Month: September 2012

Arriving Home

I’m home. This is a deeply happy thing, like in my bones happy. I started to feel it on the flight home as I approached Utah. I wish I knew if physical proximity to my heart’s residence actually had an effect or if it was all the effect of knowing that I was going home. Part of me would like to believe in a connection to the place I have created here, as if I could draw strength from the ground I have nurtured. I certainly felt like the forest around Mary’s house nourished my spirit. On the drive from the airport I immediately noticed how brown Utah is and how few trees it has. The only natural forests here are in the mountains and they are very different. Another part of me thinks that whole idea is a little bit hokey, but it doesn’t matter because I’m back with my people.

So how was my trip? I ask myself the same question, and I think it is going to take me a week or more to figure out the full answer. For today and tomorrow I am unpacking and resettling. I’m not going to have the mental and emotional space to figure out what this trip has done for/to me until after I figure out how it has shifted things here at home. In my absence my kids have learned some additional self reliance and I should not hurry to take back the tasks that they did for themselves this past week. This requires me to observe. Watching the group effort to pack lunches was certainly interesting and useful. It resembled the lunches on the retreat–make the ingredients available and let the people serve themselves. I’m also going to discover tasks that have piled up, waiting for me to return. But there are no crises and that is good.

In some ways I don’t want to unpack my brain from the trip. I know that some of the contents of my head have shifted and there will be changes as a result. Creating those shifts is exactly why I went. Yet, I’m tired and sorting it all out sounds every bit as difficult as going on the trip and being on the trip. Right now I’d really like to just have things be calm and normal. One of the things I have to figure out is if this desire to retract into ordinary routine is a wise impulse to allow time for writing, or if it is me trying to escape anxiety by making myself smaller. The two possible reasons require opposite responses from me. But I don’t have to figure it out today. Possibly not even this week. For this next week I will focus on creating calm stability for everyone in our house.

How was my trip? It was good. It was hard, but only because of things I carried inside my head. The location was lovely. The company was delightful. The food was excellent. I’m glad I went. I’m sorry that my going caused stress for Howard and the kids, even though letting them learn from stress was part of the point. I wish I’d been better able to disconnect my own stress and anxieties. I came home and the house is as I left it or perhaps even a bit cleaner. I think I will be able to incorporate more writing into my days here at home. I don’t know if the trip was necessary to making that change, it will definitely color the stories I write. And I get to sleep in my own bed. Now if only I could just get the lingering mosquito bites to stop itching.

The Final Day of Writers Retreat

As writing goes, this was not my most productive day of the retreat. In part my brain is tired. It is not used to having so much time allotted to writing, thinking about writing, reading research for writing, and talking about writing. It just fizzled a bit. Also a very large portion of my brain remained determinedly focused on the fact that I get to go home tomorrow.

The day did include several lovely conversations and I feel like I’ve finally come to know most of my fellow retreat journeyers. We acquired in-jokes and a shared lexicon of references. It no longer feels odd to walk into a room, sit down next to someone and just start writing without speaking first. I noticed this fact because there was a new visitor today and I found myself reluctant to intrude on him, which let me know I’d gotten comfortable with everyone else.

I did do some writing math, which is the sort of thing I do when I’m trying to remain focused on writing even though my brain is tired.
During this week I’ve written 4211 words of blog posts and 2109 words of fiction. Averaged over 7 days that gives me about 902 words per day. These numbers feel pretty paltry when most of the writers here are aiming for 2000-3000 words per day. But even before I came I knew I would not be able to measure the success of this retreat by word count. I actually had an exchange with Mary pre-retreat where she suggested I define success for the retreat.

I count as my first success that I came with a secondary success that I did not leave early. This was a seriously scary trip to take for reasons that are not logical and which I’m still trying to parse.

I got to hang out with Mary, which is always a win. I will extend that success to cover everyone who was here. I’m glad to know all of them.

I hoped to finish my draft of Strength of Wild Horses. I haven’t.

I saw a cardinal. I only saw him for a moment and only on the first day. It was like a little promise of hope. And I now know why they’re often referred to as redbirds.

I walked in the woods every day, usually more than once. I took lots of pictures.

The last measure is observing what opens up in my head when I’ve put away all the business, household, and parent thoughts. I wasn’t able to fully put them away, but I was also able to begin creating fiction. I don’t think this one is complete yet. I need to go home and step back into my usual routines in order to be able to tell what has shifted around in my head.

So tomorrow I go home. Until then, here are a last set of forest pictures taken right after a rainfall.

