For the past two and a half days, I’ve been in the Northeast Kingdom, in the northernmost tip of Vermont, only a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border, on a writing retreat. As usual, I’ve been quite productive, accomplishing in only a few days what normally takes me weeks, or even months, to work through at home. None of it would be possible without the support of my wife, who 2-3 times a year, lets me leave home and completely unplug so I can get truly myopic and immerse myself in my writing with no boundaries or limitations. She’s pretty much my hero. I think she lets me go because she knows I’d be sort of miserable if I couldn’t, and because she loves me. And because we both know that, life, and also marriage, are at times like an airplane emergency. You should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Caring properly for yourself makes you a better carer for others.
For creators, it’s hard to overestimate the value of creative retreat, which truly must happen away from home. It must happen away from work. Away from spouses. Away from children. Away from responsibility. Away from reality, really. For me, it must be done with a willingness to completely unplug and give myself over to and elevate the part of myself that is always a bit player in my normal life. That sidekick who wishes he had more stage time, but will always be seventh or eighth on the call sheet. If you’re a writer, musician, or any other kind of creative person, you know exactly what I’m talking about. At home, there’s never enough time. On retreat, there’s nothing but time.
What you come to realize, when you stop doing everything but writing is how much you actually DO in your day to day life. You realize that most days you spend in a blind frenzy, going from one thing to the other, deluding yourself into thinking you’re focused and present, when most of the time the sheer volume of tasks and requirements that each day hurls at your face has you in perpetual survival mode. This is especially true for people like me with school age children. When you strip everything away, when you stop measuring your minutes by how they connect to the next thing you have to do, your mind is freed to wander and dream in a way that’s hard to quantify, and truly rare. And it’s why I am always astounded by how much work I can get done in only a few days when there’s nothing else to do but put one word in front of the next.
For many years, I retreated alone. I’d book an AirBnB in the woods somewhere, or on the back part of somebody’s farm, and barely leave the house for three days on end. I’d be like a strange sort of word hermit, unshowered and talking to myself, delighted by my own strange company. But for the past couple years, I’ve been going on retreat with my writing group. At first, I worried that the distraction of others would compromise the purity of my retreat goals. I worried I wouldn’t be as productive. Amazingly this has not proven true. If you find the right company, people who want the same thing out of retreat as you do, which is mostly to be left the hell alone and wring the lemon out all the way, it can be wonderful. A lovely routine develops. We rise on the early side, meet up in the kitchen as we brew our coffee and tea, exchange a few morning greetings, then disappear to our individual hovels, mine always messy and strewn with books and piles of paper. Throughout the day, conversations might occasionally spring up, or we might have lunch together, but there’s an unspoken understanding that there’s no obligation to socialize or hang out. The work is everything, and not having to explain that to anyone, not having to justify your needs, is fabulously freeing. Then, in the evenings, there’s usually a shared meal and some beverages. Some retreats, when there’s 4-5 of us, we might play some music or read from what we’re working on and talk about it. Sometimes there’s none of that, and that’s fine too.
Life is difficult. Life is tiring. Life takes everything you have. It’s easy to fall into the habit of being a martyr. Of believing that always sublimating your own needs for whatever greater good (work, family, society) is akin to nobility and grace. And, of course, it’s important to be a good citizen, family member, etc. But I think that our society undervalues tending to one’s own garden. To nurturing one’s own health and spirit, which is strange because your own happiness literally depends on it. So, get out there and retreat in whatever form you can find it. Turn off your phone. Ignore social media. Sink gleefully and gluttonously and un-guiltily into whatever thing fills up your cup, and give yourself permission to stay there for a while.
You’ll come back better for it. At least, I always do.