View from May Hall

Last Saturday, a friend and I held our own two-person writing retreat: a full day devoted to our writing. Calling the day a retreat makes it sound like we went somewhere exotic and inspiring: a cottage on the beach, perhaps, or a cabin in the woods. But I’ve learned that what you need to work on your writing isn’t a picturesque place but an absence of distractions. The secret isn’t what you add to your writing practice but what you take away.

Brick walkway

The inspiration for this writing retreat was twofold. First, we’d gotten the idea for a day-long writing retreat from the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s annual Fall Writer’s conference, which we’d attended when we first met more than a decade ago. After we’d attended this one-day conference several years in a row, my friend and I decided we hadn’t learned anything from the workshops and workshop leaders that we didn’t already know; instead, the conference was valuable primarily because it forced us to spend an entire day focused on nothing other than writing.

Whittemore Library oak tree

“There’s no reason we couldn’t schedule our own writing conference,” we decided years ago, declaring over hot beverages that all we’d need was to set aside a fall day, go somewhere we could write, and actually spend the day writing rather than talking about writing: no need for workshops, workshop leaders, registration fees, or anything else. Deciding we’d pursue our own version of “writing without teachers,” my friend and I promptly forgot about the idea, letting it fall into the neglected corner where well-intentioned but abandoned resolutions hide. Sometimes all a well-intentioned resolution needs, however, is enough time to quietly germinate and take root.

May Hall from quad

The second inspiration for this weekend’s bare-bones writing retreat was a similar one sponsored by the Boston Writing and Rhetoric Network this past August. BRAWN is a network of Boston-area college writing professionals—writing and rhetoric professors, writing center administrators, and the like—and the premise of the August retreat was plain and simple: given all the time and energy we spend focusing on our students’ writing, why not take a day to focus on our own?

Outside Whittemore Library

At that August retreat, a handful of my Boston-area colleagues and I gathered in a windowless classroom in MIT’s Stata Center, the leader writing “BRAWN Writing Retreat” on the chalkboard at the front of the room. That was all it took to transform Just Another Day into a Day Devoted to Writing. Just as writing a contract and checking in with a partner are all you need to keep you writing every day, sometimes showing up in a classroom with few distractions and promising to stay there all day, writing, is all it takes to get words on paper. You don’t need a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods to make a “writing retreat”: all you need is a commitment to keep your backside planted in your chair while you type, scribble, squint at the screen, or edit.

Natural light

So on Saturday morning, my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we commandeered an empty classroom in a building where I’ve never taught. All you need for a writing retreat, I learned from that BRAWN retreat in August, is an empty room with desks and chairs, a plug for your laptop, and a commitment to spend the day writing rather than aimlessly checking email, Facebook, and Google Reader. In the morning, we claimed a room flooded with natural light that shone over long, narrow tables; my writing partner set up camp in the middle of the back row, and I spread out my things (carried in my faithful laptop bag) at the far end of the room, where I had a window view of a bronzed oak tree lit by morning sunlight.

Behind May Hall

After spending a few hours writing, we stopped for lunch, driving through a landscape of late autumn fields and sun-dappled woods to a haunted tavern in a nearby town, where we talked over omelets, iced tea, and club soda: food of the gods if you’ve spent the morning with only your own written words to entertain you. After lunch, we drove back to campus, where we claimed a second, less-drafty classroom, opening our laptops and arranging our things on a large conference table while golden light from several towering oak trees cast lingering shadows.

May Hall stairway

One of the things I’ve learned from sitting Zen retreats is that there is a certain kind of intimacy that comes from sharing silence. I’ve sat retreats alongside people whose name I didn’t know and whose voice I’d never heard, but by retreat’s end, I intimately knew the sound of their breathing, the slouch of their shoulders, or the way they slurped their soup. Something similar happens on a writing retreat, whether it’s a formal, organized thing or something casual you arrange with a friend. You grow accustomed to the rhythmic sound of fingers tapping laptop keys, the quiet pauses to re-read or re-consider a line, and the staccato burst of the backspace button deleting a word. On one Zen retreat, I could tell a longtime friend was having a difficult time because I could hear her clicking her meditation beads faster than usual, and on Saturday’s writing retreat, both my partner and I were attuned, I’m sure, to those moments when the other sat back and sighed or leaned forward in her seat to break off another square of dark chocolate: edible inspiration.

Room with a view

It doesn’t take a fancy setting to make a writing retreat: had my friend and I rented a cottage on the beach or a cabin in the woods, perhaps we would have been so distracted by the scenery, we wouldn’t have been attuned to the quiet rhythm of our own inner prose. Who wants to sit inside writing all day if either the beach or the woods beckon? All it takes to make a writing retreat is someone who will hold you to your commitment. For about a decade, my partner and I planned to spend a day writing, and having finally decided to do it this year, we each almost backed out at the last minute, blaming our to-do lists and an onslaught of other social commitments. The minute we’d settled into a plain but perfectly functional classroom at Framingham State on Saturday morning, however, I knew we’d made the right decision: after a workweek complicated by a hurricane, power outage, and interrupted Internet connection, it felt like a welcome relief to return to the sadly neglected page.

Exiting May Hall

So on Saturday I spent a bright and brisk November day inside looking out. I could have spent the day working: I certainly had plenty of things to do. I could have spent the day walking: it was a pretty enough day for it. Instead, I sat in an almost-empty classroom at Framingham State writing because a friend and I had made a promise, and after all these years of intending to retreat but never actually doing it, here we were, at last, taking a day to pause, step back, and devote time to something there typically aren’t enough hours in the day to do fully and without distraction.