The world is always an elaborate feast for a writer, but sometimes it helps to be ravenous enough to devour it.
Scene One: Pennsylvania in August
I get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike as the GPS directs, and within five minutes, I’m driving among massive old trees, into the campus of Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center that’s open to anyone needing a place to stay. Make no mistake: outside Philly in August it’s every bit as sultry as you’d imagine a Southern or Gulf Coast town would be. The graceful old trees do what they can to shelter and cool the creatures below, but by late afternoon, the steam-heat has penetrated everything. Porting my luggage from the car to my room, I’m dripping.
The place turns out to be homey, scaled to the human. My room is in a building resembling an old dormitory or motel. It is not at all luxurious, but it has a desk, two chairs, a single bed, a sink, and — thank goodness — a window-unit air conditioner. The bathrooms are shared but private, not dorm-style. The price of the room includes breakfast served in a humble dining room — homemade bread, yogurt, and granola. It’s simple and good. They serve both lunch and dinner for a reasonable extra cost. Everything seems arranged to allow a resident’s focus to remain on whatever they’ve come here to do. Some are here for spiritual reasons; some treat this like a B & B on their way to another destination. I’m somewhere in between.
Step One: Planning
All you really need is a space where you can work without responsibility or obligation occupying your time and mind. This could happen in a place like Pendle Hill, designed to provide basic needs and impose nothing else. It could happen in a friend’s or relative’s mountain-house or mother-in-law apartment, or a place that needs a house-sitter. Or it could happen in a hotel or motel, even one very near where you live. Of course, it goes without saying that you need to have the time and money, but with a little finagling, you can keep it cheap. Use credit card points; call in favors. Be willing to subsist on food like oatmeal, bananas, bagels, and peanut butter. If you’re traveling somewhere for other reasons, try tacking an extra day or two onto the trip. If you’re driving, search along the route for retreats, camps, conference centers, monasteries, convents, private rentals. Chances are, you can find something affordable and suitable, and it will give you a novel experience to boot.
Scene Two: the windfall of silence
The dining room open for breakfast, I poke my head in. A staff person directs me to the morning’s offerings and returns to his smart-phone. The tables are empty except for two people, whose conversation I overhear as I’m getting my food. They seem to be strangers getting acquainted, or maybe they feel obligated to talk since they’re the only two people there. I get the idea that the man, a probably 60-something white man, is what I think of as “a talker,” one of those dudes who will introduce himself and then hold forth for as long as you’ll let him. I derive this by observing that he’s doing most of the talking, while the middle-aged white woman he’s talking to manages short, punctuating comments. The whole time I’m fiddling with toast and coffee, I strategize. I don’t want to join them. I don’t want The Talker to try to engage me after his acquaintance leaves. It’s not that I’m antisocial. I’ve just spent a week at a writers’ conference, reveling in good conversation. Now, I’m trying to process the experience, and I’m not looking to make chit-chat.
Reading the information about Pendle Hill, I had seen something about silence (not surprising for a Quaker place) — what was it? A sign on one of the tables reminds me: residents (in the lingo of the place, I’m a “sojourner,” here for a short stay) can sit at the designated “Quiet Table” if they wish to eat meals in silence. I take my tray and settle into quiet, writing in my journal between bites. Plenty of religious sects embrace the value of silence, but the Quaker regard for silence as a fertile and receptive state of openness seems particularly suited to writing. Admittedly, I’m using the Quiet Table to get out of an unwanted conversation, but I’m also thinking, observing. And writing.
Step Two: Being There
- Take whatever you like to write with. I’m a big fan of notebooks and pens that I enjoy writing with, an assortment that I can play with to appeal to the sensual dimension of writing. Maybe I like the feel of the ball-point today; tomorrow, the look of the heavy line of the felt-tip makes me want to fill the page.
- Take inspiration and comfort. Don’t try to take a stack of books that you think you’ll want to consult. Don’t even take an e-reader, although that seems like a good idea, having a library in a tiny package. Just take two books: one that you know well and love dearly and wish you had written yourself; one that is new to you and strange to you, that in some way or other, you can’t imagine being able to write. They’ll be enough.
