My friend Sandra, mentrix in all things writerly, is a great proponent of writing retreats. She spent six weeks at Yaddo, and has just started a month at Studios of Key West, where she has solitary time and space to dig deep and bring forth wonderful work. click These are both coveted creative retreats, complete with fellowships that provide rent and more. But when Sandra doesn’t have a fellowship, she sometimes hauls herself off alone to a state park or a Cedar Key motel to burrow into her work.
I have always thought these self-made retreats were a wonderful idea, but until recently I didn’t feel free to abandon Joe for a week on his own with Amanda. Now that she is fairly self-regulating and insists she has no need of us except as chauffeurs and food sources, I have gained a lot of freedom. But I still had to figure out where to go.
Cedar Key doesn’t appeal to me for more than a day - surely somewhere there is shade in Cedar Key, but I’ve never seen it. My friend Sue has a cabin at Murder Creek in the Oconee National Forest in Georgia, but it’s a six-hour drive, and maybe a little too isolated. click The prospect of being completely alone with my thoughts and the blank page, nothing but woods around me, was daunting.
Then another friend, Mary Anne, told me of the Cross Creek Lodge, across from the Yearling Restaurant, and a mile up the road from the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings homestead, where Mary Anne is a docent. It’s a tiny motel right on Cross Creek, owned for several generations by the Palmeter family, and mostly used by bass fishermen. The price was $65 a night. And when I called to reserve a room, Gary Palmeter told me that Harry Crews used to come there to write. I would be surrounded by writer ghosts.
When my dream publishing house rejected my first novel last fall, the publisher generously gave me a long and insightful critique. Since my second novel is currently on submission, and my fourth novel, my work in progress for the last eight years, was comatose, I decided to take novel #1 to Cross Creek to begin my revisions.
In the weeks before my retreat I was very excited and very scared. Getting away from daily life and troubles is always appealing. The lodge had no Wifi and very limited TV, excellent conditions for creativity. But what if I holed up in Cross Creek and didn’t do anything but watch TV and eat cookies? What if I got scared of the solitude and spent my days driving the back roads, goofing around in the antique stores in Micanopy? What if my four days weren’t PRODUCTIVE? click I had the solid reassurance of an already thoroughly polished manuscript, and useful ideas for revisions. But my doubts were almost as high as my hopes.
I made my packing list. Clothes: mostly muumuus. Gear: notebook, laptop, and flash drive. Entertainment: Jane Gardam on my Kindle, sheet music and voice warm-ups, and a hat in progress in my crochet bag. Food: Cheeses, bread, salad greens, salad dressing, tomatoes and fruit. A half a bottle of single malt in memory of my brother Dickie. click
I was elated as I drove the green and sunny road to Cross Creek. The Lodge was just over the bridge. There were eight cinder block motel units attached to a block house, and several mobile homes around the property where family members live. I was greeted by one large black dog, very friendly, and one tiny dog, very fierce. I knocked on the Palmeter’s door, and was welcomed warmly by Glory and Randy, who gave me the key, and told me to knock anytime if I needed anything.
The room was simple: a bed, small kitchen table, a kitchen sink, microwave and mini-fridge, a few dishes, salt, pepper, condiments, tea and coffee, a rocking chair and TV, a bathroom with a shower. I unpacked all my things and made the room my home.
I’m an early-morning writer, so my only ambition for the first day was to read over the publisher’s critique and let it percolate overnight. I went for an hour’s walk, and then took a glass of single malt out to the concrete deck overlooking the Creek. I sat in a grimy Adirondack chair sipping my whiskey, thinking of Dickie, who would have blessed this enterprise, and of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Harry Crews, both of them more experienced writers (and drinkers) than I.
It was late afternoon and I faced west, the sun just above the trees, the mosquitoes not yet active. Cypress trees and cypress knees, a squat palm tree with its spiky trunk. Butterflies, dragonflies, a lizard threatening me with his bulging red neck. Four men in two small boats with trolling motors. They smiled and waved; I lifted my glass. The creek swelled and rolled in the wake, and then was still, dark tannic water mirroring the leaning cypress. Peepers and croakers and birds sang for sunset. I heard the splash of mullet jumping, but always looked too late to see anything but the spreading rings in the water.
I ate my supper in front of The News Hour, read for awhile, and went to sleep early. I always sleep long and soundly when I’m away from home, so I didn’t wake till 6 on Thursday. I tried drinking my coffee on the deck, but it was mosquito prime time, and I fled. I settled down at the kitchen table and worked a solid five hours, going through the manuscript and making a to do list, ideas hatching and flying around.
It was about the same each of the three days - work, lunch, a long walk, a nap, dinner, some reading, some crocheting, early to bed. One night I had dinner at the Yearling, where the best food is fried. I ate in the bar, reading some Jane Gardam, thinking about not much, listening to the middle-aged local crowd tease and gossip. Friday I went into Gainesville for my singing lesson, bought bandaids and bug spray, and picked up a pulled pork dinner at Pearl’s in Micanopy, which sufficed for Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Saturday night I celebrated with a bloody Mary and fried green tomatoes at The Yearling.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (AND GATOR TAIL)
At home I do well to work for two hours straight. I wrote novels #1 and #2 in forty-five minute bits each morning. Now I had worked five steady hours for three days, and put in three hours before I checked out Sunday morning. And the magic of retreat continued - I finished all the revising and new writing in about two weeks at home. The new draft is resting until I have sufficiently forgotten it to read it fresh. Meanwhile...
I puttered around with blog work and some other things. Then my friend Nancy told me about a cabin on Lake Swan, outside Melrose, that was only $39 a night. Novel #4, which has three 100-page beginnings going in three different directions, was calling. I love this novel, connected as it is to my mother, but it’s been a real challenge. So five weeks after I returned from Cross Creek I was off to Lake Swan.
This retreat was much like the previous one. I had a larger room with big ceiling fans, a DVD player instead of a TV. There was a lovely shallow lake to swim in after I finished work. I had a bottle of icy cold, really bad white wine instead of the single malt, and I could sit with a glass and watch the sunset over the lake. Melrose was two miles away. I had gloppy Italian food at Betty’s Pizza, and excellent meatloaf with mashed potatoes at the Melrose Café. The art galleries were closed till the weekend, but I went into a junk shop and bought two fifty cent books.
Despite the success of my first retreat, I was even more scared this time. It’s one thing to revise an existing manuscript, with all sorts of material ready to inspire you. It’s another to stare into the void, to write from nothing. But I knew which version of the fourth novel I was going to go with, and I had a file with one-sentence sketches for the next few chapters. So I dove in.
I wrote four or five hours each of the next three days and by the time I was done had written almost forty pages. This time I was absolutely exhausted; new creation really takes it out of you. But again the momentum continued when I returned home - I’ve written almost every day, sixteen pages in two weeks. As soon as I finish this blog post, I’ll be back at it.
In these two retreats I began to practice the persistence I’ve tried to master for many years: moving on through the dead spots, writing even as my thoughts seem to spin and go nowhere. I have high hopes for finishing the fourth novel. It’s very exciting, because I have only the dimmest ideas of what I will see along the road to the end. There are few states more miserable than living with a dead novel, few more exhilarating than working on one that has come alive again.
I am very lucky to have Joe, who enthusiastically supports my writing, and is happy to handle the home front while I run away. When I returned from Lake Swan he said, “You might want to do this twice a year.” I haven’t told him yet that I’m thinking of every three months.
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