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 divide between plotters and pantsers is well known within the writing world. To the un-initiated, these terms indicate a writer’s underlying approach to their first draft. Plotters meticulously lay out their entire story – index cards, cork boards, timelines, character profiles, story arc, subplots, B characters, turning points … – I’m exhausted. Pantsers on the other hand, like to throw caution to the wind and let the story take them where it wants.
I’m a panster. I get an idea, bounce up and down in my chair for a bit, bore my husband to death with it, then (just as his eyes start to glaze over) I go away and start writing. I don’t have time to waste worrying about plot consistency or whether the story actually makes sense.
I’m an artist, damn it, and I’ll find a way. The story will grow organically, and bloom like a beautiful, vibrant sunflower – tall and elegant. (Visualising readers gasping with delight…)
As an example, the novel I’m currently editing started from an overheard conversation at the airport where a couple in their sixties were complaining that their daughter never makes them pudding when they go to her house for dinner. By the last draft, I’d written a story about a woman who time-travels through her mother’s memories to unravel a family secret.
Pantsing in action.
Some writers use a combination of both approaches.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you write so long as you write. We all get there in the end. Only writing creates writing. You can’t fix what isn’t there. A bad draft is better than no draft. Do the work and fix it later. Write. Just write. Be a slave to the desk. Be a slave to the process … and so on.
Apparently, no amount of downloading the latest writing app, reading books about the writing craft, lying in a hammock with a glass of wine imagining your new universe, or telling your long suffering partner about your great idea will put words on the page. (Neither will writing about said method in a blog post.)
So, I find myself away on my writing retreat, wanting to get the most out this precious solitude. I have aspirations that I’ll come away with a chunky body of work to show for the expense and inconvenience I’ve put my family through.
I arrived with about twelve thousand words of ‘pants’ work for a new novel that has been swirling around in my brain for the past 12-18 months. Swirling is about the sum of it. It’s a mess. There are contradictory plot lines, overlapping characters, and it appears I’ve written the same events more than once, but for different characters. And no, not the specky same event from different perspectives trick, but literally the same thing happening to different characters.
In the past, I’ve found pantsing works well. I often ‘hear’ my characters chatting in my head. Most scenes start from a conversation and I find building a scaffold of dialogue lets me get the backbone of the story out. Once that’s down on the page, then I worry about fleshing out the backstory and spending time on world building.
But this approach has its limits. Particularly, as this time I’m writing a science fiction novel which requires a large amount of world building in order to understand how the characters act, move and live. The environment directly affects every element of their lives and needs to be carefully considered first. In other words, the world needs to make sense.
Therefore, I have embarked on the audacious quest of plotting this novel. (Cue dramatic music. Some applause would be quite nice right now too.)
My brain hurts.
Plotting is really hard. I have a new-found respect for those writers out there that can build a whole universe in their head and see their story from start to finish – even loosely. So far, my plotting hasn’t been the best. I’ve done a lot of staring out the window under the pretence of thinking (not sure who I’m trying to fool, because I’m alone), I’ve consumed a tremendous amount of coffee (that burns up a few minutes in the making), and already I’ve changed my plot at least ten times because I’ve realised my ideas don’t make sense. Hence the need to plot.
But that’s a good thing, right? Maybe these plotters are onto something.
In the past I’d plough on, hit a roadblock, come up with a patched solution, then blunder ahead hoping it’ll all work out in the end.
To a certain extent that’s still going to happen. It’s inevitable, because the thing I’ve discovered in my feeble attempts at plotting is that I’m not capable of micro-managing the nitty-gritty of the story. I freeze up, and those character voices still jabber away inside my head with their own ideas about where the story needs to go.
What I do have after hours of contemplation, however, is the skeleton of a plot. It’s not pretty and it’s not perfect, but I think I’ve ironed out the worst of the pitfalls (famous last words anyone?) Who knows?
I suspect that I’ll always be a pantser. I love the high you get when you’re writing and the solution presents itself – as if unbidden – on the page. But I don’t love the writing in circles, the repetition, the rabbit-holes of no return, and the inevitable re-drafting and systemic repair that’s needed to fix my short-sighted bursts of enthusiasm along the way.
Maybe this new venture into plotting will bear fruit. Maybe it won’t. But at day 8, I’m ten thousand new words into the novel and I know what I’m going to work on tomorrow. So, something is going right.
