At the moment I'm away from Seattle, away from Aqueduct-- and will be for the next three weeks-- working on a novel in progress, thanks to an artist's residency at Centrum, in Port Townsend, WA. My digs are comfortable and quiet, except for the wind, when it's up. Perhaps best of all, I have access to some fabulous walks and a view of the sea from my windows. Though there's internet access, it's delightfully inconvenient, meaning that I won't be cluttering up my thoughts with email or web browsing except when I've scheduled myself to do it.
Previously, I worked on this novel the summer before last, for the Clarion Writeathon, and during my retreat at the Whiteley Center exactly two years ago. Both times I bent all my efforts to getting the story on the page, with the aim of finishing a draft I could work with while doing Aqueduct's work, too. That strategy seemed to make sense, given the ordinary constraints on my time. And yet, when I stopped last time, certain I was only about 30,000 words from finishing, I couldn't see how to bring it off, despite being so close. In short, though I didn't admit it to myself until earlier this year, I was stuck. More recently, I figured out a few basic things about where I needed to go with the last 30,000 words. But I still felt uneasy. And so dedicating a three-week writing retreat to this novel constituted an act of faith. That's the thing about all writing, of course: you have to just say the hell with it, I can do this (even if you're not sure you can), and pretend very hard that you believe it.
I arrived here on Sunday afternoon and spent the rest of the day settling in: unpacking, setting up my computer and arranging my workspace, making an enormous pot of bean and cabbage soup (hearty fare that will spare me from having to cook for several days), figuring out how to regulate the temperature in my apartment. Since I was pretty whacked from an insomniac night, it was probably a good thing that I'd decided not to even look at my ms until Monday morning. I had, though, been sinking into the characters and story for most of last week (which was partly what kept me awake Saturday night). So when I woke yesterday (Monday), I was primed to go.
It has always been important for me, when doing a writing retreat, to take time out in the afternoon for a good long walk. Yesterday the wind was so high that from my windows the whitecaps looked like lines of mini-surf dotting the water; moreover, rain intermittently spattered my windows. But no matter: nothing was going to keep me from walking on the beach. I chose as the destination for my first walk Point Wilson, on which squats a small lighthouse. (A modern radar tower lurks nearby.) The walk was exhilarating-- the wind so wild, the gusts so powerful that on the return walk I often had to turn and walk backwards just to breathe. (We're very near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, here.)
When I descended onto the beach, I was charmed by the sign telling people not to disturb any seal pups lying on the beach: "It's the law," the sign warned. (Alas, I encountered no seal pups. But maybe another day...) Up close, the sea looked green, though it was gray from my windows and the waves were coming in fast and hard, maybe 2-3 feet high. As I walked, a sense of freedom swept over me, and it occurred to me that for the next three weeks I'd have no one to answer to but myself. At any given moment, no one will care or even necessarily know where I am. (On that beach? Sitting at my computer? Lying back in a comfortable chair with my feet up on an enormous ottoman, line-editing pages of ms?) And in fact, I could even decide not to chekck my email at all (whether I post to the blog or not). Wow.
After that first realization came, quickly, the second: that the only thing I need to answer to is the work itself. The last time I experienced that feeling was back in 1996, on Galeano Island, during my first-ever writing retreat.
Marching along the beach, the wind whipping my hair, needle-pricks of rain flicking my face, the thought made me giddy. And led to another thought: that until now, the way in which I'd worked on the novel had somehow cramped my imaginative access to it. I think it was the wildness of the wind and sea plus my sense of freedom that suddenly opened a certain space that had (for this particular novel) been closed to me. Why had that been? Maybe not just because of the sense of rushing to get the story into words, but also something to do with seeing too the story and my story's world much through the filter of my viewpoint character, as though I couldn't quite avoid getting caught up in her so-cramped, so-evasive, so-timid consciousness, in a way that usually doesn't happen to me as I inhabit my characters' consciousness. I've long known that on the one hand, I need to experience that intimacy and near-identity with my characters (while enjoying the luxury of knowing deep down that I'm not actually them) while on the other hand, close identification always carries the risk of obscuring the bigger picture of the novel. Somehow I'd lost track of the other hand...
When I left the beach yesterday, I had the sense that the bigger picture will come, if I patiently court it and listen to my thoughts about it at play in the far reaches of my consciousness. It never does any good to sit down and consciously try to think about such things. Such thinking has to take place below conscious thought, the way so much thinking-- usually the very best thinking I'm capable of-- must do.
Last night the wind dropped. I opened my bedroom window before going to bed (because I need it to be cool to sleep), and through the night as I woke briefly between sleep cycles thought I could actually hear the sea. Today the beach felt like a different place. The water was fairly calm (though not exactly placid). I walked in the opposite direction from yesterday's and encountered big blobs of transparent jelly, bits of crab legs, and a lot of eel grass. I noticed there were more boats out on the water today. At one point I wondered whether wind is a necessary component of exhilaration, for today I felt calm rather than elated. Bearing in mind yesterday's insight, I deliberately didn't concentrate my thoughts on the novel.
And then, on my way home, after leaving the beach and starting up the hill, I stopped to sit on a bench overlooking the beach and make notes of some of the thoughts (about the novel) that were now flickering through my mind. Do you see? The process works like magic.
So now, back to the ms. And I'll hope-- assume-- that the magic will happen again tomorrow.