Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 5 — The Writing

All that apprehension—for what? I ride in the palm of an unseen hand that gently deposits me in places like this—a waystation for my soul—a soft place to land at a turning point.

keyboardIf a writer asks me to decide whether to continue writing or give up, I always refuse; no one can judge how much help the act of writing might provide to an individual, even if no single word ever appears in print. I will help a writer improve her work, and suggest possibilities for publishing, but no one can guarantee publication or declare that it is impossible. I remind them that my opinion may not be correct, but I’ve been able to appreciate something in the work of every writer with whom I’ve worked.

To my delight, the expansion of “social media” during the past twenty years allows me to tell many of these writers they probably can find an audience online, if nowhere else.

And, especially, Linda gave me the courage to think these words and now to state them publicly and in writing, “I am a writer.” Whew!

More importantly, though, I want writers to understand that writing isn’t just about publishing. This is a difficult concept to teach, especially since I have been published; a writer may think I’m being dishonest. I tell them about many occasions when the writing itself satisfied my need to tell the story, particularly if there are compelling reasons why it should not be published: it would embarrass me with someone still living, or it is too personal to reveal. The writing is the important part.

I came here feeling stressed, angry and depressed, ready to quit writing. I leave here renewed, centered and excited about new writing projects. Thank you from my heart and spirit dear sister friend.

At some retreats elsewhere, a famous visiting writer is the lure for customers. The visitor may lecture on various aspects of the writing business, or conduct a workshop by providing a list of writing prompts. The writing students may come without any particular plan and write for a few minutes at someone else’s direction. While these practices may inspire serious writing, I find the structure too much like a flashback to English class. The visiting writer cannot, and usually is not asked to, comment extensively on the drafts produced, and will likely never encounter the writing students again. The writers may take the topic seriously and write as well as possible in an hour or two, but fail to find the incentive to continue working on the draft after the class is over.

The vastness, the openness of the landscape requires the same in me. I saw a limb on the west side of a juniper bent around the trunk to become a limb on the east side of the tree, and why not? If the prevailing winds beat the crap out of you, try another way. A cow farted during the meditation just to keep me down to earth.

On July 19-22, 1996 I referred to the first retreat in the house journal as a “workshop.” I soon dropped that term because it led writers to assume they would be given a series of writing assignments, as is the case at some retreats. Instead, I wanted writers to select what they wanted to learn, and work with me to learn it rather than me lecturing as if I am an expert.

I came to this place seeking a stronger sense of myself. I told myself that if I learned more about writing it would be a bonus. Knowing that I left home very tired, mentally scattered and unsure of what role I wanted to make foremost in my life, I wanted this to be special. It was.

LMH desk 2014--4-24My method is simple. I ask each writer to send to me in advance the writing that they want to work on during the retreat. Now that it’s possible, I prefer this writing be sent electronically, so that I can download it to a flash drive. Then I carefully read each submission several times, writing my comments right in the manuscript.

Thanks for offering me a chance I’ve never had: to be critiqued.

As I read, I think of various ways to reinforce my message. For example, if I read this line, “While wondering about this phenomenon, the sun sank from view. . . .”

I will write to the author that this is an example of a dangling modifier. The effect of the dangling phrase is to make the noun following it the subject of the opening phrase, so the author has really written that the sun is wondering about a phenomenon while it sinks from view. Correction means providing a subject: “While I was wondering . . . , the sun retreat-handoutssank from view.” Then I attach to the writer’s manuscript my handout on dangling modifiers, already prepared with examples of the error and how to correct it. By providing this additional information, I’m offering the writer an opportunity to learn enough about the error to avoid it in future writing: as if we’d had a full class on dangling modifiers.

While I was on vacation this summer, I read all of the handouts you gave me, and felt as though I’d returned to retreat for a little while.

I think Windbreak House is unique because I am here as a full-time resident writer. I ask writers to come with a plan for what they want to accomplish during the retreat, and my primary purpose is to help each writer reach her goals. We work one-on-one, though if other writers are in residence, they may decide to work together.

Gushing thanks for the most valuable, in-depth critique of my writing thus far in this life.

If I’m asked, I’ll provide suggestions for writing topics, but I prefer to let each writer choose her own direction. Often our work together means we remain in contact for months or years, as I continue to offer advice and encouragement.

From you, I learned that writing poetry is not simply coming up with inspirational words on the page. Almost immediately, you led me back to the practice of research which, ironically, is where I started my career years ago. I have discovered again the love of looking up facts, questing for the details that make writing enjoyable to read.

Journals 2016--1-22One of my most useful writing tools has been my journal, and I believe strongly in the power of journaling to aid self-discovery. Write fiercely in your journal, I say, write recklessly. Do not let your inner editor slow you down. Do not channel that English teacher in high school who always found an error. Don’t think about spelling or grammar or how this will look in print. Emote. Stomp through the words. Fling handfuls of syllables in the air and let them land on your paper. Often the heat of the anger or the pain of the loss or the joy of the new love will inspire the perfectly correct words that will never emerge if you think “someone is going to read this.” Journals must be private; no one should read your journal any more than a stranger can pry open your brain and look inside. Your journal is your freedom, your inspiration, your guide, and ultimately your resource.

So besides the work they show to me, I hope that writers will keep their own private journals and write in them daily. Each writer may write as often as she likes in the house journal.

You inspire me, teach me and give me the tools I need to be a better writer. I suppose if I looked back over this journal entry I could knock out at least 20 wordy words, correct my commas and do some rearranging.

Writers come here engrossed in their own stories, so my job is to ask the questions about what they are doing that will help them accomplish their goals. How did they arrive at their conclusions? My aim is to help them articulate ideas they may have accepted without debate, thus benefiting both of us and leading to absorbing discussions about all kinds of topics.

writing-on-badger-ridgeMy family would have me committed if they knew that I drove 6 hours from my mother’s to sit on a hill and write. . . . what they don’t understand is that I needed Linda and [another writer at the retreat] to reinforce and to encourage me. I needed to be away from the noise of my family. . . . On the hill, for the first time ever, I wrote about what used to be a taboo topic.

Lively writing discussions may begin in a one-on-one discussion as I comment on the writer’s work, continue to the kitchen as we fix lunch, progress through our meal and move to the living room, or to chairs scattered around the house. We often hike in the surrounding pastures, crawling under or through barbed wire fences, watching for rattlesnakes and wildlife as we discuss writing and I explain our ranching practices.

Thanks for showing us how to braid words.

