Archive for June, 2013

Writing Retreat Sun Porch

Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

I spent last weekend in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It was one of those houses that should be the setting for a story, and in fact makes a cameo appearance in one of our members’ works in progress. Doors and corridors open upon room after room, and even more rooms, with extra mattresses squirreled away under beds. There was flowered wall paper and high ceilings and closets full of family history and old books, and views of the craggy rocks, the pebbly beach and the ocean from most windows. There were plenty of nooks and crannies in which to work, including a massive sun porch, and lots of old roll-top desks with relics of past times still nestled in their cubbies. There were even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It was, in a word, perfect.

Ice-O-Mat

Ice-O-Mat

But even without such an idyllic setting, a writing retreat can be a fantastically invigorating way to remind oneself of those aspects of writing  of which it is all too easy to lose sight, especially if one is also juggling a job, children, and other responsibilities: the commitment to write, one’s reason to do so, one’s capacity for sustained focus over a period of hours. And of course, a writing retreat is an excellent way to make some tangible progress on an existing project. Herewith, 7 tips on how to make this happen.

1. Choose your company well.

It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, fellow writers or other artists who will abide by the schedule (see tip #4) with seriousness and also provide for stimulating conversation and good laughs during your breaks. The ability to be both silly and serious together is key. (Unless you are the type to favor a solitary retreat. Personally, I balk at the silence and me-ness of a retreat alone, but folks like Joyce Carol Oates would probably revel in it. Since JCO is unlikely to be reading my blog any time soon, I’ll continue with my more social-minded retreat tips.)

Fabulous Writing Group Partners

Fabulous Writing Group Partners, photo by Crystal King

2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.

The coast of Maine is rugged, craggy, salted. Striated rocks jut out into the water, wild rose bushes grow in a tumble along scraggly paths. The ocean is take-your-breath-away cold, the air turns crisper just as soon as one passes the state’s Welcome sign on I-95. One can, of course, retreat to any place that is away from the hubbub of one’s regular life, but being out in nature offers, literally, a breath of fresh air. The brain is oxygenated, the eyes can rest on the horizon, or on a vista of trees or flowers. The blood can pump through the body during a run or a hike on a sand or dirt path, and ideas flow more freely.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME

Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

3. Articulate a goal beforehand, and share it out loud.

It’s all about accountability. For some, accountability to oneself is all it takes to sit down in the chair and just do it. For most, articulating a goal to others makes the goal more real and more necessary, and therefore more likely to be met. One writer, of historical fiction, wanted to change the point of view in her existing chapters and pound out at least one more chapter. Someone else wanted to revise an entire section of her novel. Another wanted to get herself to within spitting distance of querying agents. I wanted to plough through a writing block and write a new chapter as well as develop a new character. We all made it to, or acceptably close to, our goals.

4. Set a reasonable schedule, and then adhere to it.

You are here to work. That is the primary purpose. Therefore, you need a schedule that includes a good amount of work time. We set our start time for 9:00 or 9:30 am, allowing for a good night’s sleep and ample time for breakfast, or even for fitting in a morning run. Then 3-4 solid hours of work time, each of us settled in a different corner of the house. I loved the companionable silence, the knowledge that as I worked, three other people were chipping away at their projects as well—musing, pondering, creating. Every now and then, one of them would pass me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There would be a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledged the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeated the experience in the afternoon for another 3-4 hour stint.

5. Take long breaks, eat well, and get some exercise.

Perhaps these should be three separate tips, but in my mind they are intrinsically linked. In addition to the solid wake-up and breakfast time we gave ourselves, we took two hours at lunch time to make and pack a picnic together and bring it down to the rocks at the beach, then go for a stroll on the point. And after the second 3-4 hour writing stint of the afternoon, we took the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out. Our group always meets around food, so it was natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal.

6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.

In our giddy enthusiasm, we over-packed in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. We’ll know better for next time. But it was great to have a stash of wasabi chick peas, chocolate, almonds, dried apricots and home-made fig cake in the kitchen, sometimes just as an excuse to get up and walk around and ingest a little sugar. And the gin-and-tonics didn’t hurt, either. (What? It was five o’clock somewhere.)