The vines in the forest continue to fascinate me. I was explaining to Marilyn that we don’t have vines in western forests and she answered “Oh really?” as if she could not imagine a forest without vines and moss everywhere.

Mosses also fascinate me. Especially when I got up close to them.

When you get even closer you can see all the tiny fronds.

This mushroom made me think of a dancing skirt. I could imagine it frozen mid-motion.

When I arrived almost all of the leaves were green. By today leaves are beginning to turn colors and fall. I suspect next week the whole forest will change colors. I’ll not be here to see it.

I’ll be sad to leave the forest. I’ve walked all the paths into familiarity and yet I find something new every single time.

Letting Go of Home Thoughts is Hard

One of the reasons this retreat is being difficult is that the schedule tracking portion of my brain will not stay switched off. Occasionally I can be fully present in Tennessee, out in the forest, part of a conversation. But then I’ll happen to glance at a clock and without me bidding it to, my brain does the calculation to Utah time and supplies the fact that at home Howard is helping the kids get out the door to school. This wakes up the portion of my brain that is convinced that I’ve committed gross dereliction of duty by not being present at home to manage the schedule. I’ve left my kids before. I’ve left them for a week before. But I usually arrange for them to be on vacation or visiting with relatives. They are outside the usual schedule as much as I am. This time they are at home, following routine. I am not. But my brain keeps tracking their routine and telling me that I should really check up on homework or bedtime or a dozen other things.

I can’t escape from home thoughts yet home feels so far away. I’m really not sure what conclusion to draw from all of this. I’m not sure how this knowledge should affect future decisions. Does this fall into the “Don’t do that again” camp or is it that I need more practice letting go?

In the category of less conflicted lessons learned: don’t wear ballet flats into the woods, or if you do, spray with mosquito repellent first. The tops of my feet look like I have chicken pox. These bites don’t itch as much as the bites from Utah mosquitoes, but twenty-five bites on my feet is enough to draw notice. Particularly late at night when I’m trying to sleep and thinking about home things instead. I probably should be spending those wakeful hours thinking about plot things. But it feels like an additional dereliction, as if fretting over the home schedule is penance I must pay for not being there. And simultaneously I can also feel guilty because I have this opportunity and I am wasting it by thinking about home instead of thinking about writing fiction.

Over all, this is being good. I hope it is being good. It will take me months to see the results of what coming has begun. Hopefully I’ll be able to step back into my regular schedule and none of us will be sufficiently dinged by this experience that repairs are necessary.

Bits of Stories all Around

One of the reasons I like walking in the woods is because I see things that beg to be made into stories.

This little clearing was completely covered by this round leafed plant. My brain wanted to explain that the ground was somehow sacred and that I must tread lightly.

These mossy holes in the river bank look like a fairy apartment complex to me.

The structure of these mushroom caps make me think of terraced alien life forms.

I passed by this log and immediately thought of troll skin, or perhaps the skin of some long sleeping mountain giant.

And nearly running into this web across the path reminded me of the spiders and webs in The Hobbit. I’m pretty sure Tolkien met some actual forest spiders before writing that one.

A friend in a writer’s forum mentioned how good it was for writers to do right brained things, like tromping the woods or drawing pictures, instead of always being tangled up in words all the time. I agree. I need to spend time filling up my idea well. Of course a forest is not the only place to find ideas. The jug pictured below is in my room at the retreat. I’m in “Dr. Walker’s room” which used to belong to an actual turn of the century doctor. Many of his medical texts line one of the benches. Seeing them fills me with thoughts about historical medical practices. But the jug also drew my attention. I thought it was kind of cute. Then I got up close for a look. I think those may be human teeth in the jug’s mouth.

Surely these are simply baby teeth that some artist collected after they fell out, but my brain assures me that there are other stories I could tell about this jug. This is particularly true since at the moment I’m reading Mamma Day, a book which has voo doo as a plot element. For now I’m trying not to think about the story possibilities inherent in that jug since most of them are creepy and I sleep in the same room with the thing. I’m sleeping in the same room and the house is over 100 years old. The possibilities for ghost and horror stories abound. But I’ll ponder that when I’m far away back home.

Speaking of home, I miss it a lot today.

