To write, or to retreat.
Just recently I took a 7-day holiday using some of my annual leaves to stay home and write, or a writing retreat, as I call it.
The idea was to withdraw from the routine activities and all worldly connections and take an intensive period of time to focus on writing. I had a clear quantifiable goal in my mind: to finish a short story in 7 days. The result was, I finished the story as early as day 4 and managed to write something more. I was 100% in my own world, stayed out of contact with the outside world, lived a strict and healthy daily schedule, and wrote a little more than 10,000 words. I was quite satisfied with what I have accomplished. But to some extent, that didn’t matter that much anymore afterward. It’s the process that seems more like an accomplishment to me than the story itself. I was feeling something substantial from it, as if I was finally able to connect with a missing piece within myself. When I was going through that 7 days, I knew I’d have to write about it, for no other purpose than to create text evidence of what I have felt. I could tell, it’s something too important to be forgotten.
I started to develop this idea a few months ago. After I was back from Sri Lanka in Feb, I realized traveling probably wouldn’t be an option for a long time. It’s devastating for me, who takes travel as a mental commodity. As the virus spread, my hope of breaking out was dimmer day after another and I knew I’d need to create a holiday that doesn’t involve traveling.
Last year I spent 6 days disconnected in a silent retreat and it was a truly restorative time. My heart was lingering over that for a long time afterward and I secretly decided I’d do it once a year from then. Apparently, it doesn’t look possible now. So I thought, why not recreate that experience at home myself? I was very excited but also slightly scared by this idea.
You must be a little crazy to even think about it. And yet, I have learned to accept my own neuroticism and try my best to indulge it. After the crazy has developed the idea, it’s the rational half of me that had to do her job and started to gauge the possibility of pulling this off. In a silent retreat facility, everything was taken care of. I had food, nature, enough activities and service at my fingertips; all I needed to do was to enjoy all that. At home, I’d need to take care of my own 3 meals a day, arrange my own activities, and resist the distraction in a wifi-enabled small apartment right in the busiest city in the world.
I did quite a lot in planning — I learned a diet which required minimal effort, prepared necessary ingredients and planned a rough schedule of replenishment; I set up an hourly schedule from 6 am to 10 pm to make sure I always have a behavioral compass and wouldn’t end up wasting my time; I carefully arranged how to stay connected in a way I can listen to music and research for my writing while also resist the rest of internet; I made a list of entertainment options, from piano to cooking, from bubble bath to pedicure (I even bought the toolkit for that, but ended up having no time at all for such things). But after all these, until the last moment, I still didn’t know if it was enough planning and if I was really all set for it. After all, it’s not something I have any experience with nor there are existing well-documented references I can look to. It feels like jumping into a well without knowing where is the bottom.
Then I gave myself the final green card: It’s ok if I failed to finish the story. After all, it’s supposed to be a holiday, and I’m supposed to enjoy it. With this re-adjusted mentality, I started my 7-day solo trip as usual. Just that this time, it’s a trip in my mind.
My days went like this. I’d get up at 6 (though I’d usually snooze for 30 mins to one hour…getting up early is really not my forte), have coffee, and meditate 15 minutes with flowing music to slowly wake up in the first half-hour. Then I’d shower and have a simple breakfast. Oatmeal, blueberries, or some convenient packaged milkshake. In the beginning, I didn’t wanna spend too much time on food preparation before I develop a rough idea of my writing rhythm and progressing speed.
Then I’d focus on writing from 8:30 to 12. The story I was writing is one I already have started with during a trip last year but could never find time to finish in the past year. So I more or less knew what I wanted to write, with a fair amount of draft notes to refer to. It was more about putting my mind to it and doing the actual labor work. When it comes to creative writing, or painting, or any kind of art creation, I constantly wonder which is the heavy-lifting part, having the idea itself or executing the idea. I guess it varies for different people and they are equally important for the final work. But this time, I’m glad I mostly only needed to focus on the latter. In some way, I see it as the more challenging part coz writing in a second language usually requires extra effort to get it right, and that is assuming I have what it takes to get it right.
From 12 to 2 are lunch and nap. I’d usually have some carb for lunch — dumplings, fried rice, one dish and steamed rice, etc. Miraculously, without too much thought on it, I managed to do different things for lunch every day. And instead of watching one episode of something on Netflix (as I always do when I eat), I’d listen to music and read Murakami’s essays as I ate. Theoretically, watching Netflix doesn’t break any rules. But I particularly wanted to avoid doing things in my old routine and develop a new routine largely centered around texts and music, the tone I’ve preset for this break.
Murakami’s essay is the perfect light reading for this purpose. It’s never too engaging in a way that it diverts you off the track you’re on, (in this case, is to finish my lunch in a sensible time) while it also makes everything you’re doing seem automatically more purposeful and enjoyable. I love Murakami’s essays, probably even more than his novels. In this break, I re-read his memoir < What I talk about when I talk about running> one more time. In a way, I was purposefully seeking out that calming power in the tone of his essays, which always refreshes and comforts my mind.
Then I’d try to nap for 20 mins or so before I resumed writing in the afternoon from 2 to 6. Throughout the whole time, I’d play light jazz or piano tunes to just have some music flowing in the back of my head. Most of the time, it was either Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis. I selected the music for the same criteria as my reading — something not too engaging but effectively constructs the vibe that I was in need of — classy, delightful, and tranquilizing.
