Monday, June 2, 2008


I can't think of any form of healing that doesn't make use of retreat. Retreat is not cowardice; it is a wise reallocation and renewal of resources. Let's face it: sometimes it's just too much to heal the body and feed the spirit while waging the battles of everyday life. Through retreat we can protect and restore the sacred.

I just got back from a solo writing retreat at our summer home in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern New York state. See the left-hand corner of the camp in the picture above—not the porch, but the corner behind and to the left of the porch steps, framed on the right and left by six-foot vertical windows? That's where I set up my computer—on a writing desk angled across those windows. Next to the window on my right was the wood-burning fireplace that kept me warm during my seven chilly days alone (the windowless vertical element is its chimney). I was working on a memoir about how my sons—just eight and ten at the time—and I healed after my first husband's suicide. 

It's been ten years since Ron pulled the trigger at the end of a full-day standoff at the pastoral farm where I still live. The massive police presence signaled the media to turn his personal hell into headline news, complete with a handy aerial map of how to find our house. I declined a reporter's request to comment at the time. I did not yet know what to say. Since then, events have accumulated that suggest a beginning-middle-end to the arc of our story, and I am ready to make public comment.

Why do that, when the scandalized memoir market is sagging, fewer people are reading, I have no celebrity to create interest, and the economy is driving the book publishing industry into a deeper slump? I write because I was a writer before it happened, and I am a writer still, and this is what writers do: we identify good stories and tell them. I cannot control commercial success, I can only show up to fulfill the purpose of my life. The alternative was illustrated for my sons and I all too graphically. I must sort through the chaos and find meaning; it is my way.

Work on the first draft hums along when I am into it, but once I break away, re-entry can be almost physically painful, and I can be quite creative in finding ways to avoid sitting down to the work. My solution was to get away for a week and dive in.

The total: I was able to write 39,329 words in seven days, roughly 143 pages. My highest daily total was 7,126 words—I've had higher daily totals in a former NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) contest, but never on a topic this draining.

The danger in immersing yourself so deeply in traumatic events of the past, of course, is losing touch with the buffer of time—and that's what made my location so magical. All I had to do was look off to the left to see a loon bob to the lake surface with a fish in its mouth or a mallard and his mate fly toward our beach and skid in for a comical landing; to the right I could see a great blue heron soar over the water with its crooked neck and six-foot wingspan, or watch a red-headed woodpecker shop for dinner on a majestic pine. Thanks to a new Adirondacks-happy cell plan, I was only moments away from all of my boys: the two college-age ones and my wonderful Dave, whose love and support for my life's work and healing allow such retreat.

Do you need to retreat? If so, add a comment. I hope to open this magical place to other writers by organizing Writing Partner Retreats on long weekends. I can already sense the fire-warmed camaraderie, smell the buttered popcorn, and feel the power of the amazing stories we'll share...


LindaG said...

Love this blog! I can relate. And your description of a Writer's Retreat sounds like heaven...
Linda G.

F. J. Hill said...

Looks beautiful, Kathryn. It takes a lot of courage to write through pain as you do. I'm sure your work, when finished, will help others who have had a similar experience.
Best, F. J. Hill
Author of Charley's Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst a fictional biography about a well-respected, one-eyed stagecoach driver during the California gold rush era who, upon death, was found to be a woman.