I decide to go on a writer’s retreat, just me and a hotel room for a week where I will write great literature, accomplish pulling together a book or two, perhaps also practice a little guitar and meditation on the side. Writing always gives me joy. I love the surprise at what unfolds before me on the page or screen, and I hardly ever have trouble doing it if I have a snatch of quiet and privacy. However, in the luxury of this hotel room and time to write, just as the trees are greening out and I can see a rogue tulip by the fence outside my window, what happens? I refuse to write. I can’t think of anything I want to do less. I rebel against myself and there it is: no writing.
I have developed the perfect recipe for writer’s block. What do I learn? Something about the rightness, for me, of writing squeezed into the day, writing as a treat, writing as something I get up at four in the morning to do so I can still have time to do what I have to do. I learn about the importance of the ritual of writing as cheating on all the other things, writing on the side, writing around the corners of the day, in the stairwells. It turns out that writing works best for me in secret moments. Bring it into the open, clear out the details of every day life for it to have all the space it needs and it disappears so quickly that I’m astonished to find myself lying on a hotel bed in the middle of the day, depressed, and eating chocolate. Not writing.
Of course that’s not the whole story. In the first few days I kept a journal, planning to write about the amazing success of this retreat, and savoring the details, like how ingenious I felt when I solved the problem of a lack of a bookcase in the hotel room by unfolding the ironing board (why do hotels provide ironing boards and not bookcases?) and jamming it against a corner of the room to create a shelf on which to stack my books and papers. To my surprise, when I’m home and recovered enough from the chocolate overdose and depression to take an inventory I find that in those first few days I drafted a story, several poems and a long essay. I also spent time in the local academic library reading literary magazines, and in the process making a long list of possible places to submit essays. And, until it turned sour, I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of full time writing, of turning my attention to one writing task, then another, moving easily between drafting new material and revising uninterrupted by the need to sweep the floor, cook or talk to anyone. Even the dog.
But, as I say, the writing got harder and harder to sustain until I gave up. Part of the reason is something I tend to ignore, which is that I need other people. I’m always so happy to have time to myself that I forget that talking to people keeps me sane. I’ve always avoided artists’ residencies, assuming that in uncomfortable ways it would duplicate the challenges of boarding school, with those charged questions of who would sit next to me in the dining hall, that kind of thing. But it occurs to me, far too belatedly, that I’m no longer fourteen, that having other artists to talk to would probably have interrupted the downward emotional slide and my very own fierce rebellion against writing. I might even have been inspired, or at least grounded, by conversations, by human contact. So my plan going forward? Continue to create my own retreats, but not for longer than three days. And begin applying to artists’ residencies: a week with other artists could be a gift not a nightmare. It’s worth a try.
Nicola Morris is both an alumna and on the faculty of Goddard College.