October 15, 2019 § 20 Comments
I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?
If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?
Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:
Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript
Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar
Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time
It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.
At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”
A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?
But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.
We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.
We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.
August 20, 2019 § 11 Comments
Doing one thing.
It seems so simple, and yet this morning I:
Gave feedback on pages
Tore apart my closet looking for a thing I tucked away while I was on vacation, and had hidden so well I couldn’t find it (my closet is now extremely tidy and partially Konmari-ed)
Dealt with the air conditioner repair men
You get it. Chances are, you do it too. And it doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad writers. We’re human. We got stuff to do.
But three months ago I really needed to finish a website. I made it my “weekend” project, and worked only on website copy and pictures and html code until I was done. No editing, no other writing, no reading, no errands. It took four days. But it’s done.
Two months ago I needed to finish a book proposal. Weekend project. Blinders on. Six days. But it’s done.
I don’t have kids and I set my own work hours and my spouse is beyond supportive. But it’s still hard to pick one thing, figure out how to tackle it, and do it until it’s done. It’s hard to stay focused when totally legit things want our attention (I did shower and cook dinners).
That’s why so many writers love retreats. A blissful week away in which someone else cooks and cleans, and no-one can “Hey Mom!” or “Ummm…Dad?” or “I need that presentation” you. But even on retreats it’s hard to get started. And if you’ve only got a week, you need a plan. A big-picture view of what needs doing and how.
At home, you can enlist a writer friend. Split an Airbnb for a week, read each other’s manuscript before you go and give specific, prescriptive feedback about what to work on in what order. Not “your book should be like this” but, after hearing your goals, “Restructure the plot, then fix the ending, then rewrite chapters 8-10.” Check in with each other daily for accountability.
But if you have time and funds, we’d like to suggest a retreat…that comes with a manuscript read. (This is where the ad part starts!) Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams would like to invite you to Costa Rica.
Next May, we’ll be hosting 10 dedicated writers in a luxury eco-lodge overlooking the Pacific. Organic food that you don’t cook. Beautiful grounds you don’t mow. Probably sloths. Definitely monkeys. But most importantly, we read your entire manuscript before you arrive, and with you, make a work plan to finish a draft, a proposal, or your book, before you leave. Don’t have a book yet? Write the first draft with us, and we’ll read it when you go home. Either way, it’s a chance to focus deeply on the work that’s most important to you.
If a travel retreat isn’t in your bag, grab a friend and start picking dates for your own week of fabulous productivity. But if you think finishing your book in tropical paradise might be for you, we’d love to spend that time together.
More information about Rebirth Your Book retreats. (If you’re already close to done, there’s room for two more in Italy in October!)
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Please say hello if you’re at Hippocamp!
August 16, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Laura Barakeris
Surrounded by others all day and crushed by the noise of the Internet, I often struggle to slow my thoughts and pace enough to write. Because most of my day is turned out—getting information, communicating, checking my to-do list, meetings—it is hard to turn back inwards and write about what I have to say. But if I don’t, how can the stories in my head come out? How can the solutions to the dead-ends and logical traps in my storylines reveal themselves?
“Without solitude, I can’t hear myself think or access my true voice. It’s such an essential part of creative living for me,” said Nicole Gulotta, blogger and author of Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry.
I know I need solitude to create too. If I have not had time be alone and write down my ideas, I get cranky and lash out at those closest to me. Like a snow-bound runner who has not been able to get out and run, I become antsy and stir-crazy if I have not had time to write.
“Solitude for the writer is hard and glorious and essential. It’s like a good marriage: The more you commit to it, never giving up no matter how difficult things get, the more grace and mystery is revealed to you,” said Ann Tashi Slater, in her HuffPost article, “Writing and Solitude.”
And what is that grace and mystery? Space to think. The ability to be in the moment—not looking back or planning forward. It is stillness and quiet, or at least nothing fighting for your attention. Reflection. It is the ability to hear the stories in your mind and to listen to what your imagination is telling you. A break from the chaos. Quieting the noise. Silencing the chatter. The gifts that solitude hold are different for every writer, and making space for them in a busy schedule requires discipline and creativity. It is a negotiation, a trade-off between silence and solitude and everything else.
“A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alone time is fuel for life,” writes Ester Buchholz, in “The Call of Solitude,” published in Psychology Today.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which everyone and everything goes away and lets us create in silence. Usually, the television is on in the background, and the phone’s notifications are binging, or someone is asking something of us. We must pay the bills, feed the kids, and love the spouse. Time alone to create is pushed aside because of guilt, exhaustion, or lack of time.
“I used to wait for solitude and silence, demand it,” said Shawna Lemay, blogger and author of The Flower Can Always Be Changing. “But if I did that now, I’d just never write. So what I’ve learned to do is to cultivate an inner quiet, an inner solitude. It travels with me.”
My surroundings, schedule and mood, will never be lined up to provide the ideal writing environment and if I wait for perfection, I will never write. I sometimes have an hour or two in the evening and I can also write in the car on long road trips. I usually also have a long empty Sunday which I can fill with at least a few hours of writing—if I take it. And that may be the crux of it all. If I look closely, I do have time, but I hesitate, and then weeks go by and I haven’t written.
“Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time,” says Joe Fassler in “What Great Artists Need: Solitude,” published in The Atlantic.
Could there be something else? I sometimes wonder if I have a fear of being alone. When I am alone, I learn something about myself, and I worry that I will not like it. What if I have nothing to say? What if no one wants to listen to me? What if the mean girls in Grade 5 were right and I’m a “Boring Nobody”? What if I submit my story and I don’t even get a rejection letter? If you send out a story and there’s no response back, are you even a writer?
One of the joys and incomprehensible mysteries of the whole writing process is the conflict of the external and internal—of going out into the world to see what is happening and to hear what other people have to say, but then coming back inside to our thoughts to figure out how we feel about them and how we fit into it all. We struggle through draft after draft; taking something out, putting it back in. It is not the final product that means the most—although, that is what we focus on—but the solo journey and figuring out how we fit (or not) into the rest of the world. And recognizing that we do have something of value to say.
I planned a solo DIY writing retreat one weekend this past winter to a cabin in the mountains. On the drive there, I wondered if I would be able to write. I was giving myself just over a 24-hour period, but with all that quiet, would I be able to write, or would I sit frozen at the computer screen calling myself a fake and a failure because nothing would come? Would the quiet silence me?
I need not have worried. I wrote 9,000 words that trip. I walked with my dog. I got closer to animals than I ever have before. I breathed in the sweet mountain air. I marvelled at how beautiful the world is. And I realized again, that I’m a writer.
Laura Barakeris is a Canadian writer and editor. She just finished an MA in Creative and Critical Writing and is currently working on a memoir about building a cabin in the woods. Twitter and Instagram: @LauraBarakerisWriter