Twenty-Five Meditations on Grief

Retreat

On May 29, the day after Memorial Day, I wrote in my journal, I need a retreat.

As I considered the statement, I realized I meant that I’m never free of cooking, checking this, cleaning that. Always my priority is something other than myself or my writing. Lately I’ve taken a few minutes once in a while to read in the middle of the day, but that’s not thinking or writing. Still, it’s a step– taking some time for myself

Here’s the irony: I have a spare house where writers, artists and others come to enjoy their own retreats from their busy-ness. Moreover, I write and give speeches about how to find time for writing in a busy life. I have known for years that taking– making– time in a busy schedule is essential to creativity. I don’t believe real creativity can occur under pressure. If one gets a creative idea in a busy office, I think the meditation that led to it has happened at an earlier time.

Yet recently I am filled with tension that surely hampers creativity.

 LMH office - small copy for blog

Imagine

LMH with toby in sweater 2009 - small copy for blogI recently read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and was struck by his statement that many insights happen in warm showers or when we’re dozing off because we’re relaxed. Our brains are being creative because they have nothing else to do. He also quoted studies that demonstrate that happy people perform better, and he thinks daydreaming should be part of the daily routine because that’s when insights happen.

Daydream

When did I last daydream?

Probably in grade school when the teacher rapped on my desk and said, “Stop daydreaming!”

Is this why I am always doing something? Does always doing something actually block the creative thought that is so important to who I am? I read in bed, write in my journal, rush downstairs to answer emails and run upstairs to cook lunch, then gallop downstairs to finish that paragraph. I’m rarely without a book in my hand when I sit down, but I also usually have a pad and pencil so that if my reading sparks an idea, I can capture it.

linda toby deck manzanita 

Busyness

I’m always taking notes, not only in my handwritten personal journal, but in other ways– in my grocery list, in my garden guide, in my purse calendar and desk calendar and computer calendar, not to mention my computer journal. Does this busyness actually hamper thinking?

I start each day with coffee and my journal, where I record the time, temperature, my appointments for the day, and what I’ll make for lunch and dinner. I seldom simply sit still, letting the day wash over me.

Can creativity blossom while we “interact” on Facebook or chat on the phone or Twitter, however that’s done?

I doubt it.

Journal in grass 1990s - small copy for blog 

Relaxation

Does creative relaxation need solitude?

I’m not sure. I can visualize a woman quilting with friends as they discuss an idea that blooms between them as they each contribute ideas. Each person’s creativity may be encouraged by that of the others to generate a new whole.

Yet instead of being constantly busy, suggests Lehrer in Imagine, we need to create time to deliberately relax in whatever mode works best for each of us. This creative relaxation may take many forms: sitting on the deck, lying in a hot bath, or listening to music through headphones while walking, but it is necessary. Perhaps quilting with friends qualifies.

 women quilting - smallcopy for blog

Destruction

Why do I try to record everything? Because I once burned all the journals I’d kept until I was in my mid-twenties?

That act of destruction still takes my breath away when I remember it. And especially when I realize that I didn’t understand at the time I was hurting myself because my worthless husband at the time, who had cheated on our vows multiple times, had read my journals– because he thought I was unfaithful.

 burning journals - small copy for blog

Encouragement

Certainly I don’t believe everything I write down is important.

Perhaps I am looking ahead, to believe that someday another writer will find encouragement in what I’ve done.

“She was cooking and cleaning and taking care of dogs and she still wrote poems and books, so I can do those things. She survived that and that, so I can thrive as well. ”

 Computer hands - small copy for blog

Robins

I sit under the deck with my journal watching the robins feeding the chirping babies; at least 3 heads show above the rim of the nest. Both male and female robins have red breasts, but the male’s is larger and redder, while the female’s looks washed out. I need to pay closer attention.

One or the other feeds the babies at 3:28, 3:37, 3:41, 3:47, 3:49, 3:55, 4:04, 4:05, and on and on.

The next morning when I peer down through the deck at the robin nest, it is empty. But when I walk toward the greenhouse, three baby robins suddenly squawk and flutter up over the concrete wall and into the grass.

The morning after that, two of them are sitting on the grass as an adult robin feeds them. A few days later, we still see adults feeding younger robins in various places around the house. They cheep incessantly while they wait to be fed: like teen-age humans.

At the tree swallow nest, two or maybe three indistinguishable swallows are zipping into the nest every few minutes, presumably also feeding chicks.

Meanwhile, two barn swallows perch on a deck support and chatter at one another. And blackbirds and sparrows zip back and forth across the yard, busy on their own errands. I’ve really noticed this lately: the birds are so busy hunting that they don’t bother to fly any higher than necessary. When we are in the yard, they zip past at waist or eye level, sometimes barely high enough to clear the ground. When I’m driving on the highway, I see they just clear the fences. They veer around obstacles with blinding speed, concentrating on getting where they are going.

Tonight, we watch several– it’s hard to tell how many– tree swallows flying high in the air, pirouetting, doing glissades, spinning, flying in formation– clearly just playing.

