Time to retreat


I just went on a writer’s retreat.  Not the group kind, where you share with folks samples from your latest projects.   It was only a ‘writer’s’ retreat’ in the sense that it explored the profound angst of why someone writes and who cares if they do? and I was the only attendee.  The retreat, for the most part, took place in my home rather than a cabin at a state park, although in October that sounds like a terrific idea!  However I managed to cover a whole lot of ground mentally.  It wasn’t planned, but some of the best times of reflection aren’t, they just sort of happen. You find yourself stuck for some unknown reason and you know that you need to take a break and do some thinking.  That pretty much sums up my last couple of weeks.

I started to recognize that there were things on my mind regarding life and retirement in general, and specifically regarding writing that I needed to think through.  It was time to take these questions seriously.  Think them through carefully.  Answer them, but not too quickly.  I noticed during this retreat that my quick answers are too often shallow answers.  Talk them through, write them through. Read, think, and write some more.  Pray.  Pray that I would ask the right questions.  I had to exhaust my questions.  The most significant prayer was that my retreat didn’t stall out in a circle of self-absorption but would lead me into something helpful and positive.  And it did.  This was my take away from this retreat—

Creativity should feel fresh and energizing.  Discipline is more about granting yourself permission to follow your passion than embracing the law to enforce compliance.

In September I blogged about discipline particularly as it applies to writing.  As I grappled with that question as well as getting a feel for life in retirement a lot of questions surfaced.  When I penned those two sentences about creativity and discipline and few days ago, I knew I had turned a corner.   For me, writing is a significant part of my life’s journey.  In many ways I feel, and I hope, that the most interesting part of my writing journey awaits.   It’s been a good retreat.

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From the notebook

Pulled together a few thoughts on writing from my notebook today that I thought I’d share.

  • Writing is like getting on a train without a destination. We won’t have any idea where it’s taking us until we are fairly well a long the way.
  • We need to write daily, when possible.  If we don’t it’s like cutting a conversation short with a friend. The longer we wait to resume it, the more difficult it is to reconstruct and all too often the whole point is lost.
  • Get inspired: read books, talk to people (more importantly, listen to people), read magazines, read online articles. Be a sponge and soak up everything. Then as you start to process it, start writing on it. Start working through it on paper. Develop your response. A written response takes more time than a verbal one, but the end product is more dependable. It’s been thought through, analyzed, and reviewed several times before it hits the air.
  • Care about stuff! Care about people. Care about culture. Care about the world.
  • Know yourself. Describe yourself on paper, describe where you are well-defined and where you are blurry.  List the people and things that influence you the most. Are you OK/happy about what’s on the list? Are you happy with the extent that they influence you? Would you change it? How?
  • Respect your work. Even when it’s awful, even when it’s not going anywhere except the “Trash”, respect the time and the effort that you put into it. We grow from our efforts, therefore no effort is a waste. Respecting your work means that you know that all your efforts have value. It means that you know that the time spent writing is valuable. Respecting your work communicates to others that you respect yourself and your choices.
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Adding detail to the broad stroke picture

First, I am going to write a short post as a follow-up to the broad strokes method of scheduling my retired life that I was discussed in the last blog.  Over the past weekend I gave it more thought. The biggest flaw I see with it is the classic ‘he who aims at nothing, hits it’ problem.  As a retiree I may feel as though I have all the time in the world, but that’s not exactly the case. If anything, retirement brings with it a (hopefully) subtle reminder of our mortality.  I find myself volleying between “I have all the time in the world” thinking, and “hey, this is it, get on with living life as richly and purposefully as possible!”  So in my best moments my mantra is to be be very chill and very intentional simultaneously, which you got admit, sounds kind of perfect.

