How To Make the Most of Your Writing Retreat in Maine

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We are nearing the end. Soon we will have to bid farewell to wide plank floorboards, the leaky kitchen sink, the view of lounge chairs in the sun (on which we do not sit becuase we are writers writing), the quiet, the peace, the stillness.

But I am not leaving empty handed. And while it’s tempting to slip some of the amazing artwork on these walls into my purse, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about knowledge. Because while this week was very productive, next time we do this I’m going to be even better prepared. Here’s my advice to myself. Perhaps it’s useful to you, too.

  1. If you come to this particular house, don’t bring any books. There are plenty. Also, you are here to write, not to read. Put down that book and get back to work.
  2. Running every day and yoga on the lawn is not a waste of an hour because it will make you more efficient during writing time.
  3. Don’t be the kind of person who checks facebook and twitter all the time. Once in a while is okay. Also, people can tell when you’re on those sites and they will wonder why you are not working. Let this be your prophylactic.
  4. Updating a blog totally counts as writing time.
  5. Checking your stats does not.
  6. Find your corner early. Mine is in the living room crouched over a wooden bench on which my computer rests. Sometimes I sit in the green leather chair. Sometimes I sit on the floor. Wherever you work best, make it yours. Growl at anyone who tries to make you move. But if you go on a retreat with the right person (see #9), you won’t have to worry about squatters.
  7. Find your window early. Because you have to look up sometimes, and it’s best to look at something lovely but not so lovely that you want to gaze endlessly.
  8. Don’t go hungry but don’t eat more than usual. This is not a vacation. This is working. Would you eat Pop Tarts at the office? Of course not. Don’t eat them on your writing retreat. (Don’t eat them ever–they’re not good for you.)
  9. People who you can be alone with are rare and valuable. Find some and hang on to them.
  10. Grant yourself an evening out. Just one. Call it research.
  11. Don’t be bothered by anything. It takes work to get to Maine. It’s hard to leave behind your job and family. Make those favors and logistics worth it. Don’t be bothered by stupid stuff like low water pressure. This house has great water pressure, by the way. But if the water pressure were low, it would still be the perfect place to write.
  12. Bring painkillers, because writing for ten hours a day hurts.
  13. Miss your people back home. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around often, unless you’re a certain type of person, which I am not. Miss them and delight in them when you return.
  14. Make plans for next year. Retreats are definitely an annual kind of thing.

We have one more night here, and we are going out to dinner soon (see #10) to celebrate all of our productivity. Goodbye house. Goodbye time. Goodbye bowls of mush.

Missing

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I’m slightly more than halfway through my Maine escape. And just a few minutes ago I was nearly laid flat with the missing of my family. I’m not a sentimental person. I do not weep easily at sunsets. I know the value of alone time and I use it wisely. But. For a moment just now, I wanted nothing more than to be in my bed at home with my husband right here and the youngest right here and the middle over here and the oldest over there. It was a physical wanting, like a craving. It’s passed, but the aftereffects are still floating in the room and might descend at any moment. I might cry. I might pour a glass of wine and turn on aimless television to avoid feeling this way. Except… it’s my job to feel this way. I came to Maine to write and I have been writing enough that my fingers are sore, seriously in pain, but also, part of writing is feeling and feeling this is useful. It will bleed into my work and make it richer. And also, the greater the missing, the greater the joy upon return. I miss my husband’s smell. We really are just animals in human form, right? I miss my boys’ voices, even though part of why I had to come was so that there would be only one voice in my head–my own. I miss my cats. Especially the boy cat, who loves to snuggle on couches or in beds. It’s so good to miss the things I love. It’s a reminder: of fleetingness, of priorities, of how crucial a day can be. But also, I miss them.

It’s Raining in Maine

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Part of the writing process, at least today, has been watching robins suck worms from the front lawn of this rented house in Maine. B and I are here for the week to write. The house is old and exposes much of its raw wood. The stove is gas and tricky, and the beds are lumpy and comfortable. I chose this place randomly after hours of looking at the offerings of AirBnB. I realized that what I should really focus on was the inside of the house, not how far it was from a beach or coffee shop. And once that criteria was established, this place came into view and I knew it would be ours. Because of the bookcases and artwork. Because of the island in the kitchen. Because the couch is moved a ways away from the wall. And it’s perfect. It’s deep in the country and distractions are minimal (see: robins, worms) and I have written 20 pages, plus three blog posts for both work and personal in the 26 hours we have been here. A chicken is roasting in the tricky oven and I have a glass of wine balanced on the windowsill over the wooden bench on which my computer rests. I’m using an ottoman for my bum. The window ahead of me is open four inches and raindrops plunk on something metal out there, something out of sight, something that provides a sweet base for my soprano key strokes. I am in the kind of space where, if I had a stopwatch given to me by the devil, I might just press that button to pause all of space and time so I could stay. But, of course, before I could press, I’d think of my husband, my children, the men I left at home. And I’d hesitate and the moment would mutate. But still. Right now, the planets are aligning in a way they rarely do. I might squeeze 25 pages out of the day.

