Highlights Return Trip (with a Podcast Playlist)

road

My writing retreat began on the road.

When you haven’t spent a night away from home in seven years, you need to make every second count.

After a tearful goodbye to my family, I started my drive to Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, PA. It’s funny, and a bit crazy, how much I trust GPS. Because it’s on a screen in my car, I put my faith in a strange woman’s soothing voice as she guides me, one turn at a time.

Strikingly similar to how I’d been writing my novel, one scene at a time. (The only problem was, I still didn’t know how it was going to end…)

Though I was eager to enjoy some podcasts, I gave myself an hour of quiet (not counting the GPS lady) to let my brain open to all the possibilities of this trip. The drive was beautiful and familiar, since it led me down some of the same roads I took to my Listen to Your Mother show in April. Along the way, I passed cluster after cluster of tiger lilies, a flower that always reminds me of my mom, and I felt as though she was traveling with me, and cheering me on.

tiger lilies

Photo Credit: Selbe ❤ via Compfight cc

Once I hit the highway, I fell into podcast bliss, enjoying a 2012 interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings (because I can’t get enough of her brilliant mind and melodic Bulgarian accent) and half of Cheryl Strayed‘s NYPL interview. I was unexpectedly impressed with the latter, in part because I haven’t read much of Strayed, except for her famous Dear Sugar column, Write Like a Motherfucker.

If you’re a writer and haven’t read it, you should. If you loved it, then download this podcast right now.

I readily admit to being wary of Ms. Strayed, through no fault of her own. I’m just inherently suspicious of books (and anything, really) with insane media coverage. (It took me a couple years to read Harry Potter, for example.) But now, I’m utterly won over by her wisdom, honesty, charm, and humor, and I’m totally going to read ALL of her books, even Wild, especially Wild, which I had zero interest in up until now,

The funny thing is, one of my favorite moments was when the interviewer quoted Elizabeth Gilbert (who I read before she became crazy famous) about how to handle self-doubt when writing a book:

“I never said I had to be a brilliant writer. Just a writer.”

Yes. What a simple yet freeing concept. As I drove to my writing retreat, I thought again of my goal to finish my draft and thought, I don’t have to write a brilliant ending to my book, just an ending. 

This next quote made me laugh, and I immediately wrote it down (don’t worry, I was in traffic):

“It’s not the world’s fault you wanted to be an artist. Now stop whining and get back to work.”

All writers have moments of self-pity, including Gilbert and Strayed, and I imagine, even Popova (!), but the difference between those who succeed and fail is not just talent, per say, but also persistence and grit.

If you can force yourself to keep writing despite all the voices in your head (and perhaps out of your head) suggesting otherwise – and if you quit whining – you have a better shot than most. This is essentially what Strayed is saying, though more colorfully, in her Dear Sugar write like a motherfucker response. (You might want to listen to the podcast just to hear that phrase repeated about thirty times. Worth it.)

Two hours later when I entered Honesdale, wiser yet also starving, my heart sped up, and I glanced at the time. GPS lady told me I was nearly there, but when I arrived at my “destination,” I knew immediately it was wrong. The Highlights Foundation was in the woods, not on a residential street in town. Fortunately, my wonderful writer friend Donna, had warned me about this, and I followed her emailed directions that thankfully led me to the right place.

highlights view

Highlights Foundation, view of the Barn. Not the most flattering shot, but hey, I wasn’t there to take photos.

After some initial bumbling, I walked up to the Lodge where I’d be staying for the next two days and saw this sign posted on my door:

highlights door

I made it. All I had to do now was write – and preferably like a motherfucker, since I had less than forty-eight hours to do so at this gorgeous, peaceful (um, except for that bear sighting) retreat.

And I did. It wasn’t easy. There were times I wanted to quit, moments when I was definitely whining (in my head, but maybe also a little at lunch on Day 2, thanks for listening Michelle!), but I put those podcasts to good use – as well as Dani Shapiro’s writing retreat advice – and made it happen.

That's me, doing the work.

That’s me, doing the work.

Not only did I finish my draft, but somehow, in that short whirlwind amount of time, I also managed to make a few fantastic writer friends, including my next door neighbor, Stacey, and hall mate Lori, who led me to my room that first day and then asked me to join an accountability group with some other “UnWorkshoppers.” I said yes before she even finished her sentence.

I had hoped to leave the retreat having accomplished my writing goals – and I did – but I didn’t expect to also leave with friends.

Me and some fellow UnWorkshop writers hanging in the poetry garden.

Hanging in the poetry garden with some UnWorkshoppers.

The irony (and how we writers love irony!) is not only that my GPS failed to take me the final leg of my journey, but my own internal GPS frizzled out, too. As I struggled to write the final scenes of my novel, my internal voice went from helpful and zen to pissy and mean, telling me to quit and stop wasting my time.

But I turned that noise off. I put on my sneakers and went for a walk, listening to Damien Rice until my ears rattled, and letting my emotions rise up. Then I went back to my room and wrote like a motherfucker.

The end.

What I looked like when I was done.

What I looked like when I was done. Happy, tired, finishing my Cheryl Strayed podcast.

Post Script: If you find yourself with time to spare and some writing goals to tackle, check out the Highlights Foundation UnWorkshop dates. You can sign up for as many days as you like, and for $99 a night, it’s a total bargain. You have everything you need to write and rest comfortably, plus the food is incredible (they also cater to various dietary needs, such as gluten free!). They have yoga some mornings and beautiful grounds to walk and muse when you need to clear your head (or in my case, stop whining).

Let me know if you sign up… maybe I’ll meet you there. I plan on returning. Soon.

