Recently I had the amazing luxury of going on a self-imposed mini writing retreat. Luxury because I have a full-time job, a full-on toddler, an equally busy husband (Equally as busy as me, not the toddler. Although…) and all the other things have would normally keep me from taking time out to only write. Up until a short while ago, I’ve been able to write at home. Before the kid, back when I got so much done I must have had some magical power to freeze time, I was insanely productive. I wrote 2.5 books in the same number of years. Now, and with another kid on the way, I’m lucky if I can write for an hour twice a week. It’s a little depressing and a lot frustrating. But, yes, that’s what I signed up for, right?
So when the chance to go away—be physically not at home and do nothing but write—came up, I jumped. Yes, please. I’d set writing goals for myself and they were in danger of becoming unrealistic. Or maybe they just always had been, but it was time to at least try and fix that.
I love word origins. The roots of language can hold the most fascinating, and poetic, secrets. I thought I’d died and gone to word nerd heaven when I first read The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. [If you’re a word nerd and haven’t read it, get thee to a copy post haste.] The word retreat, which has been bouncing around in my head since I had my little writing sojourn, is one of those great words with layers of history and multiple, overlapping meanings. I love the fact that it’s about pulling back, going away, but also meditation. And I couldn’t help noticing the ‘treat’ in there too. Because that’s what the sojourn felt like.
Now, I wish there was more photographic evidence of my time away. It is a stunning little cottage by the sea—couldn’t get more photogenic. But, of course, the one thing I didn’t pack? My camera’s battery charger. Uh huh. So right after I took the photo above, my camera died.
On the last morning, I woke up to a clear grey ocean, clouds like castles in a white-blue sky. A sea lion swam past the shore on his way to find breakfast (or maybe on his way back from it). It would have been perfect to photograph everything. But that would have been easy. Not having visual evidence seems apt because the retreat was all about writing and being alone and being the only witness. That’s an amazing thing about telling stories. As a writer, I am the first witness. I pull the story out of myself and pass it on to others to witness in turn.
As soon as I got to the cottage that first day, I realised how appropriate it was to be writing by the sea. To be in front of it, staring across it whenever my eyes left the page. I’ve always marveled at how barren and unbreachable the ocean can feel when you ride on top of it on a ferry. In a strange way, it seems almost like a sort of desert, devoid of many of the signs of life we’re used to on land. But I marvel at the explosion of life under the surface, the possibilities we only glimpse from above. For me, it’s a fitting analogy to the potential for story in a writer—or, actually, in all of us. When I look at a blank page, as calm and daunting as the sea, I try to remind myself that things lie under the surface, that the story is living there. And I am the one who must dive in and find it.
PS-I may not have a photo of them, but here’s what I heard distantly at night and all morning while at the cottage. It was awesome.