As I write this I’m in the middle of a week-long writing retreat with my writing mentor for the last fourteen-years, Deena Metzger. We’re high up in the hills of Topanga Canyon in Southern California, a landscape of dry, golden hills, eucalyptus and sycamore trees over looking the ocean. Coyotes roam the property, hawks swoop the skies and if you see a bobcat, do not run, do not scream, simply back away S L O W L Y. Ditto on Papa Rattlesnake.
Today is day 5 of the retreat, a day we’ve been instructed to spend entirely in silence. That meant that on the ride up the canyon this morning, my three companions and I rode the 40-minutes from my mother’s house on the west side of town without a word. It turns out it’s nice to be quiet with people. I bet 95% of the things that come out of my mouth are fairly unnecessary, though one year on this same retreat I was driving down a different canyon at dusk with a car load of friends, all of us in silence, and just as I rounded a curve, a deer leapt in front of the car and I believe we all screamed a version of, “Holy Shit!” in unison, and then went right back to silence.
Deena prepped us for this day, reminding us that if we were living with people who weren’t at the retreat, we should let them know that we wouldn’t be speaking for at least 24 hours. I let my mom, Suzy know, though she’s a feisty little brat from way back, so when she ran into me this morning in her kitchen she smiled an evil little smile and playfully hit me with a spatula. Her boyfriend Ralph also interpreted the instructions loosely. “I know, I know,” he said, waving a hand at me. “You can’t talk,” and then proceeded to go into a whole conversation about recent test results my mother had just received.
When we got to Deena’s we scattered to the wind. One of us headed for the hot coffee in Deena’s kitchen, someone else made a beeline for the ratty old lounge chair on Deena’s hill over looking the valley. One person went to the yurt to write, and at least one person I know wondered if she could heed Deena’s advice to stay off line all day.
Yes, silent day is a wonderful opportunity to stop talking, stop emailing and texting, making phone calls and generally distracting myself from writing. It’s a sound idea and it’s also a bitch.
While I did get some writing done, here are some other ways I used my words today:
Wrote this blog post post.
Created a newsletter.
Emailed my tech team to see about helping with me that newsletter.
Emailed my daughter in South Africa who has an infection. Mom words = very important.
Emailed friends coming to dinner Sunday night. Not so important, but hey, who’s bringing the sausage for the grill?
Took a walk down a hilly path and let the wind whip my hair.
Took pictures of Deena’s land.
Checked Tinder just for the hell of it. What do the men of Topanga have to say for themselves?
Made a note to figure out how to make the beet dip we had for lunch.
Checked facebook. I know, I know.
Checked my bank balance to make sure I’ve got enough to pay my taxes.
Lay down on Deena’s deck in the sun and dropped into a drowsy sleep. Dreamed this whole writing.
And finally, texted the woman who tends my eyebrows to see what time my appointment is next week.
There, I’ve said it. I’ve confessed. I’m done.
Sometimes I wonder if one of the ways I serve my students and other writers who know me is to tell the truth about how it is for writing and me. I think there’s a fantasy that if you’re a writer you’re chomping at the bit to write all of the time.
I mean to be like my friend Nan is who writing in the corner of the room I’m sitting in. Nan who is wiping her eyes because her own beautiful writing is making her weep. Or Jane, who writes with a funny smirk on her face because she’s so deep into her story – the story that silences the room when she reads. Or my serious friend Kirstin, a private investigator who brings case files to work from. Or Rebecca who is writing about Peru and who weaves on a Peruvian loom when she isn’t writing.
I’m certain all of these friends are doing exactly what Deena has asked them to do. And just as I start to feel like a terrible student, like I’m not going to get anywhere with this story, I remember that one year that Maya Stein – one of the best writers I know – watched movies in her room for the entire silent day, and how she said it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Writing is hard work. Sometimes I feel like a dog that has to check out every corner of the yard to sniff and pee until she finally circles her way to a spot and settles down.
But I do settle down, finally. I do find the words, I always do after all that sniffing and peeing, all that circling.