Robin baby wants to eat 2017--7-8 - small copy for blog 

Survival

I try to ignore the destruction being done to the environment and to every shred of decency in this country by greedy thugs who are dismantling laws that have protected the air, water, and resources belonging to all of us. We seem to be living under a dictatorship rather than a democracy. If I read too much of the news, I become depressed, so I try to concentrate on what I can accomplish. Fortunately, we have no television set, so I’m sure I’m spared considerable ballyhoo.

Like the birds, I keep busy feeding my interests, zipping around obstacles. Their job is survival, as is mine. We do what we can while we have life.

Like the robins and tree swallows, I’ll keep on with what I am doing because the work I can do is all I can claim to accomplish.

 Robin adult and fledging 2018--6-14 - small copy for blog

Lilacs

My dad planted lilacs every spring. He’d dig a few from where they thrived and take the shoots in front of the house to plant them where my mother could see them from the kitchen and living room. I can see him with a few branches in a bucket, carrying his shovel over his bony shoulder. He knew he wouldn’t live to see those lilacs bloom at their finest, but he planted them anyway.

Today, they grow in a massive row ten feet tall and four feet wide, and they are covered in bloom. Did he know that someday they would bloom like this, causing me to miss him so much?  I can picture him with my mother strolling down the avenues of lilac bloom, reveling in the rich scent and color.

In the cemetery, the lilacs he planted on his parents’ graves have overwhelmed the stones, nearly hiding them.  We have sometimes cut them back, but we can’t, or possibly we won’t, remove them. They mean too much, shedding their fragrance over the motley collection of memorials around them.

 Lilacs at HSH - small copy for blog

Cemetery

In the cemetery, bluebells are blooming in the buffalo grass and big bluestem. Sweet William is standing tall, almost ready to bloom. I see grape hyacinth three inches high on some graves, and budding roses on others.

Why do I take real flowers to the cemetery on Memorial Day every year? Every year I find peanut butter jars and olive oil jugs, weight them with rocks, and fill them with real flowers and the branches of flowering shrubs that grow around my parents’ house. I put these modest offerings on the graves of my husband, my father and mother, my grandmother and grandfather and the uncle I never knew, William Edward Callahan, my father’s half-brother, always called Eddie. His brother Archie, killed in a fall from a horse in our pastures, is buried beside his mother Ida and her second husband, Charles Hasselstrom.

All around us, graves are decorated lavishly with bright arrangements of artificial flowers. Some decorations consist of flowers in colors unknown to reality, but others are faithful reproductions of real, gorgeous blooms, backed by white Styrofoam crosses and wreaths. On some graves are small statues: the Virgin Mary, a horse, a tractor.

When I kneel over the grave of my father to place my offering, I can see his ironic smile when he made this trip every year. He’d walk to a particularly ostentatious stone of a once-powerful ranching family that had dwindled away into a few kids raised in town and say, “They used to BE somebody,” and walk away shaking his head.

Two days later I collect the wilted flowers and the containers and take them home to the garbage. The artificial flowers were still bright, though have already blown over in our ferocious winds. All summer, driving past the cemetery, I’ll glance up and see the flowers slowly disappearing as they disintegrate and are blown into the surrounding prairie.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery fake flowers - small copy for blog

Labor Day

Since burials began, people have probably left gifts at the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes the gifts were food, clothing, or weapons. Sometimes captured enemies were symbolically killed to mark a death, or a favorite dog or horse was slaughtered to join its master. Man doesn’t seem to want our loved ones to go into the darkness of death without comforts.

Since I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, I will drive to the cemetery the day after Labor Day, in early September. I will drive between the great stone gates, over the cattle guard and between the cannons.

Cannons. They guarded the grave of some Confederate prisoner in the Dry Tortugas, and through someone’s influence were brought proudly to this remote outpost in the West. Is there something ironic about these great weapons of war pointing at every visitor who comes to this cemetery?

With other members of the Cemetery Board, I will walk the cemetery collecting pieces of Styrofoam and torn flowers, putting all these symbolic gifts from the spring in black plastic bags to be piled into dumpsters and hauled away. People who care enough to decorate the graves for Memorial Day apparently find it inconvenient to take the offerings away before they become trash.

What do cannons in the cemetery mean?

Why do I take flowers to the cemetery every Memorial Day? Because my mother did.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery cannons - small copy for blog

Scraps

All I have left of my grandmother are a few photographs. She smiles love at me from above my computer every day.

All I have left that I can touch are a few fragile compositions in thread.

All I leave behind me will be scraps of paper threaded with words.

 Cora Belle picture in hand - small copy for blog

Graves

When we are finished with our lives, we sink into the ground, like the graves on the cemetery hill. Humans’ resting places are marked. The graves of the birds are anonymous. Yet they have just done their duty, done all they could.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery old stones and view - small copy for blog

Tombstones

LMH PHOTO Wm E Callahan grave - small copy for blog

I stop to read William Edward Callahan’s white marble tombstone, with his birth and death dates and the symbol of his military service cleanly carved into stone. 1895 to 1942. I’ve read his letters from Camp Funston where he was sent when he was improperly drafted at the age of 46. He wanted to come home to his horses.