Writers are often fearful of the consequences of writing about ugly events like abuse or divorce or drunkenness in their families. My advice is to write it down, every bit of it that they remember or believe, and then decide what to do with it. Perhaps writing it down will allow you to banish the worst memories from your mind. Some writers burn the resulting manuscript, symbolically destroying the memory. Others change the names of the people involved and work toward publishing in order to help others who confront the same problems. Those decisions can’t be made until you see what you have written, and how you feel once it’s on paper.

retreat-consultation

One bulletin board holds buttons: “Hatred is not a family value,” and “If you settle for what they’re giving you, you deserve what you get.”

Yesterday I wore the button, “What part of YES are you afraid of.” Wrote in my journal, “All of it!” Tomorrow I hope to leave with “Not all who wander are lost” imprinted on my soul.

Many writers, perhaps remembering those red ink remarks from English teachers, worry about writing everything correctly, with perfect grammar and spelling. Some fear appearing sentimental or not emotional enough, or being too stiff and objective. Some subjects and publishing opportunities do require detachment, but before you can begin editing for factual content, you need a draft to work with. To them I quote William Stafford who said, “Lower your standards and keep writing!”

Our final conversation re: emotion was equally as valuable. After stewing over my bent for objectivity and feeling the failure for not emoting on paper, I realize my reserve is not wrong, not “bad.” Too many today haven’t learned that restraint is a virtue—when used appropriately.

Most of the writers want to establish regular writing schedules but families and jobs and the business of life interfere with their writing. At the end of each retreat, we discuss what will happen when the writer gets home. How can she carve writing time from her normal agenda? I gently suggest that it may not be realistic to decide to get up at 5 a.m. every Saturday and write for two hours before making pancakes for the kiddies. We discuss how setting unrealistic goals can lead to failure.

I’ve never committed myself to such an intense time of writing because I’ve never considered myself a “real” writer—just a writing teacher. This experience made me feel like I am one, even if I may never be published.

Of course I, too, still have trouble setting priorities. What do I really need to do today, and what is a job I’m doing simply to avoid tough writing? I remind them that while it’s important to maintain a steady writing practice, it’s equally important not to waste time berating yourself when you fail. Just keep working at it. If you punish yourself for failing to write, you will begin to associate writing with the punishment.

Within the house I can also see, feel and learn from all of the other people who have visited here in the past.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years. Unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 4 — The People

ikebana-creator-2012Writing is not the only art celebrated and practiced here. One woman played her guitar in the living room after supper, inviting a singalong. A writer who had studied the Japanese art of ikebana created an arrangement of stones, grandmother cedar, a weathered plank, juniper, native stone and grasses that symbolized her experience at the retreat, and brought peaceful symmetry to the house for months. Other guests, unfamiliar with the art, moved it from one room to another, wrote about it, photographed and studied it. One man wrote a postcard to the creator, expressing his astonishment and delight at finding the ikebana in his room. I mailed it for him since I felt it would be unethical to reveal her address.

I came out of this retreat feeling as if I have so much more direction in my writing life. I learned solid ways to analyze the flaws in my work.

++–++–++–++

Three women from Wyoming arrive for a retreat and make one, two, three trips inside, stuffing food into the refrigerator and piling it in the kitchen until the counters are covered.

“Er,” I say hesitantly, “How long did you say you’re staying? It looks as if you have enough food here for a month.”

“We’re cooking for you,” says L. “That way you’ll have more time to spend on our work. We have a lot to do, and there are three of us, so we want every minute of your time we can get.”

So much for the idea that I run this place.

“Are you a good cook?” I ask, trying to remember if I saw them put meat in the refrigerator.

“I’m great!”

She was, and they worked me hard.

guitar-player-at-the-retreatFor the record, vegetarians are welcome in this beef-raising haven, though I do not care for the smell of boiling carrageen moss. My acceptance of writers to work here is based solely on their writing, and whether I believe I can help them, not on their profession or anything else I might know about them.

Two days into her retreat, one woman confessed that she works for an oil company; she realized by then I wouldn’t hold it against her. I told her that I was pleased to know someone as intelligent and thoughtful works for the company.

++–++–++–++

camping-at-homestead-houseMost writers attend alone, or in clusters of two or three, but group retreats have included graduate students and teachers from various universities who brought tents so that the guests who couldn’t fit into the house could camp among the trees. During their stay they hiked in the Black Hills and I talked about writing and responsible cattle ranching on the shortgrass prairie.

I hear the snipe in the dusk, the winnowing sound mingling with the wind.

Sometimes groups come to the retreat house with friends for a break from routine that does not necessarily involve writing or working with me. The South Dakota Artists Network met here, displaying and discussing the art each member had created during the year; some of the art remains in the house.

I’ve hosted one-day gatherings with a local history group of which I am a member, book clubs, and a wide-ranging discussion on environmental issues with activists from Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. A group of women who have met yearly for thirty-five years spent a couple of days eating, walking, and talking.

college-students-hike-back-to-windbreak-house

Last June, more artists gathered in the pasture north of the house for a session of “plein air” (outdoor) painting while prairie grasses and wildflowers were in bloom. They were hosted by the Great Plains Native Plant Society (www.gpnps.org), which operates an educational botanic garden in my pastures. I began working with GPNPS officials some years ago because their mission so closely matches my interests.

  • To engage in scientific research regarding plants of the Great Plains of North America;
  • To carry on the scientific work begun by Claude Barr of Prairie Gem Ranch, Smithwick, South Dakota, which is to pursue greater knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the Great Plains of North America;
  • To disseminate this knowledge through the creation of one or more educational botanic gardens of plants of the Great Plains, featuring but not limited to Barr’s discoveries; and
  • To engage in any educational activities which may further public familiarity with plants of the Great Plains, their uses and enjoyment.

We hope to make the garden a permanent part of the ranch.

I’ll leave with a sheaf of writing in my pack, my heart full of thanks.

++–++–++–++

During one two-week retreat with two women, my mother died; both writers came with me to her funeral. One of them, from a deeply Irish family, mentioned with a twinkle in her eye that her Irish traditions called for her to wail at funerals.

“Um,” I mumbled, “I surely do not want to denigrate your customs in any way, but I hope you will not wail today.” We all chuckled ruefully, imagining the effect of an Irish banshee wail on my stoic ranching neighbors in the local church.

Back at the retreat house, I told her she could wail all she wanted, but instead we began talking about our respective mothers, sharing and receiving comfort. A great deal of cathartic writing emerged among all of us that week.

++–++–++–++

ruly-and-tam-in-prairie-chicken-trailerOnce, when a fire in the forested hills poured smoke and ashes down on Tamara’s house during a retreat, she took refuge in the travel trailer with her German shepherd. I was startled awake by a deep “WOOF!” at sunrise.

A dean I’d met while speaking at a Minnesota college gave herself a birthday present of a retreat during which she intended mostly to read; she surprised herself by writing.

