Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Joy of a Silent Author's Retreat

I've been at the Oregon coast all week with three other writers. All of us come for the same reason--to get away from the daily grind of life and to immerse ourselves in a world of make believe. All of us have deadlines for several titles each year, ranging from short stories to full novels. Between us we have published more than 80 titles. We all of the same goal on a retreat--complete a book and start another one.

Interestingly, we barely speak to each other. In fact, most days I can count on one hand the number of sentences I've said aloud to one of the other writers. We don't even share meals together until the final night. That's because we have different schedules and each person often eats while writing. I'm up at about 6am and write all day until close to midnight. I tend to take a break around 2pm to walk on the beach. Yesterday, I walked in the morning. Another woman here gets up in the late morning and writes until 2am or 3am. Yet another works from 9am to 9pm and walks twice a day--always alone.

Each persons need to stand or walk or putter in the kitchen depends on how the story is going. Sometimes I simply need to walk away from the characters and think about what just happened. Sometimes I'm facing a difficult emotional scene next and I need space before diving in. Then there are the times when I know I'm writing all around what's important. I can't seem to capture that illusive scene and put it on the page. It's clear in my mind, but there are no words yet to do it justice.

On our last full day, everyone is heads down fighting to meet their goal. Finish the book and turn it into the editor for me. Get to the halfway point in a new novel for another. Finish a novella and start a new project for a third. Turn in a short story for an anthology and get to the half way point in a new novel for the fourth. We had a deadline today of 7pm. It is our last day and we will go to dinner together and talk with each at length for the first time in five days. Fortunately, we each made our goals.

I finished a book that I've struggled with every step of the way. Nothing was easy about this book--not the characters, not the themes, not the climax or the denoument. It seemed that for every 10,000 words I wrote, I ended up changing 5,000 of them. But it is finished and now its off to the editor. One of the other writers had to throw out everything she'd written yesterday because she was over her maximum word limit for that story. Then she had to rework the entire manuscript so that the subplot and those characters were no longer mentioned anywhere. She finished too, at 5:30am. She stayed up all night to make her goal.

With our personal goals met, we could all now enjoy the camaraderie of friends who have managed to silently support each other while maintaining complete separateness. We could now toast to our shared success. Our conversation over dinner helped us take the first tentative steps in transitioning back to reality. We still have six hours tomorrow to tie up lose ends, pack up our characters and send them to the back of our minds. We will go home to husbands and children and grandchildren, dogs and cats and horses, laundry and jobs and house remodeling and volunteer hours. And we will each find small bits of time to write, as we always have. We all have another book still due this year. Most of us have more than one to finish before December 31st.

I'm already counting the days until the next retreat.