My father always felt guilty that he wasn’t able to serve in the military; the rheumatic fever he had as a child left him with a withered arm. He wouldn’t have been good at taking orders.

Instead

When I think about a day when I haven’t gotten any writing done, I can list the things I’ve done that no one else will do, but that seem necessary for a well-ordered and pleasant home. I find it easier to do the jobs than to nag about getting them done. Take the hair out of the bathroom sink drain. Put the garbage in the can outside the basement door. Empty wastebaskets. Check the dogs’ water. Empty the humidifier. Clean the toilet and sinks. Spray the dogs with homemade tick repellent before they go outside. Close cupboard doors. Lock the doors at night. Put everything away.

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Crocheting

In the corner of my bedroom hang several crochet hoops and picture frames containing “piecework” my grandmother crocheted during her life. These fragile cloths are all I was able to salvage after various relatives claimed her dishes, her silver, her watch. But these are most precious to me. She sat before her television set, watching events unfold while she created beauty with her arthritic hands. Sometimes she mistook the TV dramas for real life, but she kept on crocheting.

My hands now look a great deal like hers and I can’t crochet despite her efforts to teach me. But her example is still teaching me. I can do nothing better than to watch events unfold while stitching together my writing, my meditations on events. Perhaps my writing serves no more purpose than my grandmother’s crocheting did. Perhaps I do them only because I can, or in an effort to create beauty. But like the robins and the tree swallows, I’ll keep on with my work because it is mine.

 Cora Hey crochet work - small copy for blog

Spirit

I’ve read somewhere, “land is not insensate; it is possessed of spirit.” Every inch of the earth is sacred, some believe. When I think of the land I sold to my neighbor, I feel fiercely protective. I want to get on a horse and ride over there to see that the antelope are still there, perhaps spot the cougar fleeing down that draw again, to see if anyone has disturbed the pile of rocks that I believe to be a grave.

I can’t do these things. I haven’t owned a horse in years, and dislike borrowing strange horses to ride. My neighbor would consider my visit to what is now his land an intrusion, though he wouldn’t say so, even if I met him in the pasture. He’d ask politely how I am doing, and how much rain we got, and we’d both observe how good the cows are looking.

Would he understand what I’m doing over there? Maybe. Probably.

 Horses Over East 1984 - small copy for blog

Light

10:25 p.m. with full moon, slightly lopsided. I’m collapsed in a cool breeze after a hot bath. Chorus frogs sing on the dam below the house. Straight up are stars. I avoid looking to the north to the glow of Hermosa’s streetlights. To the west, the neighbors’ glaring yard lights announce their presence. Someone recently broke into several garages and houses under those lights when the families were away. No one would have known about their houses without the lights to guide them. But I don’t want to think those negative thoughts now. I look east and south into blessed darkness where I own enough land to keep lights away. At least for now.

A bird chirps as though half asleep. Maybe the robins under the deck sense my presence and are nervous. Cars speed past on the highway like blind beetles. Do their drivers have any idea what is out here?

Moonrise 2017--10-3 - small copy for blog 

Sunrise

I go to the greenhouse to check the mouse traps, hoping to capture the rodents who have been eating the sage and thyme and basil that are just emerging from the pampered soil.

A baby rabbit is eating a cabbage leaf I threw off the deck yesterday. Since I closed down my compost bins because they were being raided by a skunk with no respect for our dogs, we haul some of our garbage to town. I throw from the deck anything the rabbits might eat. This contradicts the fact that I will hate it when baby rabbits start feasting on my radishes and tomatoes.

 Rabbit eating at HSH - small copy for blog

The Land

I’ve begun to loosen my hold on my father’s land, now mine.

I will soon be 75 years old, and have no siblings, no children. My cousins are all in other places and professions and my nieces and nephews uninterested in ranching. The land “over east” that I sold to my neighbor was about half of my ranch, so that I no longer have enough to make a living raising cattle. I sometimes dream about riding my horses there. But I won’t ride again, and certainly not over the prairie. There’s no horse I could trust, since there are no horses I raised myself. I know intimately the pastures over east—no doubt better than their current owners, who visit there in their mechanized vehicles. I’ve walked every step of the way to get there, tramped all over the pastures, ridden a horse or hiked into every niche in the prairie inside those fences. I’ve climbed most of the cliffs. I have sat in hidden alcoves that few people will ever see, sniffing the air of the prairie, watching the hawks soar above. So I tell myself that I am there, in every piece of ground where I’ve spent time.

I’m there, and I will always be there, in the pinnacle of rock where the previous inhabitants, the natives, watched for interlopers coming from the Badlands to the east. From that spire of rock, my spirit will float silently over the plains as long as air moves.

To me, the land is life. To anyone I can think of whom I might make my heir, it would be cash to be spent on a bigger house and newer car.

I remember my uncle Harold saying, “I didn’t work on this ranch my whole life for it to be somebody’s in-VEST-ment.” I had not imagined the non-metaphorical word “investment” could sound so much like the hiss of a dragon.