Writing Nook

Writing Nook

7. Make arrangements for your pets/children/spouses/plants, and then put them out of your mind, or at least in its far reaches.

This is your time. You may have several small children at home. You may have a new puppy or a senile cat. You may have other dependents for whom you are usually the main source of care. But chances are that if you have planned a writing retreat, or even if you are simply seriously considering one, you are willing to make arrangements to cover for their care and feeding while you are away. Do what you can to give yourself peace of mind that everyone is in good hands, and then go Do Your Thing. Those who are helping you out back home are doing it for just that reason.

(Bonus tip #8: Bring music. This might not work for everyone, but our group found it inspiring to write to the strains of wordless classical music. When I am on my own, I favor Indian classical: Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee and L. Subramaniam among others. The rhythms and surges of the music may well come to match the patterns of your writing. Visit The Undercover Soundtrack by Roz Morris for a great blog series on writers who use music as part of their creative process.)

For additional advice and details, including how we came across the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks and other wonders, head over the Crystal King’s blog.

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Chateau de Chenonceau Kitchen Stove

Not my kitchen. Chateau de Chenonceau, France. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t that hard, as it turns out. And the child gave me the entry point herself.

It usually occurs to 8-year old K to ask, as she somewhat grudgingly sets the table, what we are having for dinner. A few weeks ago, when she insufficiently masked her dismay, I put down the pot in my hand and looked squarely at her.

Me: I have an idea.
Her, rolling her eyes: Oh no.
Me: No, no. It’s a good one. I promise.
Her, scrunching her eyebrows: Yeeesss?
Me: How about, when you are nine, you can be in charge of dinner once a week. You pick the menu, you be the chef.
Her: Yes! (Jumps up and down.) Do we have to wait until I am nine? That’s still two months away!
Me: No. You can start now if you want. Next week. What are you going to make?

Thus was born a new experiment. I have to confess that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject. Her sons were 10 and 14 at the time. I read it and started dreaming (it’s ok, I know it’s a dream, I don’t expect it to come true) of sitting on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while K makes us a simple but healthy and appetizing meal. The reality, of course, is much different. Especially with a child who is still quite young, and with her three-year old sister in the mix. Quite literally. The scene is a bit more like the one Sean Wilsey describes in his hilarious piece, also in the New York Times, in 2011. We might even end up with more items, and people, to wash at the end. In my case, I’m also trying to relinquish responsibility and transfer it to the mature and responsible 8-year old, while attempting to tame a wild toddler we refer to as “the creature.”

We’ve set a few ground rules:

  1. Each menu must include at least one form of protein, one starch, and one vegetable. (Later on we may include dessert. We are all big fans of dessert here.)
  2. She is responsible for making sure we have the necessary ingredients in the house in time. For the moment, this means reminding me in advance to pick up the items we need, and when possible, accompanying me to buy them.
  3. I must be present (for the moment) in the kitchen, and I must be watching when she does anything involving the stove/oven or knives.

She has crossed that invisible barrier, the one that stands between “help” that is in fact totally counter-productive (involving more of my time and patience, creating more work for me, and making a greater mess) and help that is truly helpful in advancing the cause of the meal. Her sister, however, is squarely on the first side, capable of creating a mess of unfathomable proportions in the time it takes me to turn on a pot to boil. When I nearly slipped and broke my back due to a fine layer of flour on the hardwood floor the other day, my husband reminded me: this is a long term investment. Meanwhile, he is steering clear of the whole situation, although wise enough to praise the results with vigor and engage K in a discussion of her techniques and the finer points of being Head Chef. Plus he’s also cultivated her interest in barbecue to the point that she looks forward to watching BBQ Pitmasters competitions and talks about the time when the two of them will enter as competitors.

I’m trying not to place too much weight on this experiment. Sure, it might end up being a wonderful mother-daughter(s) bonding moment (like when we’re both bonded to the floor by the honey her sister spilled), but for the moment K is talkative enough, and I am available enough to her, that there are other opportunities for such bonding. It might end up fostering in her a greater interest in nutrition and health and the environment and such, but she’s already fairly attuned to these. Mostly, I view it from a practical perspective: it’s good to be independent, to know how to manage, to go forth in the world as prepared as one can be. The French have a good word for this: to be “débrouillarde.”

