When a retreat isn’t quite as planned
July was busy with friends and family visting and lots of other good things. There were also some less than good things. This summer two friends have faced big health crises with ongoing ramifications. As well as being shocking and scary, that two lives were changed so suddenly is a vivid reminder to me that life is to be enjoyed now, not tomorrow.
With this in mind, August is continuing a theme: busy and hot. It’s more than that, it’s too busy and too hot. With not much time to write. Which causes frustration. So that is about to change. I am reorganising my priorities. I am reminding myself that I can do that. Nothing stops me deciding how I spend my time. I’ve worked hard to get to a position where this is the case. But I’ve temporarily lost the balance and need to regain it. Priorities, priorities. There are some valid reasons for my lack of writing time, but largely it’s down to me and not setting boundaries. They are usually pretty well shored up, but some have slipped in recent weeks.
A while back I enrolled on an online three week Summer Writers Retreat with Guardian Masterclasses. It’s happening now. So every day, for three weeks, I should be taking part in creative writing workshops and talks. Gaining inspiration and encouragement from others, sharing and nurturing an enthusiasm for the written word. For creating worlds from our imaginations. I don’t write much that’s not factual, but I tinker with fiction, enjoying the fun of it. I fancied doing more this month.
When I signed up ages ago I had planned to devote the whole of three weeks to it. To immerse myself in writing. To remove distractions and use the retreat’s timetable to structure my time for three creative, inspiring weeks. I had things organised with Schnauzerfest, a big swallower of my time and in truth, an obsession. It’s Susie-Belle’s legacy after all. It’s a fantastically positive – and huge – part of my life, but I know it can tick along without twenty four hour attention. I was going to let it do just that for three weeks.
The team would be just fine, with me checking in and doing a few hours as needed. I was going to put an ‘out of office’ on my virtual door and disappear and write. I live in France after all, and August is a time when it’s normal for normal life to shut down. Nobody expects much to happen in August. Over the years I’ve become accustomed to it and this was the year I was going to embrace it myself. I was vanishing, retreating and writing and indulging my creativity. Letting Schnauzerfest breathe and thrive without me, just for a while.
That was the plan.
Best laid and all that.
Plans are there to be changed, right?
I am doing the Writers Retreat. But not as I had planned to. When I booked it, one of the appeals was that much of it would be available as catch-up recordings. I probably knew I wouldn’t really manage to retreat. But my intentions were honest when signing up. I hoped to do the workshops in real time. With the technology the pandemic has brought to more of us, to engage live with other participants. The line up of speakers and tutors is impressive, many are award winning writers, all are great in their different ways. So now, at the end of the second week I’ve managed to attend precisely one live event. The rest I’ve relied on catch-up recordings for, starting my days early and ending late to get through them.
There are some inescapable factors which have contributed to my retreat not being quite a retreat. But I was over optimistic about my self-discipline when I thought I’d do three weeks of writing and not a lot else. The only time I’ve managed that was seventeen years ago. I was writing a technical book and I was running up to the publisher’s deadline with a huge amount still to do. My co-author was nowhere close to delivering what she had agreed to do, leaving me to grasp the nettle and take on more. I was working flat out at the time, running my own business and teaching college students as well as writing a ground breaking book. It’s still in print and about to come out in Portuguese so the effort was worthwhile in a part of my life which now seems far away.
I only managed to meet that deadline by coming here to our house in France which at the time we used for holidays. I came alone, sat myself on a hard, uncomfortable chair at the kitchen table, and wrote. Day after day of writing. Nothing else. There was no internet here at the time, which meant no sitting on social media procrastinating. I had no TV, no Michel and no dogs with me. Nothing but me and the book to focus on. I didn’t leave the house for three weeks apart from stretching my legs from time to time with a walk up the lane. I didn’t go shopping, I relied on the freezer and tins of food and a neighbour brought me fresh bread and eggs.
It was an exhausting three weeks but I did it. I completed the manuscript and said never again. Never would I commit to writing something which became a burden. Never would I work with a co-author again. Writing is hard. But hard doesn’t mean not enjoyable, it’s all about keeping the creative joy at the forefront while working out the knotty bits and getting the words onto the screen. It’s time consuming. And requires strong self-discipline and it is that which has been lacking recently as I’ve allowed other things to take over.
Events like the Writers Retreat reinforce my love for writing. Now I just need to put back in place a healthier balance of how my time gets used. Yesterday finished an intense week, a lot of which was spent with a friend and I nose down working on something that’s needed doing. And we did. So that’s it.
Next week is the last of the retreat and I will attend the live sessions. At least many of them.
The balance is back in sight.