Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Bring the Retreat Home

I recently completed a two-week stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is a wonderful place in a beautiful location, and I always get a lot done when I’m there (this was my seventh residency there, eighth if you count the two weeks I spent at VCCA’s French outpost in Auvillar this summer). 

Since I’m a full-time writer (minus the occasional short-term teaching or freelancing gig and my volunteer role as a magazine editor), I always wonder why it is that I can’t get as much done at home as I do at a colony like VCCA. This blog post is an attempt to understand this phenomenon and to consider what steps I might take to replicate the writing retreat experience at home.

[I feel especially guilty about this because I live just 60 miles from VCCA, in a setting that is very similar, in a large house out in the country that I’ve got to myself (and my dog); I’ve even got my own land and woods on which to take walks, just as I do at VCCA.]

I should say at the outset that I don’t think it’s possible to do this on a permanent basis—it’s like constantly running a marathon. But for relatively short bursts of a week or two or three, I think it is absolutely doable. And that’s good, because around Christmas I’ll begin edits on a novel and I will need/want to be fully engaged in that process for as long as it takes.

Let’s start by understanding what happens at a colony. I’ve only been to three and they were different in important ways. But I’ll use VCCA as my example and point out the differences as I go along.

It’s away from home. At VCCA you get a bedroom with a shared bathroom plus workspace in a separate studio building. (At Kimmel Harding Nelson you share an apartment with another artist, and your studio, if you’re a writer, will be a separate room in the apartment.) There are other artists around. At VCCA, there are about 25 artists in residence at a time, split roughly between writers and visual artists, plus a couple of composers. (At VCCA France there are only four artists in residence; at KHN there are five.) Someone cooks for you. At VCCA, breakfast and dinner are served in a dining room in the residence building, with lunch delivered to a kitchen in the studio building. (At VCCA France and KHN you’re on your own, although there are adequate kitchen facilities for food preparation.) No one bothers you. There are optional presentations that the residents arrange in order to share their work with the other artists, but if you don’t want to attend, you don’t have to. The phone doesn’t ring; there is no mail; the internet connection is spotty.
I work pretty steadily from 8 to 12 and 1 to 5, minus an afternoon walk (and breaks to make coffee/tea), and then in the evening from 7 to 10 (although that’s usually reading).

All of which contributes to FOCUS. If, like me, you don’t have a full-time job, your problem at home isn’t time, it’s what you do with your time that slows your writing down. (Having kids in the house is a special challenge, since they can’t be ignored; just don’t use them as an excuse not to get any writing done.)

Focus is something I struggle with a lot, and I know that many of us do. We try to do too many things at once, and while we may give the appearance of productivity, I believe the writing suffers. So in considering how to “Bring the Retreat Home,” it’s really creating an environment for focus that I’m most interested in.

So, how to create focus at home?

Dedicated Workspace. You aren’t going away from home, but maybe you have space in your home that is dedicated to your writing. (Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ve got a cabin/shed/studio on your property). I’m fortunate in that I have a large spare bedroom/loft upstairs that is my office, with room for books, a reading chair a large desk, and my dog’s bed (a loveseat). To create focus, though, I plan to remove unnecessary clutter, especially on my desk, and remove piles of books and magazines.
Interact with Other Artists. As inspiring as it can be to be around other artists, it isn’t a daily need, and it can be distracting. On your weekly outing (see below), stop by a gallery or a bookstore, or meet a fellow writer for coffee.
Scheduled Meals. This isn’t a big time-eater for me. Get in, clean up, get out. Since I’m eating alone, there isn’t much reason to linger at meals, so, in fact, they take less time than they do at a real retreat. The important thing for me is the schedule. Breakfast at 6:45, lunch at noon, dinner at 6:00. (The schedule is enforced by the dog, too.)
Limit Distractions. This is the big category for me, since home is filled with distractions of all kinds.
TV. I don’t have TV service anymore, so this isn’t a problem for me. If you can live without it, I recommend dropping it. Get Netflix instead so you can take a movie break once in a while.
Mail. I love the mail. My habit is to run out to the mailbox as soon as I know it’s been delivered. I then open everything and deal with it. It’s mostly junk. Even my bills come by email these days, for the most part. What if I let the mail sit in the mailbox a couple of hours and didn’t collect it until dinner? What if I put it all in a basket and disposed of it once a week? (Of course the rare letter would be opened and read . . .)
eMail. Why do I check the email constantly? Why do I answer immediately? Would the world end if I let the email accumulate to be dealt with it all at once? Or maybe a few times a day? What if I looked at it once when I first turn the computer on at 7am, then again when I break for lunch at noon, then at dinner time, then at bedtime. Four times should be more than enough.
Internet. This is a huge distraction for me, so I’ve purchased the program Freedom. When I sit down for a writing session, I turn it on for 3 hours, or whatever period I’ve chosen. Facebook won’t miss me. Neither will the other forums where I spend too much time.
The dog. He will not be ignored. He’s like a kid. So I feed him, I walk him, I play with him. All of that makes a good break for me, a few times a day.
Exercise. At VCCA I took walks every day. At home, my routine, most days, is to go to the gym late in the afternoon, after the work is done. I see people (even if I don’t talk to them), I get exercise. It’s a good thing.
Errands. I jump at the chance to run out and do errands—grocery shopping, a supply run to Staples, a stop at the post office. Sometimes these trips are urgent. Usually they’re not. Limit them to once a week, if you can. If not, combine as many errands as you can.
Excursions. I think it’s important to take a break now and then. It could be something for inspiration—a trip to a bookstore or art gallery, maybe, or a hike in the woods—or it could be connecting with other writers or artists by meeting for coffee or lunch. I wouldn’t plan to do this every week necessarily, but every couple of weeks is probably beneficial.
The telephone. I don’t answer it.
Reading. Even on retreat I’m reading a few books at a time. For me that’s part of being a writer. I generally do that in the evenings. However, for more intensive projects—such as the forthcoming book editing—I might put my other reading aside for the duration.
Other work. Some things can’t be ignored. Freelancing jobs have to be done; the magazine has to stick to its schedule. I add those things to my list of things to do, but I focus on them, just as I would my own writing.

All of which boils down to focus and limiting distractions.

Here’s one more thing. I’m trying to employ meditation techniques to help me concentrate on one thing at a time. If I’m reading, that’s all I’m doing. If I’m writing, that’s all I’m doing.

That’s what a writer’s retreat helps you do, and that’s what the steps outlined above are designed to do when you Bring the Retreat Home. 


Bridgid Gallagher said...

This post really resonates with me, Clif. (So thanks for writing it!) I work from home as well, but if I actually stay home to work I have a hard time being productive.

I get some of my best work done at cafes, where I am removed from my distractions at home. (Plus, someone cooks for me.) :)

Thanks for the post!

Kathi said...

>>eMail. Why do I check the email constantly? Why do I answer immediately? Would the world end if I let the email accumulate to be dealt with it all at once? Or maybe a few times a day? <<

Ah, yes! I have this problem. On my phone and laptop, constantly checking the in-box. It's like an obsession. LOL

Adam said...

Thanks for sharing this great post. I also have problems with focus, so you've really helped me. Kindest regards.