Notes from a Self-Directed Writing Retreat
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” —Woody Allen
On Thursday I made the five-hour drive to Milanville, Pennsylvania, with two writer friends. We arrived at the Highlights Foundation’s retreat center after dark, the final eight miles of the trip made stressful by rain, fog, and serpentine country roads. As is always the case at Highlights, we were greeted warmly and invited to sit down to a hearty, healthy dinner: baked lemon chicken, salad with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes with plenty of butter and garlic, roasted root vegetables, snap peas, and peanut butter pie for dessert. This place knows what writers need: nourishment for body and spirit.
I settled into my rustic cabin equipped with private bath, twin beds, a mini-fridge and microwave, shelves loaded with children’s books, and a writing table and chair. I moved the table and chair to a better location so I could get ready to work on my primary project the next day: compiling my deceased father’s unpublished writing for a family keepsake. He died in December 2014, and he had left behind a very good self-published book of ancestral family stories, a CD of Maine humor, and many pieces in progress on his computer. I had taken it upon myself to sift through and share with friends and family what he had left behind.
I worked on that project for the whole first day. I had printed out every piece from Dad’s computer—poems, essays, opinion, fiction—and brought them with me, so I spent the day sorting through each piece and deciding where it belonged. What themes were developing? How did I want to organize it? What I hadn’t counted on was how emotionally draining it would be. I found myself feeling afresh the grief that had begun to abate over the previous year. I began to wonder how much of this writing he would want to have out in the world. After all, how would I feel if someone went into my computer and published my drafts, no matter how well intentioned? I began to doubt what I was doing, and I shed a fair number of tears. At the end of the day I laid out all the work on one of the beds in carefully crafted categories bristling with sticky notes.
On Saturday I couldn’t face the project. I wrote in my journal, I wrote a shitty first draft (à la Anne Lamott) of an essay about life as a stepmom, and then I did an assignment for an online art journal class I’m taking that ended up being a tribute to my father. I wept some more. I felt worn down. After lunch and a hike with my friends, I decided to pull out some of the writing notebooks I had brought to see if there was anything there I wanted to work with. Along the way, I surrendered. This was not going at all as planned. My big question was this: Am I in resistance or is this what I need to do to follow the Muse? Sometimes the answer is not clear.
I am writing this on Sunday afternoon. Before I went to sleep last night, I set the intention that I would receive a message in my dreams. In the middle of the night, I awoke with this phrase ringing in my ears: “Forward, march!” I ended up looking through my journal at 2 a.m. and rediscovering an idea I had written down last month for a whole series of events I wanted to do for stepmoms and other “alternative” moms, like adoptive, foster, grandmothers raising grandchildren, and so on. This morning I began outlining what these events would look like, drafted a vision and mission, and began writing down next steps. As I sit here now, after lunch and a short solo walk along the old logging road, I do not know what comes next.
One thing I have learned in my time here is to sit still and listen for what my soul wants me to do. I have shown up ready to work, with some measure of trepidation and self-doubt, yes, but also with a strong sense of calling as a writer. It’s true that I am not only a writer. I think this is the case for most of us. But for this moment, as I sit at the scarred wooden table, keys clicking under my fingers, watching a beam of sunlight play across the red-and-white patchwork quilt, and listening to a squirrel scritching away on the roof, I know I am where I am supposed to be. I am honoring my soul’s calling, no matter how scattered I feel in the moment.
My friends and I will leave after lunch tomorrow, changed in some ways from the people we were when we arrived. After dinner each night we gather in one of our little cabins to discuss what we’ve worked on, what’s getting in our way, what we dream of doing, and how to reclaim our creative selves from the churn of everyday life. It feels like too short a time to be here, but we have husbands to return to, other commitments, “real life.” Right now there is this afternoon and tomorrow morning in which to create. What will I do next? Only the Muse knows for sure, and she is unpredictable. I do know that she is happy I came.