My Writer’s “Retreat.” And How The Sausage Gets Made

This morning’s New York Times Book Review included an essay about how writers struggle with online distraction — even at “legendary” writers’ retreats.

For those who don’t know (and count yourself lucky: these retreats are legends only in their own minds…): some writers apply to to spend time in isolated locations so that they can finish their work without distraction.  

The setup presumably varies from place to place, but essentially the writer gets living space (think small cottage) for a span of time (a month, three months, whatever) and they can write all day without worrying about the phone or making food (it’s often delivered to their door). At night, if they like, they can go to a communal space and talk with the other writers on retreat. (*1)

The point of this essay in today’s NYTBR is that a) the people who run these retreats struggle with how much digital access to provide; and b) writers find that despite the idyllic circumstances, they slip over to the “wired hub” so they can go online to check Facebook or whatever. The person who wrote the essay discovered his phone got access from one isolated spot on his porch. There went his productivity.

The author also noted that some writers, in their “regular” lives, use software to keep themselves offline:

Many writers try restrictive regimens, whether at a residency or in the outside world. Michael Chabon and Meghan O’Rourke, for example, have installed software programs like Freedom and SelfControl, whose very names evoke a self-help cry for intervention.

I use Freedom and have now for maybe two years? I also use its sister program “Anti-Social,” which gives me online access to sites that I want to access, while restricting access to those I don’t: So the university library is “on,” but Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, and my email are “off” while I’m working. (*2)

So where am I going with this? Writers’ retreats. And how I inadvertently had one in February.

This last push to finish the meat history manuscript was grueling almost beyond belief. I’m not complaining; just stating a fact: I had about eight weeks of work to do in roughly four weeks.

The only way to do it was by working about ten hours a day. And I don’t mean what passes for most people’s workdays (meaning people who work in offices with lots of other people): go to work; spend ten minutes chatting, spend another fifteen going down the hall to another person’s office; thirty minutes at lunch; twenty minutes on the phone. Etc. (That’s not a criticism of those people. That’s simply how the eight-hour-workday works.)

I mean: ten hours (some days twelve) at my keyboard. About ten minutes for lunch. Peeing when necessary. Otherwise: nothing but focus and concentration. (*3) No housework, no cooking (that part I’d prepared for in advance: I did a lot of cooking and filled the freezer), no errand running, no nothing. (THANK YOU, HUSBAND!)

But here was the beautiful, wondrous aspect:

For ten days of this last push — ten days during which I still needed to write the final chapter and the introduction and the conclusion and verify hundreds of notes — my husband was out of town. (*5)

That meant: I TRULY didn’t have to deal with anything or anyone. Only the work.

I spent those ten days in a mental cocoon, isolated almost completely from the world around me.

I took my usual mental health breaks (that’s “coffee breaks” to the rest of the world) for a few minutes here and there, often digitally. Otherwise: no phone. No going outside (I went out of the house to the end of the driveway to empty the mailbox, and went to the grocery store one time). No socializing. No nothing.

At night: virtually no television (it was too intrusive). I read parts of a novel. Mostly I stared into space. (I’m not kidding. I couldn’t handle the mental distraction of, say, a sitcom or CNN.)

It was amazing and wonderful and so fruitful. I was on a free writer’s retreat. In my own home. Free! In my own home. Did I mention it was free?

You’ve NO idea how lucky I was and am to have had those ten days unimpeded. I told my husband when he got home that it was just as well he wasn’t there because I probably would have made him leave anyway.

Okay, now back to that point that you sharp-eyed readers noticed a few sentences ago: Once or twice a day during those ten days, I used my iPad to look at email and Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes I posted something. I communicated with a reporter who emailed about a question. Missed out on a talk radio opportunity because I got to my email too late in the day.

And now — finally! — the main point:

None of this was the me of, say, six years ago. Back then I struggled to manage the online part of my life. I was addicted to email and writers’ forums and the whole nine yards of life online.

There were days when I feared that I would never again know the joy (okay, it’s more like ecstasy) of creative “flow” and complete mental immersion.

That prospect terrified me. And I don’t use that word lightly.

