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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 podcast: For 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.