Last Chores

Since we moved here, nearly exactly 16 years ago, we’ve always had Last Chores. Dogs to be walked, horses to be fed. Chickens to count and close in. Stars to marvel at, comets to spot, an unfamiliar sound to pause against. An open-air bracket at the end of the day, before we climbed stairs and shoved children to where they needed to be. Before we slept.

(Our first night here, we must have walked dogs down our new dirt road and remarked that just two nights ago we were walking under Georgian skies and now, here, we had New Hampshire skies, and weren’t we lucky. We must have, though I don’t remember it.)

And no, this is not always what we want to do at 10 in the evening after a long day of child-minding and fiddling with computers or manuscripts. There were nights, I won’t lie, when M and I looked at each other with deliberate exhaustion, both of us pleading with our eyes: “Will you do it?”

Last chores. I have walked dogs while feverish, in labor, during marital skirmishes, while babies wailed for me at the top of the stairs. There have always been dogs who needed walks.

And during those couple months after Tupelo died and before the greyhounds came to stay, eight years ago when we were briefly dogless, there were horses, which brought me out just as regular in the late evening hours to check their water, feed them hay, watch the sky for a moment, and listen to their industrious breath.

(The first night we had horses here, Carly and Bay, we were woken by worry for them as if they were newborns, and were treated to a meteor shower for our middle-of-the-night pains. If I believed in signs, I’d believe that was a sign, that animals would bring us good things, even when they were work.)

The horses are gone. Carly, our last, died one year ago today. The day before L’s birthday. Poor L. He is such a sunny kid and yet, twice now, we’ve been brought to grief right before we try to celebrate his arrival.

Our last dog, Pope, died today.He was just too old and this was the best thing we could do. Tomorrow I’ll make a cake that is both chocolate and vanilla and we’ll have choose-your-own-burritos for dinner because that’s L’s choice, and we’ll toss bits of bread and meat to the floor with the expectation that a Pope will arrive and lap them up, because that was his job. Except… later, I’ll have to sweep.

And there will be no last chores. No last walk. We’ll be tired, yes, but we’ll be sad that nothing needs us to guide them outside one last time.

The soul of our house is a dog’s soul. We’ll miss you, Pope. Traveling mercies.

Trying to Inspire

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Does Soot the Cat look inspired?

I write and edit children’s nonfiction books and I’ve been wondering lately–am I, are we, so focused on functionality that we’re missing the chance to inspire?

Most of the conversations around the office have to do with how to make our books easy for teachers to use “right out of the box.” We provide essential questions, common core correlations, glossaries, primary sources, a whole platter of design elements that make it easy for them to tick the standards boxes while still providing their students with a comprehensive education. That’s our goal. And I think it’s a good goal.

We have experts read our books before we publish them, not just to score a few lines of endorsement to print on the back cover, but to make sure our books are appealing, to make sure people will enjoy reading them, to make sure we succeeded in providing a useful commodity.

But all of our endorsers are grownups. They’re teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, professors, experts of industry. Know what they’re not? Kids. None of them are under the age of 25.

And this is starting to worry me. Do adults really know what kids are going to find inspiring? Do I?

My best ideas for kids’ books come from my kids. Yeah, I’m lucky to have them. When we binge watch whole seasons of Doctor Who (as a family so it counts as family time!) and then spend hours discussing the possibilities of time travel, alien life forms, morality in the face of alien invasion, I wonder if maybe a book about the science of science fiction might be in my future. When the yearly poetry unit roles around again and my kids starting spouting metaphors, it occurs to me that a book teaching kids to read poetry might have some worth.

But, again, these books are functional. They are written for adults to use with kids, not for kids to pick up spontaneously whenever they are struck with the urge to fritter away an hour on the page. What makes kids reach for one book and not another? What makes a book attractive to kids? Am I serving kid readers as well as I could be?

