Guest post, Natalie Sypolt: A Retreat from Distraction

Natalie Sypolt bio photoIn my last Superstition Review blog post, I wrote about how to have the best possible experience at writer’s workshops and conferences. At that point in my life, I’d started branching out from the big conferences, like AWP, that can feel overwhelming, and finding smaller, more personal conference experiences that combined a little workshopping and a little craft. I still find great value in these experiences and attended the Kentucky Women Writers Conference this September for the first time in several years; however, what I’m coming to understand about myself, is that the most productive experiences for my writing–times when I can actually get the job done–are not conferences or workshops, but residencies and retreats.

Of course, I am not saying anything revolutionary here. Writers and artists have been going to residencies and colonies for a century or more, communing with other artists, secluding themselves from the “real world” to create their craft. There is a certain romanticism that comes with thinking about places like Yaddo and McDowell. One imagines lots of champagne, and long walks, and beautiful people lounging around thinking deep and beautiful thoughts. There is a certain prestige connected to attending these colonies, and what writer doesn’t want to find themselves among the small and elite group accepted to the “best places”? Here is the truth, though: we aren’t all going to get there, for a variety of reasons. Another truth: just because these are the “best places” for some, does not mean they are the best for all.

In 2015, I decided I needed to see what this writer’s residence business was all about, and applied for entrance to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is on a beautiful compound about six hours from where I live (so driveable) and not far from family members that live in Fredericksburg, VA (in case, you know, I break a limb or something). I am lucky enough that I could take two weeks in the summer and head to Amherst, VA (just outside Lynchburg). I was doubly lucky to receive a grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation that paid for my stay.

I was assigned to a coveted location (though I didn’t know that at the time). I was in one of the apartment studios, so I slept and worked in the same location, which was separate from where most of the other residents were staying. There were sculptors, painters, composers, other fiction writers and poets. Every evening at dinner I listened to people talk about their amazing projects, and felt incredibly inferior. I don’t know that I was, and everyone was very kind to me, but my own insecurities and social awkwardness were inhibiting the work I’d set out to do.

It was only towards the end of my time at VCCA, when I’d begun finally to adjust to my surroundings, take lots of walks, and relax at dinner, that I became a bit more productive. I came away with a couple of new stories–one that I know I would not have written had I not been inspired by some things that happened there.  It was also very helpful when my friend, the excellent writer Laura Long who lives in nearby Lynchburg, rescued me for an evening, took me out to dinner and a poetry reading, and told me that she’d felt much the same way her first time at VCCA, that–in fact–lots of people do. Someday I might go back, give it another shot.

Last summer, I decided to try and arrange my own little retreat. I would not spend money on applications, but on rent. I posted a general question to Facebook, asking for ideas about a place where I might seclude myself for a few days. I had a ton of amazing suggestions for rental cabins and resorts. One friend offered her entire house while she was traveling. Another suggested Friends of Silence, a retreat community here, in my own state, not far from where my friend Melissa lives. I started looking into Friends of Silence and, even though the dates I wanted were pretty close to the date I started my queries, I was able to confirm a reservation for a cabin (which actually turned out to be a pretty large house). I was too late to reserve the smaller places that would been a little cheaper and more suitable to a solo resident (like the yurt–yes, the yurt), but the price was still very reasonable and the location ideal.

There’s remote, and then there is remote. My cabin was at the very top of a long, windy road. Actually, there was a road, which then turned into a gravel road, and then turned to dirt. From the large back deck of the cabin, I could look out over the mountains. Somewhere down below was the Potomac River. I was there for four days and saw not one other person. I heard a bear, but luckily didn’t see one. I walked the labyrinth, a meditative rock garden.  It was totally magical. And I did almost no writing.

I was distracted by my solitude. When I did finally sit down to write, I wrote about being alone. Again, it was also near the end of my time with Friends of Silence that I was able to settle down and do some work.

For some, being completely isolated–no people, no outside influences (like tv, radio, internet) is just want they need. For me, though, I’ve realized that when I’m completely isolated, I think a lot about being completely isolated. I miss tv because it helps my brain calm down a little and then I can get back to work. I’ve decided to stop feeling guilty about this. I want to be out of my house, but I also need some of those familiar comforts in order to feel like myself. Too many people is too much, no people is not enough. What is a girl to do?

So far, the very best and most productive experiences I’ve had have been at the Troublesome Creek Writers Retreats at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. These retreats–which happen twice a year and last from a Friday evening to a Sunday morning–take place at the same location as the famous Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. If you’re a writer living in the Appalachian region, chances are you’ve been told that you need to get to Hindman, and I concur. The retreat is a smaller, condensed version of the workshop with only about 20-25 people attending.

The very first time I stepped out of my car there, I knew this place was different. It felt like home, like a place I knew and understood, and that understood me. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how it was.

The retreats are loosely organized. Each as a facilitator, a writer who organizes a couple of optional craft classes and a community reading at the end of the weekend. Primarily, this is a weekend designed for writing. You are encouraged to do what feels best for you. There are community dinners where people sit on rickety chairs and eat excellent home cooking and talk. I have never come home from Hindman without having written a new story–sometimes three. I’ve done as much there in a couple days as I did at VCCA in two weeks.

The difference, you see, is me. And the moral of my story here is to find what works for you. Just because everyone says the thing to do is to “go to Breadloaf” or “go to Yaddo”, doesn’t mean that these will be the best, most productive experience for you.

