Late on a Sunday afternoon, after a nearly eight-hour drive, I arrived at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia. I met my host, got the tour, unpacked my stuff, opened my laptop and stared out the large window in front of my writing desk, which overlooked a porch, and beyond the porch, the mountains. It was then that I noticed several strange, faint noises: a slight breeze rustling the tree leaves, the low hum of my ceiling fan, crows calling in the distance and, somewhere in those endless trees, the low rumble of a train. This glorious quiet—so different from home, filled me with excitement, but also something else…fear. You see there was nothing to do here but write. I’d come all this way, and now it was time to, well, put up or shut up about never having any time to work. A part of me wanted to hop in the car and drive back to Ohio. But I didn’t. I made a cup of tea. I unpacked my milk crate of background reading on topics related to the novel I was here to outline, and I cracked open the first book.
Now nearly a week later, I can’t believe it’s already time to pack up, despite there being so many moments when time went so very slowly. Just this morning, I’ve been watching a leaf katydid on the wicker chair directly outside my window. It has taken her three hours to move her body into a position from which I believe she might be getting ready to lay eggs. I don’t know much about leaf katydids, though I know she is one, based on a photo in one of my daughter’s books. It’s taking every ounce of my discipline to keep working and not Google leaf katydids, though at some point I probably will, and I’ll learn something new.
Here are some of the things I learned during my week of writing solitude:
- Writing my day’s goals on a notepad with a picture of a fluffy white kitten holding a large ball of yarn makes those goals seem less daunting. (However, I never did accomplish all the daily goals I set out to. That’s okay. Better to aim very high and fall a little short than the alternative.)
- Silence takes a little getting used to, even for someone like me who really enjoys it.
- Having a big soft bed just a few feet from my writing area pretty much requires a brief afternoon nap. Naps are underrated. I wish you, and me, and everyone, could incorporate them into our daily lives, no matter what line of work we’re in.
- Being away from the kids, the hubs, the dog! for more than one night makes me miss them terribly. Then, that feeling goes away, briefly. Then, it comes back. Then, it becomes a sharp ache in my chest when I hear their voices (not the dog’s) on the phone.
- It’s good to switch roles once in awhile. I now have a better understanding of what it’s like when my husband travels and calls to talk, but I can’t because dinner’s on the stove, the cat just choked up a hairball and the kids are having a swordfight with my best candlesticks. It’s good for the hubs to have the chance to be in that role of traffic controller and witness the challenges of single parenting. And it’s good for my kids to see that mommy, too, loves her work and devotes time to it. I show them articles I’ve published, but they’re a little young to really understand the job of ‘writer.’ They’re also not astute enough to pick up on the fact that it’s kind of weird mommy writes in a closet…
- Time is relative. An hour or so into my first evening, I realized there was no clock in the room, no clocks anywhere to be found. I like clocks. I have a lot of them at home and as a type-A person, I look at them, often. Of course, my laptop has a clock and my cell phone, and I’d brought my watch, though didn’t plan on wearing it. It’s not as though I couldn’t find out the time, but the fact that it took some effort meant I was free to work with my own internal rhythms rather than the world’s, and this was ultimately rather amazing. When I got tired outlining, I’d switch to reading, then I might send an email (my goal to stay off the Internet was broken within hours…). When I was hungry, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. With the family at home, everything runs on such a tight schedule. At The Porches, it was liberating to follow my own instincts, and so conducive to the kind of free association I was doing with my new book, chasing down ideas to see where they might lead.
- To piggyback on that idea, here’s perhaps the most important thing I learned—time spent looking out the window is time well spent. Because I have very small chunks of time to write at home, I often feel like I must “accomplish something,” must be able to cross something off my list before time’s up. That works for some projects (e.g. drafting a scene once I already have a tight outline), but it simply does not work when I’m in the planning stages of a big project like this new book. At home, “daydream about possible scenes for the new novel” never made it on the list. There was laundry to do, and that seemed like a better use of my time. Here, daydreaming is encouraged and in fact expected. My mind can come up with all sorts of crazy ideas when I allow it to wander. Also, daydreaming helps that tricky brain of mine to continue working on my novel when I don’t even realize it. For example, after returning my fingers to the keys after watching my friend the katydid for twenty minutes, I found that I’ve somehow solved a major plot issue. Miraculous.
Next writing retreat already scheduled—spring in Austin.
Marcy Campbell’s recent work can be found in The McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Millions and The Writer Magazine. When she’s not playing with her kids or working on her novel, she’s blogging as The Closet Creative: www.marcycampbell.blogspot.com
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