I just got home from the convent.
A writer’s retreat, actually: three nights in a small room (bed, desk, chair, sink, icon) at a spiritual center run by Dominican Sisters, a thirty-minute drive north. Outside the door to my room, a long hallway that reminded me of the hotel in The Shining. But no REDRUM on the walls, no boy pedaling his tricycle. Just a long series of rooms identical to mine, uninhabited. (The retreat center was expecting an arrival today, of some seventy-five people from a Presbyterian church, but during the week, my friend and fellow writer Audrey were the only guests there.)
The room may have been simple, but it wasn’t a cell. The bed had a floral bedspread, which I replaced with my Costa Rican woven blanket, my only touch of home. Quiet is the rule upstairs, so I turned off the sound on my laptop, silenced my cell phone, listened to nothing but the trickle of water in the fountain beneath my window and the sound of my own keys tapping. I wrote at a desk with the surface space of a large TV tray, on a chair that looked like something you’d find in a turn-of-the-century (last century, that is) schoolhouse. I got up only to pee or eat.
That was the point. I love my big desk, but it’s covered with unpaid bills, notes to myself, museum membership solicitations, a Rolodex reminder of my former life in New York, and piles of papers that don’t seem to belong anywhere else. I work there five days a week, but during the two days I’ve been here I come to see a whole new meaning for “work.” On retreat, I wrote all day.
I’ve been telling myself for years that I do this at home, but I never have. It’s just not possible. It should be – or maybe not. Maybe we need to go somewhere completely anonymous, somewhere quiet. Not every day, but from time to time. I’ve gone on residency before for four weeks—to Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the Blue Ridge foothills, and Ragdale Foundation just outside Chicago. I never thought three days would be nearly enough.
I was wrong. I wrote two new scenes, conflated four others, tightened, and—most exciting of all—saw my characters do things I hadn’t expected. Not four weeks’ worth, but damn good for three days.
I’m home now. I’ve returned three calls, spent some time with the cat, packed my gym bag. Electricians are working downstairs; someone’s doing something with a jackhammer outside my window. I’m refreshed, re-invigorated.
Not every three days goes well, home or away. I was lucky, this time, or the stars were aligned, or whatever. I don’t want to explain it, or jinx it. I just want to say how good it feels.
And you? What writing retreats have you discovered, near or far?