I was speaking to an older, more established poet last year here in town and he said to me, “I don’t understand why you go off to travel to all these places and write…why you go off to workshops given by other poets when you could, in fact, run workshops and not take them. You have the experience and stature as a poet now. So, why wouldn’t you do that instead?” It’s a hard question to answer when it’s been posed to you because, as you can imagine, if someone’s posed the question, then they likely think you shouldn’t be going off to ‘little retreats.’ They have already formulated their view of the worth of such travel and work. The other side of all this going out of town to write is that people think you’re going off on holiday when, in fact, you are working on your writing. It may be in beautiful places, that is true, but it is often also true–I find, anyway–that you need to leave home to get your head in the writing game sometimes. Why? I mean, I am a single woman with two shih tzus. I can write in my house, and I normally do, but there are interruptions that occur and–when you’re a writer–sometimes interruptions become ways to procrastinate.
I can already hear the uproar out there. It’s the same uproar I’ve heard for years: “Well, if you’re single, you don’t have any responsibilities! Surely you don’t need to get away to write when you live in a quiet house with two dogs?” Or, in the case of work: “Well, you’re single, maybe you could take on a few more things after work…there’s no one waiting for you at home, so why not put your energy here?” Other single people, of both genders, will likely know what I’m talking about. (Maybe I should make up a boyfriend or husband, or 2.5 wholesome kids? That might work in deflecting some of the chatter…but I won’t…because what’s the point? You have responsibilities when you’re single and without kids. I could go on, but I won’t because I’m off topic on a tangential bungee jump.)
So: workshops and retreats. Why are they a good thing? Here it is: They force you to take your work seriously. When I first went to the Anam Cara Artists’ and Writers’ Retreat in the summer of 2012 in Ireland, to work with the amazing Seattle-based ekphrastic poet, Susan Rich, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all know I’m a fraud poet,’ but afterwards, I felt more committed to knowing my work in a new way. When I went to the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Lumsden, Saskatchewan to work with Ken Babstock in summer 2014, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all think I’m a hick poet from outside of the 416 area code,’ but afterwards, I learned how to edit my work more cleanly and with a more subjective eye. When I go to workshops and retreats, I learn from my mentors and those poets and writers I meet while I’m there. I find my tribe. 🙂
This year, having had my seven months away from formal teaching, I’ve given myself the space and time to sink into my writing, committing to the vocation of it with a new force and dedication. (It’s sort of a bit like I was dating my writing, not too seriously, and that I wasn’t too sure I was good enough to have it want to stick with me, and now I’ve grown accustomed to its ways, and sometimes it makes me tea when I didn’t think I wanted or needed any, and we’re in a committed relationship.😉 Seriously. It feels that intense to me. (In April, someone asked me if I was in love and I looked at them like they were crazy. “Um, me? Do you know my luck with men? No! I’m in love, though. With my words!”) There’s something empowering, to know that you’re moving into a place and space where your writing is something that’s more organic, more holistic, more all encompassing than it’s ever been before. I’ve stepped into it, and it’s stepped into me. (I’ve been so loving Maggie Rogers and her song, “Alaska.” It speaks to me of the journey I’ve gone through this year. Her words are strong ones: “And I walked off you, and I walked off an old me. Oh me, oh my, I thought it was a dream, so it seemed. And now breathe deep, I’m inhaling. You and I, there’s air in between. Leave me be. I’m exhaling.” Having seven months to feed my writing, my creative work, has been exhilarating. More of her grand words as she says she “Learnt to talk and say whatever I wanted to.” Yup. That’s happened, too. Some of my closest and oldest friends have noticed it, and I’ve certainly noticed it. Sometimes, if you take the time to feed your passion, it helps you to blossom into yourself, and that’s a pretty cool thing…even if you can’t always recognize who you’ve become.
This year, I’ve done four writing retreats–outside of just spending hours and days at home, trudging along with books, papers, pens, and my laptop. The first was my writing workshop in Banff with Larry Hill. I met great people, now friends and kindred spirits, and I started to realize that maybe–just maybe–the story I wanted to write in my novel might be good enough for other people to want to read in their spare time. That’s a big leap of faith, in yourself and in your own work. I’m not an ego-y person, so I’m not in any of this for any weirdly imagined glory. That’s all fake, anyway. People who are in it for that aren’t the people I want to know, to be honest. I’m about telling the story that’s in my head to the best of my ability. It needs telling, so I’ll tell it. I need to serve the story. That’s my job as a writer.
The second retreat was a ten-day stay on Pelee Island. It was self-directed, but I met seven other amazing people and writers. They’re grand friends now, too, I feel (or maybe that’s just me being an empath and ‘feeler’). 🙂 That retreat was interesting because of an encounter with Margaret Atwood, one afternoon in a rented cottage, with platters of pigs in blankets and slabs of Brie. I learned a lot in that hour or two. Some of it was rough to hear, but that’s okay. I still learn from rough things. To be honest, I probably learn more from them, if I take a look at my life historically speaking. Sitting across from a Canadian lit icon is, well, a bit surreal to say the least. Besides this, though, I met someone who was kind enough to offer me a space to write this August, at a house called Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. Once you start to meet people who are like minded, ripples happen…serendipity.
