Writer in Residence

Retreating from writing

By Alison Wearing

Sometimes our stories practically beg to come to life on the page. Yet despite that begging, that longing, that desire to write, stories almost never just 'come to life' as easily as we might have imagined. For most of us, writing (particularly when we formalize it: now I am sitting down To Write) tends to be a far more challenging process than we'd expected.

When I was trying to write my first book, I felt as if I were wrestling a multi-tentacled beast to the ground. Some days went well and I enjoyed the satisfaction of a good session, one in which a couple of pages actually got written. But I'm a painfully slow writer—500 words is a HUGE day for me—so the ratio of torment to satisfaction was about 100:1. 

On days when the writing just would not come, I would chalk it up to my surroundings, my work, my roommates, the innumerable distractions that were keeping me from being more productive. Increasingly, I fantasized about holing up in a cabin somewhere, getting away from everything, focussing, being able to see it all clearly, figure the whole thing out. I was sure that if only I could be there, I would be able to write more easily.

In the meantime, I plugged away.

Eventually, the dream came true: I got a grant, found a house-sitting arrangement on a lake, took a leave from work, bundled my papers and computer together, and headed off for a 1-month writing retreat. 

One month!

The setting was heavenly, the house gorgeous. I set up my computer with a view of the water and took a deep breath. I'd arrived. Then, for the next four weeks, the book flowed out of me effortlessly, exactly as I'd planned.

Ha! That sentence is so far from the truth, I could barely type it without my fingers seizing up in protest. I could probably write a (bad) book about what happened next, but I’ll spare you that. Main thing is: it was agony. With a lovely view, mind you, and with luxurious amounts of time and space. But the writing itself was just as difficult in a gorgeous setting as it had been in my little office—with double the pressure and none of the release valves.

Almost every time I sat down at my computer, I thought of more pressing things to do, nourishing and inspiring things that would ultimately serve the writing. I began to go for increasingly long walks, devote myself to collecting beach stones, painting said beach stones, placing said painted beach stones in surprising places for the pleasure of passers-by (of which there were nearly none), planning a spiral vegetable garden, planning a labyrinth vegetable garden, learning Arabic.

I also began to watch television, which I hadn't done since I was a teenager, and I’ll date myself by saying that those were the days when there were only twelve channels, you had to manually crank the dial to move from one to the next, and at around 11pm most channels stopped broadcasting and everyone went to bed.

The new world of television nearly blew my brains out. It truly, nearly did. The more I explored the modern black hole of television, the less I seemed to be able to think clearly about whatever it was I was trying to write.

Don't get me wrong: I did write. In fact, I probably wrote a third of the book in those few moments when I was neither walking nor painting nor making garden sketches nor watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie nor practising Arabic script.

So, it wasn't a waste of time. And it did, in the end, what retreats are designed to do: force the focus necessary to get the job done. But it was not the clarifying, easy-breezy writer's retreat I had dreamed of. And many, many writers I have shared this story with have had a laughably similar experience.

Which taught me something that has served me ever since:

Writing happens anywhere, anytime. It’s not that retreats aren’t fabulous or worthwhile. They can be. And for anyone with small children at home, they are a godsend. I’m all for retreats.

But if you have convinced yourself that you need a garret in Paris in order to write the story or book that lives in you, the truth is, the writing part of that experience would still feel the way it does right now. (Actually, it would be even harder, because you would want to be outside, exploring Paris.) So, two things: 1. Writing is birthing, wrenching and life-changing. If writing is difficult, it does not mean you need a new location or are doing it wrong. 2. You can either hone your procrastination skills (I recommend stone painting) or simply accept this moment—this one—as the perfect one in which to write. Because it is. 

Believe me, it is.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, and Moments of Glad Grace. Her online program, Memoir Writing, ink., guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.