No Surrender: On writing retreats

Boardwalk leading down into the woods towards the falls

Clifty Falls State Park

A few years ago, I spent several summer days (a little less than a full week) at Clifty Falls State Park, working to finish a book-length poetry manuscript. This writing retreat was generously funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.

On the one hand, the retreat was a success. I got into a routine: breakfast, coffee, check in online, then dive into the manuscript for a few hours. When my head got too full of words, I’d go outside and tromp around in the woods for a bit. (On one jaunt I was tremendously startled by a wild turkey who happened to pop out of the shrubbery just as I walked past. Those things are HUGE! I think s/he was just as startled as I was…) And I came away with what felt like a finished manuscript.

Desk with papers all over it and coffee cup

Work in progress, Clifty Inn

On the other hand, the retreat was a failure, because that manuscript racked up a pretty good pile of rejection notes when I started submitting it to publishers. Sigh.

On the other other hand, it was a success, because once I’d put together that manuscript and felt “finished” with it, I was able to move on from those poems and began writing some that were very different from the ones I’d been writing for quite a while.

Since I don’t have that many hands, we’ll call that retreat … a partial success. I’m certainly glad I did it, and I learned a lot about putting together a manuscript that week too. I spent some of my time listening to three Springsteen albums I have always thought were masterpieces of sequencing, albums that have a definite storytelling/emotional arc – Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Tunnel of Love – and tried to figure out which of my poems made the most sense as my manuscript’s “Thunder Road.” Most importantly, I learned to settle down, center, and dive into the work in a way that felt really good.

When I read poems from my manuscript-allegedly-in-progress, “Chasing Angels,” last weekend – and as I prepared for that reading – I realized I hadn’t looked at that manuscript, or even thought about it much, in at least a year. I’d thought I might be ready to abandon it. But the poems felt alive to me again as I dug through them picking out which ones to read. It kind of surprised me. And I think I’m ready to pay attention to “Chasing Angels” again.

So… I’m planning another retreat. This one’s going to be more intense in some ways; I’m going in February, and I’m getting a cabin with (omg) NO INTERNET. (At Clifty Falls, I stayed in the inn, in a lovely room with a jacuzzi and internet.) I’ll be able to hike over to the lodge in the park with my iPad in tow and check email or whatever, and I might have a weak-ass 3G signal from the cabin – in Brown County I occasionally find a spot where I get 3G, but it’s not that widespread – so for the most part, getting connected will require a 10-15 minute tromp. Which isn’t that bad (not exactly roughing it, I realize) but for someone like me who pokes at whichever device is closest every five minutes or so, and checks Twitter and email on her phone last thing before falling asleep at night and first thing after waking up in the morning – it’s going to be a challenge. Poetry Unplugged. (Also known as: “If you want internet you’re gonna have to put on pants.”)

For some people, four days of near-solitude would be the challenge. And I know I’ll have moments when it’s too quiet and I can hear myself think too well. Mostly, I’ll miss the cats! I don’t have aloof, low-maintenance cats; all three of mine are usually right near me at any given moment, and usually if I’m sitting down at least one (sometimes two, occasionally three) will be on my lap. As I type this, in fact, I’ve got one sprawled across my legs, just on the other side of the laptop I’m typing on, purring up a storm. But I am used to solitude, and pretty comfortable with it. And if I really need to see another human being, I can go over to the lodge – I could even eat a meal or two in the restaurant there.

I’m not exactly going to be cut off from civilization – the cabin has electricity, heat, plumbing, a TV. There’s a wood stove (failed drafts probably make excellent kindling!) and a deck overlooking a wooded ravine. I have no idea what the weather will be like – it could be 50 degrees or it could be below zero – but if it’s at all reasonable, I will tromp around in the woods to clear my mind every now and then.

I might take a guitar, in case I am inspired to write any of the manuscript’s protagonist’s songs. (Here’s hoping I don’t have any nearby neighbors.) I will certainly take binoculars, as it’s not at all unlikely that I’ll see some wildlife – deer, raccoons, eagles, maybe even another turkey to scare the crap out of me. Mostly, though, the plan will be – once again – to emerge from the retreat with a “finished” manuscript in hand, ready to start sending out. It’s a little different this time, as I cobbled together a version of a manuscript some time ago. But that version is waaaaaay too long, and I’ve written a few more poems for it since then. My hope is that after being away from it for a while, I’ll be able to take a harder look and excise the weaker poems.

Anyway, it’s a few months away, but I am looking forward to it. I think it will challenge me, probably in ways that are as unexpected as a big-ass wild turkey jumping out from the underbrush. I’m not in a position to take a month-long residency at a fabulous place like Yaddo or McDowell, even if I thought I could get accepted there. I probably couldn’t even swing two weeks, given the realities of vacation time limitations and cat sitter bills. So I’m taking four days, and by golly I am going to make the most of it.

Onward!

2 Comments

Filed under poetry

2 responses to “No Surrender: On writing retreats

  1. Loved reading this Anne – and thinking about you out in the woods…

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