Monthly Archives: April 2014

Retreat! Retreat!

corporate retreat

The Corporate Retreat: There’s nothing quite as scarring as seeing your boss in shorts.

Words are funny things. When used in one context, a word can represent something desirable, and in another, a panicked directive. Take the word Retreat. Spa retreat. Spiritual retreat. Corporate retreat. And then there’s the type of retreat that comes in the midst of battle, when the other side is kicking your ass. Today, however, I would like to share my recent experience with one of the happier meanings of the word: Writers’ Retreat.

When my friend Mari jetted off to Mexico last summer for a week-long writers’ retreat, I was both jealous and a little intimidated. A whole week spent doing nothing but writing? Talk about pressure to perform. So when I recently decided to take a mini retreat with a couple of writer pals to lovely Lake Tahoe, I shrugged off the assertion that three days simply wasn’t enough time.

We arrived Thursday late afternoon, went to the grocery store, made dinner, and chattered away for a time, finally sitting down to write at about 9 o’clock. This was my first clue that I would probably get a lot more writing done if I’d brought less engaging people along. By 11:30 or so, we called it a night, determined to get a fresh start in the morning.

On Friday, we quickly fell into a comfortable pattern: two hours or so of writing, followed by a 45–60 minute break. While I set about revising my novel, Jen worked on the first in a series of fantasy novels, and Annika wrote about her days working in the classifieds department of a local weekly newspaper. Every time I glanced at the clock, another hour had whizzed by. When a minor epiphany led me to resolve a troublesome plot issue, I started feeling pretty good about me. I was kicking writers’ retreat ass!

Less than 24 hours later, I was on the edge of a neurotic downward spiral. After breezing through some key revisions in the first section of my novel, I moved on to the next section only to find the writing disjointed and flat. My heart and my confidence dropped into my belly. While Jen and Annika tapped away productively at their keyboards, I glared at my laptop, the bile rising in my throat.

Image

My money’s on Google to develop the Six Billion Dollar Man.

After an hour of this torture, I decided to pack it in for a while and take the dog for a walk in the forest that butts up against the property where we were staying. It was a bright and warm day, the blue skies dotted with marshmallow white clouds. As I trekked through the forest – listening to the sounds of chirping birds, pine needles snapping under my feet, and the wind blowing in the trees – I thought of a friend who recently moved in with her boyfriend. Rather than cramming all of their cumulative belongings into the shared house and then attempting to sort through the mess, the couple stored everything but the essentials in the basement. That way, they could bring out items only as they needed them, leaving their home uncluttered. As I walked, it occurred to me that I can apply this same approach. My novel is a little like the Six Million Dollar Man: I can rebuild it. I have the material and the tools. I just need to find the patience.

Writers’ Retreat Takeaways:

  • Five days minimum. As The Clash once sang, the minutes dragged but the hours jerked.
  • Go somewhere peaceful and preferably in nature (as long as there’s an outlet for your laptop).
  • Go with people you like, but not too much.
  • Don’t try to keep a fire going and write at the same time. Literally.
  • When in doubt, walk the dog. Take breaks to stretch your legs and air out your mind. Let inspiration seep in.

 

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Upward, Dog!

On a recent trip to Los Angeles to visit my dear friends Mari and Gary*, I attended a class entitled Yoga for Writers. It wasn’t clear whether the class was a writers’ workshop in lotus position or a yoga class that swaps out the usual “ohm” chant for a little Hemingway, but I was intrigued.

Hemingway accomplished many things, but I'm pretty sure Dolphin pose wasn't one of them.

Hemingway accomplished many things, but I’m pretty sure Dolphin pose wasn’t one of them.

After a warm, lazy Saturday spent meandering the hipster-lined streets of Silver Lake, eating hippy food in Eagle Rock (I had the bbq chickpea salad with tofu), and sipping iced organic coffee, the three of us headed out for the 6:30pm class. It was co-led by the resident yoga teacher – who had both the requisite calm demeanor and strong yoga legs – and the editor of a popular online literary magazine. The class was small and friendly, and as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of bloggers.

I quickly came to the conclusion that while the class was called Yoga for Writers, it could have applied to anyone who spends the bulk of his or her day tapping away at a keyboard. And isn’t that most people these days? Then again, this is Los Angeles and everyone needs a hook.

