Chiappone: The Accidental Writing Retreat

Thanks to Rich Chiappone for this guest-post.

My friend Nancy Lord has long considered herself the Queen of All Writing Retreats, and for good reason. Although I don’t have the actual number right here in front of me, I believe that Nancy has enjoyed the hospitality of various writers’ colonies, enclaves and hideaways in all fifty states, a few American protectorates, several former Soviet Bloc satellites, and a number of places I cannot find on any map of the world or globe: she has attended a little under twelve thousand of them in all, I think. Her partner, Ken has not actually seen her since about 1986.

OK, all clowning aside, anyone who knows me knows that I would not poke this kind of ridiculous fun at Nancy if I were not as fond of her as I am. She is one of our most accomplished and respected writers and a former Alaska Laureate, and she really will tell anyone who’ll listen that writing retreats have helped her get there (note from editor: follow this link for Nancy’s 2009 post with many retreat and residency options).

Nancy is also known for her kindness to other writers. For several years she has encouraged me to apply to her favorite writer’s retreat centers (perhaps in recognition of my dismal output, or merely just to stop my whining about it). She has sent me their information, links to their application forms, even offered to put in a good word. Guys like me need all the good words we can get. Yet, I never pursued it. Now, suddenly, I wish I had.

I didn’t need to go to a retreat, I reasoned. I’ve already retired from my business and now live in a house in the woods at the end of a little dirt road at Anchor Point. How much farther does a writer need to retreat from life in order to write, I asked.

My wife, Lin, goes off to work every morning to Homer High School, fifteen miles south; our cats go back to bed. My only neighbor drives away in his gravel truck soon after. I have the whole house, the whole little dirt road, acres of unpopulated woods to myself —in which to write, it could be expected.

But I almost never do. You know, write.

Oh, I get a story or two out each year, a few pieces published here and there. But not many. There are numerous days, even weeks, that I do not open a document file or touch a pen to the many yellow pads, shuffled among the piles of papers and books in my office, waiting to be written upon.

Inside my little office, distractions are minimal, aside from the one cat who has figured out that if he walks back and forth across my keyboard, I will eventually give up and turn my energies to guessing what he wants. Likewise there is not a lot to look at in the dense spruce forest a few yards outside my office windows either, except for a lot of bird activity. But I am a very amateur birder at best, and not driven to study every sunflower seed the nuthatch crams into the spruce bark, nor every wingy skirmish that erupts among the bellicose little pine siskins.

I don’t listen to the radio, ever, except when I’m driving in my truck. We haven’t had TV reception since the early eighties. The phone rarely rings. The U. S. Postal Service does not deliver to our door, and neither does the Anchorage Daily News, meaning I have neither mailman nor delivery boy to chat with. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not yet discovered us. I’m alone. A lot. Why would I need to travel to a distant state to “get away from it all?”

And yet, in spite of my resistance to growth, I somehow manage to learn new things now and then.

In mid-December, I flew to Phoenix, AZ, where I remain today, exactly one month later. It’s been the most productive writing month of my life. Lin and I own a very small brick home here in north central Phoenix, the house Lin lived in when she was a student in high school: two bedrooms and a bathroom the size of a cat box. Here, I once again find myself alone all day and most nights, only this time in a big strange city. It has become my writer’s retreat.

I think that after 35 years of shutting the door behind me each morning and driving off to work elsewhere, I never really accepted the idea of “working at home.” It still sounds inherently oxymoronic, like hobby farming, say, or war games. I read somewhere that a best selling author (Jane Hamilton, maybe) rented a storefront space in a strip mall a few miles from her house where she went to write her novel every day. She had her own house to herself, but couldn’t get any work done there; writing didn’t feel like a productive activity unless she had to drive to her desk to do it. Now I understand.

Wait. Let me just say it for you: Who cares how anyone else writes, or fails to write?

Good point. I know what you mean. Believe me, at the end of many a gloomy unproductive day, when bedtime rolled around and I once again faced the fact that I had not written a word since climbing out of that bed that morning, I reminded myself that no one on this planet cares. No one anywhere suffers if I, or any of us, never write another thing again. Nobody. Period. The world needs another short story, another poem, another novel, like another hole in the ozone layer. There is so much competition for space in the magazines and on the bookstore shelves now, writers peck and claw each other for every opening like siskins on sunflower seeds. Magazine editors are drowning under rising seas of unsolicited manuscripts; giant bookstores bloat with unloved titles, marked down to pennies on the dollar. Who, exactly, needs us to write more books?

But I also know that we writers want to talk about that, and about everything else there is to say regarding this crazy, stupid, frustrating, sometimes horribly depressing thing we all love to do. And that’s why I’d like to shamelessly report that, after writing every single day for almost a month, one recent evening, alone in my Phoenix, Arizona bed, I rolled over onto my side, tugged the covers up onto my ear and discovered that, in spite of the loneliness you’d expect, I felt strangely happy. “This must be what it means to be a real writer,” I thought, smugly. However vacuous and self-congratulatory that may sound, it was a big moment for me.

That said, I must admit I never thought much of writers who seemed to want credit for having put their keisters in a chair and poked a keyboard every single day of their lives since kindergarten or some such thing. It did not sound like much of an accomplishment, or much of a life for that matter. I was a fool. Last summer at the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference one of our guest writers, Bill Roorbach said that in order to get serious and write every day, he had to hear himself decline a social invitation from a friend, responding, “I can’t come. I have to work.” I listened to Bill say that and wondered if I could ever utter those words.

I haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m working on it.

P.S. For anyone had the opportunity to meet and enjoy the good humor and charm of the really hardworking Bill Roorbach last summer in Homer, I want to report that Bill is recovering from neck surgery. He was operated on Monday of last week and is doing well. Please send him your best wishes at the “Dave and Bill’s Cocktail Hour” website.

Rich Chiappone’s latest book is Opening Days, a collection of essays, stories and poems.

6 thoughts on “Chiappone: The Accidental Writing Retreat”

  1. Thanks for this! I've lately been wondering if I can keep calling myself a writer, given the fact that I haven't written anything in, oh, forever. But then I rarely sit down at a keyboard, either. Expect essays to magically appear on the page, I guess. Love the idea of "going to work." Without that boundary other things can be just too enticing.

  2. I enjoyed this! And I get it, of course (I've been a professional novelist for almost thirty years….). But what I liked most was your description of that moment when you turned over in bed and felt so happy.

    Don't you think it's because you've been writing?

  3. Hi Rich!
    I love this post, and it makes me want to escape from my home right now. A writer I work with at Lighthouse recently told me her budget version of a residency: she has her husband drive her to some nearly deserted town in Wyoming a few hours north of Denver. He drops her off at a motel that costs $20 a night, then he drives back to Colorado leaving her without a car, and is forbidden to return until a week of stale contintental breakfasts (and many written pages) have passed. Sounds miserable, but happy in that I'm-a-real-writer way you described 🙂 You've inspired me to look into ways to get away. Thanks!

  4. Great blog by Rich Chiappone! It's true that the new stimuli of a different setting can get the creative juices flowing. Part of it is just leaving the usual angst behind and having a fresh landscape to prompt fresh thoughts.

  5. Thanks Rich! One of my favorite tidbits from the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference was Bill's advice about calling writing "work."

    I'm thinking a writing retreat in Arizona sounds pretty darn enticing right now.

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