So I bring that sentiment over to the subject of organization.  How I am going to approach ordering my days?  One issue I have to guard against is my habit of thinking that if a little bit of planning is helpful then uber-planning will be fantastic.  No.  No.  That may have served me well at work, but it has always frustrated me when I’ve tried to do it at home.  Always.  And as soon as told the church mice and societal toads (the little voices in my head that I felt breathing down my neck and judging me when I first retired) to shove off, I was free to ask myself, “why do I want to schedule my day set goals for my week?”  “Who am I really, and who do I want to be?”  And, “Lord, help me think about these things and give me some direction, please.”

I feel that with each passing week I’m getting answers to these questions.  I feel more secure that this in this season for me to work on my writing.  I don’t know yet what direction that will take, but at the present I don’t need to.  So much of writing is simply showing up.  I can do that.

So I have writing, reading, house management, house projects, and fun stuff–people, travel, genealogy and crafts.  I need to put discipline into my  writing and general reading.  I need to keep up on the housework and home management tasks, though I have a lot of latitude with how I handle this.  The broad stroke approach has identified the priority areas.  Planning comes into play as I make notes and very brief lists of specific tasks that I wish to have checked off at the end of the day.  I will schedule in some fun stuff and variety into each week as well.  And I feel like this will be good; intentionally chill with chilled intentionality.

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Paradigm Time

Last week was, in many respects, my first normal week since I retired in May.  The summer had its own special dynamic, there were household changes in the works as well as travel.  In spite of the jumble of activity this summer I was eager to get busy with writing even though it chafed against my better judgement that was telling me to take it easy and relax a bit.   So I tried to do both and it actually worked fairly well.  But last week I had my first quiet week, which presented itself as a blob of ectoplasm awaiting conversion into life.   My head about exploded with the possibilities of writing, reading, cleaning projects, decorating projects, working on genealogy, contacting friends, starting exercise, revising our diet, doing craft projects!   Where to begin?   There seemed a to be a thicket encircling me that I would have to pick my through before getting on the other side.

By the time this past weekend (Labor Day) rolled around, I was less concerned with schedules for the weekend and more with determining a method for the future.  Should write in the morning or the afternoon?  For two hours?  Three? Four?  Or by word count goals?  And what about house projects?  Reading?  Crafts?  People?  Could I design a scheme that would do it all?   I mean, I have 45 daytime hours a week to work with; I should be able to shape that into something I like, right?  But to return to the essential question on my mind last week, “How will I fill the blank canvas that I call my week?”

In spite my mental gymnastics, last week went pretty well.  I addressed some household projects, mixed in some reading, a bit of journaling and a good smattering of life management.  As I moved through it I found my thoughts turning over several questions and making a few observations.

First there is the whole topic of expectations.  I now had the time and the freedom to ask myself what expectations do I place on myself and why.  Who am trying to please?  How much does meeting the expectations of others play a role in my choices and efforts?  Expectations are a function of society, a healthy part of life, but their role shifts as we move into different stages of life.  And they change very dramatically when a person retires.  We have to ask ourselves how do we deal with this much freedom.  In fact it’s easy to see how daunted one could feel by vacancy left by the well-defined expectations that were part of work life.  Reflection on expectations became a necessary starting point as I thought about organizing my life. This is an area that for most people will be a huge paradigm shift.   I think owning the shift is the key.

This is where jouraling comes in, it’s extremely helpful to sort how you see yourself, to identifying what they want to life to consist of, and how they want to go about it.  The time I have spent journaling has helped me think  about the changes that come with retirement. Reflecting on identity, goals, opportunities, relationships, activities, all of these areas need to be seen through a new lens, I find that I face them more squarely after putting them down on paper.