Laurie-loo, I am cracking up at the memory of all the rule-breaking I’ve done on Silent Day. I have the feeling that you’ll agree with me when I say that irreverence is its own kind of devotion. This is the stuff, isn’t it? The way we navigate the parameters that we’ve either set for ourselves or have been set by others. Being exceedingly aware of the choices, and going all in, no matter what. Because isn’t that the point? God, I love you.
I, for one, Ms Laurie Wagner, am so glad for your words on this day when I, too, am sitting to write and instead end up jolting myself between landscapes and decades and crying as much as writing. Your voice in my mailbox – when I stop to check email (like the best of us) – is the voice I needed to hear today. Funny, honest and still getting the words down.
I’m currently trying to get my arms around “pause”. In the day-to-day, “pause” can be a struggle because I worry that my momentum will stop. I’m learning that “pause” is time to take 3 deep breaths and regroup, then, my focus becomes crystal clear again.
Before my momentum would keep spinning going faster and faster – it’s taken me a long time to just learn “pause”.
Laurie, you’ve inspired me to try this 24 hour silence – it reminds me of my jewish heritage in observing the weekly Sabbath. I always wondered how they cultivated the discipline. Thanks for the inspiration – maybe I can start with 8 or 12 hours of silence and build up to 24.
Laurie, – sorry 1 more email, – I’m not sure why a picture of the ocean popped up next to my name, – is there a way to change the photo?
thank you kindly,
I turned the radio off in my car when I drove to work this morning. 45 minutes of lovely silence. Just the sound of my Jeep – tires on asphalt, the sound of whipping air as I drive at 70mph.
I like the idea of being silent. I taking steps to silence my on line activities…except for my writing.
I love you Laurie Wagner. Through and through. Please give Deena my deepest thanks. She made a soul-deposit when I saw her at your house. I’m still reaping the benefits of that day. I need to get to Topanga Canyon one of these days soon. XO Julie
I always look forward to your posts. A way to stay in touch with your life and writing. Your journey and truths even when I am a bad correspondent, or keeper of social circles, introvert that I am. Also, sparked every time to turn again to writing ..sign up for one of your classes…… I will look to see if I still have your contact info? Just a quick update for you, I am living into the 2nd year of life without Neil. He died Jan. 2. 2015. It has been the most challenging time as I believe grief and loss are at times unbearable! I think it might in fact be time to pick up paper and pen. Best always to you. Monica.
Laurie you are a truth and storyteller. Which is more than being a truthful storyteller. You bare it as permission. You feel like rebellion to me. Your irreverence is accessiblity. Like Maya notes “…irreverence is its own kind of devotion…”
Am also feeling inspired for the quiet. In lieu of running off to retreat I am going to grab 24 hours of a weekend and be silent as $&#%.
I adore silence. My husband and I are often silent. Not that we have nothing to talk about. We are just compatible in that way. Don’t mind, even desire quiet.
My mother had to have noise all the time, no quiet. TV on, music blaring, yelling at my Dad for having nothing to say, then chastising him for talking about cars or hunting or other things that interested him.
My Dad picked me up from the bus one time and he asked me the same ackward question three or four times. I said to him, “Mom told you to talk’ didn’t she.” He said, “Yeah”, and smirked. We finished the rest of the trip home in a comfortable and loving silence. It is such a fond memory now.
Oh Laurie! Always one of the best truth tellers I know. You pack a punch here with this honesty and I know, if given the restriction, I would behave exactly the same way. I’ve watched my dog circle and sniff and circle and sniff and fake pee just so I let her circle and sniff again for eleven years now. We are animals through and through. Thank you for being such a bright shiny example of guts and instinct.
“Sometimes I wonder if one of the ways I serve my students and other writers who know me is to tell the truth about how it is for writing and me.” As one of your students, I can say a hell yes to this. xo
I echo Jill’s “hell yes to this.” Thank you for serving us so well with your truth-telling.
Your friend Nan sounds like one hot mess, crying over the beauty of her own writing. Good grief! Maybe she just cries all the time. She might be over there crying because she wishes she had Jane’s smirk, or your Tinder feed or Kirstin’s precision. Here’s what’s for certain: she is writing, in part, because you have expressed faith in her work and she trusts you. Without you, she would probably still be crying somewhere in a corner, but without a pen in her hand.