Over the past several weeks I’ve identified elements of what, to me, would make up a satisfying Writers Colony, a summer boot camp for the writer who wants to complete a project or two. We’ve touched on the obvious importance of reading and writing, and on more subtle helps from meditation. We’ve looked at writing supports such as physical exercise and hearing other writers talk about their craft.
In addition to these, I recommend field trips to stimulate your brain. Not just your field work, but what Julia Cameron famously calls Artist Dates. You might poke around the shabby antique store in your neighborhood, or get a meal at a hot-dog stand shaped like an orange, or visit the bowling alley. Art museums and galleries, of course! This summer I went beachcombing in North Carolina’s Outer banks. Over several mornings I realized that gathering and sorting shells can become a profoundly insightful editing process, a metaphor learned through my hands and eyes that will inform my future work.
I also mentioned arts and crafts in my first post. Don’t confine yourself to the page, the screen, the black ant trail of letters marching ever onward. Make room for fun, mess, and possibility. If you have any art materials, unearth them and make a space for them. Schedule a late afternoon, or maybe an early morning. You have no art materials? String penne noodles on a length of dental floss and wear it. Or take a page from your newspaper and scribble on it, blacking out all but some random words. Gardening is good, as are origami and sketching. We are experimenting with new ways of seeing.
As I wrap up this series, I look at my two huge writing projects (one, the extroverted task of setting up a publicity strategy for The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, and the other very introspective task of figuring out how to tell the story of the next book) and I am glad to see that I accomplished something; I’ve chipped away at the mountains.
Accountability really helped. My friend, Jennifer, patiently accepts an e-mail from me every Friday afternoon that lists all the micro-actions I took that week. Jennifer is under no obligation to even read what I send. I keep a sticky note on my desktop, add to my list every time I do something, and start the list fresh on Saturday. Somehow this is the accountability that I need.
Have you heard the term “Bookending”? Suppose you have a task you really don’t want to face, for whatever reason. Work it out with a friend that you will call them just before the task and again just after the task. You don’t need to talk much—just check in. It really helps!
Accountability requires some form of community. Ultimately, community is what differentiates a writing retreat from a session at a writing colony. Where is your community? If you don't already have it, you might find some in a writing class, a writing MFA program, a poetry group, a writer's club, a coach, or in multiple online writing spheres.
I hope this Summer Writers Colony series entertained you, and in some way helped your own process. I expect to be called away from the laptop shortly as twin babies make their debut in my family. When I get back, I’ll write about weddings and my experience with publishing The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, as well as some thoughts arising from my spiritual studies.
What writing tasks did you work on this summer?
Last week I enjoyed a summer vacation and family reunion in a spectacularly large house on the Outer Banks, a place on the North Carolina coast I had not heard of. I tried new things like stalking wild mustangs, taking a group portrait on the beach, even poring through the Wright Brothers’ Memorial Museum in Kitty Hawk.
In the midst of the hubbub, I did some writing. I slipped away from the breakfast table every morning around seven and took barefoot walks in the sea foam, and along the way, two essays formed themselves.
Writing, after all, is why we are here in the Writers’ Colony, right? If not writing on a particular project, then doing other non-project writing that keeps us limber and juicy. Journaling, letters. Essays and poetry and little stories, all are encouraged.
And to feed our brains, we read good writing. I kept far from the laptop and television on vacation, and only used my phone as a camera. Books flew naturally into that vacuum. In eight or nine days I read:
Reading de Botton and Otsuka stretch my book-structuring skills and make me want to choose finer words. Allende makes me think about writing scenes and time transitions. Sparks points out that what I saw in the Outer Bank waves were porpoises, not dolphins. And Colwin makes me want to bake gingerbread. What are you reading?
And how are you working on your own writing project? Have you set yourself milestones? Here’s a list of marching orders I’ve cooked up for my new book. If you see anything you like, take it and make it work for you.
Tasks for the book
The Wharf to Wharf is an annual six-mile run/walk from Santa Cruz to Capitola. Each year, its 16,000 tickets sell out right away. Gentle coastal scenery, the ocean breezes, and support from a panoply of artistic Santa Cruzians -- all make this a special event. But better than that, better even than the T-shirt?