There are two sentiments that appear to be conflicting in my mind, but in actually I think I find that they are complimentary, or maybe beyond complimentary: symbiotic.  Direction and relaxation.  As last week started I found the concurrent pull of these two forces a bit frustrating. How can I do both?  How can I embrace both?  Certainly it made no sense to only embrace one and not the other.  And wasn’t this the whole point of retirement, having enough time so you wouldn’t feel anxious about the things you need to get done?  Wasn’t I suppose to be done with that for good?  (Except holidays or when people would come to visit of course).  My hope, my personal expectation, was that I could indeed do both, in the same day and in a satisfactory way. I was confident of that, I just didn’t know how.  What I was missing was the method to strike that balance. I have a handle on the broad strokes of the picture, I keep wrestling with the details.  Until today.  When I started my day today it occurred to me that the broad strokes are all that matters.  I wondered, what if I lived without a schedule or lists?  What would that feel like?  I spoke this weekend with my newly retired sister-in-law and we both confessed our mutual loathing of structure.  Depending on the dynamics of your life structure can be a God-send.  But the structure you need when you’re a mother managing a family is different from the structure you need when you’re retired.  Or the structure you need when you are writing and holding an outside job is different from they type you need when there’s no competing claim on your time.  I have to confess at the beginning of the summer I was looking for structure to be the key to having a fulfilling life.  If I could schedule it, it would happen.  Certainly this was a throwback to my professional life even thoroughly structured has always seemed a bit foreign to me. But in my insecurity I have used it as a crutch. Certainly it was helpful at times, but sometimes I think I defaulted to lists and schedules because I didn’t trust my instincts and judgement to manage without them.

Now I am seeing life through a different lens. And after considering what I want my life to look like, and more specifically what I want my days to look like, I don’t see the same need for detailed scheduling.  My new paradigm is more present oriented and my goals and expectations are much more personal and flexible.  And the bonus of being retired is the forgiveness that comes in the shape of tomorrow.  I have all those tomorrows ahead, the pressure is off.


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Writing reasons revisited

Yesterday I finished reading Bird by Bird. It pushed and pulled at my writing heart. But mostly pulled. I was drawn towards seriously writing like I hadn’t been in years, then in the next paragraph I was totally repelled. I hoped throughout that she was being overly negative in spots, exaggerating the pain and angst of being serious about one’s writing. But my gut and my own past experiences told me that the negative parts were just as valid as everything else she said. But in spite of her stark honesty about writers’ ‘issues’ that will leave a reader fearful of losing whatever mental or emotional balance they possess, the net effect confirmed what I know: I know that I can write, I know that I will write, I know that I must write.
We write to tell the truth, our own personal truth. But why would anyone read it? Because everyone can connect is some singular way to the humanity of another person and if I write the truth that I have known, whether it’s in a story or an essay or a chapter of personal history, the truth will feel real to the reader and they may also  catch a glimpse of their own truth in the process. Lamott reminded me of all this. As a writer I cannot know if and how it might speak to someone else, but I can be confident that if I write it out faithfully from my heart it will reach the reader on some level. And that’s good enough. That’s communication.

I have had a tendency to take that fact a bit too seriously, worrying about constructing a message of cosmic importance.  In fact, it would paralyze my writing, practically sending me into a stupor. Writing is a whole lot of effort if there’s no point to it.  My fallback reason for writing is just to sort our one’s thoughts, but personal journaling, as healthy and helpful as it may be, isn’t going to compel me write in a disciplined, work-on-it-everyday kind of way. My vision needed to be rooted in something deeper than that.  Bird by Bird  reminded me that telling the truth is a gift we can give to ourselves and our readers. It’s a good gift, tracing all these little bits of truth humming around in our heads as they make their way through our fingers and onto a page.  We capture fragments of our humanity and boldly set them out in plain sight. This simple act of telling our truth in our stories and sharing the themes that run through our thoughts is part of our participation in humanity. That’s all the reason we need. I remember now.

