On Retreat: Why making time for ourselves as artists looks different for each of us

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Over the course of my 20 years as a working writer, the idea of being “on retreat” has morphed into many different iterations. I’ve attended writers’ retreats chock full of activities like workshops, craft talks, writing prompts, and more–most wherein I’d been a workshop leader or lecturer. I’ve been a writer-in-residence, where I’ve had chunks of writing time peppered with responsibilities like sitting on panels, giving book talks, or speaking with the public or boards of the organizations who’d financed the retreat. I’ve been offered time in friends’ houses, snuck away to empty family homes for a night, or begged to remain behind when my own family ran errands or engaged in activities.

Each one of these iterations of being “on retreat” offered something different, at different stages in my career and in my personal life. For example: as a 29 year-old Writer-in-Residence at the (now, sadly defunct) Montana Artists Refuge, I spent a month alone in a small apartment in a tiny town in the mountains, hiked for hours a day, read to my heart’s content, and wrote whenever I wanted. As a 30-something year-old graduate assistant at a novel writing retreat, I prepared workshop materials, shepherded writer participants, brainstormed with my mentor, and even washed dishes … and I wrote when I could.

Like many working writers who are also parents, and perhaps are at a certain point in our writing journeys, what I’ve needed most over the past decade is simply time, alone, unbothered, to write. That’s it. Just, frankly: leave-me-the-hell-alone-time. Parents don’t get much of that.

This is when writer-friends come in handy. One of mine recently had the opportunity to rent (for a wonderfully

Sunrise on the coast of South Carolina

Sunrise on the coast of South Carolina

workable price) a family friend’s beach home. Four of us writers in total–all writing in different genres, at different points in our writing journeys–spent four days doing what I’d forgotten I’d needed, more that anything else, in addition to writing time. We communed. We talked of our challenges. We discussed industry matters. We shared how we do what we do, from generalities about worklife routines to digging into to the specifics how how we outline, organize, or don’t.

We took walks on the beach, woke with the sun. We shared random snacks around a kitchen peninsula. We had a good meal out. We went to our corners and did what each of us needed, on a very individual basis, to do most. For some of us it was revising, for others plotting new work, or testing out new pages; for others it was creating necessary blog posts or character sketches.

With fellow writers and friends Gina Heron, Heather Bell Adams, and Terry Lynn Thomas in Garden City, S.C.

With fellow writers and friends Gina Heron, Heather Bell Adams, and Terry Lynn Thomas in Garden City, S.C.

What I’d been missing–what I’d not realized I’d been craving in my I’d-never-change-it-for-the-world-but-it’s-not-writing life as a parent and wife–was simply remembering that, yes: I am a writer. This is what I do.

Sounds simple, right? But I feel confident the writers who are also parents of children (young or otherwise) are nodding along. Being a writer-artist is to invest in the long game and in yourself. Because unless you do it, no one will do it for you. And unless your spouse or partner or significant other or best friend is also an artist, it’s nearly impossible for them to get–truly get–how necessary retreat time is for your art.

On the way home from my 8 year-old’s soccer game yesterday, we passed an art supply shop whose name is “The Starving Artist.” “What’s a ‘starving artist’?” my daughter asked. Her dad tried to explain. He did a pretty good job. And while I wanted to laugh and answer (not half-jokingly) with, “It’s your mama,” what I did instead was to try to explain that artists of all stripes–dancers, singers, visual artists, writers, and more–often do work which isn’t rewarded in any sort of traditional sense … work which may take years to see any sort of traditional fruition, like, say, money.

I don’t know if she got it. She’s pretty darned insightful, but she’s 8. She knows Mama sometimes ignores everyone while she sits at her computer in the middle of the house, and that Daddy (who’s generally heroically wonderful about the time she needs) sometimes gets annoyed when her mama blocks out the world, forgets what she’s been told, or doesn’t do something he thinks she needs to. She knows her mama wrote a book a long time ago, and that she’s been trying to write another one for a very long time. She knows her mama likes to read.

It’s got to be weird, to be the children of a writer. I know it’s often frustrating to be the spouse of one. But here’s what

Sunrise on the beach (and so very happy)

Sunrise on the beach (and so very happy)

I know my kids know: After four days on retreat at the beach, their mama came home absolutely jacked up on the art she loves–the art she was meant to be doing. That she didn’t clean or cook much or do what she was “supposed to” the week after she got home, because she was still flying high from her retreat.

If you want to support the arts, offer an artist in your life a getaway, even if it’s just to use an empty room in your house for a few hours. To that artist, it’ll feel like a gift. And if you’re an artist, I hope you claim time for your art.

What we need as writers can seem odd to others, and that’s okay. But don’t ever forget that retreat–whatever it looks like for you–is part of the long game of being a working (or on your way to being a working) artist.

 

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