Long time no blog. There’s lots of good reasons for this which I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say it’s been a manic couple of months leading into my trip to Japan. I feel like I’ve fallen off the end of the travelator and I’m not going to lie … it’s amazing.
Before I left, I wrote an angsty post about coming to Japan on my own. If I’m honest, I was a little frightened that I’d be lonley. I was a lot frightened that I’d squander the opportunity to become immersed my writing. I had visions of me binge-watching Netflix, drinking endless cups of tea and trolling facebook to spy on everyone else.
That would be a woeful trip indeed.
So here’s what’s happened so far:
I’ve completed revisions on a short story and entered it in a competition.
I’ve hit my daily target of at least 1,000 new words on a project that has been brewing for about a year.
I’ve completed the revisions on the first half of my novel and sent them off (THAT was intense).
I’ve done yoga.
I’ve gone for a walk everyday.
I’ve cooked healthy meals AND let myself have a glass of wine every night.
I’ve read everyday.
I’ve watched a bit of Netflix in the evening.
I’ve slept like a log.
I’ve discovered that writing is an amazing excuse for staring out the window and enjoying the way that morning light illuminates the trees.
I’ve logged into wordpress and written a post.
I’m spoilt. I have all the comforts of home up here: my own bed, a coffee machine, a desk with a monitor and a keyboard so I don’t have to squint at the laptop screen. But I have those things at home, so why is this so special?
I think it’s partially the peace. No one to talk to, no washing to, no dinners to cook (for other’s that is). But I think it’s more than that. I literally have NOTHING else to do. My brain isn’t pre-occupied with daily life, it’s in holiday mode AND work mode. The two together are some kind of magic.
I WANT to write. I WANT to read (okay, I always want to read). My brain is completely immersed in creative mode and there’s nothing to pull it back to reality. There’s literally no one to talk to – if you’d seen me pointing and speaking jilted Japanese to the plumber when I arrived you’d believe me. Add to that the unique peace that overcomes you when get to this place and it just works.
It’s day 5 today and my only concern is that I might get addicted to this writing retreat malarky.
P.S. Husband and kids, I miss you 🙂
Here are a few (Iphone) pictures taken from the upstairs window showing some of Mt. Yotei’s many moods.
For me, creative work is very much an up and down enterprise. It’s one of those careers that requires (often) many years of unpaid work before it takes off, and taking off is not the same thing as earning a liveable wage.
There are parts of writing for a living that make it an easy job.
It’s flexible. You can write at two in the morning, or one in the afternoon because it’s not dictated by so-called normal working hours.
It’s interesting. You get to escape into your thoughts and explore literally any idea that comes to mind. (Watch this space for my future children’s book: “Snails Bums on Toast”.) You get to think creatively, with each new project presenting a completely different set of problems and while there are elements of writing that are tedious drudgery (like any job) much of it is puzzle solving and fun.
On the down side, like many artistic-based endeavours, writing isn’t the biggest money earner in the world and sadly, in our society at least, money equals value. Jobs that earn less money are afforded less respect and given lower priority than those that earn more, and this hierarchy isn’t necessarily a reflection of skill, ability or education—or even how useful they are to the community as a whole.
I’ve been pondering the things that act as road blocks to committing
to writing as a career and have narrowed it down to:
External: societal, economic
Internal: priorities, permissions
I’ve tried to work through them below. This is from my perspective, namely from someone embroiled in the machinations of family life, and I don’t pretend to speak for people whose personal and financial situations are entirely different to mine.
Author work is often secondary to paid and family work:
Without money, at least according to the world and the harsh realities of family life, writing is a hobby. And when do you do hobbies?
When all the other, “valuable” work is done.
This happens because money is often, sadly, equated with value. It is easy to set boundaries, prioritise tasks and say “no” when there is a tangible, corresponding financial result.
When your work doesn’t yield financial benefits, there’s an almost unspoken understanding that writing is a distraction from a real job. Like reading a book or doing yoga. It’s mediation. It’s an indulgence.
The average wage for an author in Australia is $12,900 pa*. I’m not joking. And that isn’t all from book sales. That’s from author talks, and workshops and all the million other little things authors must do justify their existence. And so, for many authors, writing is something that doesn’t get to take centre stage in their lives.
An extension of this is the relative value placed on creative
work. Often people don’t consider writing “work” unless you are being paid.