It’s also really important for you to determine what “productive” means for you at that moment, and what you hope to get out of the experience. For instance, I expect very different things from AWP than I expect from Troublesome Creek Writers Retreat. At AWP, I want to learn from other presenters, fangirl when I see some famous writers, and hopefully find some good books. I know going in that I will likely not write a word. That conference is not productive for me in that way.

Also, don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things until you get what you want. In April, I’m going back to Hindman, but my friend Melissa and I have also talked about going to a resort in Maryland for a weekend or getting a cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio for a self-made retreat. That will be a little isolated, but not so much so that it will be distracting because another person will be there, sharing that creative spirit. We’ve also both applied for the first time to Barrelhouse Magazine’s Writer Camp in August. Who knows how that will be, but I’m excited to find out.

Stay tuned. My next dispatch may be from a yurt high in the Appalachian Mountains, a cabin along Troublesome, a hammock at Writers Camp, or maybe even near a lake in Wales. Happy retreating!

 

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: Getting to June

sun and treesMy car rolls to a stop at the red light. I’m on my way to stake out a position in the carpool line at my daughter’s school. I look to the left, and see a boy on a bicycle, zooming down the sloping sidewalk. It’s February, and he’s wearing a puffy blue parka. A backpack bounces up and down on his back and he’s got a wide grin on his face, and eyes intently fixed on the sidewalk in front of him. There is something about the boy that stirs me suddenly, and I feel overcome with the need to write. Not about him. I am overcome with the urge to dive back into my work-in-progress, and to make some progress, after weeks of uninspired dabbling – you know the kind, opening the document, changing a word here and there, deleting a line, hitting ‘save’. I don’t know why the boy ignites this need to write in me, but he does. My fingers tingle. In the carpool line I lever the driver’s seat back and open up my laptop. I exhale. I start to write. It’s that easy.


It’s not, though. I wish I could say that from that point forward my fingers flew across the keyboard and the words poured forth. Writing isn’t like that. There are so many in-between times; there are moments when you feel mired in the soul-sucking everydayness that is so often life and can’t see the way up over the edge and out of it. Inspiration can be so elusive, so demanding of time and space. The older I get, the less my brain can contain all at once. The older I get, the more I seem to take on, the less time and space there is available to me – for me. The less time I have to create, the more frustrated I grow, the less I feel like who I want to be, really and truly, 24/7: A writer.


February turns into March, which turns into April. Two questions bother me:

How can you call yourself a writer, if you are not writing?

And,

What was it about that boy on the bicycle?


I’m all about self-affirmations lately. Not à la Stuart Smalley, not yet, but the kinds of affirmations that make you accountable to others. It’s May now, and last week, I told someone that I was, first and foremost, a writer. I tend to keep that information bottled up inside, private, the way we keep our political affiliation, or our religion private. I have tried to work on this, because I’ve been a writer for almost my entire life. Own it! I tell myself over and over again, so I do, when I can.

I am a writer, I said out loud.

“Oh?” this person replied, head cocked to one side. “That’s so nice! What are you writing?”

And, just like that she morphed in front of me into the boy on the bicycle. He turned to look at me. What ARE you writing? he seemed to be asking as he whizzed on by, this time in a t-shirt and jeans. And, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it?


Writing is not easy. The mechanics of it might be – the act of stringing together words to form sentences, but wading through the negative noise to get the mechanics to work for you – that’s the daunting part. I’m in that in-between space now. If I stand on my very tippy-toes I can see the edge leading out of this place, but I’m still working out how to reach it. The process of transitioning away from the noise of the semester, and into reclaiming the time and space I need to create, is a hard one for me. I liken it (unoriginally) to peeling off a scab, or (more originally) recovering from jet lag. I have to cut loose all the weighty odds and ends I’ve been carrying with me for months, and re-enter a world where I belong, but which feels unfamiliar at first – all right angles and unusual shadows – until one day everything shifts into place again.


One May five years ago, during this recovering-from-jet-lag, transition-to-writing period, I wrote 20,000 words in just under three weeks – most of them while sitting in the carpool line at my son’s school. That is not my usual writing space, but the ritual of that process became such a part of me that my mind would begin racing almost before I had put the van into ‘park’ and turned the engine off. In the summers, when I am most prolific, my ritual is to get up earlier than my family, make myself a pot of tea, and to sit at my desk in my home office. If I start early enough, I can get in almost four hours of writing time before my family begins to stir. With that first cup of steaming tea poured, I feel the familiar urge to write – to create – take hold of me.


Mired in final exam grading, and assessment report-writing, and used car shopping, I fantasize about going on a writer’s retreat, somewhere remote and extraordinary. It would be just me and endless pots of tea and the words would stream out from my fingertips like sparklers on the 4th of July.

If I can just get to June, I tell myself, I’ll have the time to write.

In the meantime, I block out word count goals in my calendar. 20,000 words by Week 2, 30,000 by Week 3, and so on until I reach a decent goal for a working draft. Word counts are like mile markers, I tell myself out loud while I lace up my sneakers for a run. If I can map them out, I can get there.


Two miles out, two miles back. The landscape is thickening around the edges, settling into early summer at last. A quarter of a mile from home a neighbor crosses the street with his little white dog. I stop to pet her. She scrabbles against my legs, licking and wiggling. Sweat tickles my back. I wish the neighbor a good night and, as I pull away, picking up speed down the hill towards home, something unexpected happens: I feel a shift – something comes loose. In the most marvelous of full-circle ways, the little white dog has made me think about the boy on the bicycle, who has made me realize this: that the most valuable writing, not unlike the most valuable living, takes root in the everydayness — in the midst of the most mundane, in the absolute ordinary.