Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn.

Writing & Retreating Time

Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn. Joyful Journey in the quiet before dawn.

I’ve just returned from Joyful Journey Lodge & Spa in the the San Luis Valley, after four intense and inspiring days leading this year’s first Write & Retreat workshop.

I created this new series of workshops to offer writers a “time out” to focus on and grow their work in a place that would combine the healing magic of the wild with nurturing surroundings.

My plan was to spend mornings in workshop, writing, reading and commenting on each others’ work, and talking about the process of writing and the writing life. Afternoons I would offer one-on-one talks with individual writers while the rest of the group fulfilled the retreat part of the title: soaking, hiking, sitting, getting massages, and otherwise nourishing their creative spirit.

Over delicious and bountiful meals prepared by Ploughboy Local Market, I imagined reading to the group from authors whose work inspires me, and talking about what makes each piece sing.

The San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range at dawn from Joyful Journey The San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo Range at dawn from Joyful Journey

We’d leave inspired and renewed, with an expanded sense of our writing, and new tools to find space for our heart’s work in the crazy rush of daily life.

This first workshop succeeded in ways even I hadn’t imagined. The group meshed quickly, weaving a supportive, thoughtful and creative workshop. The quality of the writing shone, its depth and  power often surprising the participants themselves.

The food was stellar, the soaking and spa treatments worked magic, and the retreatful time nourished body, mind and spirit.

Of course, everything did not go perfectly. The weather was as wild as only springtime in the Rockies can be: roaring waves of wind and dust, followed by a blizzard that blew through leaving not much snow but bone-chilling cold…. There were glitches with kitchen storage and equipment.

The conference center wing at Joyful Journey. The conference center wing at Joyful Journey.

Still, as we parted today, I heard comments like “inspiring,” “extraordinary,” “outstanding,” and my favorite, a simple, “I am so glad I came.” I’ve already booked Joyful Journey for next year.

For those of you who couldn’t attend Write & Retreat, here’s a thought on how to make time for your heart’s work in the crazy rush of life from an earlier blog post:

Make a date with your writing. Perhaps just once a week at first. That’s enough to set an intention, to affirm to yourself that your writing is important.

Keep that date. Don’t make excuses. When the appointed time comes, get your butt into your writing chair and write. Whatever. If you can’t think of anything to write, write that: “I can’t think of anything to write.” “I can’t find the words.” “I don’t know what to say.” Keep writing until something happens.

After you write, set your work aside to “season,” to give yourself time to forget its particulars. Go back to it only when you can look at it fresh.

Read it carefully, feeling what contributes, pruning out what doesn’t. Be ruthless: cut out every sentence, every word, every scene or chapter that doesn’t add something important.

The Sangre de Cristos over the outdoor soaking pools at Joyful Journey. The Sangre de Cristos over the outdoor soaking pools at Joyful Journey.

Read it aloud. Listen to how it sounds, to the cadence and rhythm of it, to the flow of narrative and word, to the swelling of its themes, the growing pains of its characters.

Set it aside again, and pick it up again. Repeat until the work is as tight and compelling as you can make it. Repeat until what you have written honors the impulse that set you to this crazy, solitary business of writing in the first place. The need to say something in a way that moves readers, that touches hearts and souls, that makes them laugh, cry, wail, think.

Then make a new writing date.

Join me at the next Write & Retreat for inspiration and renewal!

Opening a vein

My office with the desk Richard built to fit into the bay of windows overlooking the kitchen garden, town and the mountains.

Every evening for the past few, I’ve thought: I need to write a blog post. So I get my laptop and hit the couch, back leaning against one arm, feet against the other. And my brain quits. No words come.

I am writing, just not blog posts. Every morning after a considerable amount of procrastination (Yes, I really do need to hang the laundry out on the line, empty the dishwasher and obsessively read Google news.) I head into my office, sit at my desk and open the file containing the draft of my new memoir, which I call Bless the Birds, and start writing.

Writing every day is really not hard, as sportswriter Walter Wellesly “Red” Smith famously said (according to columnist Walter Winchell), “You just sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

That’s about right for this particular memoir. It’s blinkin’ hard and painful work to relive the journey Richard and I walked with his brain cancer. But to find the story–the part that matters beyond my skin boundary–in the jumble of memories, I have to go back and be there. I can’t just skim the surface; I have to immerse myself.

Richard’s sketch for a Craftsman-style pergola and bridge to frame a front entryway.

I’m fortunate to be able to draw on an abundance of data: my daily journal, though sometimes I learn more from what it doesn’t say about the hardest stuff; my blog posts and photographs; Richard’s sporadic journals, handwritten in his precise printing; a banker’s box full of his papers including sketches for sculpture projects, his appointment records, test reports, medication information, the daily charts he kept of his meds and supplements; notes I and others wrote him, and cards he received.

It’s helpful to have so much to draw on to remind me of details I’ve forgotten, or correct my sometimes muddled impression of what happened in what order. It’s also potentially paralyzing. I could spend months–no, years–reading everything, and stuff my head so full I’d be tapada, literally “blocked” in the, um, very physical sense, completely unable to write.

Richard juggles after the removal of his right temporal lobe in his second brain surgery.

What works best for me is to balance the research–delving into the sources mentioned above–with writing. I read through those data until I can hear the story forming in my head, and then I write. If I get to a point where I’m not sure of the details, I either stop and hunt for them, or if the writing’s on a roll, I make a note [typed in italics with brackets around it] right in the manuscript and keep going until my energy is gone.

Right now I’m in a particularly hard part of our brain-cancer journey, and submitting to the writing every day feels like I’m voluntarily pressing on a deep and very painful bruise. Opening a vein might just be easier. I’ve written about 56,000 words and I think I’m more than halfway through.

Why write if it’s so hard? Because it’s what I do best, my way of loving the world. And as I’ve said before, my intention is to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, to freely offer that gift of love. (Thanks to Mary-Chapin Carpenter for the line in “Goodnight America” that inspired my intention: “dreaming with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.”)

My love and me on our last trip.

Bless the Birds is a love story; it’s about loving life and those I share it with, even through death. While writing it is incredibly hard, it’s also enormously satisfying. I’m weaving in Richard’s voice from his scattered writings, so it feels in some ways like a continuation of our journey of almost 29 years together.

So does my other project, the trim carpentry, in which I’m finishing work he intended to get to and never did.

Between the grueling emotional and creative work of the writing and the hard physical–and also creative–work of carpentry, I end each day wrung out. I don’t get much else done. That’s okay, I guess. I’m doing what I need to do. With love. That’s what really counts, isn’t it?