LMH rocks 2002 - small copy for blog 

Burial

This morning we went to Belle Fourche to bury the ashes of my cousin Charlie. A few family members from Charlie’s generation gathered among the headstones of quartz and marble and concrete. Most of us were cousins, sons of my father’s sisters and brothers. Some friends of Charlie’s sister came, and the pastor of her church with his Bible.  As our voices united in the Lord’s Prayer, we could hear the idling of an engine as the cemetery worker waited for us to leave so he could cover the hole. We left the urn under an oak tree and walked away. The next time we come here, we’ll see his name engraved on a flat stone beside that of his brother and his parents. At a nearby park, we ate a picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, and sweet desserts. I didn’t hear Charlie’s name mentioned.

burial food - small copy for blog

We stopped in town on the way home and bought tomato plants. I was happily digging holes for them before I took a breath and tasted ice.

Clouds

When I looked up, I could see the ragged white edges of a hail cloud and smell the jagged ice that was falling north of us. I hustled the rest of my plants inside, and put buckets over the two I’d already planted. Jerry called from town to say that he was parked under a bridge watching the hail. I could hardly hear him for the pounding storm.

I settled in a chair on the deck to watch the drama and wait for the hail to reach me. At first the clouds were deep gray with frothy white tops that looked like foam or ripe cotton bolls. As the wind aloft caught them, some began to shred like snow blown across the highway in a blizzard. Clouds that were flat and black on the bottom bubbled into gray or blue on top. Blowing east and south, they piled up, losing their definition as they formed a solid gray wall beyond the green shield of the south ridge. Mordor!

WBH storm clouds 2014--7-11 small copy for blog 

Nighthawks

Again and again the barn swallows flew above me, beating hard into the wind for a few seconds and then letting the wind take them, as if they were going down a slide. Then the nighthawks appeared, recognizable because they fly high and follow a pattern: flap-flap-flap-soar, flap-flap-flap-soar. While the barn swallows and tree swallows flirted with the wind, the nighthawks flew high, calling in their peculiar tone. The Lakota called them thunderbirds for their habit of flying in storms.

Nighthawk flying in clouds - small copy for blog

One nighthawk flew south, and began spiraling up and up and up until it disappeared behind a cloud.  I thought of Charlie as I had last seen him, lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his arm. His suntanned, bony face looked so much like that of my father I could hardly stand to kiss him goodbye.

Tube in arm -smallcopy for blog

The nighthawks are invisible in the darkness now, calling high above me. Time to go inside. I breathe deeply.

++–++–++–++

I have not had a retreat in the ordinary sense. Yet in the middle of a busy life, I have made the time to write a line or a paragraph that became twenty-five brief meditations this week. Writing time doesn’t have to be long to be effective.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Peterman Inspires More Than Sales

The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it.
— Robert Coover

Why do I snatch up the J. Peterman catalog whenever it comes?

Not because I can’t wait to order another outfit. Most of my clothes come second-hand– and probably look it.

J Peterman catalog

I’m more interested in reading the descriptions. The clothes are fairly ordinary, but what intrigues me is the mystique the writers have chosen to make customers pay shocking amounts of money to acquire them.

Here’s a man’s shirt with no visible distinction, buttoned in front with a round collar. Faded cotton in a muddy green, blue, or red. Sixty bucks.

The description begins:

“It’s Friday night at the Hog & Fool, a 200-year-old pub off O’Connell Street in Dublin. . . . Lean-faced men. Ruddy-faced women. . . . The bursts of laughter aren’t polite, but real, approaching the edge of uncontrollability.”

J Peterman Irish Pub shirt

Can’t you hear it? Three more paragraphs touch on Irish style and writers before the reader gets to the shirt: “well-suited for both the intoxication of talk and the difficult art of listening.”

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser

A page or two later, in a description of a jacket, comes this line: “For those occasions when you want to marshal all your resources, not just the bright shiny ones.”

And then there’s: “Thomas Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things. Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.” Eventually the persistent reader discovers there’s a shirt for sale.

Salesmanship for women’s pants calls on other senses: “Days of gossip and sunbathing, green figs and Pernod. Smells of orange and lemon trees.”

Stories are medicine. . . . They do not require that we do, be, act anything . . .”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I’ve evaluated zillions of essays by amateurs and professions, read thousands of well-reviewed books, but the catalog is still exciting reading. These write-ups help the company sell millions of dollars’ worth of products not much different than you can find anywhere.

What’s the secret?

This dress description opens with questions:

“Too much simplicity in your life? Yearning for a good hassle?” Follow the allure to a 1960s shirtdress.

A man’s jacket:

“The lord of the manor hated leaving the confines of his estate, perfectly happy surrounded by the birch and oak, the fainting goats. . . .” Fainting goats sell a jacket? You betcha.

Stories. Every clothing description hints at tales to be told, secrets to be revealed: the very backbone of most fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as of much excellent poetry.

Even the melancholy beginnings can draw a reader into a purchase:

“Dust storms. Drought. Poverty. Unemployment. Things were bleak in the ‘dirty 30s.’ But as in most times of struggle . . .”

J Peterman 1930s jacket and gardening equipmentGently the narrator begins to lead the story from despair into the impulse to buy a faded denim work jacket for a hundred fifty bucks.