When I walked with one woman out to her camper van to help her carry her things into the retreat house, she introduced me: its name is Javelina, meaning “wild pig.”

The dry brown plants with their intricate and tangled shapes spoke to me this morning as we walked through the pastures. And the wide sky reminds me how much room I have to grow.

Several writers have brought husbands, wives, significant others, friends or relatives. One brought her new husband to the retreat house for part of their honeymoon, because she wanted him to see the place so important to her; later she visited with her adult daughter.

I leave with a little bit of sorrow because the time seemed so short and I’ve only just begun. However the dragonflies will travel with me and just as they flew with such purpose, so will I.

linda-meets-timothyOnce a writer walked up the retreat house steps carrying mounted head of a buck deer. On her way to the retreat she’d been touring a second-hand store, she said, and he looked lonely, so she brought him along; she named him Timothy, and he supervised her writing week. She later said that when she was stopped for speeding on the way home, she thought the sight of Timothy in the passenger seat meant the difference between a ticket and the warning she got.

Sunrise is still mostly a theory, but I hear great horned owls waiting for it with me.

More than a dozen writers have published books that fill a couple of shelves at the retreat house. Several conduct classes and have Facebook pages or blogs sites where they write about writing.

???????????????????????????????

One has begun a mystery series that is gaining in popularity; a Hermosa book club to which I belong read one of her mysteries last summer.

courage-quiltOne retreat writer sent me a quilt made by her mother. We use it regularly in Eagle, and she assured us that it’s durable, so if we wear it out, she’d send another. Other quilters have given the retreat house decorative hangings inspired by their time here.

The quilt in Eagle room could be called the courage quilt. Swaddling myself in it made it safe to delve into writing about things that until now were too scary. (Turns out they weren’t so bad at all.)

A photographer who comes several times a year for solitary retreats on the way to visit her elderly parents sleeps in one room, practices her yoga in another, and edits her photographic books by spreading the pictures on the living room floor for several days. We step carefully back and forth, studying them, but I never let my dogs in the house when she’s there!

Good Retreat sorting papersAnother writer had bought a batch of quilt pieces in a second-hand store on her way to retreat, and enjoyed having space enough to lay them out on the floor to see their pattern, as preparation for writing about them.

Several poets have laid out the pages of their prospective books on the living room floor for editing.

I’m trying to get ready to re-enter my real life, sitting here with a couple of ridiculous (and probably ineffective) curlers in my hair. I’ve put my watch back on after three days. The meadowlark is asking me why.

One couple came for an icy New Year’s Eve retreat and rededication of their marriage.

husband-and-wife-retreat

Several writers have given themselves retreats as birthday presents and celebrated at the retreat.

I wrote every day, ten hours at least. Every time I come I learn more than I expect, and I expect a lot.

Retreat guests need not be writers, and don’t have to work with me. Occasionally a writer or artist simply wants quiet time to work and asks for a solitary retreat. I welcome each one, assure myself she is familiar with the house’s operation, give her my telephone number and wish her well. She may invite me to share a meal or a walk, but she works alone.

Inside there are books
Bones, stones, and kaleidoscopes
Pen, pencil, notebooks

offseasonWe also have a Blizzard Policy; if a blizzard is severe enough that the writer can’t drive to the highway, or the highways are closed, all the days during which you can’t leave are without charge. If the writer didn’t bring enough food, my freezers are always full. Several writers tell me they now watch weather reports, hoping to schedule retreats during a major winter storm.

Snowing like the dickens out there. Don’t know exactly when we’ll be getting out, or if. There are worse fates than being trapped at Windbreak House. . . .  I am ready to go home and create my own space for writing now.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so, unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers after their retreats.

Photos are from the Writing Retreat albums.

 

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 3 — Guidelines    

windbreak-house-with-flaxAt first, I envisioned the retreat as being so harmonious that I would not need to set rules. Each group of guests, I supposed, would decide the mood of the retreat among themselves. Civilized women shouldn’t need a handbook or a set of Dos and Don’ts. Surely, I thought, the women who came to a writing retreat would be experienced at publishing, needing only a quiet place and some gentle guidance to turn out page after page of brilliant writing.

That was before the arrival of the woman who drank four pots of coffee a day. When she was thinking, she paced back and forth through the hallways and across the deck in hard-soled shoes.

I had already decided not to allow smoking at the retreat; some guests might be allergic, and the smell sets itself solidly into furniture and bedding. Moreover, a carelessly-tossed cigarette could set the prairie afire.

Then a woman arrived reeking of cigarette smoke who assured me that she had quit smoking that very day. She kept slipping out to her car, digging through the ashtray, and puffing on butts.

“You know,” I said, “You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, writing and quitting smoking. There’s a grocery store six miles away; you could get cigarettes. Or,” I laughed, “flag down a trucker on the highway and bum some.”

“Flag down a trucker?” she said with a thoughtful expression.

Coming to Windbreak House is like coming home. I feel inspired and recharged and entirely supported. . . .

Surely, I thought, it would not be necessary to mention that I didn’t want illegal substances in my house; still, not everyone takes the possible consequences seriously. A school that used to send graduate students here every fall to learn about sustainable ranching and get support for their own writing is now banned from returning.

This place . . . . creates peace like a fragrance.

One writer submitted work and was accepted, but did no writing while she was at the retreat house. She practiced shamanic drumming on Badger Ridge, or smeared herself with oil and lay in a deck chair. Whenever I suggested she work on her writing she promised to do so, but did not. On the third day of retreat, I warned her that three-hour baths, leaving other guests without hot water, were not acceptable. Her journal entries recorded only her complete self-absorption, with no awareness that she had not really accomplished anything but a vacation.

“J” got her morning exercise persuading a calf to go back with the yearlings, very deftly. She shall now be known as “Dances with Cows.”

I established a minimum age requirement of 18, reasoning that anyone under that age should not be in residence with grownups who might like a drink with dinner, or who might speak of topics unsuitable for teenage ears. Then I accepted an application from a writer who turned out to be 17. She talked me into letting her father come as chaperone. He was more interested in how much the house had cost to build than in his daughter’s writing. He stayed one night, spending most of his time on his cell phone before deciding I wouldn’t compromise his daughter’s morals. Several times, mothers and daughters have come for retreats; on one occasion, the girl’s father and brother dropped her off with a friend at a mother-daughter retreat and then got a cabin in the Hills for their own retreat.

I wish all the people in the world could spend a few days in the quiet of Windbreak House or somewhere, anywhere where no phones ring, where words are appreciated, where lives are validated.

