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OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?
“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!
I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).
Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.
[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.” The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.
So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.
Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.
Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!
Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)
Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.
P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.
Amish for a Day: The Psychological Underpinnings of Barn Raisings, or Why the Grass is Always Greener at the Other Guy’s Home Renovation Project
Pssst, c’mhere. I got a secret to tell you. Closer — it’s a dirty little secret…
Think back to that soul-inspiring Amish barn raising you once saw in a TV program or a Hollywood movie / documentary. The archaic clothing and frilly bonnets, the funny beards, the dust motes sparkling in the camera lens as children chased butterflies across the job site. I know you can picture it. And no doubt you’re smiling as you think about it, ruminating on how this is the way societies should work. Everybody coming together selflessly for the common good of the community.
The problem is, it’s all a big fat lie.
OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But the truth is, even though Amish men would no doubt be “shunned” if they didn’t show up to help erect the barn (or school, or church), they ultimately — or at least unconsciously — do so, I would argue, for reasons far less selfless than you might expect. The truth is, spending a day helping out on your buddy’s project (or barn) means a day set free from your own (probably) hopelessly stalled home maintenance or DIY-project(s), to say nothing of it being a welcome hiatus from that insatiable, hydra-headed domestic monster, the loathsome “Honey Do” list. Such an opportunity for release is a strong drug. Trust me.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to folks that one of the main reasons why people choose to become architects is because they love to build things. I’m no exception. And being an architect certainly gives me something of leg up when it comes to DIY and renovation projects around the house. When all is said and done, there’s very few residential-scale construction projects I can’t tackle myself — with the exception of seamfilling drywall which, to do well, I consider something of a magical art form.
But the problem with being an architect is that I also have such well-honed visualization skills — that is, I know exactly what the finished project will look like in my mind’s eye. Why is this a problem you ask? Well, it’s like this: after I’ve completely torn apart the built-in book shelf / entertainment centre in the basement to re-build a new cupboard unit for the flat screen TV we purchased last fall (mostly as an excuse to try out my new Kreg Jig Junior pocket fastening system— https://www.kregtool.com/store/c13/kreg-jigsreg/p169/kreg-jigreg-r3/ — which I recently discovered on YouTube), and have expended all my initial first-day enthusiasm on the project, I’m already looking at the hole left in the wall and seeing a bright, shiny, newly-completed finish carpentry project.
All my wife sees, unfortunately, is, well, reality: lumber and saw dust strewn across the family room, a chop saw stored in the hallway, a panoply of miscellaneous tools underfoot and a veritable obstacle course of electrical / internet / co-ax cords snaking across the floor to service the TV, XBox, cable converter and Apple TV module, all of which now perch precariously on the coffee table about four feet away from us as we sit on the chesterfield to watch something. (My 14-year old son, of course, is in Nirvana — when he plays video games these days, it’s almost like he’s actually in the TV given how close to it he’s sitting).
Sure, I may trip over my nail gun every now and then as I walk through the room, or drive the head of the crowbar into the soft underside of my foot on occasion trying to step around the detritus, but once I get started on a project, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much done — ‘cuz, after all, I can see it done in my head. But actually completing the project? Well, that’s just a time thing. What’s the rush?
Helping friends work on their projects / raise their barns, though? Well, that’s a whole different story. Now you get to be the hero instead of the villain.
First crack at the “fun” stuff. Perhaps the best thing about helping a buddy with his or her construction or renovation project — especially if building is generally something you like doing anyway — is that you typically don’t get stuck doing the crappy jobs. The unwritten rule is that since you’re doing them a favour, you get first crack at the plumb jobs. Painting? You get to roll; they have to do all the cutting in. Putting up drywall on the ceiling? You get to screw the drywall to the strapping; they have to heft it overhead and try to hold it place. Flooring? You get to install all the easy, long runs while they have to cut and fit all the end pieces. Imagine getting to work all day at something you enjoy without having to do any of the tedious bits. Sweet!
There’s usually food — and beer — involved. Thankfully, when your spend the better part of you day volunteering your labour at a friend’s house, they take great pains to make sure you don’t go hungry. And there’s usually cold beer involved as well. This is not always the case when you’re at home, working in isolation on your own projects.
Great opportunity to develop new skills. Say you want to try to tile your bathroom on your own, or build a new deck, but you’re a little unsure if you can manage it? Assisting a buddy do this at his (or her) place goes a long way in helping you develop the skills and confidence you need to try to tackle the same job at your own house. (Translation: it’s less expensive to make first-timer mistakes on somebody’s else’s project than on your own). Plus there’s usually food and beer involved at your buddy’s place.
You don’t have to make any of the hard choices. When you’re doing your own home reno or DIY projects, you have to make all the hard choices yourself. Can I afford the the extra $329 to upgrade to the nicer, pre-finished baseboards? How do I install that additional circuit for the new microwave even though my panel is already maxed out and the breaker would end up tripping every time I tried to defrost food and blow dry my hair at the same time? When you’re at your buddy’s place however, even though they’re allowed to ask you what you think about a particular dilemma, they have to make all the hard decisions themselves — plus they have to make these decisions in a timely manner lest you spend all your available volunteer time with them simply staring at the issue and trying to figure it out. (Buddy: “Um, when I put that new partition wall in it wasn’t quite 90 degrees to the existing wall which means the corner we’re working on now isn’t going to be square which may throw off the installation of my t-bar ceiling. Since the wall’s only 8’ long and it isn’t drywalled yet, d’ya think we should we take it out and try to re-set it properly before going any further?” You: “Whatever you like, it’s your show. Got any more beer?”)
No prep or clean-up required. Similar to Item #1, when you’re working at a buddy’s place, you don’t have to worry about getting the “site” ready for what needs to be done, or cleaning up after yourself at the end of the day. It’s expected that since you’re the “help-er” on the project, the “help-ee” will have things all ready for business when you arrive. Furniture will be moved out of the way, tools will be set up, material will be arrayed where easily accessible — you can hit the ground running. Likewise, at the end of your “shift”, when the work is finished but the site is now a complete disaster, you’re free to leave without any sense of guilt whatsoever. “Don’t worry about that,” they’ll gratefully inform you as you’re unfastening your tool belt for the day, “We’ll clean all that up later.” This is, indeed, in stark contrast to your own projects where you’re responsible for absolutely E-V-E-RY-T-H-I-N-G and, if you’re anything like me, actually seem to spend the bulk of your productive time either setting up prior to the start of the project or cleaning up after you’re done.
The right tools and material. Because your buddies will typically want to leverage the limited amount of time you have available to help them out, they’ll usually make sure to have the right tools on hand to make the job run smoothly, as well as sufficient construction material laying around to complete the project at hand so that you don’t have to waste time running out to the Home Depot to re-stock. This can be an especial real treat for a guy like me who can easily waste a couple of hours on my own projects looking for a three foot length of 2” x 4” I thought I had in the shed so I don’t have to go to town and buy a full eight footer, or piss away an entire morning trying to invent a track system to cut sheet goods with my circular saw so I don’t have to waste 15 minutes trying to excavate my table saw from the furnace room.
Have I mentioned the food and beer?
Thanks to Tom for explaining this crazy WordPress stuff to me!