I Went on a Writing Retreat and Didn’t Write a Single Word
Why Writing a Book Doesn't Always Look How You Think it Should
I hope my agent isn’t reading this, Kate, look away. I went on a self-inflicted writing retreat last week and I didn’t write a single syllable. Not one new word of my second novel, deserving of a more capable partner in lexicon. Around halfway through the barren and pointless ‘retreat’ I called my boyfriend Mark, making pained cat-like noises, heavily breathing down the receiver and whimpering about the devastating and irreversible loss of time. It was slipping away from me, faster and more assuredly as the days went by. And I’d achieved the grand total sum of nothing.
Meanwhile my sister was in Greece, doing what any sane person should with their cherished, finite annual leave: sunbathing in 33-degree heat, voraciously reading paperbacks, taking naps with the sand soft under her back and eating so many Greek salads that she’d soon begin to loathe the feeble crumbling mess of feta. I was staying at her place, a quaint sun-lit garden flat with room for quiet and space for inspiration, free from Luca’s endless demands for walks and Mark’s curious pillow talk that mean I rarely get to my laptop on time. My own week’s annual leave would be conducive, laced in productivity and the gorgeous stench of self-aggrandising achievement.
Writing retreats are expensive, but also – out of my criminal desire for productivity – I didn’t want to waste two days travelling back and forth my parents’ caravan in Devon (where I usually write, an ode to which I shall share one day). Travelling takes time, navigating myself takes time, but my sisters flat is a mere 15-minute walk from my own. I packed up. I was beaming with intention and naïve hopes for a better story and more convincing characters. My novel was 20,000 words in length at the time and I set myself a target of writing at least another 10,000 words, knowing I’d be slightly miffed if I didn’t get closer to 15,000. And then, nothing. Well, if I’m being honest there was some activity, I managed to in fact pare back my book, judiciously reducing the word count to 18,000 words.
Overwhelming silence wrapped itself around me, panic set in and the audacity of the blank white screen showed no mercy for my efforts. This was followed by a catastrophic disintegration of faith in the idea and blistering delusions of myself as a writer. I watched the ‘Time Travellers Wife’ on Sky, enjoying the luxury amenities on offer. I wandered around, looked inside my sister’s wardrobe and tried some things on, I’ve a wedding coming up. Then I went to bed for a nap and slept for three solid hours, waking to darkness and the cruel reality of yet another wasted day. Time evaporating like those 2000 words from my novel. But where had it gone? I made some beans on toast. I watched another episode and lamented that I wasn’t Audrey Niffenegger. It was awful.
I’d gifted myself a week to enjoy writing, to take steps forward with this story, but I had failed. Time is my most precious asset, nothing else compares, is quite as relieving or valuable to me. It cuts deep when it’s wasted, and by wasted I mean not used to its full and utmost potential. I fought the inertia, tried everything I could to coax some words out, any words, but in the end I stopped bothering to even open my laptop.
On the last day of my ‘retreat’ I finally acquiesced. I completely let go of my frustration and it didn’t matter that my pocket of new words was empty. I made peace with the most infertile juncture of my writing career to date and possibly the worst week of annual leave ever taken. Maybe I’d needed to rest. I’d needed to not have lavish staycation plans and to be alone in my procrastination. Indeed, time made a petulant student out of me. I could neither control nor master it, bleeding minutes dry with bountiful creativity was not in my arsenal. I needed no plan or destination; my lesson was in the ambling loss of time where nothing happened and I accomplished nada.
Come the end of the week, I realised that was fine. Better than fine, it might even be admirable. Although uncomfortable and at times, painstaking, it refuelled a part of me I struggle to nourish. I let go. And when I finally did, I sat down with a note pad and started scribbling, pulling apart storylines and going into the pasts and motivations of my characters. I spanned out into my ideas, solidifying plot points and etched out a narrative arch where storylines threaded in or were axed out. I returned to my trusty school-day ‘bubble diagram’ and locked up my sister’s flat with a folded sheet of A4 paper in my back pocket. It wasn’t an invaluable piece of work, but it was the sum of my efforts, evidence of some unconscious Tetris in my mind where things had shifted or broken down.
Writing a novel isn’t linear, it holds and responds to no metric and challenges us in ways we can’t prepare for. We are so attuned to instant gratification and thrive off an undeviating sense of productivity which really only tells half the story when it comes to creativity. Sometimes moving forward with your writing means letting go, means doing nothing, means acquiescing to that which you’re trying to write over and around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pissed at my 18,000 words and the reverse progress, but I’ve made peace with those steps back and have some sense of their integrity in this weird and thankless process of finishing a first draft.
Writing a novel never looks or feels how we expect it to. So don’t fight yourself, allow the process to play out, be patient, trust and when it feels really fucking hopeless know that sometimes it’s meant to be just that.