Writing Alone  – Part II

Writing Alone – Part II

Writing in isolation, tucked away in a cabin in the woods, slaving over the burden of a manuscript.

This is what writing retreats are, right? Literature and film has done much to portray the tortured artist – be it writer, sculptor, painter, musician. But is that actually the case?

I’ve been home for two weeks from my great adventures in Japan and have had time to reflect upon the experience and how it will change the way I work.

Creativity – and I don’t limit the notion of the creative to artistic endeavors because great scientific thought, social works, good parenting, great management (all facets of life) require creativity – is by necessity sparked by others. I think we all recognise those moments in our lives when a great idea hits, when the solution to our problem presents itself and the way through the tangled path clears. They might come in the shower or the bath, but does that mean that the solitude is the tinder to the spark? Or is it that the physical and mental space give us time to process and articulate something that was already brewing?

The idea that isolating yourself – either socially or intellectually – doesn’t work is not new. There is a saying in the writing world that goes roughly like this: you can’t write in a vacuum.

I believe you can’t do anything in vacuum – it’s impossible. You need a space suit and and a whole complicated mechanism for survival, tools, tethers, points of reference and so on. And all of those things weren’t created in a vacuum but rather through collaboration and teamwork. (Don’t worry, I know I’m not meant to take the saying literally.)

From a writing perspective, I’ve always taken this to mean you can’t write if you don’t read. You have to study the masters, so to speak, to know where you fit into the world, like any apprenticeship. It would be ludicrous to expect a carpenter to design new furniture with no prior exposure to the craft, or a CEO of a company to just ‘wing it’ with no prior experience or advisers to rely upon.

But it’s more than that. You can’t write if you don’t watch, listen and experience. Obviously it doesn’t mean you need to literally experience everything you write about because our brains are exceedingly good at extrapolating one experience to imagine another. I can imagine (roughly) what a rocket launch might feel like because I’ve ridden a roller coaster … and so on.

The next saying that most people will be familiar with, is: there are no new ideas. If you’ve thought of it, chances are someone else has already written it, thought about it, discarded with the compost and made a self-deprecating joke to their family over dinner with it. So why bother? You can’t insulate yourself from repeating the same idea by isolating yourself.

What you can do is bring something else to the table. The idea might be the same, but the execution can never be identical (unless you plagarise). Why do people continue to read crime fiction? Why do I gorge on every science fiction TV show? The concept (woman found murdered, crew stranded in space) is the same, but every new perspective brings something unique to the story. If that wasn’t the case, there would be no differentiation between individuals in any job. We all know from experience that one person can be an amazing leader, while another – maybe even more qualified – flounders.

What does any of this have to do with writing retreats?

I learned a great deal about my personal process by taking the time out to be alone. And I like to think that what I discovered about myself is applicable to more than just writing.

I’m a social person. I get lonely and grumpy if I’m left out of things and have found years of motherhood and study psychologically challenging. I’ve lost the knack of being in a group, yet at the same time I crave company – in the right doses, at the right time, for the right duration and with the right people. (I’m a difficult person.)

Yet, at the same time I crave the freedom and solitude to follow my pursuits without distraction – writing, photography, reading, craft (yep! I like sewing and spinning wool.) However, often I find when I do get the time, I wander around listless and lost as though unable to focus.

When I set out for Japan I was terrified that I would squander the opportunity to do some deep, meaningful work. I didn’t want to edit old material because I felt like I could do that at home. I wanted to create something new and fresh in the luxury of isolation.

I did write new material and the time was helpful to immerse myself in a new world of thought. I found these times were where I floated the most. If I’m honest, the most productive element of the trip was spent editing. This was a surprise. I’d imagined an intense and steamy love affair with my new material (insert writing montage here). Instead I had a nostalgic and wistful anniversary trip with my old work – and it was incredible.

The take-away? Isolation only works if you’ve done the groundwork beforehand.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat.

What work would I plan? A mix of old and new – but do some solid prep work in the company of others to generate all those juicy ideas. I need a mixing pot of life to get everything working, then the focus of isolation to hone it.

Length? Ten days. Two and half weeks was luxurious but exhausting and I’ve come home with no reserves at all.

Collaborate? Definitely. Shared time sparks creativity no matter what work you do.

