Real Life vs. the Failed Writing Retreat
May 14, 2018 § 26 Comments
By Laura Rink
“When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in…with them.” ~ Stephen King
My husband is going on a fishing trip for twelve days. What I hear is twelve days of unlimited writing time, twelve days to finish a short story, to dig through old journals for the memoir I’m working on, to write a much overdue blog for my website. Twelve days.
Day one, I make coffee, and settle in to write. Which means first checking email and Facebook. I have rationalized this checking as part of My Process: let my brain jump around and then it will settle in for the writing. My brain never settles in—it has, I have, Attention Deficit Disorder. I must wrestle my brain into focus, repeatedly direct my eyes and thoughts to the writing task at hand. What’s worse is after writing for thirty minutes or an hour, I’ll go back to email and Facebook. This is a problem. But not a new one as I embark on this twelve-day writing retreat.
What is new is this:
Sitting in my writing chair, I can feel the empty space where my husband is NOT sitting at his desk. His desk is a flight of stairs, two rooms, and a hallway away, there are usually two closed doors between us. Today I feel the interruption of him NOT working in his office while I work in mine. An anchor has been weighed. I begin to drift.
I go downstairs for a glass of water. I decide to take the trash out. Fill the bird feeders. Water the potted plants. Later I will get the mail, pull some weeds, and put cheese in the mousetraps. I write a bit, here and there but I am unable to keep my seat. I recognize this resistance, this part of my brain that does its best to sabotage my writing. I just thought it would be less noisy during my self-imposed writing retreat.
At least I have all day AND all evening at my disposal. Usually, my husband and I watch a show together and then I announce no more TV for me—I’ve got work to do. This work is usually not writing, it is household chores that I don’t want to be tempted to do during my writing time the next day. For this retreat, I’ve decided that searching through old journals for memoir-relevant parts is the best use of this slightly brain-dead time of day.
But my husband is not here, continuing to watch TV why I self-righteously get stuff done. Instead of moving to my desk, I sign up for a free month of Netflix and search for a TV show I started watching years ago. The show isn’t there. Sulking, I stare at the Netflix offerings: all those creative shows everyone has talked about.
Instead of something new, I start re-watching The Office (the U.S. version). There are nine seasons. When one twenty-two-minute episode ends, I hit play for the next episode. If I do nothing, the next episode starts in fifteen seconds. And then the next. And the next. I feel the death spiral of my hyperfocus kick in, and who will break this focus?
In seven days, I watch thirty-six episodes. Thirteen hours. And it’s not just the thirteen hours not spent writing, it’s getting to bed too late, waking up unrested, dragging through the day. Even when I get a decent amount of sleep, the guilt bogs me down. I flit from one writing project to the next, making little progress on any of them.
As much work as I have done—counseling, medication, meditation—to be successful with the brain I have, I still have ADD. I am the biggest obstacle to my writing, and for this twelve-day retreat, I have locked myself in with my brain.
Day seven I have plans to go to dinner with two girlfriends. I organize my day accordingly: write, gardening, shower. My writing sessions are short and disjointed but I sit in the chair, I show up. At dinner, we talk about a variety of subjects general and personal, and I feel refreshed. I go home and watch six episodes of The Office, the amount of time a movie would take and I don’t beat myself up about it.
The next day I have a walk in the afternoon with a writer friend and a play in the evening. I plan my day around these events. My focus on writing is better. I feel the prickly emptiness of no husband less. The walk is the best exercise I’ve had all week, the conversation writerly and convivial. At home, I page through a journal before attending the play. After, I read, and lights out by ten.
Friday has the goal that every Friday has: polish a piece of writing to read this afternoon at my critique group. I have a rough draft of the second half of the short story I read to them last week. The beginning of the story was inspired and begged to be written. I have a last line. But in-between has been a struggle and it reads as such. I revise all morning, knowing full well I could have been better prepared for this day.
As my so-called writing retreat slogs to an end, I realize that I used to have to take a chisel and a mallet to hew out writing time but now I have a daily life that supports my writing. When my husband returns, I need to view him not as a disturbance but as a fortification I can write against.
Laura Rink is working on a memoir about being diagnosed with ADD at the age of thirty-six. She distracts herself from that work by writing short stories, essays, and sporadic poetry. Her website LauraRink.com features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat. She lives with her husband in Bellingham, Washington.
The part about watching “The Office” on Netflix reminded me of animal experiments. They (Rats? Monkeys?) taught them to hit a lever or button to get the reward. Makes you wonder…
…what the reward is. Numbness?
Sorry. The image just came to mind
Don’t be sorry. The image is apt. It made me consider what I was getting out of watching episode after episode.
Boy, am I glad to know I’m not the only one! Thank you for sharing this.
Thanks for reading!
Funny, honest, and well written. Distraction seems to be a universal truth for writers. Thanks for sharing yours.
Thanks for the compliments!
It takes guts for a writer to quote Stephen King, as it would seem so many writers are disdainful of him and his work. I quote him sometimes but I don’t think of myself as a writer, or at least not as a Writer. My favorite King quote is “Sometimes the monsters win.” I like it for what it expresses directly, but also for what it doesn’t say, for what it leaves you to find on your own. That’s what I learned from reading your excellent post. Sometimes the monsters give you what you need.
Love your comments. I read good writing and SK is an excellent storyteller. Sometimes I think people can’t separate the content/genre they don’t care for and the quality of the writing.
True that. I’d like to follow your blog and read some of your stuff, if that’s okay.
Of course! You motivate me to blog more often.
I can definitely relate to this! Sometimes when I have the most “free time” to write is when I get the least done
Glad you can relate. Yep, nothing free about time, it always costs something.
That was me. Last week my husband got home after 10 days away, and I’d done no writing, but watched endless Netflix, stayed up too late, etc. One walk, one play, and a couple of friends.
Now that he’s home, I hope you are back to writing.
Yes I absolutely agree!
THIS! So familiar. The last time my husband left for the weekend, I planned a binge writing session. Instead I binged the entire last season of How to Get Away with Murder! I’m beginning to think I thrive best in a structured setting 😉
Yes, external structure is necessary for many of us.
I wondered as I read this–did you enjoy watching the Office, which is funny, and the short episodes are so devourable? Or did you feel guilty and not able to fully enjoy that distraction? Like other commenters, I find I work well when I have some stricture/structure–it makes me prioritize the writing and not let in all the other stuff (LIKE I’M DOING RIGHT NOW!). It sounds like it was a lovely time, overall, even if not as full of writing as you’d hoped/planned.
I fully enjoyed watching in the moment, which is probably why I continued to watch. The guilt came later, and then lingered.
[…] Real Life vs. the Failed Writing Retreat […]
Hits so close to home, Laura. Except, I watch “Frazier.” I say I’m getting writing tips—was there ever a better-written show?—but most of the time I’m just laughing. But way to flip the narrative on the husband as a writer’s blockade. I think you’re right about the positive energy that fills a loving home when all is as it should be, even when you’re not on the same floor.
“Frazier” has eleven seasons. Hmmm. Could be trouble.
I have always found I do better at something when I have something else I should be doing. If I don’t have a deadline, I do nothing–which is not the same as having nothing to do.
True. I wonder why that is. The friction, the push-back of the other thing?