story
1:15(ish): Back to story
There is nothing listed between lunch and dinner because although I walked around once in a while because I got stiff or hot and wanted to move into the air conditioning (where I got cold, and then wanted to move back out), I wrote more or less nonstop for close to six hours. It was like running a 10K; just when you think you’re out of gas, you realize that you’re making progress and you not as tired as you think you are so you talk yourself into pushing a little harder, going a little farther. I went to dinner feeling fairly euphoric and honestly, I don’t remember much other than that it was a wonderful, fabulous, groundbreaking day.
On Saturday night we all met in the library and read. I will say that I was very brave and read the first half of my day’s brand new work aloud to the group. Because this was not a workshop and there was no critique, it was very liberating to simply celebrate our writing accomplishments after a long day of work. It was wonderful to hear so many stories and poems—and so many different kinds of stories and poems—from the people we had seen writing for the last 24 hours. It was a very affirming end to a productive day.
Sunday morning we had breakfast and went back to writing, but I was pretty wiped out after Saturday’s effort. And yet, even though I didn’t quite have the oomph of the day before, I realized that I had become completely detached from the world. What about that bag full of grading? I hadn’t even thought about it. And what about my family back at home? What were they doing?
I worked on my poetry for a couple of hours and likely because I was expanding and rewriting something already partially formed, the work felt slow, but I made a lot of progress. At midmorning I went out for a walk again, settling down in the “ping-pong room” where I had spent a lot of time the day before, and whittled away at my poems. I also wrote one new poem about the labyrinth. The new poem is still very rough, but I love the shape it’s taking. The revisions are coming along, with a few of them starting to feel close to whatever I’m going to call done. So it was a good morning’s work.
One of the wonderful things—the thing I am most grateful for about the experience—is the support that comes from being around other people who are simply being quiet and writing. Being the social animals we are, we have a tendency to mirror what we see people around us doing, which gets in my way a lot. I see moms running around managing kid-related things, I see co-workers talking about grading papers and lesson plans. These are the things that catch my attention. What I don’t see are people in the act of writing. What I don’t see are people taking time out from the panic and stress of life’s immediate demands. But the retreat does that. With no schedule other than mealtimes, no requirement to do anything other than write, and every person you see writing or thinking about writing or talking about writing, there is simply nothing to do BUT write.
What a gift that is.