Recommendation? If you get the chance – do it. No matter what field you work in, you will benefit from the head-space and intensity of solitude. It will make you appreciate both your own company and thoughts, and the positive contribution other people make to your creative life.

The Beauty of Being Alone

The Beauty of Being Alone

Have you ever travelled alone? What was it like? Did you find out something new about yourself? Did you come home with a new perspective?

I’d love your advice and insight into what to expect when being alone for the first time.

It’s a poorly kept secret that I have a love affair with Japan. Specifically Hokkaido. Even more specifically Mt. Yotei. She is a mountain (a volcano to be exact) that stands taller and more beautiful than everything around. She is utterly mesmerising in her solitude.

My family has been travelling to this paradise for over twelve years and I feel my heart swell with emotion every time the plane touches down.

Kids enjoying an autumn hike

Yet, Japan has always been a place I’ve enjoyed with other people. The kids love the outdoor lifestyle and variety of adventures we go on at different times of the year. We love catching up with the friends we have made and those who are discovering this magical place for the first time.

Kids skiing at Rusutsu Resort with Mt Yotei in the far distance

At the end of August I am heading off again. This time on my own, with the hope that the beautiful scenery and solitude of the mountain landscape will facilitate some intensive writing– because working from home with a family is easy… said no one ever.

As I ponder how I’ll structure my days it occurs to me that this is a very different trip from anything I have done before. I will be alone. Of course, I’ve travelled alone before. Spent a few days here or there exploring a city before catching up with family or friends. I’ve travelled without my husband and kids (a guilty treat), but I’ve never, not ever in my entire life, spent two and a half weeks completely alone.

(Think: child living with parents–grow up and move in with partner–get married have kids and voila! 40 and never been alone.)

On this trip I will live alone, eat alone, walk alone. I don’t speak the language in any meaningful way so my interactions outside the house will be limited to asking for food, thank you and smiling gratefully.

The view of Mt Yotei as the sun sets and the moon rises from the A-bridge in Niseko Town

The prospect is both exhilarating and terrifying. I have a romantic notion of going for long walks, writing all afternoon, maybe having a glass of wine in the evening while I read… A running montage of all the things I fantasise about when I’m trying to squeeze in time for a blog post, short story or edit a photograph between work, taekwon-do, kids, pets, house…. you know the drill.

You all live the drill because, well, that’s life.

BUT will it actually turn out that way? Will I get lonely? Will I sleep in all day? Will I wander aimlessly around the house fidgeting, too restless to settle down and work? And if so, what does that say about me? What if I CAN’T write now that I’ve been given this amazing and luxurious opportunity?

Worse! What if I love it so much I don’t want to come home?

My husband eating breakfast at sunrise on Mt. Yotei

Okay, so the last one is unlikely. They’re all unlikely. Chances are it will be a little of all of these things. I’m hoping the isolation will force my creative hand. There are a surprising number of hours in the day all you have to do is look after yourself.

What’s wrong with sitting for an hour watching the woodpeckers from your family room window? In Japan, nothing. That’s why it’s so special.

I decided to break it down into positives and negatives:

Positives

The sun rising behind Mt. Yotei from my living room window
  • No human/pet distractions
  • No “care” work: school, sport, homework etc
  • Beautiful surrounds
  • Completely selfish: what I want when I want it
  • Many empty hours
  • No apologies/juggling

Negatives

  • No human/pets
  • No one to “care” for me
  • Beautiful surrounds: walking, photography, staring out the window
  • What I want, when I want: less pressure to triage my time
  • Many empty hours: see above
  • Loneliness?

Hopes?

  • To write. Everyday. Serious, hard-core blocks of writing
  • Enjoy the change of pace
This waterfall is about a 5 minute drive, then 20 minute walk from my place

Fears?

  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Time wasting

Strategic plan

  • Walk, Write, Read – Everyday

It’s not the travel that weighs on me. I’m a confident traveller. It’s the isolation. While many years at home with small children has made me self-sufficient and happy with my own company, this is an entirely different (and incredibly exciting) prospect. Then I think of Mt. Yotei. Her isolation sets her apart, and above, the world around her.

I’m hoping to look across the landscape at that amazing moutnain and find beauty in my isolation.

Few people get blocks of time to truly do whatever they want. I’m determined to love it.

Fukadashi Park