I’m on the home stretch of revising my novel (again). Lately I’ve been having trouble focusing at home, partly because it’s too cold to hide in my barn office, so I’ve had to write in the living room, and partly because my husband is now working from home. Even when he’s quiet, I hear him thinking. As a friend said recently of her husband being at home, “It’s like having a Mylar balloon floating in the background.”
During one of my low points, I Googled writing retreats. Up popped a perfect place, an old house in a remote setting. Perfect for the kind of intense writing and revising that requires solitude.
I emailed the owner to inquire about availability. Just one week, that’s all I wanted. The owner emailed back and said, yes, the house happened to be free during one of the weeks I could come, so I booked the house.
I was happy for maybe an hour. And then guilt came roaring in, nipping at my heels and yapping in my ears. You shouldn’t spend more time away from home. Your family needs you and you have work deadlines. Paid work! And you still haven’t cleaned out the closets you meant to clean out last year. Oh, and shouldn’t you be getting ready for your son’s graduation/daughter’s birthday/high school reunion?
I emailed the woman back and said sorry, I couldn’t come after all. Too much going on.
And then I fell into a slump. Spring is coming. If I don’t finish my novel soon, my agent won’t be able to submit it before the New York publishing world goes on summer hiatus.
Finally I phoned another writer-mom friend. “Is there ever a day when you don’t feel guilty?” I asked.
She just laughed. “No. There’s always someone I’ve let down, or something I’ve left undone.”
Every time I teach a writing class of any sort, I start by giving my students the first rule of writing: give yourself permission.
This is harder to do than it sounds. If you’re new at writing, you probably have trouble believing in yourself. If you’ve been writing for a while, but you’ve had trouble publishing a book, or you’ve been watching the publishing industry tank, it’s tough to think you should keep banging your head against that particular wall.
Never mind the time. How can you justify spending money on a writing retreat. Surely there’s something better to do with that money. An oil change for the car? A birthday gift for your husband? Shoes for your kid? Groceries?
Recently, I saw a documentary on Matisse, and was bemused to learn that he left his wife and children for long stretches to paint in a hotel by the sea, where he hired a woman and children to be his models. The paintings often present an idealized portrait of family life: a woman sitting in a chair, children playing board games. But it’s all fake. Matisse couldn’t paint at home with the chaos of family around. He had to leave.
Likewise, Hemingway wasn’t about to stay in that flat with his wife and baby in Paris, right? Off he went, frequenting cafes and getting tanked while he scrawled his pages.
Yet, women are seen as selfish, if not downright monstrous, if we leave our families so we can write. I know all of this, rationally. I’ve even written about the benefits of writing retreats. (I remembered this only when I Googled “Why go on a writing retreat” and my own damn article on Huffington Post popped up.)
Still, I couldn’t give myself permission to go, so I did the next best thing: I called another writer-mom friend. “I need you to do something for me,” I said.
“Sure,” she said. “What is it?”
“Tell me to go on a writing retreat.”
“Of course you should go on a writing retreat,” she said.
And so I emailed the owner of the house again and booked it. Then, before I could change my mind, I mailed the check and committed to the plan.
I couldn’t give myself permission. Luckily, I belong to a community of women writers who know that, sometimes, only solitude will let you finish a book, and that you are worthy of that solitary creative effort, no matter what the outcome.