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.