The best part is training for the Wharf to Wharf. After all, the event is only one morning long, but training requires, for me, weeks of walking my neighborhood. Every other morning I tramp through my local suburbs, immersed in the sound of wind through the trees. I scan flights of crows, lovingly tended gardens, dappled shade. Mornings are best, before the heat is too much. There’s a fresh quality to the light, an almost golden tinge to the edges of black oaks and pepper trees.
These past few weeks I’ve written about combining key elements to create a writer’s colony session in your own home, at your own pace. Part of our summer retreat has got to be exercise, if only to undo some of the damage that winter and bad habits created. Walking is my favorite -- athletics, esthetics, meditation and writing practice rolled into one.
Walking makes us breathe more deeply, washing away toxins accumulated from fretting at the computer as we write. The stride sends fresh waves of oxygenated blood coursing through the brain. The nonverbal rhythm of step after step informs the internal rhythm of words. Instead of focusing on marks that inch across the screen, we can practice diffuse awareness: the breeze, a scent of sun-ripened apricot, pressure from the balls of our feet resting on cement and then pushing off again. We spend some moments lost in thought, brought back abruptly by some external stimulant: a crossing, a dog, a bee, an airplane, another walker.
My body moves, my mind moves, my attention expands and contracts. All this allows new ideas, new solutions and resolutions. Walking also helps me to slowly release my writer’s tire and shake out ever-constricted shoulders. Writers have reported swimming and sweeping or raking to be similarly helpful. What physical activity keeps you sane as you write?
Last week we talked about how to find brilliant speakers to listen to during your stay at the Summer Writers’ Colony. Now let’s talk about listening for the most important voice of all.
The arc of this summer is about discovering your writing life. Retreats are about pruning away all the non-essentials of everyday life. For writers at Yaddo, all that’s left after pruning might be a small bed, a large desk, and lunch delivered every day in a basket.
But perhaps you, like me, are surrounded at home by family members, animals that need feeding, and mountains of laundry. Then it is essential to start, strengthen, and maintain a meditation practice, if you do not have one already. By meditating daily, you are creating that still, spare room in which you write. If you are starting your very first meditation practice, begin with five minutes. Lengthen your session by a minute every few days. Twenty minutes is a good session. Twenty minutes twice a day is probably optimum. You are rebooting your system.
You can find eleventy-seven ways to meditate on the Web, so I won’t crowd this post with how-to. But it’s worth pointing out that meditation practices tend to fall into one of two camps. Either you watch your thoughts rise and pass (insight meditation), or you perform a technique in order to temporarily ignore your thoughts (concentration or tranquility meditation).
Now, we writers think A LOT. We spend most of our time embroidering our stories—that’s how we roll. The benefit of owning a delirious writing brain is that when you give yourself a little peace and quiet, the most outrageous and wonderful ideas tend to pop up. The downside: we are more vulnerable than the average Jane to getting mired in our stories. Folks who are in recovery from various addictions are often warned, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go in there alone.” But as a writer, I have to disagree — yes, it can be an dangerous place, but that's where I live and do my best work. We find our balance on the razor's edge.
So you might want to spend a little time thinking about which kind of meditation you need right now. If you are stuck in something you’re writing about, try insight meditation techniques and let the thoughts come. Just don’t chase them. Keep a pad nearby and jot down any particularly gripping scene or solution, then let it go. As a writer, you are allowed to do this. And then get back to your breath.
If, on the other hand, your mind is more crowded with characters than a Lower East Side turn-of-the-century tenement, by all means, use a mantram or your breath to shut off the neurojuice for a while. It’s your brain and your meditation practice. Make this divine tool work for you.
Your homework this week: Start a notebook about your writing life. When are your best hours? What helps you to quickly get down to business? How do you decompress? How’s the meditation going? Leave a comment and let us know!
These zen masters below, photographed by artist Peggy Anderson, are demonstrating the tranquility meditation method.