A Writer’s Retreat

While I was at Regent I got in the habit of telling people to go on writer’s retreats. A friend would be talking about struggles with focus and confidence in their work, and I would announce to them with great authority that this was the solution to their problems. So they’d go and book a place for a couple days away on one of the islands and come back to me just raving and glad I recommended it to them, because they’d gotten so much done and felt so much better about where their project was headed. I mean, maybe I exaggerate their joy and gratitude, but as someone who rarely takes others’ advice, no matter how thoughtful, I was always caught off guard that they had taken mine and somehow it had actually worked out for them. And maybe I also felt odd about it because I’d never actually gone on a writer’s retreat myself—in that all alone, book-a-place-just-to-go-away-and-focus kind of way.

So anyway, I’m here to announce that I finally have, because we’ve been on winter break and I had a long weekend. I got a room at a historic inn just down the road from Saxapahaw which is ostensibly a town, but mostly consists of a little strip of shops for bougie farm-to-table country people who want to buy home-made soap and craft beer from a “five star gas station” and have bumper stickers that say things like “Manifest that Shit.” It’s good for a day out.

And my place was nice. The grounds were big, with uncertain paths wending their way through something like woodland. I wished I had a map (mostly because I like maps), but didn’t mind scrambling and wandering. I almost never do. It was still and calm as all get-out there except for the sounds of passing cars and daffodils growing, but there was a big brick-pavered front porch which would have glowed all lit-up for a party.

My first day I napped a lot and took two baths. I was coming in so tired, more tired than was optimal, really. I lay and listened to the sound of the road from my bed, waiting for my brain to slow its spinning gears and stop shooting shards of metal off every which way. And then I wrote, because the act of writing can help to order disparate pieces. It is so often like sliding beads onto a string: building up one tentative idea on another, warm and hopeful.

I’m just cracking my way into something long and non-fiction, so the notes I was making were about my own life, from childhood on. I was using what already existed to tell the truth. Instead of having to manifest the facts out of thin air, like with a novel, I had them already growing fertile in my own memory. And I was shocked to find, as I kept going and going, how much life I’ve lived in just thirty years.

I don’t think I’m a special case. I think everyone lives a lot of life. And to marshal so much of it together onto a page into some sort of order, to run your fingers over all its silver threads of meaning which connect one thing to the next to the next, is a real marvel. Not everything that has happened to me has been good, yet even the pains contribute to the great abundance of my experience, experience which has all been grace, every bit of it. I’d forgotten that writing was such an exercise in gratitude. Perhaps this is what those Regent friends were responding to when they came home from their own retreats all lit up.

On Saturday night I took myself to dinner in Saxapahaw. I’d made myself a reservation for one, which felt weird but good, and as I drove, I watched the last remnants of the sunset still leaking out over the horizon, like the celestial clean-up crew had yet to finish their job for the evening. I searched for the color of the sky where the blue and orange met. I wanted to know what that color was. It remained a mystery to me even though it was right in front of my eyes.

I ate alone under soft lighting, and imagining how I must look flattered my vanity, but much more than that, I liked being around people for the first time in days. It was an upscale pub populated by friendly waitstaff, families and groups of friends eating together, people who leaned toward each other comfortably as they talked. I journaled and ate stew and key lime pie and drank wine and just sat. It was my great joy to be quiet in the midst of noise.