Recipe for a Non-Writing Retreat

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If you find yourself hitting the wall with a writing project, you can’t figure out what comes next in a scene or chapter, or you’re just too dang close to a project to know whether it’s any good or not, try this recipe for a non-writing retreat.

Ingredients

  • Fresh figs
  • Dark chocolate
  • Art supplies
  • Good climbing shoes
  • One large tree

Choose a serene spot with at least one large, accessible tree. I find the most effective is a location with very few, if any, other humans.

Place your brain to the side. (You will need this later when the retreat is over.) Put on your climbing shoes (I like Five-Finger shoes because they give you sticky-monkey-feet, but sneakers are good too. Bare feet work in a pinch).

If there is more than one tree in your chosen location, select the tree that calls to you the most. One way to discern which tree is calling is to approach each tree one by one and place your palms flat against the trunk. When you become aware of your heart, you know you’ve found your tree. Sometimes I feel a strengthened connection between my palms and my heart. All of this may be subtle, so take your time and listen with your whole body.

Once you’ve chosen your tree, proceed to climb it. You don’t have to be a daredevil climber to reap the benefits of tree climbing.  Even sitting on a low branch with your feet swinging a foot above the forest floor will provide you with the core benefit of your non-writing retreat.

For the most effective tree-sitting experience, find a limb or large branch that you can align with your sternum. Gently press your sternum against the branch or limb. One of my favorite ways to do this is to lie belly down along a large horizontal or near-horizontal limb. Alternately, you can align the limb or branch with the “back door to your heart” (this is the spot between your shoulder blades roughly opposite your sternum, or your heart). The gentle pressure vertically along your sternum or between your shoulder blades will allow the grounding energy of the tree to flow into your body, resetting your nervous system. (Note: The author has done no research to back up this statement. Neither is it FDA approved.)

Once you’re in a comfortable position, turn flame to low and simmer. Allow your gaze to settle on various aspects of the natural habitat you now find yourself in. Let your gaze soften and focus inward. Do you feel your energy shifting? What other senses are you aware of? What is the temperature of the air on your skin? Is there a breeze? Do you notice any sounds, textures, or smells? (If you smell tuna casserole, you haven’t gone far enough out into nature.)

As you sit or lie in the tree, you will likely feel your body relax (unless you’re afraid of heights). You may even become drowsy. In this subdued state you may notice creative ideas begin to bubble. Note: If you haven’t been out of the city for a while or you’ve been working particularly long hours, you may need to allow for a preliminary period of thought-slowing before your body begins to relax.

You’ll know you’re done with the tree-lounging portion of your retreat when you’ve got so many creative ideas bubbling up that you can’t sit still any longer or, alternately, when the ants that were streaming along the tree trunk are now streaming through your pants.

Climb down.

I like to thank the tree for the nurturing energy by placing my palms once again flat against the trunk. (If any of this sounds like nonsense to you, by all means skip the nonsensical parts! No reason to do empty rituals. But if you’re open to it, I invite you to suspend disbelief for a moment and at least try it out for yourself. If you’ve followed the recipe so far, there’s no one around to see you do it.) Another powerful touch point is the lips. Gently touch your lips to the bark of the tree and feel the energetic connection to your heart. (There’s a reason kissing is done with the lips!)

Now you can start on the art project you’ve brought along. If you haven’t brought along an art project, take a walk around your selected location and find some natural elements that speak to you—twigs, stones, grasses, whatever appeals to your senses. Now arrange them on the ground or in a tree or bush in a manner that’s pleasing to you.

And don’t forget about the fresh figs and dark chocolate (or whatever sensual foods you prefer). When you eat them, try closing your eyes and really pay attention to the smell and taste of the foods.

Note: Although the point of this retreat is to take a break from writing . . . it may very well trigger some writing ideas. So you might want to bring along a notebook and pen, just in case.

Oh, and don’t forget to gather up your brain before you drive home.Image

The Awe of the Writing Teacher

 

I just returned home from teaching a class (Writing from the Senses: Quieting the Inner Critic). A first night of a new series. And again I find myself in awe. A roomful of (mostly) new people—new to me, new to each other—and everyone dove in with such honesty and vulnerability . . . and so much wisdom.

Every time I teach I lay before my students an invitation. Come ride this wave with me! Dive in and see what you find! And each and every time I am honored, and astounded, to have my invitation accepted. Wow, they’re really gonna do this! They’re going to dive into the depths and return to the surface with such treasures.

I am so blessed to get to witness this process. And so grateful to those willing to engage in it.

The Unplugged Writer: Take a Writing Retreat Day

When life was simpler—before smart phones and Facebook—writers retreated easily from the world to pen their works. Virginia Woolf didn’t have to remember to silence her Beyoncé ringtone or do her daily blog post in order to build her platform. She simply retreated, and wrote. (She did, of course, have to procure a room of her own . . . but that’s for another post.)

I’m not saying that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers didn’t need discipline to get themselves to write. Even these early writers could find a tempting distraction. (Think opium and Henry Miller’s frolicking between the sheets.) But today’s writers have all that and more, the biggest distraction being one click away—the Internet.

A number of years ago, wanting to flee the distractions of the modern world, I tried to find a suitable hideaway for a writing retreat. (I’d done this a few times, and my writing output had been phenomenal.) But the reality of my limited finances at the time kept hitting me in the face. I could not find a hotel or retreat center within my price range, and, it being November, it was too cold to go camping (writing while shivering makes for illegible penmanship). So I asked myself: “What is it about going away that makes my writing so productive?” The answer was this: No one knows where I am. (This was pre-cell phone—at least for me—and pre-Internet-connection away from home.) Simply put: When I went away to write, I was unplugged.