The latest catalog even features high-class gardening tools destined for a shed or casual display on the deck, using Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw as part of the sales pitch. Pure genius.

Writers look for inspiration everywhere. I believe serious writers can find inspiration in the most barren landscape or situation. Finding it in a clothing catalog is something else again.

“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies,” wrote Steve Almond. The writers for J. Peterman are part of the same conspiracy that governs readers everywhere. The writer may be lying to the reader, but if the reader is enjoying it, he or she is happy to be deceived, whether purchasing clothes or reading a romance. Let this catalog be just another lesson to you!

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Book Remarks: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days — A conversation about writing and living on the land

The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold. But that is no argument against learning all one can.

—- Scott Russell Sanders, quoted in Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

 

Wittig Albert Extraordinary YearI have– finally!– read Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, published in 2010.

Because Albert is one of my favorite writers of mysteries (China Bayles) and other intriguing books, I’m chagrined not to have discovered this one until I found it online in 2014.

On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t read it when I bought it, or I might not have published my own most recent book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal.

I began reading Albert’s book June 6 of this year. I stopped almost at once because my own book was already in production; I knew I’d be receiving page proofs soon. I could tell that Susan Albert’s journal and mine would have enough in common as to make me afraid I might unconsciously adopt—steal—some of her ideas as I proofread my own work. When I had earlier asked Susan to write a back-cover comment for my book, I had no idea that its structure, a year’s diary, paralleled that of her book.

sagging fences untidy woods

Susan’s own words in her diary are always enlightening. “But there’s a blessing in inhabiting a place for a long time,” she writes, adding that her years as part of a tenant farming family in eastern Illinois “fed my life for country, for the everyday world of overworked fields and sagging fences, untidy woods, winter pastures. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary, not even (to most people, anyway) very beautiful. . . . Unkempt fields, tangled woods: my history. Home.”

This, to me, is the strongest statement of her book and of my own: that for most of us, wherever we are is home if we accept it as such, and consent to understand and enhance our relationship to the place.

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.

—- Wendell Berry, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Writing of her relationship to home, Albert provides a reading list for the responsible writer. Each person in the United States, she learns, is responsible for around 21 tons of CO2 emissions per year, according to the United Nations Human Development Reports.

Global warming is one of those things, not like an earthquake where there’s a big bang and you say, “oh my God, this has hit us.” It creeps up on you. Half a degree temperature difference from one year to the next, a little bit of rise of the ocean, a little bit of melting of the glaciers, and then all of a sudden it is too late to do something about it.

—- Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Shocked, she assesses the usage attributable to herself and her husband. They drive fuel-efficient vehicles fewer miles annually than most families, and wouldn’t consider replacing then until they’ve gone 200,000 miles. “We repair, repurpose, reuse, recycle,” take short showers, use compact fluorescents, noting that if everyone replaced just three regular lightbulbs, we could keep a trillion pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.

—- Thomas Friedman, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

 

Wittig Albert Extrordinary Year page

Besides her own observations, Susan Albert has generously added to the outer third of each page quotations from other writers that address her theme of ordinary days. Thus not only does she provide the reader with a broad spectrum of observations, she brings attention to writers the reader may have missed. Some of the writers and comments were ones that appear in my own quotations files, but in my highlighting, underlining and copying, I added at least a dozen titles of books to my “must read” list.

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.

—- Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Moreover, throughout the book, Albert weaves her own and others’ advice about writing, both directly and by inference. As she is writing this diary, uncertain whether or not it will become a book, she is proofreading another of her books I have not yet read, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her discipline and ability to focus provides a strong lesson for any aspiring writer, or, indeed, any writer who considers herself a professional with nothing more to learn about the craft.

Reading this book, slowly, with my highlighter close by and my journal handy for writing my own reactions, I felt as if I were engaging in a long and glorious conversation with the writer as we nestled in comfortable chairs in front of a glowing fireplace.  I was delighted but not surprised to realize that many of the writers I admire have come to the same conclusions as we reach similar ages.

It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. Otherwise, who will be there to chart the changes? Who will be able to tell us if the long-billed curlews have returned to the grassy vales of Promontory, Utah? Who will be there to utter the cry of loss when the salmon of the McKenzie River in Oregon are nowhere to be seen?

—- Terry Tempest Williams, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

If I am not here, on this small western grasslands ranch, who will know that I have not seen a long-billed curlew since the neighboring subdivisions started erecting so-called “security lights” that blare into the darkness and make it difficult to see the stars?

There is strength, freedom, sustainability, and pride in being a practiced dweller in your own surroundings, knowing what you know.

—- Gary Snyder, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Get this book and read it; you can purchase the hardback book from the publisher, University of Texas Press, or find used copies online.

Gathering from the Grassland outsideOh yes, and get my book too, and enjoy the conversation. And don’t be surprised if you keep right on buying more books whose authors could join all of us in this vital discussion about the future of our world.

Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is available in both paper and hardback– and though the book has only been out since September, used copies are available.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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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

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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.

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Read, Revise, Relax: Six Steps to a Successful Retreat at Windbreak House

You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.

Good Retreat adYou’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.