We started out on our mats, reclining against the supportive bolsters that helped to open up our shoulders – presumably rounded and tight from all the hours we writers hunch over our laptops or notebooks – and immediately, I began to doze off.** This phenomenon has long baffled me: why is it that I so often have difficulty falling asleep in my bed at night yet nearly always conk out during shavasana (corpse pose) while lying on the hard floor in a room full of strangers as cars and people pass by on the street just twenty feet away from my head?

We moved on to a series of other poses and movements with a goal of opening up our necks, our shoulders, and our lower backs. The movements were slow and deliberate, and – accustomed to a more strength and/or balance-based practice – I had to remind myself to be patient with this type of gentle yoga. At two hours, it was the longest yoga class I’ve ever taken, but also the least physically demanding.

After class, Mari, Gary and I compared notes over ginger fish pho noodles. Gary revealed that for the first time, he’d felt a floating sensation during the guided meditation, as if he was in a small boat drifting down a calm river. I was a little ashamed to admit that I’d fallen asleep again during meditation, until Mari confessed she had as well. I shared with them my puzzlement over bedtime vs. yoga time sleep. “I think it’s because you’re supposed to fall asleep when you get into bed at night,” Mari explained. “But there’s no pressure to fall asleep on the floor of the yoga studio.” Chalk another one up in the Neurotic Writer column for me.

Aside from the Clock and Butterfly shoulder rolls, the thing that resonated with me most of all was a Buddhist saying shared by one of the instructors. When a fellow yogini asked: “If you don’t have a lot of time, which movements are the best to do on a day-to-day basis?”, the instructor responded with: “If you have time, meditate for ten minutes a day. If you don’t have time, meditate for an hour.”

Translation: “Get your priorities straight.”

I once had a writing teacher who instructed the class to write for at least 15 minutes every day. Not for a month or a year, but forever. She said, “You might spend the entire 15 minutes changing around two words in a sentence. Or you might find inspiration and write for four hours straight.” Her point, of course, was that if you want to make writing (or anything) a part of your life, you will find 15 minutes in which to do it. Get off of Facebook. Stop checking your email every five minutes. Turn off the TV.

Write. Stretch. Write more.

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*Mari is a full-time writer/cartoonist and occasional yogini. Gary is just a damn good sport.

**My friend Fiona refers to this type of restorative yoga as “advanced napping”. She isn’t wrong.

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Prayers from the Bath Mat

I recommend a nice thick nap. It's much easier on the knees.

I recommend a nice thick nap. It’s much easier on the knees.

I awoke around 3am with stomach pains and a dull ache across my lower back. I rubbed my belly for a little while, grabbed the heating pad for my back, and dozed in and out of consciousness for some time. By 5:30 am, I was kneeling on my bath mat and praying that whatever was fighting the good fight in my gut would give in and admit defeat already. By 6:30 am, I was violently expelling the contents of my stomach into my thankfully recently cleaned toilet. Again and again, my stomach forced the poison within back out through the front door. And all the while, writer nerd that I am, I thought, “I must remember how awful this is the next time I make one of my characters vomit.”

When I started writing this blog, I made a commitment to myself that I would post every other Tuesday without fail. Like many people, I am most organized and reliable when I have a deadline to work with. You may not have noticed that today, the day of this posting, is Wednesday. But I have. For the last two days, as I’ve continued to evacuate all fluids from my body (how is there anything left at this point?), I’ve agonized about not meeting my deadline. I let myself down.

Oh, I’d planned ahead. I already knew what I was going to write about, had even plunked out a rough draft Sunday night after my 6-1/2 hour drive home from a long weekend in Los Angeles. And then this.

In my few moments of mental clarity over the last two days, several things have occurred to me:

  • It is good to plan ahead.
  • It is good to be flexible even when you’ve planned ahead.
  • You can find inspiration in the oddest places (kneeling beside a toilet at 6:30 am, for instance).
  • Take it easy on yourself. So you missed one deadline, one goal, one or 100 days of writing. Start again tomorrow.
  • While I’m still not sure if my sudden illness is due to a bug or something I ate, it will be a while before I look at tomato soup the same way.

Well, at least I already have a draft of my April 15th post. Hope to see you back then.

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