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I am sloth incarnate.
I sit alone in a wing chair in the corner of my living room. The seat is an old friend and knows my shape by memory. It has already gone noon, but I remain rooted here, as I have done since early this morning, still clad only in a housecoat and slippers.
Like an animated, picture-perfect Christmas card, the snow is falling gently outside the living room window opposite me. Shrouding the landscape, the bare branches and the evergreen sentinels that comprise my view, in the tenderest of soft, white embraces. Except for the sound of the furnace engaging every now and again, and the metronomic constancy of the dining room clock calling out the passage of the seconds to me from around the corner, all is peace. The placid, untrammelled presence of early winter in the countryside.
It is the final day of my two-week Christmas break. I had plans aplenty to fill this day (as well as those that preceded it). Useful and vigorous schemes to “get things done around the house,” given that that I was going to have some extended “down time.” Now, however, there is only the complacency of my arse on a soft cushion. A tall stack of partially-read books rests companionable beside me, amongst which I flit like a busy, inconstant bee, drawn from one pretty, intoxicating bloom to the next. There appear to be some promising new releases on Netflix, as well. And, within reach, there’s a fresh, steaming cup of coffee…
And a lingering unease that it’s all slipping away too quickly. That I’ve used up these days of light and freedom far too indiscriminately. But I also know I must let such unease pass me by with nary a hint of recognition. For only if I am truly committed to wasting this final day will it, in turn, capitulate and reward me by offering up access to the depths of the recumbent, tranquil treasures it has in store.
The snow continues to fall. My books await. Tomorrow, sitting on a very different chair, in front of a screen straining under the burden of an inescapable digital avalanche, this peace will be a dim, unlikely memory.
I am sloth…
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.
(Nota bene: Alright, I know I haven’t posted in over six months. And there’ll probably be a post about that sometime in the future. But this isn’t it.)
Hi. My name is Philip and I’m a bookaholic. Or biblioholic. Certainly a bibliophile. In the simplest terms, a lover of books who’s addicted to reading.
Were I retired and had no other interests or responsibilities in my life, this probably wouldn’t be a significant issue. Unfortunately, I’m far from retired and, like most spouses / parents / employees, have responsibilities coming out of my eyeballs.
Over the years of trying to self-analyze my reading “problem,” I’ve come up with any number of reasons why I just can’t seem to live without books.
- I love to learn new things and see the world from new perspectives. Books — fiction and non-fiction — are constant teachers.
- I love the way words fit together when an author is truly “on” his or her game. When you get that shiver down your spine as you read a sentence that “sings” out to you. And you think to yourself that there could have been no better way for these particular letters / words / ideas to be strung together to form such a unique, insightful narrative.
If I’m completely truthful with myself, however, some of the other reasons that I love to read so much appear rather more problematic.
- Apparently those things that I find most pleasurable in life seem tend toward the lazy and voyeuristic. Reading is easy. It involves nothing more than my ass in a chair — usually with a beverage of some sort. It’s not something that causes me to exert myself in any meaningful way, like cleaning the ice out of the driveway or doing the taxes would (both of which I should actually be doing now), or generally attempting to live my life. It’s escapism at its very best. The more time I can spend as a spectator reading about the trials and tribulations of other people’s lives, the less time and energy I will have to invest in trying to tame my own.
- Control. Imagine an entire world neatly encased between two covers. Things start to get uncomfortable? Messy? Close the book and put it back on the shelf. Now that’s a level of control I’d like to be able to achieve in “real” life!
- The search for . . . wait for it . . . “The Meaning of Life” (yeah, sorry, I know it’s a difficult concept to express sans irony, but what’s a body to do?); the Platonic ideal behind the very nature of existence itself. Try as I might, I simply can’t help but think that if I stuff enough information / images / stories into my head, some strange alchemy will eventually take control of my pulsing neural pathways and generate the answer for me. (Sorry, I mean “The Answer,” of course.) That thinking for long enough with the brains of others will eventually cause something to “click” in my own. That the veil will be lifted and I’ll finally “get it.” That I’ll truly, definitively solve for “X”. (Geez, that’s a lot of “air quotes”, isn’t it? This might be a good indication that I’m not actually “on to something” here.)
None of the above, I suppose, represent actual conscious strategies in any meaningful sense, but in seeking to reverse engineer why he hell I’m so addicted to reading, I can’t help but think it must be something along those lines. Accept it as a sort of grasping description of an overpowering compulsion.
It’s not even that I spend extensive swaths of time actually reading. I only really read — for myself, for pleasure, that is — about an hour a day or so all told (usually at bedtime). And maybe an hour or two more on weekends and holidays. But my weakness is that I’m not what you’d call a disciplined reader, at least if you define a disciplined reader as a person who finishes one book before moving on to the next. I’ve got a bit of a biblio-ADD thing going on when it comes to reading: the real challenge for me is that I simply can’t read just a single book at a time.
Right now, for example, I have the following books on the go on my bedside table: Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (which seems oddly familiar enough that I think I’m actually reading it for the second time), Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves (which I’m reading on the strength of her first book, The Historian, but now, more than halfway through, am simply not loving as much), Robertson Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy (what a storyteller!), Victor Del Arbol’s The Sadness of the Samurai (because it was on sale in the remaindered bin a couple of weeks ago and the cover blurbs seemed to suggest the story was strongly Zafon-esque), and Elanor Catton’s The Luminaries (what an impressively-elaborated cast of characters!)
If that’s not enough, in the living room beside the chesterfield — my favorite spot to stretch out and read on the weekend — I have Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (which I’m reading for the umpteenth time) and an audiobook of Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (yet another compelling storyteller, and a first-time Canadian novelist at that).
On the counter in the kitchen (’cause I just got them out of the library yesterday and haven’t had time to transfer them bedside yet) are S.J. Parris’ Sacrilege, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (both of which I’ve already started), as well as John Fleming’s The Dark Side of the Enlightenment and George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral.
And finally, on the desk in my home office, a copy of Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists which I’ve only barely started but am dying to dive into full throttle.
So here’s the thing. As fond as I am of reading so many things at the same time — and, yes, I can keep them all straight in my head, which is the questions most non-compulsive readers always seem to ask me when we talk about reading — I seriously don’t think the multi-tasking component inherent in this activity is serving me well. We all know by now that the idea of actually achieving greater efficiency through multi-tasking is just a sham. What’s more, the constant low-wattage anxiety of continually juggling multiple unfinished projects (AKA books in this instance) no doubt keeps me in a continual state of cortisol-inducing cardio-vascular stress à la Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. (And, to add insult to injury, with all these books on the go, I find I barely have enough time to maintain my Netflix addiction as well!)
Can I read a single book at a time? What would that feel like, I wonder? I dunno, but maybe I’ll give it a try. It couldn’t possibly stress me out more than reading 13 at once, after all. Could it?
But which one to start with? What’ll I do with the other 12? Uh-o, my pulse is starting to race again…
I’ll keep you posted.