Now you’ve decided: what you really need is a writing retreat at Windbreak House. You looked over the website and Facebook page, you’ve sent in your application and yes! You’ve been accepted.

I promise to do all I can to make your retreat a success. This means I’ll give you all the motivation you can handle, but no massage. If you want wine, you’ll have to bring it along.

How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?

Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, whether you come to Windbreak House, or go to one of those places with the luxury amenities. I’ll follow this with ideas for creating your own retreat at home, and using your writing time more effectively.

First: Ask Yourself This

Will I go to the retreat alone or with someone else?

I conduct retreats according to my assessment of how you can achieve your goals. Several weeks before you arrive, you will send me an electronic attachment containing the material you intend to work on. I will read it several times, and write comments and questions about your intent in the manuscript. Then I’ll print copies for each of us. We’ll discuss what I’ve written and your responses to it. You’ll have an opportunity to revise, and perhaps to give me new work on which to comment. During your retreat, your work will be my first priority; we can meet as many times a day as you choose, and I’ll read and discuss with you anything you write. If you want that kind of attention, you may choose to be the only retreat guest in residence.

Good Retreat group 2014--9-12Do you want company? Group retreats can be beneficial; having two or three thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement. Before you ask people you know, however, ask yourself if you’ll work well together, or visit more than you write. Also, each additional person reduces the time I have to spend with you.

If you don’t ask writing friends, you could tell me that you’d like to share your retreat with another writer of the same gender. We can’t promise, but we’d let you know if someone who seems compatible applies for the same dates, and put you in touch if you choose. The kindly critical eye of a stranger can provide valuable new insight.

If you plan to share your retreat with others, remember to consider them in each of the following steps as you get ready for your getaway. For example, we can supply e-mail addresses (if you choose, and don’t already know one another), so you can arrange to cooperate on cooking, purchasing ingredients and preparing some meals, and you might learn about each other’s retreat goals.

Second: Set goals

Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Unless you choose a longer time to stay, your retreat will be two whole days and two half days. We’ll make plans the afternoon you arrive, then spend two full days consulting about and revising the work you bring with you. On the fourth day we’ll discuss how you can create and maintain a writing schedule at home. Twenty years’ experience has taught me that while this may not seem long enough, most people aren’t prepared for deep concentration on their writing for a longer period. During longer retreats your energy and attention may begin to dissipate.

Good Retreat sorting papersDecide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can ask me to make changes in our schedule if necessary.

I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you send it to me. Choose a reasonable size, not a 400-page novel but several problem chapters. The writing does not have to be finished. If you make notes in the text about your questions about the writing, you’ll help me to understand how I can best help you. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? The retreat house has a strong library covering many facets of writing, but we may not have the volume you like best.

When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t bring every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes; organize those at home during down time. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.

Third: What to Take Along

Good Retreat bedroomOnce you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow? Some writers have brought comforting stuffed animals to help them relax—but no live ones, please.

Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on our chilly floors, layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. We have one-size-may-fit-you boots if the weather is rainy, and extra jackets and walking sticks in the closets. Moreover, I have a vast array of coats and umbrellas I will cheerfully loan you if needed.

Good Retreat computerWhat writing materials do you need? Include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. I will put your writing on a flash drive so I can use my printer to produce copies for both of us, but if you want to print your own copies, bring a printer, ink cartridges, paper, cords. Bring your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, favorite books. Windbreak House has extra supplies of pens and pencils along with the usual office supplies like paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape. Again, if you forgot an essential item, I may be able to supply it.

What about food? If cooking relaxes you, consider bringing ingredients for several special meals. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. The Windbreak House kitchen is equipped with dishes (including wine glasses!), silverware, pots and pans, cooking utensils, a propane stove/oven, a microwave, a fridge with a freezer compartment, a coffee maker, an electric coffee grinder, dish soap and linens.

During a retreat of the usual length, you will eat nine meals, including supper the first day, and lunch on your way home the fourth day. Here’s a diagram you can use to plan your shopping.

Breakfast  Day 2 / Breakfast  Day 3 / Breakfast  Day 4

beverages
grains
fruit
vegetables
dairy
meat/eggs
nuts/seeds

Then plot Lunch Day 2, Lunch Day 3, and Lunch Day 4 (on your way home) followed by Supper Day 1, Supper Day 2, and Supper Day 3. Three breakfasts, three lunches and three suppers.

Good Retreat cookingDon’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so bring plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, bring what you need. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”

Windbreak House water is safe (tested yearly) but hard, with a high iron content that creates a flavor some folks don’t like. We provide bottled water, but you might want to bring your favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated in our arid climate can help you sleep and work more efficiently.

Four: What You Leave Behind

Turn Off CellOf course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, and I don’t expect you to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach; feel free to tell them retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.

Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Tell responsible adults that if a real emergency arises, to call the County Sheriff (we provide the number in the retreat packet we mail you) to contact me.

Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. One or two writers have been so exhausted by preparations that they slept most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that my job is to help you write the best that you are able on your chosen project; I will not knowingly do anything to harm you or your writing.

Good Retreat dinner together

Before you settle into the retreat house, I’ll guide you on an orientation walk inside and out, so you are comfortable with the house and its surroundings. We’ll have dinner together (I bring my own), while discussing your goals and plans for the retreat.

