Statue of St. Scholastica

At the beginning of the month, I had the glorious opportunity to spend a full week at the Benet House, the retreat center on the grounds of the St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, Illinois. This was a gift granted me by the Midwest Writing Center in the form of the Great River Writer Retreat, an annual honor supported by a generous local donor and awarded to a writer selected from a four-state-wide applicant pool. If you live in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, you really should think about applying next summer, because there couldn’t be a more beautiful place to spend a week writing. The Benedictine Sisters are gentle and hospitable and kind, the grounds are beautiful and well-tended, the retreat center is quiet, and the calm of being in such a sacred place, even if you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, is the equivalent of mainlining creative energy.

I hugely overpacked for my stay, overestimating as always how much I can actually get done in a day. There was the bag of books I imagined I’d read. There were bags and bags of snacks I imagined I’d be eating. There were the yoga pants for the writing portion of the day; something decent to wear when I emerged for meals at the monastery; an outfit for the reading I would give on Wednesday of that week; and then there was the exercise gear, because I imagined that I would be rigorous with all of these acres of time and would go to bed early, rise with the sun, exercise, eat abstemiously, and take long walks to commune with the beauty of the natural setting around me.

I arrived on Saturday and spent the day just journaling, getting everything else out of my head. I spent the day Sunday reading through what I’d already written of the novel (date last modified: four and a half years ago, right before my son was born), taking a run, and gearing up for my week of balanced, harmonious, healthy creation.

Here’s what happened instead: I went on a creative bender. I descended, utterly, and entirely, into a kind of sloth-like state in which I had one focus of attention, and one only: what was happening in the novel. I would look at the clock and realize I was already five minutes late for a meal and run over, notebook in hand, to scribble notes while I hastily shoved food in my mouth. I don’t know what time I went to bed because I had taken the battery out of the clock in my room. (I hate the sound of passing time.) When I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, I turned on the light and began working. When I woke up in the morning, I rolled out of bed, put on a new set of yoga pants, and worked until I realized I had maybe ten minutes to shower and get to the cafeteria, or I would be cooking my own lunch, and that would just be time away from my writing that I did not want to lose.

It felt WONDERFUL.

It was also, in the end, unsustainable. I recall an episode in graduate school when I went on a three-day bender in which I wrote the first draft of an entire novel. It was fortunate I didn’t have class. I opened every can in my cupboard. I let every call go to voicemail. I might have worn the same clothes three days in a row. My only human contact was with the utility company when I realized there was a problem with my stove and they sent a technician over. As he entered my house, stepping over the pile of mail before the door, wearing the safety goggles and hard hat and protective gear, I wanted to laugh: he needed a hazmat suit to enter my house, but not because of the stove.

I had the same experience on my retreat. When I emerged for the reading on Wednesday night, I felt a little bit like I had come out of hibernation. I felt that the world might be too rough on my raw creativity nerve, now so close to the surface.

The reading was fine, and on Friday, when I had to transition from my own writing to workshopping others’ writing, I did fine also. I hadn’t forgotten how to interact with people. I was able to tear myself away from the computer without resentment that I had to return to my real life. But I also realized that, the opposite of what I’d expected, I had not written myself into exhaustion. I felt like I could go straight down the rabbit hole again, and stay there. There was no sign of that creative vein being diminished, no sense that the full-open-faucet setting might eventually drain it. The more I drew from the well, the fuller I found it.

That was a wonderful realization, too.

Coming back from the retreat, I’ve been having a hard time finding my balance again. There was much to catch up on, clients to get back with, student work to read, deadlines to meet. Everything I’d put off to go on retreat had multiplied. But I have pages and pages more on the novel, thousands of words that came pouring out. And I can feel how that well is still full, brimming, waiting for me to come tap from it again. The retreat was a golden week of creative bliss and naturally I can’t wait until the next time I get another like it. But now, the work is to figure out how to keep that well close at hand—keep it full, keep it flowing—and be able to sip from it as often as time in the busy schedule allows.

 

Filling the Well: Some Thoughts on Retreat

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