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Getting close by retreating

Sometimes we have to depart to really arrive... (chew on that one in front of the fire)

I was jealous when I heard someone saying they were heading off with six writer friends for a self-made retreat, complete with an internet moratorium and shared cooking duties. I know from experience that, for whatever reason, these arrangements allow writers to be what they wish they were year-round: productive, balanced, sane, and absurdly happy. (They might even do a jig.)

It makes a certain kind of sense, I suppose, that retreating from your life gets you closer to your work–when you’re a writer. (And probably when you’re any number of other, more practical things as well.) I thought of this not only because I heard from Karen P. that re-entry from MacDowell was tough, but also because every year, we get a week in Grand Lake during which time I tend to write more than I’ve written in the months leading up to that week–even though I teach when I’m there, and have Julie McCoy-like social director duties. (Okay, “duties” makes it sound like it’s not exactly what I love to do–socialize with writers–which is incorrect. I love it.)

My pal Jenny and I have organized our own getaways–once to Mexico, once to Aspen–just to focus on writing, and I always think I’m going to take my new habits back to the “real world.”  But it never works like that. It always feels like too much of the noise of the world intrudes. I think Wordsworth said it best a couple hundred years ago: “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

Aaugh! I don’t want to give my heart away, but I know I go through phases. That’s why I always love hearing about how people get it back. By all accounts, writers who went to Fairplay last month were able to get it back. In addition to Tiffany T’s awesome writeup, we got this missive from Brian Sheehan, and it gave me the feeling of virtual retreat:

People used to come here only for the gold.

Crossing the mountains, settlers rocked themselves weary in wagons, without luxury of asphalt; I rolled with Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ cranked full bore in my SUV.  Where horses and burros hauled human cargo burdened in dreams, I had butterflies.  I headed southwest to Fairplay for the Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop retreat on book-length works, a memoir cinched tight across my heart.  So the oncoming fuel tanker rumbling northbound 285 on a narrow two-lane curve at dusk was not the only force elevating my heart rate.  

I wondered about the writers who would be there, if I would fit in, what others might think – not unlike the rest of my life – but also if I brought the right whisky, since I heard there might be wine.

Power lines drenched in platinum drew my focus above the road.  In skies over Fairplay, two clouds formed the shapes of an inkwell and a quill.  I blinked, like studying a page ripped from history, written in a language called sunset, making sure to understand.  A compass for a destination where I hoped I might belong.  Crunching gravel quieted the tires outside the inn dusted with western charm.  My hunch to grab a bottle of frontier bourbon sparked an impish grin, ringing open the sleigh-belled door of the historic Hand Hotel.

Risk became the theme of the evening.  We introduced ourselves with one-sentence blurbs that summarized, or perhaps surmised, the content of our manuscripts, — in a manner so as not to embarrass ourselves in the presence of strangers, or the two highly credentialed and accomplished authors and the marvelously astute former literary agent-turned-editor; all of whom sat directly to my right peering at me to go first —  unaware my awkward construction might morph into some kind of run-on, almost paragraph, or something. 

Yet this was the frontier I had chosen to explore.  So my sentence was fine maybe.  A bit guarded.  Coy.  Fragmented, even.  But then, only wine bottles graced the table.  The distilled spirits were hidden on a closet shelf upstairs, tucked safe in my haunted room. 

Rooms with names like China Mary, Grandma Hand, and Silverheels have to be haunted.  My daughter Megan told me, if I saw any ghosts, to say, “Hello. I can be your friend.”  And it would be okay, just like Casper.  Allegedly a little boy and dog were in the cellar.  And Grandma Hand disliked guests putting things onto her rocking chair.  And Silverheels, the dance hall girl-turned-nurse to smallpox-ridden miners, she was never seen again.

“My room is Silverheels,”  I said on the phone to my wife.

 “Oh yeah, Silverheels.  How funny.”

 “Funny?” 

 “Yeah. That saloon girl with the dying miners. That’s one Hannah wants to write.”

 Soon writers would read their first five-hundred words.  I dwelled on the legend of Silverheels, the spell cast upon my youngest daughter-now-English-major with dreams of a writer, and the randomness of connection.

 Finding myself in nuances of other writers’ characters, stirring familiar settings, similar yet divergent circumstances, fictitious internal dialogue ringing true in mind; I got it.  I knew I had arrived, and more so, that I belonged.  And, I didn’t need the whiskey but it was nice to have along.

From the real to the imagined, normal to paranormal, tragic and redemptive, all coincidence pales in this fellowship of story, found in circles we all land within, along paths crossed in a sliver moment’s time, with people we do not know, yet with whom we hold so much in mind.

In workshops, I could have jumped in quicker, feeling a twinge annoyed when someone else did first; only then to learn more about my voice through voices of others.  So I began to listen for the cadence of how the universe speaks, no matter how you name it. With such immeasurably committed writers, I tried not to consider the odds against us.  Meaning ran deeper than the imprint of a book.  The imprint that matters is the one we create, lasting as something no one can yank from the shelves.

An infinite palette presents itself in the simplest of ways; for me in wisps of clouds invoking inkwells and writing quills, painted for a moment across the sky, fleetingly layered in gold — then gone.

That’s what people came to Fairplay seeking.  I’m believing there’s so much more.

Thank you, Denver Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

Thanks right back atcha, Brian!  And what do you say you make your own retreat in 2011, or join us on one of ours?

 

3 comments on “Getting close by retreating

  1. mjhenry
    January 3, 2011

    I am sooo ready to retreat, which means advance!

    (Not monetary advance, though I’d never sniff at such–I mean advancing one’s life as a writer, one’s career, one’s knowledge base, etc.)

    Thanks, A.E. Dupree, as always, for your insight, humor, and all-around smarts.

  2. mjhenry
    January 3, 2011

    And–AND–kudos to Brian Sheehan, for his smartness, writing skills, et al.

  3. Brian Sheehan
    January 25, 2011

    Hey guys! I am only now catching up and seeing this. Thanks! Last six weeks have been such a blur. Hopefully see you soon! Love the idea of the self-imposed retreat. I could use a month or six. Would you be able to talk to my boss about that?

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This entry was posted on December 29, 2010 by in Cool Events, The Write Idea, Writing.

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