Turn Off CellThe house has no rule of silence, but I encourage respectful quiet, suggesting that residents turn off their phones. If they are worried about emergencies, I tell them how their loved ones can reach the local Sheriff if they need to contact us. Some just check their messages once a day and do not respond. Once in a while a writer uses a smart phone to go online, but the retreat house has no internet connection. Getting disconnected from these daily distractions can make a huge difference in a writer’s life, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for some; a few have been astonished that I’d even suggest it. Most are later grateful.

Writing helps capture ideas only if they are there. I find they come more easily if I quiet myself and pursue them. Anything that interrupts thought hinders that process. Using a phone, watching TV, blogging, looking at Facebook, texting, emailing– none of these are thinking.

++–++–++–++

One of my favorite quotations is this:

“To get these new ideas down on paper, I needed solitude so I slunk off to the cabin . . . and spent a week writing. It was a glorious week. I arose at six-thirty and thought until eight, by which time my thinking had made me hungry. . . . I was able to write then until about two. . . . about 1,500 words a day.
— Jon Hassler, My Staggerford Journal

I like to point out to writers that this writer doesn’t say he had coffee or read the paper— he thought from six-thirty until eight.

Without turning on the TV, or his iPad or his smart phone.

++–++–++–++

Silence in which to think may be the most valuable tool a writer can use, and it is becoming increasingly rare in our daily lives. Studies have indicated that exposure to as little as two hours of silence can help develop new brain cells associated with memory, emotion and learning. Silence, said the researchers, literally made the brain grow.

An earlier study showed that even when the brain is resting, it was perpetually active, internalizing and evaluating information. (I think this is why I sometimes wake up puzzled by my dreams; my brain has been busy working out some problem I hadn’t considered consciously.) When the brain rests, said one researcher, it is able to integrate internal and external information, that is, to continue working. When you are not distracted by noise or concentrating on particular tasks, your brain has the freedom to discover where it belongs in your internal and external world. As Herman Melville wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

Noise can result in elevated levels of stress hormones, causing a detrimental physical effect on the brain. Noise makes a brain work less efficiently, and causes decreased motivation and an increase in errors. The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving, all important tasks for a writer.

The good news resulting from all these studies, however, is that the brain can restore its cognitive resources when it is in an environment with lower levels of sensory input. In silence, the brain can “let down its sensory guard” and restore some of the balance that has been lost through excess noise.

A retreat, then, can literally enable a writer’s brain to restore its equilibrium.

Still, the retreat house has a CD player, and sometimes silence is shattered. During a solo retreat, I’ve sometimes approached the house to find the windows rattling with music, perfectly acceptable as long as only one writer is residence. Usually when the writer finally hears me knocking, I learn she’s celebrating a writing breakthrough with a joyous explosion of sound.

++–++–++–++

LMHwriter06When I have an idea, it’s easy to write furiously: I take notes in my journal, I mumble to myself and take more notes while walking the dogs, and I sit at the computer and type wildly. Once I’m immersed in a project, my subconscious mind keeps working while I get lunch started, answer an email or two. At night, in order to stop thinking about the writing, I read a mystery until I fall asleep.

But what really helps with writing, or with any other problem, is to simply sit down, stare into space and think. (Thinking can be accomplished while walking dogs if no one is talking, but it’s easy to be distracted by the dogs’ antics, the rabbits, interesting rocks and plants.)

I do believe that some of the most important thinking can happen while you are doing routine chores, or sleeping, or at other times when you may not realize you are not writing. Thinking can happen anytime and anywhere and you need to be prepared.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so, unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers after their retreats.

Information on the benefits of silence came from “Science Says Silence Is Much More Important to Our Brains Than We Think,” by Rebecca Beris.
http://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 2 — Evolution

windbreak-house-mailboxAs soon as I’d made the decision to turn my ranch house into a writing retreat, I started coming back to the ranch more often to help my assistant, Tamara, get ready to make the plan a reality. She provided unlimited energy and creative ideas, as well as hard labor. She recalls “mowing the huge yard (and the wonderful varied odors as I cut the different plants that had been baking in the sun), painting the rooms, putting weatherproofing stain on the deck.”

During periods without retreats, we cleaned, rearranged and renovated. One year, for example, we bought 20 new windows; Tam stained and varnished every one. She writes, “I finished the last windows while listening to NPR’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina.” That summer was hot and dry, hard on the cattle, but the weather allowed her to leave the house open to the elements while the stain and varnish dried. Unfortunately, removing the windows to replace them scattered insulation over everything in the house, making our spring house-cleaning particularly difficult.

If we were working on changes while retreat writers were in residence, sometimes they insisted on pitching in to help.

I can tell I’m home because I want chores to do. . . . Itching to haul and rake and hammer. . . . What if Linda thinks I’m criticizing? Maybe she won’t realize I know homes are never perfect and it’s our loving them that makes them precious. . . . But I’m not a stranger here anymore. Somewhere back there Linda foolishly left a gate open and now I have limestone under my fingernails, buffalo grass in my hair, thunderstorms in my veins.

Years before, I’d acquired an ancient claw-foot tub, but couldn’t find anyone willing to install it, so I parked it on the hillside and used it to water my horse. I shared the upstairs shower with retreat guests until Jerry installed the tub in the lower level during the retreat’s second year.

I’ve never visited a writing retreat, though I’ve explored some online, being astonished and briefly envious of those that provide wine, hot tubs, massage therapists, yoga instructors or chefs. Some operate almost like hotels, with maid service for rooms. Others provide individual cabins for work and sleep, but serve meals in dining halls. The establishments advertising these pricey amenities, though, are often supported by a foundation and run by a paid maintenance staff, so they have to charge enough to finance luxuries. While these places clearly fill some desires, they are not my ideal retreat.

Perhaps if I had foundation backing or a private fortune, I might have chosen differently, but I remembered longing for silence, space, and time to write when I had no money to spend on these things so necessary to a writer. I’d established writing nooks in every apartment I occupied, in a closet, a hallway, and in a corner of my bedroom. I wanted Windbreak House to welcome writers at all financial levels, but especially at the birth of their careers; low costs encourage novice writers who can’t afford chefs and massages, and who want to focus on their work without interruptions from maid service.

If knowledge is power then I am a much stronger woman now than when I entered this place.

makeshift-bed-in-burrowing-owlAnalyzing my one-family house for its suitability as a retreat, we decided that visiting writers would occupy the main floor, sharing the kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom. We named the master bedroom Eagle in honor of a Daniel Long Soldier painting. A smaller bedroom became Dragonfly after a colorful print. My study was already established in the walk-out basement, abutted by a half-bath with its walls lined with bookshelves. I created a single bed by putting a door across two antique trunks and adding a foam mattress. Tam dubbed the place Burrowing Owl after my favorite prairie owl, which lives in old prairie dog burrows.