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Writing talent

I had a big thought this morning.  A big light bulb moment.  So if you have read my posts this week you are aware that I have been reading Anne Lamott, in fact I have even achieved the ability to spell her name correctly! [Excuse me while I indulge in some well deserved self derision. I have no idea how the faulty spelling wormed its way into my mind, but it did.  So the bad spelling was not only part of the blog content numerous times in the past two days, but also used as a tag, and even in the post title.  It's like I was on a crusade to get my blog noticed for its shoddiness.]  But back to the big thought.  Writers think funny.  If you are a writer you know this to be true.  One of the things I am loving about Bird by Bird is how strongly I identify with the all the odd little characteristics that she links to writers and writing.  Yes, I totally get her popularity now, she nails it.  She refers to writers possessing a self-image that teeters between the heights of grandiosity and the pits of self-loathing almost simultaneously (or at least that’s my experience). That was the beginning of my aha! moment. I had recognized it before but her description gave it legs.  When you have this push-me-pull-you game going on in your brain it’s hard to settle down and write because you keep thinking, ‘you’re taking yourself too seriously/no one will want to read this junk.’  Which is countered by feeling like this is what you are ‘born’ to do/artistic destiny, or something akin to it, so get busy and give it your best shot.  The schizophrenia can be exhausting.

The other thing that Lamott keeps saying is “just do it,” just get busy and write everyday.  She promises that the initial efforts will be awful, that getting started on any given day may be next to impossible, but the drafts will improve with each revision, and you will wind up with something that passes for a decent piece of writing.  So my very limited brain made a very obvious connection.  Maybe I have read this before, maybe I have had it told to me, but somehow it never struck me like it did today.  Writing doesn’t require talent, it requires perseverance. Yes, some people have more aptitude but unless a person is willing to write a lot, working at in on a daily basis, they aren’t writers.  Because writers write. To be a writer doesn’t require a degree, or a paycheck or a book deal.  It’s not the byproduct of attending a workshop or tossing out an occasional book review.  It’s sitting down everyday, when you have no inspiration, no direction even, it’s reworking sections that aren’t going anywhere, and there’s zero inspiration to be found, and writing anyway.  As I read Lamott talk about the gut wrenching experience of writing it sounded just awful.  Grueling even.  Depressing.  Familiar.  In fact I had been hoping that this time would be different, and I would experience less of the yuckiness of writing.  As she reminded me of the dark side of the process I asked myself, ‘Why would I or why would anyone, want to do this?  Why put myself through that?’  Then I remember the payoff.  For me the payoff comes when I reach the place where the writing starts to flow, and I’m articulating my thoughts clearly, cogently, with the right tone, the right punch; it’s good. It’s a bit of a rush, and it doesn’t often happen without a fair amount of labor to get there, but get there I do. I’ve produced something that I’m happy with. There is something to be said for taking a rough idea and hammering away on it until it becomes a respectable piece of writing.  Sometimes it turns out much better than I had any right to hope that it could and then I feel like some type of alchemy is at work.  So my big thought was this: it’s not about talent or lack of talent or identity or even having something to say (although the latter will sure help you get started).  The big thought is that being a writer is less about whether we feel like we should, could or really ought to, it’s not about any aspect or degree of our so-called talents. The big thought is that the core of being a writer is about owning it and doing the work every day. Like with so much in life, whether it’s in art, music, sports, or cooking, many people have the essential skills, but it’s the discipline that gives them ownership of their expertise. It’s pushing those skills and sticking to a project when one’s brain is muddled.  It’s working on a piece when it’s going nowhere.  It’s being stubborn and throwing our arms around the ugly parts of the creating process because we know we will never get to the good stuff without it.  That’s the big thought, no talent required, just determination.

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The bird is the word

This evening I downloaded Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  I am not sure whether I’ll ever finish it given that after each paragraph I read I want to run to the computer and write something in response.  The first chapter opens with her telling her students to write about their childhoods.  Oh dear God, will that subject never go away?  I have made a mental resignation that I will someday write about my childhood. I don’t particularly want to, but it’s something that I think I need to do.  I suspect that if and when I do, it will be OK, it will be good for me to have done it.  But it feels a bit overwhelming and as projects go, it scares me.  So I read on and Lamott pulls up all these universal childhood images that she gives her class as prompts.  Enough already!  I get it!  I sigh again, I keep reading.  I sense that indeed I may hark her instruction about writing about one’s childhood.  Or not.  I’ll decide that another day.






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