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.