Each year for the past several, my birthday gift to myself, and from Felicia, has been a writing retreat. Most years, I take advantage of the timeshare my folks signed up for twenty years ago, and choose a destination within a reasonable driving range.
This year I’ve just returned from nine days in Discovery Bay, Washington.
Most years, my goals are fairly concrete. Last year, for example, I produced an outline and quite a lot of supporting material for a new book. This year, that new book’s first draft has been written and is currently with my editor, so I spent the retreat freewriting—no outline, no story maps, no reference points of any kind—a new project. This project may go someplace; it may not. The point was not to produce a sellable thing, but to just enjoy writing without any boundaries. My last few years have been fairly deadline-driven, so it was nice to carve out a little time to simply explore an idea.
In service of this loose goal, I spent the week writing longhand. I brought along three project notebooks: one notebook of research I’d done over the summer; another for keeping a log of writing progress; and a third for writing whatever story I managed to come up with. And I brought pencils. Boy, did I ever bring pencils. In fact, during a bit of downtime, I ventured into nearby Port Townsend, where I stumbled into a multistory antique shop—and emerged bearing boxes of vintage pencils.
In past years, these writing retreats have produced copious word counts. I recall one year, maybe a decade ago, that generated some 50,000 words of Eleanor. (Many of those words never made it into the finished book, but I had to write them in order to know what the book wasn’t.) This trip, I’m not sure how much I wrote. I counted the words on one very full page of my notebook: 275. I looked at the next page, which was full of dialogue and whitespace. 105 words. The next page, also heavy on dialogue: 72 words. But there were many full-ish pages, so I settled on an average estimate: 200 words/page. I wrote 128 pages while away…do a little math, carry the 7, subtract the .42—I wrote about 25,000 words, give or take a couple thousand.
Because what I wrote was rather shapeless, with no pre-determined structure, I just wrote. And man, did it ever feel good. And then, somewhere around 80 pages, I hit a wall. I had no idea what would come next. I gave this some thought, and realized it wasn’t that I had no idea what was coming—it was that I had a better idea for structuring the story. So I stopped, right there on page 80, turned to page 81, and started over, shifting to a single narrator from three, framing the story a little differently, with a slightly different tone. And it worked. I had a day and a half left at that point, and I wrote the final forty-something pages in that last 36 hours.
Let me say again: I have no idea if what I wrote was good, or whether it’ll become anything at all. But the week was rejuvenating, freeing. I remembered what it was like to simply sit down with an idea, pull the starter cord, and just go rattling across the pages, taking every left turn along the way.
I’m prone to distraction and procrastination, and these empty weeks with no obligation but writing are no different. This time around, I tried something new. Each morning, I texted Felicia to say good morning, and then I turned my phone off, and put it in a drawer beside the bed. I didn’t turn it on again until 6 p.m., at which point I’d FaceTime with Felicia and Squish, hear all about their day, then have something to eat, watch a few vapid movies, and call it a night. And this worked.
Because I can’t write from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. without giving myself breaks, however, I brought along a number of books. Some craft books, like Jane Vandenburgh’s Architecture of the Novel; some novels for pleasure, like Laura Lippman’s Life Sentences; some novels for research, like Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist or Don Delillo’s Americana. I brought a lot of books, and I left with even more. I found a lovely little used bookstore in Port Townsend called William James, Bookseller. Among their comfortable stacks, between old leather chairs, I found a number of books about John Steinbeck, and brought home two, the sum total of pages between them more than a thousand. I probably came home with ten books plucked from those shelves. I love a cozy old bookstore, and this one was terrific.
Returning home, however, was wonderful. I left early Sunday morning so that I could be home in time for a day of goofing off with Squish, and shortly thereafter, my birthday arrived. I went to Washington in my thirties; I returned in time to enter my forties. I’ve told Felicia for years I expect this to be my best decade. Now that I’m here—well, we’ll see about that.
It’s good to be home.