Lessons From a Retreat

Other lessons: It’s very cold in Minnesota in February. But the light is amazing.

It strikes me, a week into this experiment, that the effect of a writing retreat is to compass the usual stages of writing a novel — despair, self-doubt, acceptance, discovery, etc — into a speeded-up version,  like a time-lapse video of seedlings shooting up and unfurling leaves. There is almost none of ordinary life, with its consolations and its irritations, that commonly provides the buffer, the bread around the meat of your novel. It’s all meat here, to continue the analogy. This is both amazing and terrifying. It’s amazing to sink so deep, to consider nothing else. It’s terrifying because there is nowhere to escape from the notion that it might be utter nonsense. And what then?

Also, the writing I am producing here, just considered as writing, is terrible! I try not to worry about this, for it is of all things the easiest to fix. Interesting that a certain verbal facility was what started me down this path, the longing to express things in beautiful words — and now I am telling myself it is the part that doesn’t matter so much. Is it a case of not valuing what seems easier to come by? Not that writing well is easy either, but the structural aspects, the elements that affect the reader in a realm beyond words, drive the plot and make it hard to put a book down — these seem to me the thing you really want a retreat for, what seem to call most desperately for the focus and the lack of interruption I am so rejoicing in here.

But my time is already running out. How to enlarge on what I’ve accomplished here, how to keep it going? I need to hone the skill of resisting distraction. If I have only an hour a day but I can keep it clean, free of detritus, and focus on only one task, this will be a lot. And even if that hour doesn’t produce much in the way of obvious result, to still honor it and to see it as worth doing. Also to learn how to stay in the world of the story mentally the other 23 hours, this is crucial. There is more in that world to see than there was a week ago, more to think about.

Is it magical? Kind of, yes, in the sense that ordinary life is always magical if you can figure out to look at it properly.


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