- If you like, take a book of writing prompts, or find some on the internet. Prompts, no matter how schoolish and perhaps silly they might sound, can be fun and they often work. Sometimes improbably. You can DIY your own prompts, too, using your two books: try imitating a passage using your own details. Stick a finger in, pick a page and a line, and write something using that language. Make up some rules, then follow them.
All attempts are worthwhile. Don’t delete or throw away anything until long after your retreat.
Scene Three: not-writing is also writing
I decided to drive to a writers’ conference to save a little money. But the trip was long, and I couldn’t face doing it all at once. Each direction, I figured, I’d need to stop overnight. From there, it was a small step to add a couple of days of rest and writing-time to my trip home. That’s what landed me here.
After my silent breakfast, I can feel my still-stiff back complaining about the previous day’s long drive. Though the Philadelphia area is under an Excessive Heat Warning, morning is just cool enough, just shady enough for walking. A paved bike path leads from the campus along the Turnpike and into thick, unkempt woods for a few miles, still hugging the highway closely enough that the sound of traffic is unrelenting. A couple of times, I have to cross a street at crosswalks whose paint is nearly worn away. It is not the most beautiful walk I’ve ever taken. But there are birds abundant, robins and flickers, goldfinches and catbirds, and like the cars on the other side of the fences and walls that edge the path, they have not gotten the memo about silence. There’s no Quiet Table out here. It’s all squawking and mewling, as if these bird-characters were making a bid to get into whatever I end up writing. They’ve won, as you can see. Meanwhile, the cicadas are in full chorale, inescapable outdoors or in-. A dead carapace here and there tells me their opera will soon end.
The humidity is so intense that a relatively cool and easy walk leaves me sweating and tired. But the Romantic poets, who famously walked miles and miles together, talking poetry and, by their accounts, composing it, weren’t just blowing smoke. There’s something about the rhythm and speed of walking that wakes up the mind. Get a pace going, look around at the landscape, whether it’s chatty birds in grand old trees or the formidable architecture of overpasses, and often, the voice in my head releases like water over a spillway. It’s as if my body, tended to with its breakfast and its coffee and its exercise, returns the favor to my mind, then patiently endures its necessary stillness while my mind eagerly spends the hottest part of the day playing with words.
Step Three: be good to yourself
- The most important thing, probably, is not to shut yourself down.
- Even thinking is worthwhile, and so is reading.
- Take time for meals.
- Take breaks — run, walk, stretch, nap, read, shower, swim, go get an ice cream, check Instagram, have a glass of wine. Whatever is a break for you, do it. Let it recharge you.
- On the other hand, if you’ve managed to be alone and relieved of your usual responsibilities, and you happen to get into the zone, you have the luxury of NOT taking a break. Sometimes that’s liberating, too. Do that. Keep going even though your stomach is growling, even though your usual bedtime has long since come and gone. The unusual is what you’re here for.
- Revel in the solitude, the communion with your own thoughts.
- On the other hand, if you want to sit with a stranger in the dining room, if you’re the “Talker” who wants to chat about your project, by all means, do that. Not everyone is the forest-creature I am, scurrying away to shelter in the underbrush, or freezing in hopes that the big animals won’t see me. If your solitude needs punctuation, find some. You do you.
Scene Four: this is how you’ll know me
- I’ll be the peculiar one at the table in the back corner, her plate and utensils arranged just so, a notebook open by her right hand, eating, writing, eating, writing.
- I’ll be the one who scurries back to her room quickly, who says “good morning” in passing but it comes out the croak or whisper of an unused voice, awkward.
- I’ll be the one who’s picked the corner of the couch in the library, notebook on a pillow on my lap. I’m looking out the window, as if transfixed by something out there, maybe recording it. You look. Nothing. Is she okay? you might wonder.
- Don’t worry. What I’m seeing is all in my head.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.