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Retreat + Journal = Transformation

Last night I arrived home from a five-day personal writing retreat with a couple of friends at the Highlights Foundation’s retreat center in Pennsylvania. (At Highlights they call it an “unworkshop.”) I’ve written about this magical place before, and I highly recommend it as a place to get away and do a deep dive into your writing—or anything else, for that matter.

Just like every other retreat I have ever participated in or led, what I planned for the retreat was not exactly what happened. But this time I went places in my writing that were deeper and more true than I could have imagined.

When I was planning for the retreat I had two intentions: (1) do some preparatory work for the novel I’ve been thinking about for two decades, using Elizabeth George’s Mastering the Process as a guide; and (2) mine my 11 notebooks of writing prompt responses to look for themes and pieces that could be developed into essays, flash fiction, or even a memoir. That was a lot of pressure to put on five days away, but time feels abundant there and it seemed possible. In the end, I did review Mastering the Process and took several hours to get through precisely one of my 11 notebooks and index promising entries. I also read a category-expanding book on memoir, Memoir Your Way.

Here’s what else I did. I created an art project with pastels (that was fun!). I went for walks, meditated, napped, read a spiritual book I had brought along, and did some of the hardest personal growth work I’ve done in quite a while. I wrote 36 pages in my journal, working through issues that came up for me to resolve. Things that had been submerged in the currents of my everyday life came bubbling up demanding to be dealt with. And so the writing that I had intended to do took a back seat to the writing that needed to be done.

In my journal I dealt with Resistance (the capital “R” is intentional) to writing—What is the point of it all? I debated over what was the best use of my time—couldn’t indexing the notebooks, which is a relatively mundane activity, wait until I got home? I agonized over whether it was appropriate to write about a painful family story that occurred several generations ago. I had strange dreams that I recorded in my journal and analyzed. I worked through some old and lingering hurts. I had revelations about certain habits of behavior that are not productive, such as trying to fix things that don’t belong to me. I wrote about my spiritual life. I leaned into why I am bored by my own writing and realized that I haven’t been giving enough time to honing my craft and going deeper. I brainstormed and wrote about how to make changes that will take me to a richer place with my writing. I weighed personal essay vs. flash fiction vs. memoir vs. the novel. Then I explored distraction, dithering, and devotion. I came up with another book idea. And on and on.

As I sat at my desk overlooking the woods on the last morning of the retreat, I could see that the journaling work I did there—and the deep conversations I had with my friends, which helped illuminate it—was exactly what I needed to do. It wasn’t the writing I had planned, but it opened up new worlds for me to explore in the coming days and months. And that was worth everything.

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