Friday, April 5, 2019


I began my last post by noting how brutal February had been; can I begin this one the same way?  I have been struggling with my writing for a handful of reasons, winter being only one of these.  The need for naps being another.  Lack of confidence a third.  So, inspired by Shawna Lemay, who wrote in one of her lovely blogs about living simply, I decided to organize my own artist's retreat.  I could, of course, have gone to St. Peter's College, where the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild organizes a winter retreat.  And I have often thrived on retreats, partly because the monastic rooms you are given focus your mind, partly because someone else takes care of everything, particularly meals.  My first retreat was at Emma Lake, where the inimitable Anne Pennylegion, the scenery, the wonderful food, and the visual artists who had joined us, created a magical space and context for writing.  My second was at the Banff Centre, where, because I was free to go in the fall, I had a cabin in the woods all to myself--complete with grand piano.  I hadn't expected the piano, but the Banff Centre has a wonderful library, and I was able to take out the music I was working on at the time.  And then there are the sublime mountains, about which I can say nothing original.

My third retreat was at St. Peter's, where Anne was once again in attendance, bringing with her the little net-covered gazebo where we often met at the end of the day.  But St. Peter's, for me, had a significant downside:  the food.  As Virginia Woolf has famously observed, "The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk.  One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."  A good breakfast is also of importance to good writing:  beginning a day on disspiriting....well, enough said.   As well, there is no husband who wants to read what I'd written at the end of my day, and there are no cats.  (Lyra has just curled up on the ironing board with his shoulder next to the computer.)  I go on retreats for two reasons.  One is the kind of focus that comes from taking myself seriously as a writer while I let other people take care of practical details.  The other is for conversation with people who know something about the demons I battle.

So, inspired by Shawna, I began planning a home retreat, dealing with logistics first.  My PLR cheque had come, and I wasn't going to use it for gas (this was a "green" retreat) or food and lodging.  But I could use it to go to a small business in Regina called Wallnuts (I couldn't resist the name!), where they sell frozen meals they've made themselves--all of which have home-grown herbs in them.  Bill and I could also go out for dinner occasionally, courtesy PLR.  Bill and I usually do our dishes by hand because we use less water that way, but PLR would also run the dishwasher, and I'd have more energy for reading in the evening.

Logistics taken care of, I had to think about rules.  When I am on retreat, I do not listen to the news.  I do not check Facebook.  I open a browser only for information.  When I'm on retreat, I do not run errands or pay bills.  (Damn!  I couldn't dodge needing to clean the litter every day.)  I always have music; when I was at Emma Lake and the Banff Centre, I took my guitar.  And I always have something for my hands to do, some knitting, or some hand quilting or piecing because sometimes I need to feel like I am solving one problem (how am I going to get these Y-seams to meet) while I'm really solving another (why is my character misbehaving?  I've started this poem all wrong, and now I can't turn it around and it's a disaster.  Can't I find another opening onto the material?)  To the left you see some flowers I'm making out of traditional blocks for a garden quilt I'm planning.  The Y-seams all meet.

Really, it was the rules (and the frozen dinners) that made those two weeks a retreat.  It was the decision to be disciplined and focused and to do what was best for my writing and my psyche.  And some of those rules have stayed in my life.  I'm on Facebook less, which is probably going to be a problem in the long run as I lose track of all you wonderful people, but really, this novel is not behaving and I need to FOCUS.  I keep up with far less news, which right now is a good thing, right?  I have never seen train wrecks happen so slowly--whether we're talking about SNC-Lavalin or the Mueller report--and it doesn't need my attention.  I also learned, because I tried to push myself too hard, that I need to have time each day to "play" with fabric or yarn.  There's a connection between textiles and my subconscious--or between my brain and my  hands--that I shouldn't question but should just give in to.  Knitting a few rows or appliquing a few leaves isn't "wasted time."
I also learned to trust my creative process.  Sometimes I would look askance at my plans for spending three hours reading The Globe and Mail, but I'd do it, and whaddaya know?  I was right:  I needed to find the right context for this scene.  I listened to Dianne Warren, who told us at a Saskatchewan Writers' Guild workshop that we didn't need to write a novel chronologically, and pulled out a single strand of my plot to focus on.  I should just find ways to take my work--not myself, but my work--seriously.  And I remembered that my "Just be curious" mantra applies to my creative life.  It applies, above all, to other people and to my creative life.

Conversations about the creative life?  I managed to time my retreat to begin a few days before my poetry group met, and as usual Troni, Melanie, and Medrie were wonderful companions for a walk through the meadows made of our desire to create art.  A few days later, dee Hobsbawn-Smith came down to Regina for two workshops at the Guild, and stayed overnight.  We jammed an awful lot of talk about craftsmanship and recalcitrant plots and revision into an evening and the next morning.  Friends.  Friends make the creative life possible, even bearable on some days. 

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