'Prepare to be immersed in the heat and vibrancy of Florida's natural world, full of such sensual detail that to read it is to breathe it in.' - Jo Shapcott
[review of Greyhound Night Service]

Retreats and Treats

It has been difficult to find focus over the past few months, an experience I know that many of us have had during this pandemic. What focus I've had has necessarily gone toward teaching and making sure my students have made the transition to on-line learning in time to finish the semester. My second priority has been house upgrades here at the dungeon palace where I live: we've been in the midsts of finishing the repairs and decorative re-haul of our sitting room...the final room in our too-long total DIY project (ongoing since 2013). But as tasks and to-do lists seem to stabilise or settle down, I've managed to start the slow journey back to my writing life, a.k.a. summer vacation writing time.

In mid-July, one of my colleagues suggested that a group of us try for a writing retreat day, and we managed it quite well, despite the need for a virtual-only presence. In the morning we logged in, set our writing goals, then did a lunch time check-in and an end-of-day roundup. It all passed in a bit of a blur and I spent the whole day reading a group of articles that I would be guest-editing in August with my multi-narrative research group. It was a bit heavy for a 'writing' day with mainly reading only, but it helped me focus and prepare for making more time in August.

Ultimately it was this day, alongside of the still-fresh disappointment over the cancellation of an in-person writing retreat that I'd hoped to go on after Easter, that prompted me to contact my wonderful creative collaboration buddy Martha Cook. After two residencies together in the past two and a half years, she and I are well acquainted with carving out precious time from our hectic schedules to prioritise CREATIVITY and MINDFULNESS. Big caps for big words!

After a blindingly-quick discussion on the idea we unanimously decided to put a week in the diary for retreating virtually together--something we had never tried before. Somehow it seemed a more daunting way to work very VERY separately (with 4,000 miles between us) and via the medium of interwebbing and whatsapping. [See previous posts for our usual methods

Martha and I are now on Day 4 of our Inaugural Collaborative Virtual Retreat, and even though it's quite a bit lonelier and less playful than being in the same forest in the same country together, we've managed to figure out an interesting and successful way of working. The daily schedule looks a little like this:

  1. I wake up on BST (British Summer Time Zone) and I do my morning reading, writing, and coffee drinking.
  2. Martha wakes up on EST (Eastern Standard Time) and prepares to Zoom with me.
  3. We have a 'collaboration meeting' for 1-2 hours via Zoom, whereupon we share thoughts, inspirations, daily goals, and do some meditation and writing together.
  4. The rest of my afternoon and early evening / Martha's morning and early afternoon are spent working separately on our projects. 
  5. When I stop for the evening (between 8-9pm BST) I indicate to Martha that I'm wrapping up and we do a 15 minute or so voice message & photo swap about how our days and our projects are progressing.
  6. I finish my day with some down time, which, in true retreat / residency fashion, means no TV and no screens for me other than a glance at news headlines.
Even far apart, our common themes are the same: being deliberately attentive to how we work (process, method, techniques) as well as both of us having an ultimate passion for natural textures in our respective projects, the incorporating of being outdoors however the weather and time suits, and being open minded to our expectations as far as what and how we want to approach the words / clay as they develop.

Highlights of the week for me so far have been:

  • Hearing bird song outside my window at the same time as hearing bird song on the other side of the world through the virtual window.
  • Writing and meditating every day again.
  • Watching the weather as it develops from thick heat to torrential downpour to gale-force wind storm, and adjusting my outdoor activities to fit.
  • Finding out how to retreat in my own home / my own space, which led to spending two nights sleeping outside in a tent and later going on a kayaking trip down the Thames.
  • Discovering more silence than I knew existed in my own space.
  • Re-discovering several books that have inspired my writing at various stages...and they still do!
  • Trying out 'contour drawing' with no worry about how bad my pieces might look (horrendous examples below)!