Solitary, But a Little Bit Not, Plus Quails

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A lot can be accomplished in total isolation, but not everything should.

I’ve just completed my two-week retreat at the writers’ refuge, enveloped by natural beauty that was once almost unimaginable to me, and cradled by the warmth, encouragement, and patience of the refuge staff. I was out of my element, for sure, but that was part of the point.

I maintain that I probably didn’t really belong there, much as the good people there spoke of the wonders of serendipity, muses, and meaningful omens. Through no one’s fault but my own, I never escaped the feeling that I was a child in a costume, pretending to be a writer like my 5-year-old daughter pretends to be Darth Vader, the adults playing along with the game, but everyone knowing it’s only pretend.

Make-believe or not, I strived to make the most of this precious time of uninterrupted writing. Broadly, I spent most of the first half of the retreat researching, and churned out words in the second half. Some days were productive, others were bumbling, and most were both. I leave here with about 12,000 words that will require much more work and time, additions and subtractions, elaborations and reversals. But as with any skill that’s been honed over many years, my best work tended to come after I’d let go of my critical self. Sometimes I could make that happen by wandering the grounds and gazing in astonishment at the San Andreas fault, watching a turkey vulture almost float with perfect ease, or witnessing the surprisingly dramatic (and hilarious) interactions between quails. Other times, I had to just decide to let go.

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As someone who already works from home (in my ClosetOffice™) in total solitude, and in any case prefers solitude for, well, almost all occasions, cloistering myself at the refuge was a simple matter. But my fellow retreaters, the ones miles ahead of me, were themselves a rich resource of ideas. Of course they were! In conversations over dinners, around the house, and in the car to and from the airport, I was reminded that not every personal connection is rife with stress and alienation. These are curious, open, fascinating people who have had rich lives and really harrowing experiences. They listened to my experiences, my ideas for my project, and managed to open up new avenues of thinking for my work at the refuge, and for projects down the road.

That was a relatively small part of the retreat, compared to the time just producing sentences, but it was one of the most valuable. I still don’t know how to initiate these kinds of connections, but I do think I’ve been reminded that I can at the very least be more open to allowing them to occur.

I’m definitely still an alien. I always will be. But not all earthlings (#notallearthlings) are hostile to extraterrestrials. And once in a while, we get to learn from each other.

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Maybe I’ll find that again! But in small, manageable doses, please. I am not accustomed to your Earth atmosphere, and must frequently return to my pod to regenerate. But I’ll be thinking about those new ideas while I’m in there.

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