So, I thought, what do I have to do to be unplugged at home?

The following day, I set about answering that question. I bought groceries enough to last me through my retreat (so I didn’t have to talk to people at the store or be bothered with the “chore” of shopping). I changed my outgoing message to let people know I was on writing retreat. (I didn’t mention it was a staycation. Let them think I was out of town!) I unplugged my Internet connection and my television. And I decided that my only obligation each day of my retreat was to write for four hours. Nothing else was mandatory. Think of it . . . I had only four hours out of each 24 where I was obligated to do anything. Thus, my writing retreat was not only productive in terms of literary output but it was also restful, and fun. I took long walks, made paintings and collages, stared out the window, essentially did whatever I was moved to do (outside of my four hours of writing). And because my mind was so free of outside distractions, the ideas that were seeded during my writing hours continued to germinate during my nonwriting hours. (I always took a small notepad and pen on my walks and almost always needed to use them.)

My stay-at-home writing retreat was so wonderful and so productive that I adopted a once-weekly writing retreat day, a tradition I followed for about a year. Every Wednesday evening, I changed my outgoing voicemail to say I would return calls on Friday morning. My extreme discipline with unplugging each and every Thursday delivered extreme productivity, and extreme luxury. I craved the benefits of these retreat days so much that the discipline was not at all challenging. In fact, it didn’t even feel like discipline; it felt downright indulgent.

So, why do I no longer have Unplugged Thursdays in my life? I suppose I feel the weight of more responsibility these days—more editing and writing and coaching to do, more emails to answer, more blogging and posting. . . . I just feel unpluggable. But I have a hunch that this “unpluggability” is, on some level, an illusion. I mean, what would really happen if I didn’t answer the phone or go online for one day? Would the world stop because I haven’t logged in?

I do realize that people who have children or jobs where others’ lives are at stake (e.g., ER doctors or psychiatrists) are not necessarily in the position to unplug for a full day, but even they could arrange to unplug for a morning, or for an hour.

So, my invitation to you is to Just Say No to cyberspace . . . just for the day. Tell your Facebook friends that you have very important business to tend to . . . and then shut down your Internet. Commit to a certain amount of time at your computer or notepad, but be sure to have down time surrounding your writing time. (Muses love down time.) Ask your spouse or roommate to support your need to retreat. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t send any texts. Don’t turn on the television. Let the silence envelope you . . . and see what happens. Then please tell us all about it!

I will surely be joining you soon in the land of the Unplugged.

Writing from Your Body?

 

If you’re a writer, there’s a good likelihood that you’ve spent at least a little time (if not a huge amount of time) procrastinating. Maybe you’ve even experienced “Writer’s Block”—which is kind of like procrastination that has taken up residence, with seemingly no recourse for eviction.

Have you ever wondered why writers are so plagued by procrastination, or why there’s even such a thing as “Writer’s Block”?

Unlike dancers or painters, we writers rely on the verbal centers of the brain to craft our work; this brings us up into our head . . . and the head is where the infamous Inner Critic lives. A lot of writers don’t see the connection between the Inner Critic and their procrastination or their “Writer’s Block,” but as far as I’m concerned, the Inner Critic is the man behind the Writer’s Block curtain; he’s orchestrating the whole show, making you sharpen every last pencil before you can sit down to write (and you haven’t used a pencil in decades; you write at a computer!).

In my experience, writers seem to suffer more severely from procrastination or “Block” than any other kind of artist. We writers just hang out a little too much with our Inner Critic (remember, our Inner Critic lives in our head).

When we’re writing we can’t just turn off our mind entirely; we need those verbal skills to form sentences and paragraphs. But we also need to fly under the Inner Critic’s radar if we’re going to actually get anything out onto the page.

So, how do you stay just enough in the mind to write, but not so much in the mind that the Inner Critic takes over? It’s a delicate balancing act, one where sensory awareness plays an important role.

Many of the writers who come to see me are stuck in their heads, duking it out with their Inner Critic. They don’t realize that all they have to do is duck. . . . down into their bodies. But just inhabiting the body doesn’t work if you do it in a mindless way. You can go kickbox for an hour or run up a mountain. But if you don’t tap into your sensory experience while you’re huffing and puffing, you may not be any closer to your writer’s flow when you come down the mountain.

So, being solely in your mind brings you perilously close to your Inner Critic, and being solely in your body can take you away from accessing your verbal centers. Thus, a secret route to inspired writing is to be in both your mind and your body at the same time. This is worth repeating: A secret route to inspired writing is to be both in your mind and your body at the same time.

But how do you do this? The simple answer is: You watch your body’s experience with your mind. You pay attention to your senses. It’s the sensory experience that is the bridge between inhabiting your body and inhabiting your mind.

So, the next time you feel stuck or find yourself engaged with your Inner Critic, go for a walk . . . and pay attention to your walking. What do you feel as you’re placing one foot in front of the other? What’s your inner experience? Notice the sensations in your feet, your belly, your chest. Pick up a stone and notice its texture. Take in the smell of a flower. Or you could do yoga or take a bath, but watch your sensations with your mind as you do it. And most important, have pen and paper on hand; you never know when the floodgates will open!