Then you will be alone, or with your chosen companions, on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you have favorite bath salts? (Our bathrooms allow for both showers and baths.) Chocolate? Wine?  A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Bring along anything legal that will help you relax into your stay here. Take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.

Five: You Are Here

Good Retreat write and writeHere’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.

When you arrive, I will already have spent hours reading and re-reading your submitted writing and composing comments. I’ve learned the hard way that if I give you these comments the first night, you might stay up late reading and revising instead of relaxing. Therefore, the next morning, I will bring you a printed version of these comments and leave you alone to read and absorb them. Then we’ll meet to discuss my comments and your responses, and how they will affect what you are writing.

Together, we’ll decide the next step. You may revise this first piece and return it to me for more comments. Or you may bring more writing for my comments. At each phase, I’ll consult with you about what you want to do next. I’ll provide handouts referring to any problems I see in your writing, and perhaps suggest additional reading to help you proceed.

Good Retreat hands with papers

When we talk, I suggest that you take notes to help you recall oral comments I may make; conversations always bring more insights than I have had in my solitary reading of your work. If you disagree with my ideas, say so; discussion may lead to improvements I haven’t considered. Even if you think I’m wrong, take note of what I say about your work; at some future time, you may decide I made good points. If you quietly ignore my suggestions as you revise, I won’t object; we will continue to work together. Tastes differ, and my experience in writing and publishing does not make me, or any other person who comments on your work, infallible.

While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished

The day your retreat ends, we will discuss how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband or wife, the house or garden.

Good Retreat write at homeBefore you leave the retreat, we will consider how you can establish a writing place and time at home. I’ll suggest ways to stay focused, and to begin your new program before you, or those voices of guilt, can talk you out of it. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.

Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.

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

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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.

 

 

Promoting Your Writing

AlbertChinaSeriesOne of my heroines in the writing business is Susan Wittig Albert, who besides being the author of the popular China Bayles herbal mysteries and founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for writing women, has written books for young adults, books for women on life-writing, and all kinds of work-for-hire books when she was learning her craft. Her Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place focuses on how she made the shift from University professor into a new marriage and writing career. Along the way she provides all kinds of writing advice.

“Marketing,” she says, “is a necessary fact of the writing life.” Many of the writers who question me don’t ask about writing details: they want to know how to market. Almost all of them say, as I do, that they understand the difficulties of writing, but they loathe marketing and don’t know how to do it. Susan Albert agrees.

“Jane Austen never went on a book tour, or put together a brochure advertising her work, or handed out bookmarks.” Modern writers must do these things, and because of the Internet, the emphasis on promotion has grown. Writers are encouraged by publishers to set up web sites, blog, and be on Facebook. She adds, “Writers also do bookstore signings, give library talks, go to conferences, and generally make an effort to flaunt themselves, sometimes with the financial backing of their publishing house, usually not.”

“Usually not.” That’s an important omission. Even writers fortunate enough to publish with big companies often get no promotion budget these days; they are expected to do all this time-consuming self-promotion without pay. And all these activities take time away from the writing that got them published in the first place.

SocialMediaLogosI approach self-promotion with the same attitude I have toward drinking alcohol: moderation. Neither drinking nor self-promotion is really necessary to preserve your life and sanity. Both can provide feelings of euphoria. Over-indulgence in either leads to headaches, and makes you wonder just what you said that left you with a feeling of loathing.

My method is to try to make self-promotion enjoyable but I do have a particular advantage. I couldn’t promote as well as I do without the thoughtful help of an assistant who maintains my website, Facebook page and WordPress blog. She also edits my writing, and decides what gets posted where and when. Because she has alerted me to the way these social media work, I sometimes get ideas that help with the promotion, but mostly I am able to do what I believe I do best. I write.

If you are a writer who needs to promote, look for someone to help. This might be a friend, employee or both (if you’re as lucky as I am), whose skills make promotion enjoyable and understandable. Perhaps you can barter with this person: your skills for his or hers. But don’t be chintzy; remember that unless someone is reading what you are writing, you can’t pay for the electricity to run your computer, so be prepared to understand what promotion is worth to you and compensate accordingly.

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

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For more information:

These two entertaining blogs found at www.whimseydark.com/blog/ address the difference between pushing yourself on readers and pulling them into your writing.  The reader comments below each blog also have some good ideas.
Please Shut Up: Why Self-Promotion As an Author Doesn’t Work
Wait, Keep Talking: Author Self-Promotion That Actually Works

Website for Susan Wittig Albert:
http://www.susanalbert.com/

Website for Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries:
http://www.abouthyme.com/
There are many more titles than the 12 shown at the beginning of this blog, and I own every one of them.

Website for Story Circle Network:
http://www.storycircle.org/
I am a member of this organization and am featured in the Professional Directory here:
Story Circle Network Professional Directory

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Top of the Refrigerator: A Writing Metaphor

How long has it been since you cleaned the top of your refrigerator?

Refrigerators are the least standard of modern appliances, but most are at least 70 inches tall— taller than most of us who are likely to be cleaning the tops of them.