We aimed for cozy comfort on a slim budget that forced us to make do. The house was still partly furnished after my tenants departed, but we bought new beds, pillows, and a couple of futons that doubled as couches. We piled extra pillows on the beds for reading, stocked up on plush towels, and draped woven shawls in chairs for more reading comfort. My mother had collected quilts, both antique and new, and stored them in trunks in the ranch outbuildings. Sadly, some of these works of art from our community had been damaged by mice and mildew, but the surviving ones soon graced the retreat beds. Quilters often worry about damage to the quilts, fold them, and carefully stash them in the closet during retreat; I explain how I’d saved them from oblivion, and my belief that they were made to be used.

To add extra space, we parked Jerry’s small travel trailer in the yard outside the walk-out basement, and named it Prairie Chicken. Nervous about guests who might not be familiar with using propane, we left the trailer’s tank empty so it was without heat or its stove. When we had three writers in residence, I could sleep and work in the trailer, and dash inside to use the bathroom.

prairie-chicken-trailer

I didn’t want to have to cater to differing eating habits, so each writer would bring her own food and cook for herself. Neither the kitchen stove nor the refrigerator were new. We filled the cupboards with enough plates and bowls, glassware, pots and pans, cutlery, and serving dishes for five or six people. I explained to writers who came alone that they might choose to let the dishes stack up and do them the final day. We got better acquainted while cooking and, as one writer put it, “bumping butts” in the tiny kitchen.

When I returned to my ranch-house-turned-retreat, I loved seeing the house come alive. The first day, everyone carried their notebooks and books to their rooms, until I reminded them that none of us would read another’s private writing, or move a book left open. The next day the tables, chairs and floor would be decorated with clusters of writing materials, slippers, anything else that might aid a writer to think. Writers sprawled on the couch and floor, reading to each other. After an especially vigorous discussion, we might all be unable to sleep, and gather in the kitchen at midnight to warm milk and continue our talk in the living room or on the deck.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

Windbreak House: Looking Back at Twenty Years of Writing Retreats

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this retrospective of twenty years. Unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

++–++–++–++

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 1 — Beginnings

barbara-on-lake-linda-1997“Land ho!” shouted Barbara, posing with one hand shading her eyes, scanning the horizon.

She was perched in the stern of a johnboat floating on a shallow prairie pond.

“Man the mainsail!” She bellowed. “Avast the scuppers!” Or words to that effect.

She paddled a little farther and I called, “Halt! Sounding!” as I dropped the plumb line overboard. “This is the deepest yet. Eight feet.”

Barbara added the number to our list of the soundings we’d made of water depth on the cattle dam we’d named Lake Linda, just south of Windbreak House, my ranch home.

Barbara came to Windbreak House Writing Retreats during my second year of operation, hoping to break a writing block that had developed as she worked with victims of abuse and neglect.

By the time she asked about the depth of the stock dam below the retreat house, we’d worked together for two and a half days on demanding topics but we’d also discovered we shared an unusual sense of humor. She’d brought the urn containing the ashes of her late husband to the retreat, explaining that she’d never spent a night apart from him. I confessed that I called the mud outcropping in the water St. George Island, after my late husband, because he was in Lake Linda as he was always in my heart.

To answer her question, I found thin rope and tied a lead weight on the bottom. We dragged a shallow-draft john boat to the water’s edge. Barbara paddled; I watched for shallow spots, and dropped the plumb line over the side.

chorus-frogAs we neared shore, Barbara alerted me to the sound of chorus frogs. I’d been hearing them all during that wet spring of 1997, but had never seen them.

“How can you call yourself a prairie expert if you haven’t seen chorus frogs?”

“This dam has never had enough water for them before!” I protested. My whining did no good; she insisted we sit still, not even twitching as mosquitoes ripped chunks of flesh from our faces, until I could finally focus on the tiny frogs perched on water plants around the boat. She made me watch how they inflated the throat sacs that enabled them to sing so melodiously.

At last we floundered into the mud and dragged the boat on shore. Slogging through the ooze, we planned our next move. Inside the house, we both dropped most of our clothes by the washing machine and raced upstairs, giggling somewhat hysterically. She was faster, so she got the first shower.

Shared experiences break down barriers that may exist between writer and student, but that was the only retreat during which I disrobed with a writer!

++–++–++–++

You welcomed me with nighthawk feather and fresh sage, and walked me the perimeter of the writing house yard, calling names of blue flax, sunflowers, buffalo grass, thistle, rattlesnake.

The decision to create a writing retreat, originally for women only, arose appropriately from a gathering of women. After my father died and my mother moved to a nursing home, I was living with my partner Jerry in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while tenants occupied both my own house and that of my parents. In June of 1995 the tenants of my house moved out. Two women I’d met in Cheyenne, who’d been reading my books, came home with me to see the ranch. As soon as I saw the mess the tenants had left, I threatened to burn the place down rather than rent it again, but my friends pitched in to help clean. I was glad I hadn’t let the renters paint the living room walls black, but the kitchen stove was so caked in grease that the burners wouldn’t light. We had to do serious housework before we could even sleep that first night.

The next morning, I discovered that the stone cairn George had built on the hillside had been dismantled, the heavy square stones scattered. I cussed the renters as we collected the stones, but eventually concluded the damage might have been done by a visiting badger, hunting for mice under the rocks. I gave the women a ranch tour, and instructions on opening gates, and we hiked through the pastures picking wildflowers. The last morning we sat on the deck after breakfast, talking over how the house might bring in enough income for taxes. One of the women said, “Why don’t you start a writing retreat for women?”

The idea was a blade of light, so completely perfect that I set my camera on the deck railing and took a picture of us to commemorate the moment. I decided to call the place Windbreak House. The name is literal for the tall trees that collect snow on the north side of the house. But it’s also a nod to the metaphor suggested by my prologue to my first book:

A windbreak is a precious thing. It is a promise in fall, a lifesaver and a place of warmth in winter, a sign of hope in spring, and a place of loveliness in the dry heat of summer. We all need a windbreak.

—- from Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
(Barn Owl Books, 1987) page v

I had no idea what I was doing, but now that I do, I’d do it again.

In the retreat journal, one of the writers at the first retreat recalled details:

A few casualties (an armored wasp stung C, W fell through a barbed wire fence, Linda tangled with some iron thing, bruising her ankle to the bone) but none of heart. In fact, Frodo and George visited S.

George, my husband, had been dead for some years, but our West Highland White Terrier Frodo had died shortly before the retreat. During her first night in what had been our bedroom, Susan was awakened by what she believed was a small dog jumping on the bed. When she sat up, she saw a large man lifting the dog in his arms, apologizing so gently she wasn’t afraid.

One of those first writers wrote in the house journal before departing:

All blessings on Linda. All love. She recognizes who we are and calls us forth.
Sends us forth.

