Writing at the Edge

 Lifeboat Station at Point Reyes. Where most of the good stuff took place...

Lifeboat Station at Point Reyes. Where most of the good stuff took place...

As an 'outgoing introvert' I have long struggled with the push-pull tension between desiring that human experience of connection versus wishing only to escape into the solitude/silence/space that allows for deep and meaningful artistic creation.

 Sunrise from Chimney Rock trail

Sunrise from Chimney Rock trail

 Being one with nature and welcoming the morning together...

Being one with nature and welcoming the morning together...

On Sunday, I returned from a 3-day writing retreat located on the breath-taking coast of Point Reyes, aptly themed "Writing at the Edge." It's easy to romanticize this as the most ideal setting to write- a Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' of sorts- filled with open sky and salty ocean breezes and pelicans diving for lunch and no phone reception. But for me, it was a wake-up call that sans life distractions, the blank page suddenly started to feel very uncomfortable. And when given the writing prompt- Write about the thoughts you have that you wish you didn't have- well, it's like the ground drops out from underneath you and you're left with your pen and your maniacal thoughts to dig you out. Scary, scary stuff. There were many times that I wish I could just check my Facebook or upload a picture on Instagram or text my friends instead of write. The edge suddenly was the last place that I wanted to be. It felt too risky, too dangerous, too vulnerable.

I recently read Courtney Martin's article "Life in Lady Writer Heaven" and found parts of it to be so fitting and true-

It can be the most romantic time of year to be a writer. A few of the luckiest among us head off to cabins in the back country corners of America to finish our novels, memoirs, and manifestos at much-coveted writing residencies. Book dreams that we incubated all of that busy winter are finally going to hatch in the light of a hazy summer day with a picnic on our doorsteps and all the time in the world to be indulgent about our words.

While in residence here, each woman gets a “cottage-of-one’s-own” that would make even Virginia Woolf giddy. Each little wooden house has a wood burning stove, a big generous desk, a cozy loft bed, a French press for coffee—everything necessary for a dedicated writer. A resident’s days are her own, too. The only requirement is that she show up for a communal dinner at 5:30 pm, prepared by a round robin of local chefs who know just how to make a pie crust that does the just-plucked raspberries justice. Then you are ordered to leave without clearing your plate. They call it “radical hospitality.” At home, most residents call it “lazy teenagers.” Either way it feels outrageously luxurious.

The funny thing about this freedom—all day, every day, for weeks to oneself—is that it is both blissful and sobering, about writing and not about writing at all. You face the blank page and all the outlandish expectations you had for what you would get done in your time here, but you also face something even more vast and unconquerable: your internal life.

All those pesky heartbreaks and jealousies, regrets and disappointments, long drowned out by the fever pitch pace of modern life, are suddenly audible. The man you once loved, the friend you once trusted, the woman you once were—all return to take residence at your residency, where you were supposed to be all alone and writing the next Joy Luck Club or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

Suddenly it’s like you’re entertaining a crowd of ghosts in your little cottage—each one with its own unresolved issue to discuss. You study the hand-drawn map of the grounds as if there will be a test later. You start playing Fiona Apple and dancing like a banshee. You almost wish you had a sink of dirty dishes or a strategic planning meeting.

It turns out that the outside world and all its demands aren’t just distractions from writing, as most writers tend to think, they are also buffers for our bruised psyches. They pull us away from our muse, to be sure, but they also protect us from our own demons. When there are phone companies to fight with, deadlines to meet, aging mothers to be nursed, eyebrows to wax—who has time to schedule in soul searching?

I dreamt of past lovers, old mentors, college friends. I realized that it wasn’t such a mysterious thing at all: I missed people that I loved that were now lost. I still had some grief hiding in the less-traveled corners of my heart. I felt sad. I didn’t solve it; I just noticed it. And then I realized I wanted to write again. Suddenly my fingers were dancing across the keyboard, tapping out a deeper story than I would have been able to write before.

When the residents gather for our daily meal together, we sometimes discuss writing, but more often we discuss people: our eye-rolling children, our partners back home, picking up the slack, our long lost relatives. We divulge things to each other we haven’t shared with our own family members. Because yes, we’ve been writing books all day, but we’ve also been reading the forgotten narratives of our own lives.

During the first morning writing session, our instructor Sarah Rabkin said something that touched me in a profound way- "Maybe this isn't a writing retreat. Maybe it should be called an advance."

I know now that I am ready to advance, to move forward with faith. On Sunday afternoon, there were 15 writers who were sick of staring at the edge with our binoculars. Instead, we buckled on our own words and prose as lifejackets, helped each other into individual boats and pushed off the safe land together with a new energy, creativity and freedom.

Hungry for exploration and adventure.

With our pens and our hearts as our paddles.