Fiction is a whole different world. One I’m actually more comfortable in. I can pick up a middle grade or young adult novel and I can get a pretty good idea if kids are going to like it. It’s a gut thing, but it’s also a character thing and a tone thing.

The nonfiction books I write and edit have no characters. They definitely have tones, ones that I work hard to get exactly right. They don’t have plots, but they are organized against a specific framework. The best part of my books are the sidebars. This is where I get to be as inspiring as possible. I inject tiny biographies of amazing people, quotes from persistent people, weird (and gross!) factoids about the topic. The sidebar material is almost always my favorite part of the book. Is this enough? To kids come away with enough inspiration?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know I need to ask the question. And I think finding the answer is going to take a while. And a lot of books.

Lazy Saturdays look great on paper.

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Yesterday I realized that, despite a broken dryer, several blank tax forms, and three music lessons, our Saturday was basically empty. One long stretch of nothing lay ahead for us to fill however we wanted. This hasn’t been the case in a very long time. Usually there are birthday parties, concerts, visitors, previous engagements–all of which are fabulous and delightful, but I am an introvert (I know, hard to tell) and I do like my quiet days.

Except… well. The children’s version of a lazy Saturday is quite different than my own. I don’t understand their need to provide chaos and they don’t get my love for stillness. They look at me perplexed when I glare from behind my book, and I shake my head as they dash by in search of items to chuck from the balcony.

Remember the days before children when it was all dozy and napping and reading as many words as you could stuff yourself with and then venturing out into the gloom for a walk, a bite to eat, a marveling at the accommodating character of the world? Gone, I tell you. All gone.

Now there are piercing shouts and demands. There are thumps and rattles. I’m pretty sure someone just tumbled down the stairs and broke their arms, because what else would warrant that level of hysterical shrieking?

But no, it subsides, without a trip to the emergency room. I didn’t even have to get out of bed.

In a way, of course, this is an improvement on how it used to be when they need more-or-less constant tending. They are all independent enough to recover on their own from things like tumbling down stairs and breaking arms, apparently. They even got their own lunch today–cookies! Clever boys.

And I know it will keep on improving. Someday, one of them will get his driver’s license and we will all taste the freedom.

I watched Olive Kitteredge this week and oh, Ms. McDormand, you are amazing. You were so old! After being so young! And it was this exquisite pain to watch and to know I’ll get old, too, and maybe lose a husband to stroke and a son to bitterness, but still, I welcome it. Life going on and on and on, and hurting so much and then not so much. Like my friend R’s post about clearing away artifacts from her daughter’s childhood. It hurts, but the alternative–to have never had what we have had–are worse. And so there is joy in the hurt.

Gack. I did not mean to get philosophical. I meant to complain a bit about my children and then go back to my book. 

Happy lazy, or busy, Saturdays, my dears.

Sick Daze

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Not me. My kids. Two of them are wandering around the house in various states of moan. Nobody is vomiting–this is what luck feels like. They ache, they leak, they cough, and they remind me of sweet, listless zombies. Poor dears.

The house feels small and tight, not because of sick zombie children but because of snow banks. Look out the kitchen window at the front yard and you need to crane your neck slightly to see over the mound of snow to the street. Look out the back and you’ll be confronted by a porch full of the white stuff (we really should shovel that off) that renders the back yard invisible. We are being slowly buried. There are tunnels that lead us to the driveway, and we discovered last weekend that we could exit via Barno’s bedroom window and jump off the porch roof if we need to escape (or just for fun, as you do on a Saturday afternoon) but downstairs it does feel like we’re animals in holes, waiting for a spring that might not come.

And it’s cold. I went for a run yesterday, out of desperation, and oh, it was bitter.

Apparently, the Grand Canyon is in Arizona. We are thinking of going there for April vacation, which is a mere six weeks away. We are not the kind of people who plan well. But at least now I know what state we’re aiming for.

Is it warm in Arizona in April? Will we be able to stand outside without hunching our shoulders and wincing? Will there be T-shirts and sandals? A desire for salads? Will I have to pull my hair back so the wind can find my neck? Because to hell with scenic vistas and educational sightseeing. I just want to feel not cold for a couple of days.

I think I’ll make a chicken pie. It’s been a while since I made a chicken pie. The older I get, the less I like to cook. But chicken pie–that’s a perfect meal for the cold tonight. And I know at least one kid likes it.

Stay warm, dear ones.