Making It Through the Loneliness on a Solo Writer’s Retreat

December 5, 2018 § 14 Comments

Linda C. WisniewskiBy Linda C. Wisniewski

The young woman’s face on my laptop screen smiled encouragement. Look at the sky if you’re near a window, she said, or remember the sky if you are not. Write about what’s happening.

I picked up my pen and spiral notebook, and wrote about the palest of blues beyond the trees outside my window. I described brown, orange and green leaves clinging to branches. I wrote that I felt as if I were in a bowl of blue, the sunlight to my left a warm beacon.

I did not write about this: My breath was shallow, my body cold and tense. Alone on a solo writing retreat in the Pocono Mountains, I struggled for calm.

I’ve been anxious all my life. What made me think this was a good idea? The friend who stayed three days in a cabin where her food – and beer – were delivered to her door. A famous writer who checks into a hotel room for days at a time to work on her novel. A friend who drives to her second home in the wilderness to write and canoe alone.

When a week-long stay at a mountain resort came up at our church auction, I made a tentative bid, not sure I wanted to win. It was the only bid. I imagined myself writing and reading all day, stopping only for meals or a walk outside. Maybe even hiking on the nearby trails. But it was gray and cold and miserable the first full day. I walked the hilly roads alone; there was no sidewalk or walking path. Cars passed at low speed but I felt unsafe and vulnerable.

At home, I have the same distractions all writers do: laundry, email, Facebook. Cooking, shopping, the need to exercise. The phone. Anything and everything. I’ve been trying to complete my second novel for a year. My romantic soul imagined me alone in the mountains with pen or laptop, a cup of tea, and long empty days to pour words onto the page.

Blue, blue, I wrote to the live prompt, inside the bowl of sky. See the blue beauty now, the dancing pink leaves on shrubs near the ground. There is beauty here for me to see, above and below. My frantic attempts to follow instructions yielded trite phrases.

I had the time I said I wanted. And I couldn’t breathe. Okay, I could, but I had to concentrate. Deep breath, Linda. In and out.

The online instructor asked us to respond to a quote from Audre Lorde and another from a Whitman poem. My writing was all about the light: looking for it, finding it, needing it. Three longhand pages, not bad for an hour’s work with 29 people on a Zoom chat. But then they were gone. And the rooms around me were empty.

Even though my son was due to arrive on the fourth night, the crashing loneliness was like a thick blanket threatening to smother me. Where were my inner resources? I’ve lived seventy years and must have some by now. But I couldn’t settle to meditate. I read a book. Journaling about my fear made it worse. I watched the clock until my son arrived in the middle of Grey’s Anatomy. Thank God for TV.

The next morning, he logged into his office and worked at the kitchen table all day. I got some real writing done, and later, we went to the indoor pool where happy families played with toddlers jumping under a mushroom shaped fountain. When I told him about my anxiety, he recommended his two-minute rule for worry: Stop after two minutes. I’m glad it works for him.

I like being home alone, my favorite things all around me, my trees outside the window, the white noise of traffic on the highway. My cat snoring on the floor beside my desk. But alone on this self-made writer’s retreat, I watched the windows and doors. For what?

I tried to make sense of my panicky feelings, researched them on the web, and read about fear of abandonment. I tried hard to work through my anxiety. I told myself I shouldn’t feel this way. And then I cut myself a break and went home.

I left with organized files of essays and stories and a revised chart of paying markets. I got clearer on my writing goals. And I learned that it doesn’t matter what other writers do. Sure, I’d like to lose the anxiety. But in the meantime, I don’t have to write alone.
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Linda C. Wisniewski lives with her retired scientist husband in Bucks County, PA where she volunteers at the historic home of Nobel prize author Pearl S. Buck. Her writing has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, gravel, bioStories, and The Sunlight Press. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press.

Have I Got a Residency for You

November 1, 2016 § 10 Comments

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Scenes from a Writers Retreat

by Kathy Stevenson

Most writers I know harbor an inner belief (or maybe it’s a fantasy) that if they could just get away for a week, or preferably a month, and ensconce themselves at a writers’ retreat or residency, it would make all the difference in their writing lives.  The scattered notes for a novel would miraculously assemble themselves into a coherent narrative; the poems written in spiral notebooks over a period of years would take on the emotional heft they have been lacking; the deep thinking required for your memoir’s narrative would result in a new breakthrough.

We writers have bought into the notion that “a room of one’s own” is critical to our mental health and literary success.  After all, what could be more appealing?  Take kids, spouses, dirty dishes, dust balls, and family pets out of the equation, and what comes to your mind first?  Perhaps blissful silence, meditative calm, the space to create.  It worked pretty well for Virginia Woolf.

Have no fear.  What you need is a residency at a writers’ retreat.  Browse through the listings in any magazine or website that provides information and inspiration to writers.  You’ll read descriptions of secluded wooded glens, private studios, farm-to-table meals delivered right to your door in cute little picnic baskets.

But lately I have noticed a disconcerting trend in several of these offers of space and quiet for writers and artists.  As the three excerpts below (from actual residency programs) illustrate, you ain’t gettin’ something for nothing:

Two-week to five month residencies for emerging or established writers.  Private room provided in exchange for twelve hours of work per week to help renovate and maintain grounds.
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Private studio space for writers.  An hour a day of routine caretaking of the property is required.
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Residents will assist with fieldwork, research, and other light ranger duties.
                                                            ***

But, routine caretaking?  Maintaining the grounds?  Caretaking and “maintaining the grounds” (such as they are) are the main reasons I sometimes find it difficult to write at my own home.

Nearly every residency program does require some exchange of “labor” as part of a mutually agreed upon quid pro quo.  A writer-in-residence is most often called upon to read from his or her work during the residency, usually a way of involving the local community with the residency program.  Community involvement with resident artists and writers is critical for the overall financial support these places rely upon, as well as being part of an overall mission of bringing the arts to a wider audience.  Often, in addition to a community reading, the resident writer is asked to present a program at a local school.

And I realize that for some residencies, “light ranger duties” or “caretaking of the property” might fit in with the overall mission of the program itself.  For a writer whose focus is writing about the environment or ecology, or fly fishing, these might seem like normal and attractive benefits of a potential retreat.

Part of me thinks it might be kind of cool to experience one of these outdoorsy residencies.  But then the sane part of me realizes that I don’t want to go to a writers’ retreat in order to bale hay or clear the North Forty or assist with “light housekeeping duties.”  I do like to picture my fellow scribes, though – usually wan, fragile creatures, not accustomed to much sunlight – sunburned and itchy and blistered in their flannel shirts and thick-soled boots.

So, check the fine print before you fly off to one of these fantasy camps.  You might be better off at one of the old-fashioned kinds of writers’ residencies, where the main activities revolve around drinking, complaining about how hard the writing life is, and gossiping about the other residents and teachers.
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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog.  She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.

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