Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
Today, please welcome writer
Maybe it’s boring to read about a writer’s day spent, well, writing. But most of my waking hours are spent doing my day job, aka reading and editing other people’s personal narratives for Oldster Magazine and Memoir Land’s First Person Singular vertical. And on the rare occasions I’m able to carve out time for my own work, it can be hard for me to switch gears, jump in, and not waste time, which leaves me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed in myself.
So I’ve decided to tell you about a day, just a week and a half ago, that I’m proud of, a day on which I made time for myself, and honored my commitment to getting a particular writing task done.
Last winter my friend and fellow writer Jen Doll suggested we revisit a collaboration we’d started in 2017. That July, for one week, we ran what we called a “writers’ camp” out of Kingston Writers’ Studio, the writers’ coworking space I operated (an unfortunate casualty of the pandemic). There was writing time in the studio; lectures by celebrated authors, editors, and agents; yoga; a night of karaoke. Jen and I also gave each participant some one-on-one time, focused more on helping them find paths toward achieving their particular goals than, say, line editing. It was great fun. Everyone loved it. We decided to try and develop the concept at some point. Then our busy lives and the pandemic interfered.
In February, when Jen suggested we start brainstorming again and checking out possible venues for a new iteration of our venture (one that would allow us to make more than the $70 each we’d netted from our dry run in Kingston)—and that our time visiting one of those venues could do double duty as a writing retreat of our own—I was all in. I love my work editing and publishing my “magazines,” but it had been too long since I’d been able to devote some time to my writing, and my writing alone.
She suggested Silver Maple Farm in Chatham, New York, a beautiful, newly renovated inn on several acres just ten minutes outside of town which seemed—and turned out to be—perfect. When it came time for our stay, I’d almost completely forgotten about the trip, which added an element of surprise and made it feel like even more of a luxury than it was.
In the days leading up to our little road trip to a place just under an hour from my home in Kingston, New York, I started to panic. I wondered, Which of the many writing projects I’d back-burnered should I tackle? After perseverating a bit, eventually I realized it would be best to take on something doable—a project I could easily execute over two days, and which had a timeliness peg: an essay about an experience I had in New York City, which I hope to publish soon to commemorate the 10th birthday of my first anthology, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY, this fall. I was ready to rock and roll.
The day I’m going to tell you about specifically is the second one of our retreat, the Tuesday, because it was the only truly full day (we’d arrived on Monday in the afternoon, and checked out Wednesday at 11 a.m.), and therefore the most productive. But it wasn’t only productive in the sense of output, but also in terms of the not-writing things Jen and I agreed are also part of writing, like relaxing, swimming, enjoying good food.
“Part of my writing practice is to waste time,” she begins. “I’m never not going to waste time, so I built it into my day. ‘Dick around for 1-2 hours’ is in my planner.” She’s half-joking, but the gist is, letting your mind wander here and there is necessary to air your brain out so that when you do buckle yourself into your writing chair, you have the mental clarity you need to get the job done.
If I do say so myself, on that Tuesday, I struck the perfect balance of “dicking around” and buckling down. I arose at 7, an hour before the owners of Silver Maple Farms serve breakfast, and got down to business writing my essay long-hand, racing my iPhone timer 20 minutes at a time. I love starting early, shitty drafts this way, because with just a notebook and pencil you can’t get caught up in editing as you write. Sure, you can cross out the same line three times (check), but you can’t cut and paste and move things around. You can’t get obsessed with saying everything in the exact right way, in the exact right order, because a pen and paper don’t afford you that flexibility—and that’s a good thing, because that kind of flexibility isn’t your friend on a nascent draft.
So, I wrote until 7:45, first tentatively, then excitedly as the wheels in my brain started turning fast. Then I took a quick shower and met Jen for coffee and breakfast in the inn’s dining area. Knowing I have celiac, the hosts made gluten-free pancakes with almond flour they’d milled themselves, and it was divine. Jen and I compared notes on the aspects of the inn that could work for a retreat we might host, shared our individual writing goals, and gave each other feedback on them. Then we planned out the rest of the day: when and where we’d write, when we’d chill out, where we’d eat lunch and dinner.
After breakfast we spent two hours writing outside, alternating between a sunny spot on the lawn near the inn’s fire pit and a shaded spot on the porch. Jen worked on her third novel, and I chugged along on my essay in my little spiral-bound notebook.
I’d grabbed that particular one only because it was on the top of a pile of other notebooks and had a good chunk of blank pages in the back. I hadn’t bothered to look at what I’d written in the front, which I’ll acknowledge is a bit of a chaotic choice. Lo and behold, though, my choice instead seemed fortuitous when I took a break from my longhand drafting to thumb through the earlier pages and discover that, whoa, this was a notebook I’d begun in 2002, when I still lived in Manhattan. It contained journal entries and goals that were applicable to the essay I was working on. I almost couldn’t believe it.
Next, we decided to grab sandwiches at the Chatham Real Food Co-op and bring them to tiny Adams Point Beach, ten minutes east of the inn, for which we’d bought $10 passes. We changed into our swimsuits and headed out.
Adams Point was the cutest little spot, an uncrowded patch of sand on Queechy Lake with a lifeguard and a roped-in swim area with a small raft at the end of it. We found a shaded picnic table and ate our turkey paninis while further discussing our writing goals and challenges. After eating we put on sunscreen, then I plopped down my Meadow Mat, we put our beach towels on top of it, and plopped ourselves on top of them.
As I waited to feel hot enough to comfortably immerse myself in the cool water, I fought my resistance to writing. I took out my notebook and got the ball rolling, and was glad for it. Then I took the plunge in Queechy Lake, and was glad for that, too. I love the feel of lake water. Queechy’s was clear and silky, and not too cold. For the rest of the afternoon, I alternated between swimming and sunning, and pushing past my resistance to log more words in my notebook.
Each time I pushed past my resistance, I felt myself inching closer to my goal of completing a shitty, embryonic, longhand draft before I returned home the next afternoon. I was on my way. And I was achieving a balance between zoning out and accomplishing.
I caught a chill toward the end of the afternoon, and so when we got back to the inn, I took a hot bath in my room. I also partook of a half an Indica gummy that had been floating around my bag, and while I was worried it would render me unable to continue writing, I appreciated the way it helped me further relax.
Soon it was time for dinner, and we headed to Yanni’s Chatham House, in part because we wanted to check out a tavern area within the space where we could hold a reading at the end of a retreat, if we wind up hosting one. I had some pretty good fish, and Jen had some crabcakes she enjoyed. Above all, the space was perfect for our potential needs, down the road.
When we got back to the inn around 8:30, we encouraged each other to keep writing. I met Jen in her suite, which had a nice couch, which I worked on while she worked on her bed. The room had a nice, airy feeling that was conducive to coworking that way. After 45 minutes I was ready to turn in.
I headed back to my room, had a quick goodnight FaceTime visit with my husband back in Kingston, and went to sleep feeling both accomplished and chilled out.
Spoiler: the next day, after breakfast and before our 11 a.m. checkout, I finished my draft! It was a successful writing retreat on many fronts. I went home feeling good about myself, and looking forward to refining my essay through several more drafts.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
By SARI BOTTON