Inviting strangers into my home to work on their personal writing was a risky venture, but I reasoned that teaching had provided me with enough understanding to carry it off. I’d worked as a traveling Poet in Schools and encountered unusual dilemmas, like the sixth grader who asked if she could write about whether she should keep the baby, but had told neither her parents nor teacher she was pregnant.

A student in one of my college English classes had been drafted when he flunked every course he was taking, and he wrote from Viet Nam to accuse me of murder. “You failed me in English,” he declared, “and now people are shooting at me.” Conducting retreats in my home couldn’t, I reasoned, possibly be worse.

Hooray! I’m on track again. Now I remember—there’s fun in this!

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Deadline Met: Report on a Solitary Writing Retreat

writing-retreat-houseMystery writer M.K. Coker came to Windbreak House Retreats for a solitary retreat in October, finishing the next book in the terrific Dakota Mystery series in time for a November deadline. This report about the experience (printed with M.K.’s permission) ought to encourage every single writer: 1,000 words on the day of arrival!

Almost as soon as I arrived for my solitary retreat, I found the distractions of ordinary life– the insistent and unceasing demands of phones, Internet, and the never-ending to-do list– disappeared. I was able to write a thousand words on my novel that very afternoon before a scheduled get-together with Linda’s bookclub.

As it was the first time I’ve ever been on the hot seat as an author, I was a bit nervous but the informal potluck was just the right introduction to the bewildering world of fans. They asked probing questions, ones I hadn’t expected, such as whether I would go back and write the many books I had once started years ago and never finished (the answer: for the most part, no, I’d moved on). The only bad part of the evening was that I was so busy answering questions that I didn’t get to eat until it was all over! So I wasn’t able to thank them personally for the excellent repast.

The next several days, I was able to get down to work and pumped out about five thousand words on most days, with some thinking time when I hit snags. Daily walks from the retreat house to the highway kept my brain supplied with oxygen– and beauty.

barn-sunset-by-mk-coker-2016-10-14

Sunset — photo by M.K. Coker

A truly spectacular sunset over the Hills and a giant moon-set the morning that I left reminded me of what I often forget in town: Nature is the best inspiration. And a meeting with Linda to talk about the life of a writer was something I will always treasure, as I have no one in my life who truly understands that aspect of my life.

Without this retreat, I have no doubt that I would have missed my editing date. But I made it, by the skin of my teeth!

If you haven’t yet read a book by this author, you’re way behind. Get acquainted with Detective Marek Okerlund and Sheriff Karen Mehaffy and the fictional Eda County in southeastern South Dakota, that “bastion of corn, beans, wheat, bluffs, and rivers.” Every word, every scene, every community activity, rings absolutely true.

mk-coker-five-books

Start with the first in the series, and by the time you’ve read all those available now, the new one should be out. First is Dead White, followed by Dead Dreams, Dead Wrong, Dead Quiet, and Dead News.

mkcokerdeadhotAnd in March of 2017, look for number six: Dead Hot.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Read my “Book Remarks” blog about M.K. Coker’s Dakota Mystery series here:
https://windbreakhouse.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/dead-in-dakota-the-mysteries-of-mk-coker/

Find M.K.Coker’s website here:
http://www.mkcoker.com/

Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

Rise early. Work late. Strike oil.   — J. Paul Getty

Before you invest in a commercial writing retreat, test your mental discipline and your toleration for silent solitude. Time at an exotic location doesn’t guarantee writing success. I offer practical, tested suggestions for creating a place and time for your writing at home.

Creating a Private Writing Retreat

Every writer’s dream may be saying to her local writing group, “I’ll be working on my novel at a retreat, so I’ll miss the next two meetings.”

For most writers, a retreat is a mirage; we read the ads, shaking our heads at cost, and imagine applying for a grant. Most writers have seen their fantasies of finding the perfect retreat evaporate.

Yet we can visualize a perfect place to avoid the daily demands that gobble writing time. Whether our fantasy setting is near warm beaches or aloof mountains, we’re sure such a hideout would empower us to really write that novel. Say the word “retreat” and we see ourselves, monk-like, bent in ascetic devotion over satisfying work.

Take heart; we live in the Synthetic Age. Experts tell us the artificial can be as reliable as genuine articles, and few of us can tell a real diamond from faux, or solid wood from veneer anyway. If you can’t afford a retreat, you can make one.

A Retreat Won’t Make You a Writer

home-retreat-cranes-2016-9-16Face facts; moving your physical body to an “official” retreat won’t make you a writer. I once studied the Shaolin Kung Fu five-animal system, concentrating on the form known as “White Crane.” My instructor worked with me on several aspects of this martial art, developing my breath control and balance, speed and timing. Gradually, I developed strength and flexibility while learning fighting stances based on the symmetry and stability of a crane’s movements. Eventually, I understood how to use my hands and arms as weapons, learned the backfist and claw hand, and how to deliver the blade kick to an attacker’s knee. Throughout my training, my instructor emphasized that physical abilities alone would not enable me to master the form; meditation and focus are key aspects of the martial arts. In the end, I was not willing to devote three or more hours a day to practicing Karate in order to master its nuances on the chance I would use my skill to repel an attacker.

My experiences in writing have been similar; the physical facets of a retreat must be coupled with mental discipline and tenacity if you want to be a writer. The important aspects are the mental discipline and tenacity.

Physical Features of a Retreat

A commercial retreat provides the writing customer with varied opportunities, often including an ideal work space in a beautiful location; meals cooked by someone else; uninterrupted work time, and freedom from household chores. How can you duplicate these features at home?

Each writer would understand and arrange these requirements differently, but many writers could create a retreat at home, eliminating travel expense and the hassle of packing.

At home, I can’t hide from my real self, whereas when I travel I assume other roles, depending on the purpose of the trip. At home, I have rooms filled with writing resources and tools; I’m surrounded by comfortable clothes and furniture. Traveling to a retreat forces me to choose what I will need, and I might forget something vital.

Work Space

Work space is a high priority for a writer who takes the job seriously; dozens of sources discuss the importance of assigning exclusive space to writing. Even a closet or the corner of a room can be a beginning, and help a writer to achieve the mental attitude I’ll discuss later. If you don’t already have a writing office, consider stealing another room temporarily for an at-home retreat. Survey how you might temporarily transform a porch or spare bedroom, stocking it for a brief writing session. You may like it so well you won’t give it back to the rest of the family.

home-retreat-arbor-2016-9-16Examine your home, inside and out, for nooks that might become secret retreat spots even in a busy day: the attic is particularly tempting, especially if access is via a folding ladder you can pull up after you. Shut yourself into a spare bedroom at the back of the house. One writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard; she’s out of sight from the sidewalk six feet away, and unable to hear telephones or raps at the door. Her lack of electricity is outweighed by the privacy. Draw the mental curtains and you’ll feel as if you’re a motel guest, free to set your own schedule.

