Near the top of the list of my writing goals right after publication was attending a writer’s retreat. I pictured myself in an idyllic cabin in the woods that was well-appointed inside, with a writing desk near a window with plenty of sunlight. I would bask in the comfort and solitude without distractions and write for at least eight hours a day. I would produce copious amounts of quality work for those few weeks of the ideal artist’s life. I would be focused on my craft without the interference of work and home responsibilities. I could be legitimately unavailable. I would not allow technology to distract me. No texting, No social media. No answering emails. At night, I would read.
I applied to several residencies with this vision in mind. Attending a residency became a holy grail for me, and it would lead me to a writing flow state. So, I felt energized and validated when I was accepted to Baldwin For The Arts (BFTA)—a beautiful retreat founded by well-known author Jacqueline Woodson. The website describes BFTA as a space to explore, create, and breathe free from the distractions of everyday life. As a practicing physician, wife, and mother of five, that sounded like what I needed.
The retreat was located less than a three-hour drive from my home. I packed my manuscript, legal pads, sticky notes, and Muji pens. I decided to write longhand for the week to stay as low-tech as possible. I brought nonwriting creative activities like coloring books, clay, and my portable speaker. I also opted to bring my food, although I was offered a personal chef. On my arrival, I was welcomed by the supportive program coordinator and Jacqueline Woodson herself. Natural light poured through the windows of the two-story cottage, which was well-appointed and comfortable. There was even an exercise room and yoga space next door. The cottage felt like the home of a friend with many personal touches and books.
The first night, I felt strange being alone. Was that just the wind I heard? I checked the locks on all the doors and windows twice. I am a city girl, and the woods make me uneasy. I tried not to think of slasher movies or bears. I wondered what my husband was doing. I reminded myself that I had wanted to be alone and chided myself until I fell asleep.
The next morning that cottage felt less spooky. I set up my work table and lit a candle. I planned to try a new revision technique where I would read a chapter aloud and mark it up, and then rewrite the section in longhand. I brought a new notebook to fill. After 15 minutes, during which time I had read one page, I stopped and made another cup of tea. Then I checked my phone, you know, just in case of an emergency involving my kids or husband. There were no messages. While on the phone, I checked Slack messages from my writing group, and then I found myself in the hole of Instagram motivational content. This used up an hour. Now back to the manuscript, I forced myself to sit and work for at least an hour. I am not sure how much I got done between looking out the window and wondering how much time before I would stop for lunch and then a nap.
As you might have suspected the week of daily eight-hour sessions did not happen. The yoga and exercise did not happen, either. During my one-week residency, I managed three hours a day of sitting at the writing desk in patchy blocks. Although I completed way fewer pages than I had intended, my new revision technique taught me the importance of slow work and how sore writing longhand can make your arm. I did not stay technology free as I answered emails, texted, took phone calls, and used social media. As far as my alternative creative activities, I did listen to a few favorite playlists, play with my clay, and listen to Kindred by Octavia Butler. At night instead of reading, I watched Abbott Elementary.
The truth is I was lonely during my week away. Also, as comfortable as the space was, I realized I am most comfortable at the desk in my family room. Another truth I came to understand was, wherever I am, I am the initiator of the distractions and procrastination hampering my writing time. During my residency, I was forced to own up to this reality. And honestly, realizing this made me feel more empowered because this was something I could control. I did not need a mythical getaway to get my writing done but old fashion self discipline.
Will I attend a residency in the future? Yes, if I am awarded another but I will not go seeking to complete a huge amount of writing or enter a flow state. I will use the time and space to recharge. I will look for residencies that provide opportunities for community like group meals and readings instead of being alone the entire time.
As far as writing, I do my best work at home when I turn off my phone and stay at my desk. Exploring and creating within my everyday life.