The first menu consisted of spaghetti with “meat sauce” (i.e. a simplified bolognese) accompanied by broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil. A relatively involved project to begin with, as we made the sauce from scratch. But K was game. She had a friend over that afternoon, and at 4:00 pm I called them both down to the kitchen.

K: Let’s go! I have to make dinner.
Me: You’re welcome to hang out and help.
Friend: Why are you starting now? It’s only 4.
Me (thinking Aha! Teachable moment. Lesson 1.) Well, it’s one thing to make dinner, it’s another to get it all done by dinner time. One has to plan. For example, the sauce takes a while to simmer, and we have the added variable of S. A 3-year old can be very disruptive in the kitchen. We have to allow extra time. You can’t just wait until you are hungry to start thinking about dinner.
Friend: Oh? That’s what my mom does.

That first afternoon, there were many introductory lessons: how to turn a burner on and off, and to control the flame. (K already knew, apparently, to keep the handle of the pot or pan turned away from the edge.) The importance of keeping track of what utensils and surfaces have been in contact with raw meat. How to delegate tasks whose outcomes are irrelevant to the progress of the prep to the little sister while still making her think she’s being helpful. That type of thing.

There came a time when every utensil and container in the kitchen was dirty, when the sauce was burbling up out of the pot in explosive spurts, when K was sprawled on the floor moaning, and when S was rummaging untended in the fridge like a bear cub. But the experiment was a success for these three simple reasons:

  1. Dinner was on the table at something that approximated dinner time, and was quite tasty to boot.
  2. We’d had a few good laughs.
  3. Most importantly, K wanted to cook again.

Which she did last night: steaks (rib eye, broiled, first rubbed with garlic and fresh herbs), corn on the cob, and sesame semolina bread with an array of French cheeses. This time, our commune neighbor 8 year old L joined in, eager to help out. Lots of small fingers to pull the leaves off the thyme stems. He suggested they keep track of the recipes, create a book, and publish it. My kind of boy! I don’t see that really happening, but so far I’m quite pleased with this experiment.

 

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Writer on beach.

Writer on beach. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

One bottle of Greylock gin
Limes & tonic
What If? (Book of writing prompts by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays)
Beach/running shoes
Manuscript in progress
Sunscreen
Kindle
iPod dock
Tea & coffee
Chocolate

With the exception of the manuscript in progress, this could be a good gift list. But that’s not actually what this is. Instead, it is the start of the packing list for a writing retreat I am planning with three other women–writing partners with whom, over five years of regular meetings, I have forged strong friendships. The prospect of this weekend is making me giddy with excitement. One member has access to a house by the beach in Maine. We have planned several solid chunks of writing time, small excursions on the coast, good meals out, and time to review our work together. I dream of taking a notebook down to the beach, of sketching out the next few scenes of my new book. But, as must be the case, this excitement is countered by the grinding of wheels in my brain which must immediately roll into action to plan the logistics of coverage in my absence: school and preschool drop off and pickup, management of Little One while Big One is at martial arts with her father, teaching coverage for my dance students, etc. I–and those around me–will make it happen, I know we will, and so I let my excitement carry me forward. But it is a constant juggle.

People keep asking me what I’d like for my upcoming birthday, which some view as a significant one for reasons that seem to be rather arbitrary, and the answer is this: time. That’s all I want. And I’m willing to wager that time is all any writer really wants. I don’t need more stuff cluttering my life. But please, take my fabulous children and allow me a day of writing, a day of reading, a day of letting my mind go free, of planning only according to what I want and not around what others want or need or expect.

This, I think, will resonate with any parent, especially primary care-giving parent, trying to carve out time for a creative pursuit. If you know one, the most wonderful thing you can do for him or her is to offer your services to help free up some time. It will cost you very little–assuming their children are not tyrants–and will earn you some serious gratitude and good karma.

 

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