The People at the Retreat

It occurs to me that I’ve spent three posts talking about the forest and I probably ought to talk about the retreat itself and the other writers here. I knew Mary Robinette before coming, of course. I’d also previously met Alethea Kontis. Everyone else was new to me. I figured they had to be good people since they were all invited by Mary. The group here is fairly small, ten people. Getting acquainted has been a leisurely process because most everyone is spending hours each day staring at their computers deep in story. When I began taking pictures of the folks here and asking permission to post them to the internet, staring at screens was most of what I photographed.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Michael Livingston, Monte Cook, and Shanna Germain writing on the porch in the evening.

David Levine deep in story.

Kate Yule at work.

It is not always work. Ellen Klages takes a break from writing by reading Glamour in Glass.

Alethea Kontis communing with the forest.

We tend to gather and talk at meal times. It helps that Mary cooks the most fantastic dinners.

Sometimes we talk about story or the projects we’re working on, but meal time conversations tend to be about anything and everything. Over lunch today we actually had a conversation about conversations, which was rather meta, but fascinating. I like being around other writers because they pay attention to random things and then think about them. I usually learn a lot. We talk and then we scatter and ignore each other for a couple of hours.

It is an odd mix of socializing and solitude. Yet it is exactly what it needs to be.

Surviving the Second Day and Making it into the Third

The stated purpose of this writing retreat is to travel outside my usual round of responsibilities so that I could focus on just writing. The first day I spent on travel, which is to be expected. I traveled both physically and mentally, arriving tired. I then suffered the common traveler’s lament of spending all the energy arriving only to desire to rest by being at home. I expected that. I also expected to spend some time grounding myself, becoming familiar with the house and surroundings. I did this at DeepSouthCon when I spent a good portion of the first day photographing and noticing the design choices of the hotel, much to the amusement of the hotel staff. They humored the odd lady taking pictures of the wall sconces and carpet. I’d planned to write up a post using those pictures, but the post never happened. It didn’t need to. I’d situated my brain and was ready to focus on the convention instead.

Except I arrived at the house and it felt familiar. I used to dream about my grandma’s tiny house. In the dreams I went upstairs and through a door to discover that her house had extra rooms and floors. Stepping into Woodthrush Woods was like stepping into one of those dreams, my grandma’s house–only different and bigger. I did not need to wander the house and get to know it. But I was tired from traveling, and despite feeling welcome I was not at home. There were other writers who had just finished dinner. I was introduced and we had a pleasant conversation and then everyone scattered to go write. I was left to myself. Which is the point. It is what is supposed to happen. Yet I did not write. Not really. There is a different feel when I am writing a blog post where I’m saying stuff and where I’m deep in the words. I was saying stuff that evening.

Surely the next day would be better. I would be settled and would begin to accomplish the purpose for which I had come.

Except I did not sleep well and the second day turned out to be hard. It was hard on me. It was hard on Howard and the kids back at home. Their struggles reached out to me across all those miles via internet and innate instinct. Instead of being here and now, my heart felt stretched across half a continent. I wondered why I had come. I was afraid that the logical and spiritual impulses which had guided me to take this trip were about growing through hard experience rather than reward. I really wanted something happy to result, but it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen.

On the second day of the retreat that I learned I bring my emotional baggage with me even when I leave the trappings of my regular life. I could suddenly see the baggage for what it was, but I couldn’t see how to re-pack it, get rid of it, or ship it back home. It was a day of bright and dark. I loved the woods. I needed to be there in the woods. But I wrote no words that were strong enough to convince me that they could not have been better written from home. I cried on the second day. Not all day, but sometimes when I was away from everyone else. I did not want to make any of the other writers responsible for making me feel better. I didn’t know if they could. I felt awful for being away from my family when they needed me at home to provide structure. I knew that they were competent and would find ways to muddle through. I worried about the comic work Howard was not getting done because he was shouldering my work at home as well as his own. I looked at my paltry words. I felt the even greater space of words I didn’t feel like I would ever be able to write. I felt awkward and odd with the people around me because I come from a social and religious context which often requires explanation. When all the worries got too much, I would walk in the woods or watch the birds. It helped, but I spent the day tangled in my own head.

Howard and I shared a phone call where we commiserated about how hard this trip was being for us both and how we weren’t sure what would come of it. I considered paying the extra fees to change my flight and go home early. Except I could tell I was not supposed to. My wise Kiki sent me an email acknowledging that the day had been hard without me there, but ending with “the second day is always hard. It’ll get better.” I marveled at her wisdom and clung to her words, wondering where she had learned it. Oh. She learned it from me. I tell her that at the beginning of a new school year.