Naturally, then, the tops of refrigerators make a great place to toss things— either decorative items, or things you know you’ll need but not right now.

Top of Fridge 2016The first thing to catch the eye on top of mine is a butter churn. Let me explain. My kitchen cabinets hold an assortment of antique and decorative items: cobalt blue canisters, wooden and pottery bowls, antique cups and a coffee pot. But the churn I used to make butter when my father bought a cow so I could learn to milk and make butter when I first moved to the ranch at nine years old is too tall for the cupboards. It’s on the refrigerator along with a basket into which my partner and I toss our receipts until one of us adds them up so we can divide our household bills evenly. Neither of us are tall enough to see the top of the refrigerator in the normal course of our daily activities. The cupboard over the refrigerator holds serving dishes I seldom use, but want to keep.

Out of sight, out of mind, runs an old saying.

However, recently I stepped up on a chair to reach a wooden bowl that was just right for serving some homemade rolls. Somehow I managed not to look too closely at the top of the refrigerator as I opened the cupboard, but I put a hand on the refrigerator top to steady myself.

Eeeuw! My hand slid in a greasy black film.

I was raised by a mother who believed a clean house superseded all other needs. I fought against her narrow views, but they affected me; once I’ve seen the top of the refrigerator, I’m doomed to clean it. I grabbed my spray bottle of the handy-dandy homemade cleaner for greasy sinks (recipe follows) and sprayed it liberally over the gunk.

As I scrubbed, it occurred to me that I had been having a hard time starting anything new the past few weeks. I’m immersed in the third or fourth or tenth draft of a book manuscript that requires daily attention as I work through its twists and turns. I need to pay attention to it, but I also need a daily lift of a new idea to inspire me.

So: how is the top of a refrigerator likely to inspire writing?

That refrigerator is in the center of our daily activities. We open it for juice and cream in the morning, for sandwich fixings at noon and to find onions for soup and limes for gin and tonics in the evening. And yet we seldom look at the top. In fact, knowing what we know, housewives may deliberately avoid looking.

Similarly, we may be searching the distance for writing ideas when we need to be focusing more closely.

The next morning, I followed my usual routine: got up, let the dogs out and back in, and settled in bed with coffee, my journal, and a book. When I opened the journal I realized that it had been days since I actually wrote anything besides the date, the weather, and what I needed to do that day, along with plans for lunch.

So on this morning I looked out the west window and noticed that the Black Hills were beginning to turn pink as the first light that would become sunrise shot up and over the house and fell on their tops. I described the almost imperceptible way the hills begin to change from black to peach-colored, a glow that seems to come from within, like a blush. As the light greCoyote 4 2015--11-26w I wrote about knowing that coyotes were working at their dawn hunts, slipping down the draws, sniffing at the rabbit holes and vole trails, and heading for their dens. I couldn’t see the coyotes, but knowing they are there reminds me that this grassland is healthy and its animals busy pursuing normal lives because I raise cattle here, rather than building Walmarts or trailer parks. And those coyotes are part of the work force that keeps the grasslands uncluttered and the air pure for the folks who are zipping up and down that highway visible out my window. Most of those folks live in one of the subdivisions popping up on former ranch land around me. They want to live in the country, but they don’t understand how dependent they are on ranchers, cows, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other prairie dwellers for the amenities that drew them out here.

Cora Corner 2016

My eyes fell on my “Grandmother Corner,” where I have framed five of my Grandma Cora Hey’s doilies, examples of her art, along with a bookmark made of needle-tatted lace from a friend and a tiny piece of Hmong embroidery that would have fascinated my grandmother. On the adjoining wall is a collage I created and framed, including photographs of Grandmother at her wedding, clowning with my mother, feeding her chickens, and reading in her favorite chair. Arranged around these photos are a handkerchief she prized, her biggest crochet hook, a buttonhook, a curling iron and a ring she treasured. Looking closely at these items, and listing them, reminded me of my grandmother’s smile, her wisdom, her hug.

LMH Coras items framed 2014--11-18 smallFifteen minutes of observation had provided me with a couple of paragraphs of writing that led me to a variety of thoughts about the world outside my bedroom, as well as reminding me of a woman I haven’t written nearly enough about.

I put down the journal and began to pet one dog while massaging the other one’s back with my feet. Before long I’d found and removed a couple of stickers, earning myself a growl, a reminder I need to check the dogs daily for stickers, parasites and good health. Though they sleep with me, it’s easy to ignore minor problems, distracted by their playfulness.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

What is so close to you that you haven’t seen it lately?

And perhaps what have you carefully avoided looking at?

Try this tomorrow: sit down with your journal and look. Describe what you see. Tell your journal what it means to you. See where these thoughts may lead. My reflections here total slightly more than a thousand words, from fifteen minutes of paying attention.

And clean the top of your refrigerator. Here’s my homemade sink disinfectant, made from a recipe I found online; it cuts grease and kills most germs. I use it on my sink, stove, and counters too.

2 Tablespoons dish soap
1 Cup vinegar
2 Tablespoon lemon juice

Put this in an 18-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. Spray happily!

 

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

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom