In the Whiteshell last weekend, at the gorgeous and oh-so-welcoming Falcon Trails Resort, I wrote with eleven other women during the Wild Writing in the Boreal retreat Donna Besel and I co-taught. I went a bit wild, too – thanks to a singalong, fantastic company, and too much homemade Hutterite Colony wine…
Lucky for me, that wildness carried on once I got home (minus the wine). The intention that we set and focused on over those 48 hours – writing, practicing fundamental crafts skills, exploring our own intimate material – stayed really strong for me, as I hope it did for others.
Last Thursday, I came out of a morning meditation to write the first chapter of a new novel. The next day, I wrote the second. Over our weekend retreat, during the exercises, I sketched out my main character’s dog (Emu, an Irish Wolfhound and Great Pyrenees mix) and continued writing into the story.
At home, on Monday, on the other side of our amazing weekend, my hand again lunged for the pen. I wrote for five hours. Then, I woke in the wee hours of the night to keep going, the story gurgling up until I had finished.
An entire novel draft. Thirteen chapters. Completed in less than a week. This has never happened for me before.
So I’ve been asking myself: why?
Looking back, I can see that a lot of stories that have worked for me have come out in sort-of a similar way. Most of my first drafts of short stories erupt in one sitting, and I wrote the first draft of This Has Nothing To Do With You over a few weeks (and then spent four years, more or less, revising).
But that hasn’t always been the case.
Years ago, working on a particularly intense story (my first novel, completed only in draft form, never published), I could only stay tuned in for ten minutes at a time. I didn’t yet have the stamina – or, perhaps, the awareness that I could go deep into emotional material and be okay – to dive in and stay there for longer.
Still, after a few months, I had a novel draft. It wasn’t resistance to the first draft that didn’t allow me to finish that book – it was an inability to swim into the revisions, to face what I’d made and figure out what was needed.
Ten minutes a day works, I think, because it’s a regular setting of intention. The focus bleeds out into the rest of your hours so the project slowly grows a life of its own. When that happens – if you focus on your excitement, your devotion to the project, rather than fear – ten minutes can become 12, 15, 20, an hour (although it’s okay if it doesn’t; ten is worthy; done regularly, that’s a practice).
As this story burned through me over the past few days and my hand kept writing, writing, writing until the skin at the base of my thumb grew sore and red, I found myself wondering what was different. Certainly, I had stuff to do: Christmas knitting, laundry, food to make, reasons to pull away and let my hand rest.
What I thought about was something I’d read out loud at the workshop, by Eric Maisel:
As with deep-sea diving, when we create we can lose our bearings in the murky depths. We can miss what we’re looking for – even a whole shipwrecked ocean liner – because of darkness. We can lose oxygen or fear losing it and precipitate a deadly oxygen attack. All of these dangers are waiting. But if we try to stay near the surface, where the sunlight penetrates and guides us, we will never see the glories that exist down below. We’ll have to rely on others to tell us about them. Those people will create – and we’ll envy them. Isn’t it wiser to take even serious risks, so as to explore where the fish are phosphorescent?
The answer to this, of course, is yes, but it can be tough. What happened for me, I think, is that the community we’d built enabled me to take a running leap at this risky thing. Because the story I started before the retreat felt risky.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, an allegorical mix of horror and fantasy and poetry and coming-of-age and now, quite possibly, a totally shitty first draft (thank you, once again, Anne Lamott).
Like many of us, I often remember her simple advice to write that shitty first draft, but I took another look at the details of what she says in that chapter:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
Certainly, this is a kind of wildness. This self-trust, this total permission, this letting go. Letting go and self-trust and permission that I might not have so fully arrived at if I hadn’t found myself within that realm of writing and talking writing and living writing so deeply for a couple days, within that brief, enriching community.
I feel so grateful for this, for the weekend, for the work we did together. I hope I’m not the only one who came out of the woods inspired and gripped by the need to dive in and dive down and see all that potential glitter that can sparkle in the dark.