The morning was brighter. Howard called and told me things were better at home. I went running up and down the long driveway, because running is better than crying. I walked in the woods. I wrote a blog post about it. Then I opened the file for my magical realism book and story spilled from my brain out through my fingers. I finally felt the deep word focus that I saw in the others when they stared at their screens. 1000 words later I have the bare beginning of characters and a problem. I’m going to have to discovery write this one, but it feels like the right beginning. I have written. I just might survive this experience after all.

My preferred writing bench.

Walking the Woods

Behind the house there is a table and chairs for eating. We’ve been taking our lunches out there to sit. This is what I see from my preferred seat.

The forest beckons me, and several times a day I go wandering through it. I can label it research if I want. I’m sure that many of the photographs, sensations, and sights will make it into my fiction. The real truth is that this forest makes me happy. I very much want to take it home with me. Sadly, it will not fit into my luggage, so I’m just trying to spend as much time out walking in it as I can. Memories are easy to pack.

The variety of life here is astounding. I wish I could photograph the birds, but they do not hold still nor let me get close. I would need a camera with a more powerful magnification than what I have. Instead I capture trees and rocks which will hold still. Some of the life looks really alien.

I begin to understand “parasitic” in new ways looking at the vines climbing up these trees. Though some trees do not mind, or have grown to the point where they are too big to be bothered.

If I lived here, or if Gleek lived here, that mossy giant would end up with a name. So would dozens of other little curves of creek and dells created by dead falls. I half want to name them anyway. I can picture in my mind Gleek running out the door and calling “I’m going to the fairy glen!” Perhaps this evening the lighting will be better and I can capture that place.

I did see one forest dweller who reminded me of home.

The yellow jackets here are less aggressive, smaller, and friendlier than the ones I encounter in my garden. Perhaps this is the result of them being part of a fully-balanced ecosystem rather than the oddly misbalanced ones found in suburbs. This guy was content to ride his leaf boat while I got close to take his picture.

Now I need to settle in and write words of fiction, while trying not to be too distracted by the pair of mockingbirds who appear to be playing tag through the trees over my head.

Woodthrush Woods

Mary Robinette’s parent’s house has a name: Woodthrush Woods. I love the idea of naming a house. It gives the place an identity separate from a container inside which people live. It is obvious that this particular house has been beloved for multiple generations. People care for their houses differently when they expect their grandchildren to live in it. It makes me want to be more conscious of the choices I make for my own home, even though it is extremely unlikely that my children or grandchildren will settle there. When my house passes out of my hands, I want it to feel like a place where people were happy. Because that is true. I’d just like that happiness to manifest in more careful repairs and fewer broken drawers and dinged plaster.

Around Woodthrush Woods is a forest, which I presume is how the name came to be. I arrived in the dark last night and I knew that one of my first tasks this morning would be to go wandering in the woods. I wanted to get a feel for this place where I’ve landed. I wanted to see what the trees and birds had to say to me.

For the most part they were unconsciously beautiful, not really having much to tell. These trees have stood here a long time. The birds are more ephemeral, but they have still been here longer than I have. I was very interested in the birds since I’ve lived my whole life in the west and many of these are exclusively eastern birds. I immediately regretted leaving my bird field guides at home. I was trying to save luggage space and weight. I looked up the birds on the internet, but there is a satisfaction to flipping through pages and finding the winged creature who just flew by. The woodthrushes were the first I saw. Then I was delighted by an eastern blue jay. Eastern jays, cardinals, and eastern bluebirds are the iconic backyard birds, along with american robins. I’d only ever seen robins. When I came back east one of my big hopes was to see a cardinal.

I wandered through the trees until I chanced on a trail. It led me to a creek.

I knew there was a creek somewhere nearby and I was pleased to find it. I even hopped my way out onto some rocks, nearly dunking a foot so that I could photograph what would have been an ideal spot for pretend games or a fort.

My children would love these woods.

As usual I was fascinated by some of the tiny details of the forest.

There is a bush which has these berries. I’m fairly certain they are not good for human consumption, but the song birds do seem to like them. Walnuts cracked under my feet from the wild trees. It explained why blue jays like it here. Also under my feet was moss. We don’t get moss in Utah, not enough water in the air. This tiny growth feels magical to me and has me considering placing the house for my magical realism book in an eastern forest instead of a western one.

More thought is required, because I’m far more familiar with the feel of a western forest. Except this one feels more alive and magical to me. I wonder if it is or if unfamiliarity just makes it seem so.