So I faced up to the issue. I taught myself how to manage the “online” part of my life.

How? By recognizing that it had become part of life. It wasn’t something separate and “out there.” It was here. It was everywhere. And I HAD to learn how to live with it, rather than in opposition to it.

I had to master this intruder.

Here’s how I did that (other than just plain ol’ willpower): I bought a second computer. One was connected to the ‘net. The other was not. I wrote on the one that was not. When I needed to switch tasks and do, say, research rather than write, I turned on the wired machine. But I made the decision to do so with care and sparingly.

And something happened.

I encountered the obvious: There’s nothing that’s SO URGENT that it requires our immediate attention. Nuthin.’

And once I got that; once I understood that my presence or absence at, say, Facebook, or a writers’ forum I once frequented, or Twitter make zero difference to the rest of the world — well, my addiction simply faded.

Now I use one computer. And yes, I use Freedom. Less because I can’t restrain myself than because using it alleviates that sub-cranial, nagging sense of irritation that is the digital world.

But: I’ve learned that the irritant, or the sense of the irritant’s presence, sets in most often when my brain and eyes need a break. (*6) I’ve learned to walk away during those “I need a break” moments; walk away rather than go online. It felt much like giving up smoking: Do something else when the urge hits. (I quit smoking in 1986.)

And in that respect, having an iPad is something I could not have done four or five years ago. I had to kick the addiction first. Otherwise — well, I’dve been on that damn thing constantly.

And, yes, once again, I’ve led you down this twisted path to a non-earthshaking conclusion: I got a free writer’s retreat and how great was that!?

But really? It’s probably better to figure out how to get along without a retreat in the first place.

______________

*1: This is where the “legendary” stuff supposedly comes in: Writers talk. Writers drink. Writers hop in the sack. Writers make connections. Writers get better contracts. Etc. Frankly, it sounds to me like a) a total snore; and b) egos in collision. But that’s me. And I’m a true loner. (Heh. I initially typed “loser” rather than “loner.” The former likely more true than the latter.)

*2: I generally only use Anti-social at specific times in the process: Toward the end, for example, when I was revising and needed to verify citations for my notes. At times like that, I need to use the library’s online catalog. But when I’m actually writing (composing), I use only Freedom.

*3: What was I doing? The final, final revision. The “no kidding, this is it, this is the text, this is what goes into print” revision. No mistakes. No typos. The right word in the right place. The ideas expressed clearly, succinctly, and convincingly (meaning they’re backed up by shitloads of evidence). Making sure the sources for every quotation — and there are hundreds of quotations — are correct, down to the page number and date of publication. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but that kind of labor requires a herculean level of mental concentration. It’s not the kind of work that can be done on such a tight deadline. At the end of each day, I was completely, absolutely, thoroughly drained of all energy. I wanted to do nothing but sit as still as possible and stare at a wall. Which is what I did at night for a few hours until I crawled into bed, so I could get up and do it again the next day. The one luxury I allowed myself was sleep. I needed it. (*4)

*4: Last time around, the beer history book, I had a horrific episode of insomnia (a ?ailment that I’ve had since I was seven years old (alas)), a case that ran on for two years. Toward the end, I slept two hours a night, from about ten or eleven to midnight or one. Then I’d get up and work until about six pm. It was so awful. I vowed I would not go that road again. THIS time as I neared the end, about six months ago, I began taking a half a sleeping pill. For this last month-long trek, I took a full pill every night. I was able to sleep six hours, enough to keep my brain focused and fresh.

*5: The first draft of the manuscript was seven chapters. My editor said she wanted a new last chapter. She was, of course, right about the need for it, so I spent December and January writing and researching what is now Chapter Eight. But when Push Time came, that chapter was still in a first-draft version. It needed LOTS of work. In effect, I had to write a new, new chapter.

*6: I’ve gotta say: this last push was MURDER on my eyes. Wow. They took a beating. Valuable lesson: Look away from the screen and out the window every twenty minutes. At least. I’m working making that a new habit. But I may have to use some kind of chime or timer to remind me until the habit is formed. Do yourself a favor: LOOK AWAY.

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