The third was a poetry writing retreat at Moniack Mhor in the highlands of Scotland, just outside of Inverness. I got to work with noted Scottish poet, John Glenday, as well as the amazing Jen Hadfield, who lives in the Shetlands. I can’t tell you how my discussions with the two of them, in terms of specific poems that I’ve written, helped me to fine tune my style. I also met some great poets from around the world. Plus, I did my first reading outside of Canada, in Newcastle, England.
This last retreat was self-directed, at Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. It’s a beautiful old yellow brick house that sits on the edge of Lake Erie. (I love yellow brick…memories of driving with my Dad through Southwestern Ontario in my youth and staring at beautiful yellow brick houses next to wide green fields. I also have one house on Kingsmount that I regularly stalk just because it’s yellow brick. I know…I’m weird.) The fact that it houses the best swing set in Canada is just an extra bonus, in my book, because I am all about late night swings under trees and stars. Having ten days there, just to sit and work through the second draft of my novel, titled “The Donoghue Girl,” meant that I couldn’t avoid what I needed to do. I had to cut and burn, write new scenes to strengthen characters and their relationships to one another, and then I kept a notebook of things I need to go back and research to add more detail into the story. It’s a bit like taking apart and putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but there’s no instruction manual as to how to best finish that task. Sometimes, it’s as big as figuring out the structure, as to where to put chapter breaks, which is harder than it looks, and other times it’s as simple as changing sentence structure or taking out excessive commas. All it kind of happens at once, so you sort of feel like you’re a circus master inside your own head.
I don’t have an MFA in Creating Writing. I have an MA in English Lit. There’s a difference there. Sometimes, I feel like a big fraud. I’ve written before about how I often feel like I’m cheating on poetry, with either playwright work or novel writing work. It’s been a shift for me, in the last twelve months, to begin to think of myself more as a writer in a holistic sense. When you’ve only ever been considered, or introduced, as ‘the poet,’ it’s a bit of a stretch inside your own head. I’m thankful to Marnie Woodrow, who’s been my guide in this novel writing process, giving me feedback as I go. Otherwise, I honestly don’t think I would have the faith in myself to try to write something as vast as a novel. The other person who’s been grand has been Matt Heiti, who has taught me everything I know about writing plays. Two autumns ago, we had a chat and I said I wanted to write a novel and he said ‘so do it.’ Rather than get caught up in the size of the thing, he suggested just thinking of it as a series of scenes. I see it all theatrically, or cinematically, in my head, so it was an analogy that worked.
Self-directed retreats work. If you have a goal, then you need to be firm with yourself and just get down to business. It’s not simple and there are times when your head gets so overwhelmed that it’s a bit buzzy in there, or if someone comes to say hello and you’re writing, you look a bit stoned (not that I would know about that because I can’t inhale; I can’t even take Benadryl without being loopy!). It’s almost as if you slip into another world, populated by characters who are as real as your friends or family members (or dogs!). If you get pulled out of that space without warning, well, people need to expect it not to be a nice thing.
Besides going on retreats this year, I’ve begun to carve out time to write. This doesn’t make me popular with some people. I say ‘no’ now sometimes when I feel I have work pressing on me with my novel, or plays, or poems. Being poet laureate, too, has quite a bit of responsibility attached, so I feel like I am juggling things. I’m hoping that people will understand if I’m not quick to say ‘yes’ to social invitations. I hope they’ll understand that the writing I do needs to be done. My goal is to have this next draft ready for Thanksgiving, and then I’ll get feedback and move into a third draft. It’s a long journey, this novel writing thing, but I need to keep setting my own dates and goals. If I don’t, it’s just too easy to say, “yeah, let’s just avoid sitting my ass down to write.”
It’s not a sexy thing to do, writing a novel. There is a lot of drinking tea, talking to yourself, drinking water, pacing, maybe listening to music (for me, if I’m writing new stuff, it needs to be instrumental so I don’t start singing…like Bach or the Chieftains…or singable stuff if it’s just transcribing and editing as I go…for that it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith.) I usually light essential oil (lavender or patchouli) to ground myself, and I write next to a braid of sweetgrass. It can be a really lonely pursuit, this writing gig. I know it sounds cool, when you hear of a person who’s working on a major creative project (and I have lots of friends who write, so I know this is true) but often times, a writer is wondering if their work is half decent, or if it needs to be jettisoned, or if it’s all bullshit. The inside of a writer’s head is a busy place…but writing a novel isn’t what people think it is. It’s hard stuff…a lot of it is just slogging and trying not to avoid the chair and laptop.
But it’s also the most beautiful thing I can think to do in my life these days…to see words emerge, to craft them, to see a story rise up. That, to me, is well worth all of the solitary, self-doubt filled wanderings inside my head. I’ll take that any day of the week. With thanks and gratitude.