A cautionary tale about ignoring your work for too long, and the joy of getting away from it all.
If you’ve taken one of my workshops and heard snippets about men in white coats, a mailboy named Charlie, or obsessive-compulsive pizza eating, you’ve heard some parts of my novel-in-progress. Many elements of the current draft made the journey from handwritten, in-group exercises to typed, edited pages. Many, but not all.
I wasn’t in a hurry to revisit all my handwritten scenes. I knew some of the bits were throwaways. I felt confident I could remember and recreate any of the segments I really liked. And, as a writer, never discount the fact I can be lazy. So these scenes sat there in my journals, waiting to be called up for duty.
My feelings changed when I went looking for a particular scene of two degenerates on a stakeout. I remembered it well, knew exactly where it was, about midway through the blue journal. It wasn’t there. So I searched the white one. Nope. Not there either. I thought about checking the green one but at that point I realized I had a bigger problem on my hands.
Those individual scenes, now spread across five journals, totalled hundreds of pages. I couldn’t be sure where anything was, how many I’d already used, and how many were still relevant to my story. If I wanted to keep moving forward, I’d have to go through them all or let them all go.
I booked myself a three day solo retreat this past March. I brought some relatively healthy food, my laptop, and 1,000+ pages of handwritten scenes to review and rescue. That was it. Even Milo stayed home.
My destination was the Island Mill Getaway. A limestone charmer, this converted mill sits on an island in the Salmon River. The host pictures are better than mine, but I’ve included a couple of my own here. My suite was the on the lower level at the water’s edge. You could peer out the kitchen window and watch the current rush past.
The outdoor stone patio was barrier-free; you could stand and watch the eddies build, or look beyond the waterfall to a cluster of loons patrolling the waters. Lovely Prince Edward County sits less than half an hour away. I didn’t make it that far, nor did I interact much with the property owners. They seemed lovely. But my mad typing dash didn’t really allow much time for anything else. Sore wrists and french press coffee were my constant companions.
I emptied the final journal of treasure about an hour before check out. I left with 102 pieces totalling 112 pages. I felt I deserved a holiday once I was done. Like, maybe two or three days at some remote bed and breakfast.
WHAT I FOUND
Over those three days, some very busy fingers transcribed 45,000 words. These were all the scenes related to my novel that I hadn’t yet worked in.
As I suspected, there was some unusable content. Scenes I wrote for fun, duplicates that were repeated nearly verbatim, and experiments that ended up crashing against a brick wall. There were some forgotten gems though. More than I would have guessed. And the ideas! The reasons for writing the book, the original images that compelled me to take on this impossible project. They shone much brighter than I would have guessed. I have already found homes for many of those errant little light bulbs.
Taking this detour gave me something I didn’t realize I needed: three days alone with Charlie and Barcode, George and Sheeve, Alex, Tranh and the other players from my story. I always knew who they were, but we forged better relationships. I’m more confident I know how to end their adventures.
YOU SHOULD GETAWAY TOO.
I don’t have any grand advice or guidance to offer. My fingers and wrists say “always transcribe your work. Right away!” But had I stayed on top of those scenes, I never would have had that terrific experience of a few days immersed in my work, without the everyday distractions of life around me.
I don’t believe there is an optimal way to write a novel, or a memoir, or complete a poetry collection. We all have our own pressures. We all have our own workflow. Writers are like any artist though. We have to find the time and energy to get ideas out of our head and on to the canvas of our choice. We could all benefit from dedicated time alone with our old notebooks, our blank ones, our ideas, or all three.
So I’d like to endorse this idea, of getting away. I’ll gladly pitch my own upcoming summer retreat, taking place this August in Creemore. It’ll be fun, and Milo gets to come. I can show you my notebooks! But if you can’t go (or to Iceland, or Guatemala, or the Island Mill, or whatever program catches your eye), I wanted to affirm how great it was to be alone with my work and no other responsibilities. When the timing is right, I hope you have the chance to have a similar experience.
The Island Mill Getaway is about 2.5 hours east Toronto. Book through Airbnb: http://bit.ly/2nwsAJe.
My summer retreat takes place in Creemore this August. Read more and register here.