I had it all. Five acres of redwood forest, meadows, mountain views, even a pond with lily pads and floating flowers. Perfect weather. My writing buddy's wooden cottage, hand-built, appointed with everything a writer might need. Plenty of coffee, food for four days, two dogs eager to lie on each side of me on the couch, a third at my feet.
There was no TV. I didn't bring any bills, deadlines, commitments, or other people. I had four luxurious days to write whatever I wanted, and I didn’t give myself any limits. I could work at the desk on a manuscript that’s nearly finished, or I could meander down to the pond with the dogs and lose myself in my notebook. It couldn’t have been any better than this.
So why didn't I write?
Because there was this adorable little three-legged cat, light as cotton with a purr machine built for a mountain lion. She wanted to hang out on my chest and kiss my nose. What could I do?
Then there were fanatical gardens to explore, giant gourds and plump berries, branches bent by heavy pears. There were waves of purple salvia and pineapple sage, hedges of lavender, cherry tomatoes the size of plums.
And the dogs had places to show me. After breakfast, they led me through the woods along a winding trail to the pond, where they nudged me to throw the golf ball again and again and again. After supper, we followed a freshly mowed firebreak separating forest from meadow, down to a grassy flat fed by an artesian spring. That’s where they liked to roll on their backs and do a little growling before bedtime.
There was Anne Lamott’s latest novel, Imperfect Birds, which I’d picked up at the airport a few weeks earlier and figured I ought to finish before I forgot the first part. And after that, an advance copy of my friend Linda Willing’s book, On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. And then, a good start on Jane Smiley's Private Life.
With a book in my hand, the door open and a gentle breeze, that little cat on my chest and the dogs snoring nearby, the couch was a perfect place to take an afternoon nap…
Maybe instead of saying I didn’t write anything on my writing retreat, I should say I didn't put anything on paper. Because all of this other stuff was part of writing, too. Even the hours I spent poking around on Facebook, Red Room, and LinkedIn. Even the night I stayed up until 4 a.m. playing Angry Birds on my smart phone. Even the rainy morning when the power went out and I cuddled up in bed with the animals until well past noon.
I call it circling the wagons. Closing in on that place where it feels safe to focus entirely on the center fire and not worry about the darkness behind the covered Conastogas. For me, the act of putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard is actually a pretty small part of the writing process. It’s the payoff for giving myself everything else that needs to come before it.
It was a glorious writing retreat! I came home refreshed, cleared out, rested up, nourished, enlivened, and happy.
Consider the wagons circled.