Meal Preparation

How can you duplicate the retreat luxury of eating meals you do not cook? Analyze your own nature and the possibilities in your location. Mealtimes at home can furnish dangerous opportunity for detours from your purpose, but you need not starve in a garret. Perhaps you’ll prepare for a “retreat week” by cooking meals in a frenzy and stocking the freezer. Or hire a friend or family member to fix and deliver meals every day. (Beware the rampant curiosity about your trade; your cook might, ask, “So, what are you working on? Can I see it? I brought my novel for you to look at.”)

Consider stocking the freezer with microwave meals, or going out to breakfast and buying a prepared meal to eat at your desk at noon. Cache healthy munchies to cut down on cooking and dish-washing, and keep you from stuffing yourself with fats that will clog your brain and pad your bottom.

Necessary Chores

Plan for house-cleaning before you “arrive” at your retreat. One harried middle-aged writer I know schedules errands and meetings for the day her cleaning woman comes; she escapes the woman’s chatty curiosity. When she comes home, the house is tidy enough so she can go directly to her desk, as if she were on retreat.

Or you might train other members of the household to do necessary jobs while you are “gone.” At the same time, make other arrangements as you would for any absence from home: pay bills, think about pet care, and water the plants. Spend a week or two noticing all the business that keeps you from writing, and arranging for it to be completed, or suspended, for the duration of your retreat. You might even choose to “arrive” ceremoniously, walking up the front steps and entering the house as if you are a visitor.

Looking at Locale

Exotic locations lure us toward commercial retreats, but many of us, with work schedules requiring us to leave and get home in the dark, are strangers to our own neighborhoods anyway. As you plan your reproduction retreat, walk around your home with the eyes of an outsider. Identify flowers and trees; watch birds and squirrels; find a perfect pocket rock. Romp on swings and jungle gyms in a park, or play follow-the-leader with children.

A writer I know, who supports his family on his earnings, declares a dog essential for writers; his hound provides a constant excuse for walks while talking to himself. Strolling streets and alleys alone at midnight can be suspicious or dangerous behavior in some communities, unless you’re following a dog.

Carry a notebook everywhere. When a short, relaxing stroll clears up some problem that’s perplexed me for days, I’ve sometimes been forced to scribble on grocery lists and traffic tickets. Once I note a thought, I can examine it as I chase squirrels with the dog, or pursue any other casual activity. If I were washing dishes or putting a load of laundry in the washer, I’d want to finish first, and might lose the idea.

home-retreat-cooking-2016-9-16

What’s Time Worth?

Before you reject any choice as too costly, consider how much work time is worth to you; check the figures on how much you’ll make if you finish and sell an article or a play. If you have a full-time job, consider how your hard-earned income can buy a writing break.

Writing in a retreat is, literally, buying uninterrupted time to concentrate on writing; time is not a gift but something we must take from another activity. We envision a retreat as a sanctuary from the daily buzz. Our homes should be havens where we make the rules. Unfortunately, many of us have turned our lodgings into snares that keep us busy without writing.

Anyone who writes at home knows that pausing to eat lunch can lead to scouring the kitchen sink and doing the breakfast dishes; you might as well set the garbage bag outside as a reminder to put it in the alley before tomorrow. Since the steps are snow-covered, you sweep them; brushing your teeth, you decide to scrub the toilet, and you’re hanging fresh towels when the phone summons you at the convenience of a persistent siding salesman. Before you know it, three hours have evaporated, and you’ve lost the idea you were stalking when you left your desk.

Mental Remodeling

Creating a retreat at home requires you to remodel your mental machinery for the discipline necessary to establish a writing schedule. Even a committed writer who wins an expense-paid stay in the best retreat on earth can’t work twenty-four hours a day. If you spend more time not writing than writing, you’ve established patterns deflecting you from serious work no matter where you are. Correcting these glitches, readying yourself mentally for the benefits of a retreat, is more important than having paper and a pen, or buying the latest personal computer or electronic pocket calendar. Mental groundwork consists of a combination of self-discipline and determination; these may be a writer’s most vital resources, and they can’t be bought, or taught.

White Crane Karate requires not only physical training, but the ability to picture oneself as a crane. A novice is encouraged to see her arms become slender wings of bone and sinew, her fingertips spread like feathers to gather and shape air. Willowy, powerful legs lift a body sculpted for flight. Students are reminded that each movement must be poised and graceful; have you ever seen a crane stumble?

I can’t assess the precise importance of either mental vision or physical training in mastery of Karate; I can’t say that fifty percent of being a successful writer is disciplining oneself to write regularly. But when my writing is not going well, when I hear only howling car horns and screaming brakes, I picture a crane like those in old Japanese woodcuts, beak and supple neck lifted elegantly against dark clouds. Exercising, I meditate on the same vision.

Charting Time

First, analyze your obligations; what prevents you from spending time each day writing that great American novel? Having a full-time job is no excuse; William Carlos Williams, the influential 20th Century poet, wrote poetry, plays, essays and fiction while sustaining a lifelong medical practice. By cutting your options for writing time, a job may focus you intensely on the hours available, and provide funds to ease creation of a home office or retreat.

Begin by charting your time for a week to discover how you really spend each day. Allot a single page for each day, with categories of activity listed along one side: work, exercise, child care, driving, sleeping. On an adjoining side, record the hours, beginning at midnight. Don’t cheat; log anything you do for more than a quarter hour by shading in a box. Keep the chart with you all the time you’re awake, and record what you’ve done at least every couple of hours, before you forget. Keep track of your time for seven days, a total of 168 hours. At the end of the week, add up the hours you’ve devoted to each action.

Yes, charting one week takes time. But if you’re honest, you’ll learn enough about your own habits in one week to change the priorities of your life, if you want to.

Study the results. Question yourself about what they mean.

Analyze Work Habits

Do you concentrate on finishing a single task, or leap from one chore to another? If you never quite complete anything, you increase your own frustration. How many of the duties on your chart do you want to do? How many are truly unavoidable? Does your family help? Do friends encourage you with positive attitudes about your desire to write? A writer can sabotage her own goals if she hasn’t cultivated discipline.

Using what you have learned from reviewing the chart, build a schedule reflecting your priorities. Remember, writing is a job, so as soon as you get serious, you’ll start trying to sneak out of it. But being serious about writing will help you believe in its importance, which in turn will help legitimize it in the eyes of friends and family members. Planning is part of a program to improve your self-discipline.

