We tell ourselves stories in order to live. -Joan Didion
Earlier this month I attended my very first writing retreat. I am fairly certain I would never have started writing had I not become sick. Though I’ve been an avid reader since I was a young child (you couldn’t tear me away from my books for anything), I never once thought of myself as a writer. I can count on one hand the number of journals I’ve kept over the years. I majored in French and Art History, not English Literature or Creative Writing. I was a singer, a flute player, a mediocre visual artist. Never a writer. But after being sick for a few years I was desperate for an outlet, a way to connect to the wider world while stuck in bed, and my blog was born.
Initially I simply wanted a way to process and share my experiences. And it has been incredibly therapeutic. But I soon realized that I enjoyed the craft of writing itself: creating stories from my struggles, choosing my words, shaping my sentences.
Harlan noticed how much life and energy writing provided me and encouraged me to take it more seriously, particularly as it’s something I can do whether I feel well or not. When I left my job in September I had more time to devote to it, and knew that it would likely give me a sense of purpose and a way to move forward with my life.
So I signed up for a 3-day personal essay workshop in the Santa Cruz mountains with the writer Dani Shapiro. Never having been to a writing retreat I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hoped Dani would be a good teacher. I hoped I would be inspired. I hoped I would take some risks. Most of all, I hoped that by the time I returned home I would somehow feel like a writer.
Out of 102 attendees in the auditorium the first evening, 100 were women. Was there significance to the vast majority being female? Is there something about memoir writing that speaks more to women than men? Are we more drawn to personal introspection and excavation? Would more men have shown up had the teaching author been male? Meaningful or not, it was comforting to be surrounded by that many women. It felt like being in the womb.
We began the workshop by creating a giant word cloud of what each of us was feeling. When it was my turn the word I added to the butcher paper was INSECURE. A stream of unhelpful thoughts ran through my head: “What am I doing here? Why had I thought this was a good idea? I’m not a real writer. I’m (just?) a blogger. Everyone is going to see that I’m a fraud.”
But Dani quickly put me, and I’m sure many others in that room, at ease. She told us that all writers (aspiring or published many times over) must give themselves permission to be writers every time they sit down to write, should never allow their inner censor to get the better of them, and do well when they focus on courage over confidence. After introducing us to a few writing exercises designed to get our creative juices flowing she sent us back to our somewhat monastic rooms to write or read before bed.
The following day we ran through a few of the writing exercises, did a sitting meditation, and listened to several inspiring poems and essays before being set loose on the page. When given the first writing prompt I was delighted (and not a little relieved) to find that words poured from my brain in a waterfall, gathering speed and tumbling onto the pages of my notebook. My cramping hand could barely keep up. It was exhilarating to discover what lay just beneath the surface of my mind. Twenty minutes went by in a frenzied blur, and the story that I wrote was braver and more revealing than I had expected, something I had not until that very moment had the courage to write. I felt liberated. Afterward, in small groups, we read our pieces aloud, and I was struck by the raw honesty and vulnerability of each writer.
By the end of the weekend I was completely hooked. I had gained clarity about the ways in which writing fills my soul and how necessary it has become for my well-being. I wanted to remain at that retreat center under the redwoods forever. In the absence of that option I have decided to create my own little writing retreat, at home, on my comfortable blue couch, and dedicate a few sacred hours each day to this pursuit.
It’s strange to be thankful for my illness. But it has brought creativity back into my life, and for that I am grateful.