I wandered my way back to the house and saw a flash of red in a tree next to the lawn. A cardinal had stopped by, like a wish of good luck for my week-long visit. I hope I see him again before I leave, but once is enough. I love being able to look up from my computer and see birds swooping from tree to tree. This is a lovely place.

My Travel Day

I began the morning with an intense focus on last minute things. This was because I required the intensity, not because the things needed it. If I did not train my brain into focus, it wanted to wander around the house thinking maudlin thoughts about each and every thing I touched. I really don’t need to contemplate that this is the last time I’ll touch my regular hairbrush for a week. (I have a smaller brush I use for travel.) I made sure to hug my kids and tell them I loved them. I left enough cookies behind for a week’s worth of lunches. Then I got in the car and focused all my thoughts toward getting myself onto the right plane.

As the plane launched into the sky, I wanted a distraction, something to turn my brain off for the next four hours. Instead I began my writer’s retreat. I pulled out my laptop, I read my study materials, I let these things swirl in my brain and made notes on the mixtures and combinations that resulted. I had thoughts about how my 90% complete SWH draft was aimed in the wrong direction, so I knocked it back to 65% to try again. I observed some of the story techniques that I want to use in my magical realism book and some that I did not. I wrote a letter to one of my kids (remaining letters to be written before the mail comes tomorrow) and noted how the slow and contemplative nature of a handwritten letter changed the way I was thinking about that child and my relationship with him. These may be the first of many letters over the next years. On the ground in Atlanta I noted how empowering it is to be able to find my own way through an airport and onward to my destination without anyone there shepherd me. While waiting at the shuttle drop off point for my ride I contemplated how far I was away from home, and noted how that distance was affecting a portion of my emotional landscape. Then I arrived at a house that has been lived in and loved for three generations, you can see it in all the details. I want to wander everywhere and look at everything. Instead I made the acquaintance of some of the other writers over a late dinner. And now I am here, on my computer, in the familiar little piece of internet home that I brought with me.

Oh, you thought I meant physical travel. That part was pretty boring. It involved sitting in a too small space on a crowded airplane and a too small space in a shared airport shuttle. But the enforced stillness gave time for my thoughts to slow down, expand, pay attention to longer thoughts. It is like the difference between watching the ocean and watching a stream. Both are lovely in their own ways, but different.

For tonight, I finish my trip by settling in to sleep. In the morning I’ll have daylight to look around the woods.

Preparing for Departure

Who will bring in the mail while I am gone? I don’t know. I know I mentioned to Howard that he could stack it in the bin at the end of the counter, but that was just one of a dozen small conversations where I gave Howard details of little household tasks that I track and he does not. Some of these small things will be forgotten. Some already have been, since I forgot to even think of them–tasks so invisible that I do them without conscious thought. Awareness of all these little tasks makes me feel that everything will fall apart if I go away. It won’t of course. All of the important tasks will get done. Howard and the kids will see what needs to be done and they will do it.

Yet I worry, not for the tasks themselves, but for the additional stress that my loved ones will feel as they perform last-minute scrambles to accomplish necessary tasks. They’ll scramble themselves over obstacles that I am usually here to make smooth. I’m doing as much smoothing as I can before I leave. Meal plans are in place. Everyone has a week’s worth of clean laundry. The van has a full tank of gas. These small preparations appease my guilt, help me feel like it is okay for me to go and that disaster will not result. It is not as if I’m the first mother to head out for a week-long business trip. I’m not even the first one to feel guilty about it.

Last week I felt very tense about all these little tasks, with the same sort of tension which spurred me to put together a binder full of instructions and supplies for my mother when she came to watch my baby and toddler for a week. These days I can trust my kids to know their own schedules and requirements. No binders required. Yet I still feel the pull of writing notes and plastering the walls with them. Trash on Tuesday! Monday is a minimal day! Youth meeting on Wednesday! Instead of writing a dozen notes, I’ll just write one or two really important reminders. The rest I have to let go. The closer I get to departure, the easier it is for me to let go. I begin to accept that things will be run differently in my absence and that this is fine. My ways are not the only good ways. They may even find better options than the ones I’ve been using for so long.

I went away for four days in April and again in May. I returned from both trips to discover that all my people had grown. They were smarter and more capable because they had figured things out for themselves. They were also glad to have me back. I was glad to be back. I know this will be the same despite the extended length of time. Believing that it will be good for them is the only way I can get myself to let go of the responsibility. I am excited, afraid, curious, looking forward, feeling guilty, hoping for rewards, and counting costs. Tomorrow I fly.