This fails to recognise the many hours, and years of work that most writers put
in with no remuneration at all.
For many, writers are lucky to have a “hobby” that they love.
There is nothing as infuriating as the patronising notion
that writing is a great way for a mum at home to keep herself busy. As if mum’s
at home need extra things to fill their day.
While writing for a living may appear to be a perfect companion with busy family life because of the nature of its flexibility (location and time,) it is also, at times, a necessarily selfish pursuit. In our imaginations we see a writer locked away in a room, daydreaming and spinning tall tales. What a writer actually does is many hours alone, working. Yep, its work. Yet finding those hours, between the economic, emotional and physical needs (particularly of a family) of a household are often accompanied with guilt. Afterall, it’s not as if you are contributing financially.
It can be difficult to get real permission from others and
from yourself. The kind of permission where they are willing to sacrifice their
time, their productivity or even their income to support the author in their
lives. Getting permission from your family and yourself to treat writing as a
career, whether it ever earns money or not, is constantly deferred by the
elements listed above.
For example, I found out this week I came second in my heat of a short story writing competition. Yay! I was elated. This was justification for my desire—even need—to write. Because, having a PhD, a novella published, a positive manuscript assessment and the possibility of the publication of my novel on the horizon isn’t enough to legitimise my job description. Why? Because I don’t earn any money.
The next day? I discovered how out of touch with the world I am in terms of how well other, often less skilled, professions are paid.
The problem is this: I’m a poor decision maker in a
financial sense. My work in all its forms is universally underpaid:
Veterinarian, Mother, Writer. The skills and education that I value don’t pay
the bills. Bubble burst. Oh, woe is me.
Then optimistic me kicks in again. Pish-posh! I don’t need
money! I’m chasing personal satisfaction. That esoteric dream where I concern
my days with higher thoughts and principals than mere money. I am a writer.
It’s a real job. I can do that. Sort of. Well, not really.
Return of pouty face.
5: Main hustle or side-hustle?
Finding that tipping point where you can justify both the
job title of author, and the time that is needed to make it happen is an
individual and delicate balance.
This is the Catch-22 (thanks Joseph Heller!)
I want to write for a living.
Unknown writers don’t
The best way to get known is to write, write, write.
Don’t give up your day
Treat your writing like a job.
Do it for the love of
I’m hungry. And so on…
There is little I can do about my low earning capacity if I
want to stay in this career. What I would love to see, however, is a shift in
the understanding of what work is. Not just writing, but care-work and other
jobs than are given less respect and less consideration than their higher-paid
counterparts. Equal measure should be given to those fields that contribute to
the larger fabric of our society. Chances are, if you get paid huge sums of
money for your work, you aren’t any smarter or working any harder than those
with less. You are just lucky. You got a lucky break or chanced on a good
As for writers? We all love stories in one form or another.
We love books, TV and film. We voraciously consume the latest book, the newest
TV shows. Those stories are written by someone, and most likely not someone
earning the big bucks, who gave up their main hustle and made the people around
them understand that writing is a job like any other and deserves to be treated
as more than an indulgent hobby.
*This is income derived from working as an author. The
average total income (including from other sources is $62,000 p.a.)
It is nearly March already, which is just the most ridiculous thing. My plans for the year had involved launching myself heart and soul back into this blog in February when my kids were back at school and the dust had settled from too much travel (just kidding, that’s not a thing), Christmas and the long downward spiral of the school holidays. It’s not so much that I’d made a New Year’s Resolution, but I had planned to be back. But, as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and women often go awry, so here we are.
I don’t have a feministy rant to send out to you today. Instead I am pondering the year that is too come, or the next three quarters of the year that is to come. I’m hoping for big things. For myself, but for all of you as well.
For me this year is about stories, writing, family and clawing my back to good physical health. Nothing new there because that is what life is always about for me. There’s no point focusing on any one thing, something else always takes over. Instead I’m going to chip away and snatch pockets of time for doing the things I love.
Starting with this blog again.
So, there you have it. Short and sweet this week, but a commitment nonetheless to the year that is well under way.
P.S. I took the cover photo for this post on my recent trip to Antarctica. This little Gentoo came right up to the crowd of excited tourists and their sea of cameras. She/he was so beautiful, curious and fearless and I think this image captures that. I’m going to try and think of this tiny penguin at the end of the world whenever I talk myself out trying something new in my creative life.