Building a Work Schedule

  1. Schedule unavoidable jobs first, along with necessities like sleeping and eating; be realis­tic.
  1. Plan errands. Itemize household tasks like cleaning, doing laundry, fixing meals; delegate jobs among those who share your home. Consolidate errands, saving time by doing several in one part of town. Avoid leaping up in the middle of a poem to buy a can of corn for supper; a few “quick trips” can destroy a timetable.
  1. Establish specific times for relaxing pleasure. Since you know time is limited, make choices that will help your goal; substitute a walk for a TV program if exercise clears your head.
  1. After chronicling other parts of your average week, schedule writing periods as carefully as you would devise time for another paying job. Don’t plan to begin eight hours of writing at nine Friday night. Can you use a quiet office an hour before work each morning?

Keep time charts in your writing journal so you can repeat the process later, to see progress or make changes. Even one hour a week of writing time will improve your skills. Gradually, you may increase the writing time wrested from other obligations. Try a “retreat day,” before you’re ready for a week. Thinking of yourself as a writer helps reinforce the discipline and determination you need.

Consider the Telephone

HOME RETREAT cell phones 2016--11-4.JPG

If you’re trying to think of a word that rhymes with “paramour,” will you answer the phone? Most days, we allow that insistent jangle to snatch us out of intimate moments, but a telephone is only a tool; we can choose how it serves us. Determine your priorities. Consider turning it off while you work. Get an answering machine; turn the ringing sound low, or off, or move the phone far from your work area, so you can honestly say you didn’t hear it.

Tell chatty friends you’ve got “a deadline,” or you’re “on retreat;” instead of explaining, let their assumptions answer their questions. A deadline implies that someone is paying you, and a retreat might have artistic or religious significance, lending both terms a dignity most people are reluctant to invade. Better yet, leave a message on the answering machine designed, after all, to explain for you. After you finish work, listen to messages and return calls; with luck, you’ll get someone else’s answering machine, saving still more time.

At a retreat where I spent several weeks, the only phone in the house was tucked into a cramped alcove off the kitchen. Sometimes a staff member would be close enough to answer it, and place a message on the kitchen table to wait until the next time I came down. No one ever knocked on a closed studio door unless the house was on fire. Writers and artists in residence were discouraged from talking or using the stereo or television in the retreat’s communal rooms during the day.

Loving Silence

Uninterrupted silence is a major attraction at many retreats, since our lives are so noisy, but it’s not ideal for every writer. I loved the particularly rural silence at a retreat house in a mountain valley a half-mile from a tiny village. Occasionally, a logging truck whined up the dirt road, or a resident horse whinnied, but even if all the residents of the hamlet shouted at once, I couldn’t have heard them through the thick adobe walls. Conversely, a writer who came from New York City discovered she could not adapt to the quiet; she drove twenty-five miles to the nearest café each morning to write amid the babble of conversation. Each day, she wasted gas and money because she did not know she was uncomfortable with too much tranquility.

In your facsimile retreat, silence enough to work may be relatively easy to find, with a little practice and firmness. If street noises are distracting, shut windows; in hot weather, set up a fan. Wear foam earplugs. Be determined and you will find a way.

Lock the door, and put up a sign. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on a chain across the road to her house when she is painting or thinking:

I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.

A sculptor in New Mexico hangs a warning on her gate:

Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.

Clearly, you must be determined, and sometimes ruthless to other people in order to use time as you choose. My parents trained me to be unfailingly polite; I struggled for years to be cordial and still prevent other people from wasting my writing time in meaningless talk. Finally, I realized that even discourtesy is not always enough to preserve the simple human necessity of time alone. A retreat constructs an automatic barrier to protect your time. But if you learn to protect it yourself– if writing is that important to you– you’ll gain more than two weeks of peaceful work in a chaotic year. You need not be rude, simply firm. “Sorry, I can’t do that” usually works.

Once you’ve solved some of the problems, declare “writing days” or “retreat days.” If you stop writing to do household chores, make your penalty harsh enough– cleaning the garage?– to remind you not to do that again.

Retreat Luxuries

home-retreat-bouquet-2016-9-16A real retreat furnishes special effects, but you can duplicate some of these at home. My perfect retreat was surrounded by wooded hillsides where I often walked with my dog and the house hound. One day, I noticed a tangle of wild grape vines and selected three brilliant red stems to display in the empty green bottle I’d found on my last walk. My former country home and my new city home are both surrounded by wildflowers I’ve planted, but I seldom stop writing to pick nosegays. Arranging the grape vines beside a whitened jaw bone on the broad window ledge before my desk did not break my concentration on a knotty problem in the essay I was writing, but the bouquet brightened other hours at my computer. These days, remembering the joy of arranging that window sill scene, I’m more likely to take a refreshing walk among my flowers without losing concentration on the day’s writing job.

We can make such energizing rites part of any ordinary day, simulating the atmosphere of retreat. Light a candle; breathe deeply while gazing into its modest glow. Lock the bathroom door and take a hot bath with the blueberry-scented crystals Aunt Emma sent you last Christmas. Swaddled in a quilt on the couch, read a book, being careful to wrap the quilt so tightly around your ankles you can’t possibly get up to answer the door or telephone. Choose a signal to tell yourself it’s time to switch to thinking about writing. Perhaps you can grind coffee beans for the perfect cup of coffee to take to your office. Formalizing such a ritual will signal your mind to shift from daily drudgery to the calm necessary to writing. Opening your mind, you may discover the editing your subconscious has done while you were occupied elsewhere. Discipline yourself to go to your work area the instant you realize you are avoiding the labor of writing.

A writing refuge, no matter where it is, won’t necessarily cause brilliant sequences of words to gush onto your paper. But if a writer learns self-discipline, a home retreat available anytime can be more useful than a two-week excursion to an exotic isle that breaks your budget.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

This essay was originally published in Bloomsbury Review in 1995 with the title Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat

Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.

 

Resources:

The signs quoted in my essay appeared in from Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. (NY: Ballantine, 1992), also a good source for building self-confidence. Don’t be intimidated by the book’s massive size; a deft reader can skim the repetitions and catch relevant highlights.

The Writer On Her Work, Vol. 1 and 2, ed. by Janet Sternburg. Novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers talk about finding time, work methods, and other issues of importance to any writer.

Google “writing retreat” and you’ll get thousands of choices in seconds, but be wary. A listing is not a recommendation, and not all writing retreats are entirely dedicated to improving your writing; some are dedicated to making money.

http://www.writing/shawguides.com lists writing retreats and workshops all over the world, categorizing them by genre, month, state, and other methods of focus.

http://www.writersretreat.com lists worldwide retreats with resident writers.

http://www.monasteries.net Source for Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States, and similar resources. www.goodnightandgodbless.com has similar listings.

#  #  #