I tried to stop writing at 6 sharp, regardless of how the progress was going. Previously, when I was writing some essays on the weekend, I barely made any effort to keep track of time. I’d continue until I reached a point where either I was finished or I was too exhausted. Often, when I reached that point, I had been typing in a completely dark apartment for hours and it had way passed the sensible hour to eat or sleep. Evidently, that’s not good writing habit and I was determined to change that this time. Hemingway once said you don’t write until you’ve exhausted the last drip, even tho that’s counterintuitive; you always stop when there’s still something left in the fountain so you have enough to start with the next day. I like how sensible it sounds. Though for me, with creative writing, I don’t even think I have that fountain yet. It’s more like I was still restlessly drilling for it with every word I wrote. Indeed, it wasn't too hard to stop at a designated time.
I’d then do some light exercise as the day transitions into the evening. I’d alternate between running on a treadmill for 20mins and swimming for 1500 meters. One day, I did fast-walking for an hour along the seafront for a change. Both walking and swimming are very good exercise to keep an active thinking process going. I’d usually take this time to go over some details in my story: is everything on the right track, how to address some specific bits, do I wanna include or exclude some materials, how much progress am I supposed to make next day, etc. It’s rather technical mostly, but sometimes it can get a little emotional too when I really go deep in. Running, on the other hand, is still too painful for me to have any meaningful thoughts simultaneously. I wonder if the day will come that I’d have a sudden surge in my tolerance with the act of running after enough attempts. It feels quite unlikely.
Dinner was always the same — chicken salad. I prepared enough chicken for 7 days and put them in the freezer. So every day it took only 15 mins to make the salad, and that was my most relaxed time of the day. I’d put on happier/funkier music and improvise some hideous dance moves as I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Then I’d eat at my coffee table sitting on the rug — my multi-functional station and primitive position in the apartment — with something to read. I picked some random issues of New Yorkers from my hardcopy stash over the years and read the short stories in them. I guess this is one good thing about having print subscriptions — you can’t really do it this way with a digital-only subscription. When I got tired of reading, I just lay back at the edge of my sofa and stared at the ceiling for a short break, with food still in my mouth and music in my ears. It was the moment I repetitively felt in love with, the solid contentment from spending the whole day exactly the way I wanted, with all sorts of things that I find pleasure doing, including the intermittent idleness.
After dinner, I’d play the piano for half an hour or more. In fact, I played the piano in bits and pieces anytime I want during the day, even writing hours. I was working on a song that I want to do a video with so making slow progress at that did give me a concrete sense of satisfaction. If writing the story is the main dish of the day, playing the piano is the coffee, something equally important that I don’t do without.
I’d move to bed before 10 and write a quick journal in bed, updating my word count log, summarizing my day and jotting down some observations, whatever came to my mind at that moment. At this point, I must say I was usually already exhausted and couldn’t wait to go to bed; I could barely hold my pen straight and my handwriting became hardly recognizable to myself. I thought of how Murakami said writing is more a labor work than a mind work and realized full-time writing, which was more or less I was trying to do, is indeed both a challenge to my mind (in terms of focus level) and my physical strength. I don’t even know why I was so tired. I could fall asleep in five seconds.
When I try to reflect on what this week means to me, what is the “substantial” thing that I felt, it comes to my realization that it’s probably the first time in a long time in my adulthood that I know for sure I wasn’t just frittering away my life. Instead, I lived it precisely how I want it with a clear sense of purpose and a conscious effort directed towards that purpose. Unlike when one was younger, a lot of “purposes” were planted into our minds or we acquired them through external influences, the purpose this time comes solely from within.
For years, I was trapped in a powerless mindset about this purpose, of being a writer, to just write, with no specific agendas. When asked about what’s the thing that I wanna do most, or what’s my dream job, I’d always tell people I’d like to be a writer (a financially free one). I remember one ex-boyfriend asked me this question quite early in our volatile relationship. He was also the first and only one who judged/caught me outright:” You keep saying your passion is writing but I don’t see you doing anything about it at all. “ His words hit me quite hard, I must say, partly coz I knew he was right. I wasn’t doing anything about writing other than talking about it. I was too trapped/preoccupied in the stupid worldly life that I feared touching on the one thing that I love. I thought, what’s the point if I can’t afford to dedicate all my time to it and I’m probably not as talented as I think I was? For years, I had a very unhealthy relationship with writing.
From last year, I bought this domain and started to write more regularly here, this little unreserved private space. In the past year or so I gradually overcame the uneasiness I had with writing, and this 7-day retreat feels like a mirror from a parallel future — it helps me see in sheer clarity what kind of life I could be living and what kind of person I could be one day. I enjoyed every moment of it and I adored the person I briefly was in those 7 days. It happened so quickly and left me with a writer’s blue when I was back in my full-time job the next day, the job that actually pays. But deep down I know, just a transitory taste of it is already worth it.
As I’m writing this, a plain moment from years ago came back to me. I was with the just-mentioned ex-boyfriend and we were having a quick breakfast in a cafe and talking casually. He randomly said, you know, if you really wanna be a writer, I can support you for one year and you just do your writing thing, so at least you have that one year to try it out and see if it’s really your thing. I must have laughed it off at that time, probably a little amused by the fact that he was even offering, as what he was making could barely support his own passion. Thinking back, knowing perfectly it was just a casual remark, I wonder if that’s indeed the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me. Not becoz I’m moved that someone wanted to provide for me, but that he was the only person who took my writing dream more serious than myself.
If this 7-day writing retreat serves any purpose, I think, it reassures me that with enough effort, a lot of things are possible. It’s possible to take a meaningful vacation without flying. It’s possible to go ahead to do something even though it’s not something people would normally do. And it’s possible to keep trying — talented or not — with the best one can afford. Maybe a year, maybe 7 days.
Originally published at http://theellenwang.com on July 12, 2020.