*Bonus podcastFor more on writing perseverance, check out this wise and funny conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett at the New York Public Library

Also, if you have any suggestions for other writing or author related podcasts, please tell me in comments! I need MORE.

Leaving Home

In a few days, I’m going on a trip. Alone.

Two days and nights of solitude at the incredible Highlights Foundation (yes, the children’s magazine has a dreamy getaway for writers of all genres). Me, my laptop, and a stack of books.

Some of the lodging at Highlights. Oh bliss.

Some of the lodging at Highlights. Oh, bliss.

It doesn’t feel real. I’m in denial that it’s happening at all because – brace yourselves – I’ve never been away from my kids. Ever. Not for ONE night since my daughter was born seven years ago.

After giving birth to my son, I came home the same day. (Hey, I was high on hormones, what can I say?)

There’s plenty I could write about why it’s taken me so long to leave my kids, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is, it’s happening now. I’m anxious and giddy in equal parts. I know my family will be fine (right, dad, right?!), and I think we’ll all be better for this small yet significant break, but I can’t help feel the weight of it.

My goal is to, finally, finish this novel draft. Maybe even work on a short story that has been brewing. I just hope I can live up to my own expectations. What if, upon arrival, with the days stretched before me, long and unencumbered, I freeze? What if I screw up this golden opportunity?

Of course, this is self-doubt creeping in, stealthy and sly as always. I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize the signs. Years of experience has given me the tools to shut it down. When I get stuck, I’ll get out of my little cabin and go for a walk or jog on the gorgeous woodsy grounds.

highlights grounds

I’ll grab a cup of coffee in the lodge and gain some strength from shared smiles and kind words.

One of my favorite writers, Dani Shapiro (please consider reading Still Writing if you haven’t already) recently posted some gorgeous photographs on Instagram of her recent writing retreat, along with these simple goals:

Writing

Reading

Walking

Thinking 

Connecting

That’s exactly what I’ll be doing the moment I leave June 22, the day after Father’s Day, summer solstice, and the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death.

This trip is a gift, a literal one, for my upcoming 40th birthday. My husband will take his own later this summer. We got the idea from some friends who celebrated their milestone this way. A few months ago when we decided to make our plans, I immediately knew what I wanted to do.

My husband was surprised. “Don’t you want to go to a spa? Get massages? Relax and unwind?”

“Nope,” I said without hesitation. “I want to write. That’s all.”

I’m lucky that way. I’ve always known what I wanted to do with my life, what I wanted to be. For years I wasted my time, or maybe I just didn’t have enough life experience, maybe it wasn’t the right time.

But it is now. I’m ready.

Diving In

pool

Summer is heavy breathing down my neck – and for some reason it’s not freaking me out.

Early next week school ends for my kids, and so do my two mornings of uninterrupted writing time. I’ll have to find new ways to squeeze in my work, which might mean a combination of getting up earlier, watching less Netflix at night with my husband, and giving the kids TV time-outs (ha).

Normally, this change in routine fills me with dread, but this year I’m feeling a sense of calm as spring winds down. I’m almost welcoming the forced surrender it will require.

If only I could stay this calm all summer long.

If only I could be this calm.

Last summer, before our big move from city to country, we bounced around like pinballs, living out of suitcases, but this summer we’re home. We joined a pool so the kids can stay busy and wet, there’s a beach trip scheduled for August, and a few weeks of camp mid summer, which will no doubt be a sanity saver.

But summer with two kids mostly at home means certain sacrifices will have to be made. Summer means loosening my grip.

It’s also an ideal time to reflect on my writing goals. Over the last few months, I’ve been feeling fragmented and scattered, due in no small part to an excessive use of social media.

In some ways, joining Twitter and Facebook has been great – I’ve made many new friends (not just the kind you tally up, but real ones) and discovered some wonderful blogs. But on the flip side, so much distraction has been, well, distracting.

Not simply because I can’t stop scrolling through my Facebook feed (although that IS a problem, just ask my husband) but also because I’ve discovered many more writing opportunities.

The good news is that I’ve picked up a few exciting bylines, most recently an article on The Mid that I wrote after a traumatic bathing suit shopping trip. I also have several articles out for submission, including another anthology. I’ve been honing my essay writing skills as well as my ability to roll with rejection.

But on the flip side I’ve been neglecting my novel and fiction writing in general. Writing essays for online publications is fast work compared to the long slog of a novel. If my piece is accepted, I’m rewarded with the buzz of recognition, and it makes me want more.

Which is all fine and good…except I’m not a freelancer.

I know it’s not all or nothing. I don’t have to choose sides, so to speak, but I do need to choose priorities. I’m still interested in writing essays and improving my craft, but I also want to finish my novel and continue writing short stories.

That is why summer is the perfect time for me to step out of the rushing river of social media and submissions, and give myself some space to examine my goals and dreams.

river

I love living along this gorgeous river.

I’m in good company, at least. Two writers that I admire greatly, Nina Badzin and Lindsey Mead, have both written blog posts in a similar vein. It’s important that everyone, not just writers, take time to step out of the busy pace of life to reevaluate and examine, to track their steps and see if they want to continue along the same path, or change directions.

My little guy at a crossroads.

I was listing to Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast the other day and was struck by something her guest, writer and thinker Maria Popova, said:

“Identity is this perpetual process, it’s like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic, and it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones. In that sense, it’s just as important to continue defining who we are, is to continue eliminating who we are not.”

As I veer headlong toward my fortieth birthday, it’s actually something of a pleasure to dive into this self-work – this vital sifting of who I am, which I believe I’m better equipped to do now more than ever.