La Muse Retreat (Wk 2): The learning Curve…

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One of the local forest walks – I saw hoopoes and golden eagles

I’m not one of those writers that hates writing. Nor do I think it is difficult and awful. I love what I do but there are, of course, challenges, and sometimes it can be difficult to motivate yourself, get a balance, or keep your energy levels in check. I’m always reflecting on my work and my process and I try to streamline things to work smarter, rather than harder. After all, I have money to earn and a life to live too.

Well, there’s nothing like being in your own company for two solid weeks to help you reflect. This doesn’t mean sitting and waiting for inspiration to hit – like Ann Patchett says in her fantastic essay, The Getaway Car – A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, I sit down and work and that’s my inspiration right there – but it does mean looking for clues on what saps energy, what wastes time, what feels different. And for me, part of being on a residency is looking at how positive elements can be brought home and incorporated into the everyday to improve the real life practice of being a writer.

So, two weeks into my residency at the glorious La Muse Retreat, this is what I have learned…

  • I always feel better when I have walked 10 km or more. Short walks add up, but do not give the same feeling of exhilaration or accomplishment, or let the mind switch off.
  • I love this novel that I’m working on, but it also scares me – and I think this fear is positive. It means I have something worth working on, something that challenges me and makes we want to keep going. Which is good, because there is a long, long way to go yet.
  • Afternoon tiredness is linked to digestion. When I have eaten heavier foods, I get an afternoon slump.
  • About halfway through a residency, I get a day of melancholy. And that’s OK – it’s a day of evaluating… Have I done enough? How can I make things better? I find I overcome this best with long walks and an even longer night of reading.
  • Breakfast does not work for me, ever – I’m listening to my body and sticking with brunch.
  • Yoga or stretching is just as effective in regular 10 minutes bursts to let go of shoulder/neck cramps as it is in hour-long sessions. Which is good seeing as writing/walks need long stretches of time and I have a low boredom threshold.
  • My average daily output of writing on this residency has been six to eight hours. Reading, around three hours, hiking, four hours. Sleep, eight hours – I have needed more sleep than usual and am glad of it.
  • The boring minutiae of home becomes gloriously shiny rituals on a retreat/residency – this is something I need to remember so when routine hits (which I find demotivating) I can kick its butt.
  • You should be open to people’s book recommendations and try new reads. You’ll always be drawn to those that suit your tastes anyway.
  • Missing home now and again means I’m blessed to have a home to go to.

As for my output, I have now edited (and we’re talking about going deep here) 18,000 words (76 pages) of my novel, I have written a new 1200 word short story and the first drafts of two separate essays of 1500-2000 words each.

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The beautiful church in nearby village, Mas Cabardes.

Although I am always productive at home, it’s the depth that’s invaluable when you’re on a retreat or residency and at La Muse, the thinking space, the hikes in wooded mountains, the wonderful living library, the conversations with others, have all enabled room to explore and grow. It’s a springboard for later work and that’s exciting. However…

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Enjoying some fresh mountain air.

I am now on my final week and I’m trying not to let the inevitable panic set in. Six days is a lot of time, I am telling myself. It’s plenty of time to go deeper into my novel and to fix my broken timeline, my meandering plot.

Things always look different with hindsight and so a simple trick I often use is this… If I looked back on this experience in ten years’ time, what would I see as the most important learning curves for me in the coming week? Let’s hope this trick helps. I’m going in…

How is your own writing going? Do you find residencies useful? Or it something you dream of doing but haven’t managed yet? 

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7 thoughts on “La Muse Retreat (Wk 2): The learning Curve…

  1. noellekelly says:

    Wow, Elizabeth! You’re one productive lady! It sounds amazing, I have to say I’m really struggling with focusing on editing at the moment. Any ideas for me? 🙂

      • noellekelly says:

        I’m writing in the evenings after work most days, Saturday afternoons and the very odd Sunday. I’m thinking that I’m just being very particular with the edits, so that’s why it’s going slowly and maybe that’s OK. And also I think I need a goal to make me focus. By the end of July it will be 2 years from first draft and I want to have it sent for a critique by then, come hell or high water. I think one evening a week, I’m just going to work on a short story to break it up. All suggestions welcome Elizabeth 🙂

  2. toolanblog says:

    Three hours of reading each day. Even though with writing (and my job) I couldn’t do it, it is a good reminder that feeling as if I’m not reading enough is accurate. I’m starting to realize that I need a written daily schedule to go by. I’m just coming off a six week writing course on “the personal essay” offered through GrubStreet . I really enjoyed it and while I was taking the course (writing and rewriting essays), I took a break from working on the third draft of the memoir. I’m at 80,000 words, down from 120,000 words, and have only a quarter of the book left to edit and revise. I think I’m likely only a month away from a final third draft.
    Great work being done at your end!! Enjoy yet another productive week.

    • E.R. Murray says:

      A month away? That’s incredible – well done! A break can be so useful – refreshes your viewpoint and speeds up the progress when you start again. And that sounds like a great course – I’m really drawn to essays at the moment too. I’m enjoying the different form and exploring possibilities. I’d love to read something of yours!
      I won’t be reading three hours a day when I’m back at home, as the freelance work will be back full pelt, as will events (lots of travelling) but I have spotted areas at home where I waste time so I’m going to try and fit more in for sure. However much I read, I always feel like it’s not enough! But you can only do what you can do. I hate routine but I’ve realised I still need some form of written schedule to go by – we can hammer away together daily with our achievable goals. 🙂

      • toolanblog says:

        Here’s to hammering away at daily goals…
        As for the course, we attempted different forms: the personal essay, the hermit crab essay, the collage essay, and the “then and now” form. It was all quite new and interesting. The reading selections on each subject each week were very good. I’ve downloaded the reading list. I’ll send it along with one of my essays.

  3. toolanblog says:

    Here’s to hammering away at daily goals…
    As for the course, we attempted different forms: the personal essay, the hermit crab essay, the collage essay, and the “then and now” form. It was all quite new and interesting. The reading selections on each subject each week were very good. I’ve downloaded the reading list. I’ll send it along with one of my essays.

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