We are honored with yet another guest blogger, the fabulously talented, Susan Tekulve, fiction/creative non-fiction faculty here at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA. In this week’s blog, she shares with us how to carve out a little space of one’s own for writing. Enjoy her suggestions and consider setting aside some time in January for some writing with kindred spirits at our winter residency. Application deadline is October 1, 2017.
Shaking Off the Village: Creating Your Own Writer’s Retreat
By Susan Tekulve
One September, I went to live and write in a 1917 camp house at the base of the Seven Sisters Mountain range in Montreat, North Carolina. I needed to finish a novel set in the Southern Highlands. I’d taken three years to write two thirds of this novel, but the story I’d begun so heartily had started to fade. I worried that I’d lose all the unfinished pages if I didn’t devote myself entirely to them for an unbroken space of time. For a full year, I’d saved up money and crusaded for a four-month, unpaid leave from my job. By the time I’d secured the leave, however, I had no money left for an “official” writers’ colony, and I’d missed all the deadlines for writer’s residencies that gave out scholarships for room and board. So I arranged a one-month contract with the owner of the camp house in the mountains of Western North Carolina, about two hours north of my house in South Carolina. Though the characters in my novel are from Southwest Virginia, they have a native intelligence of wilderness and mountains that aren’t too different from those in Western North Carolina. I wanted to walk the paths my characters might have walked, listen to the Appalachian cadence in their speech. I kept my writing expectations simple; I planned to walk and read, and to work on one troublesome chapter that I’d revised six times over the last three years. I had the idea that retreating to a place that resembled the home mountains my characters inhabited would unlock the narrative that had been giving me fits, and jumpstart the rest of the novel that I so desperately wanted to finish.
The cove community of Montreat was settled by Scottish Presbyterians in the late nineteenth century, and it resembles a lower highland village. The churches, schools and house foundations are cobbled with golden river rocks. There are no sidewalks in this settlement, not even a traffic light. Laurel trails sidle a creek that runs the entire main street, leading to its center, which is a lake that’s lodged like a dark emerald at the foot of the Seven Sisters mountain range and their father mountain, Greybeard. The Seven Sisters and their father are surrounded by an older range of the Blue Ridge Mountains that extend along the main crest of the Eastern Continental Divide. Summers, the colony brims with schoolchildren in bright, matching t-shirts bussed in for Bible camps, and on weekends adults gather there for spiritual retreats. But September is off season in Montreat, when only the locals and a handful of retired Presbyterian ministers remain. Occasional hippies saunter over from the neighboring town of Black Mountain to hike the trails, hunt mushrooms, drink home-brewed beer on the summits.
On the day I arrived, the fall leaves in the canopies were beginning to show off, their reflections flaming on the lake’s calm surface. Two enormous white swans patrolled the lake’s rim while male wood ducks gathered on the shady banks, their teal feathers and red eyes surreally bright as they preened and fought over the single dull female. The lake at the center of the colony was named providentially, Lake Susan. The house where I would live all month was called Cook’s Cottage, and the owners advertised it with the enticing phrase: “We Sleep Thirteen.” Shingled with green cedar, the cottage was shaded by pines that endlessly sprinkled needles between the paving stones leading up to the front porch. The family who owned the house had always rented it to the church groups that flocked to Montreat for the Bible camps. The year before, however, the campers who rented the house kicked a round of holes into the walls, and a small kitchen appliance had gone missing. By the time I approached the owners to see if I could rent their old family home, they’d already decided to keep the house for themselves and rent to an individual tenant on a monthly basis. They spoke of their house as if it were alive, like an aging relative whose care no longer could be entrusted to strangers. “We’re tired of patching up holes in the walls,” they said. “We’ve come to believe this house wants a writer living in it.”
Moving in, I saw that Cook’s Cottage had kept its promise. It was equipped to sleep exactly thirteen people. I wandered through each room, counting beds of several makes and sizes. In the front bedroom, three iron cots were lined in a row. The master bedroom held a queen-sized bed with a headboard carved from birds-eye maple, and a green apple tree grew right outside the window beside it. In the sewing room at the back of the house, mid-day sun filtered through pines and half-drawn shades, casting a mystical blue light over two more box springs with mattresses. All of the rooms were filled with board games with half the pieces missing. None of the windows possessed a lock. The entire cottage smelled of the woods and damp, as if it were already becoming part of the earth.
I spent my first day in the house unpacking. In addition to some clothing and linens, I’d brought three boxes: the first was filled with reference texts on herbs and wildflowers, a slender volume of Thoreau, and a wilderness guide called How to Stay Alive in the Woods; A Complete Guide to Food, Shelter, and Self-Preservation That Makes Starvation in the Wilderness Next to Impossible. In the second box, I’d stacked books that inspired me, ones that I always keep close by when I write. I added to that a few more books by authors that I’d always wanted to read. I topped this box off with notebooks and pencils, and a hard copy of my manuscript. In the third box, I placed my computer, blessedly disconnected from the Internet, and a few writing talismans— a dog eared postcard of a quilt I’d seen once at the Wichita Art Museum, a tapestry of women pictured in various domestic chores, woven with seashells and constellations. It was called “Women’s Holy Work.” Near my pencil holder, I placed the postcards beside a bowl of stones I’d collected off mountains and shores from around the world. After arranging heavenly and earthly items that made me feel at home and secure, I spent the next several hours in the house wandering through the labyrinth of beds, acquainting myself with the space and light of each room, testing and eliminating mattresses. “This one is too small, this one is too hard,” I chanted beneath my breath until I settled upon the middle room filled with the queen-sized bed for my sleeping room. I chose the sewing room with the mystical blue light for an office.
I called my landlady and asked her permission to move a few beds. Then I began hoisting a few of the excess mattresses over my shoulder, carrying them down the back stairs to the basement, which housed the eight remaining beds promised in the rental ad. As I stacked the extra mattresses on the beds in the basement, I discovered the family’s old library— several ancient copies of the Bible and the Quran, Treasure Island, The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book called Where There Is No Doctor, an old medical counselor filled with home remedies used by people living in developing countries. I carried these books up to the blue sewing room, placing them on a wobbly bookshelf beside my own books. I scavenged a table from the front room to use for a desk. Muscles aching from hauling books and mattresses, I fell asleep just after dusk, listening to the woodland noises outside my open window–acorns dropping on the tin roof, the apple tree’s branches swaying, unseen animals moving beneath ferns and hedges. Dozing, I dreamed that a giant raccoon had crept in through one of the unlocked windows in the middle of a storm. All night, the dream raccoon nested just beneath my pillow.
I woke before dawn the next morning and did not try to write. Instead, I dressed and put on my hiking boots, heading toward the lake and trail access, vaguely planning to “christen” my retreat with a hike into the mountains. The smallest summit of The Seven Sisters is called Tomahawk, and it tops at 3700 feet above sea level. Its antique trails had been re-blazed and graded recently by Eagle scouts. I decided upon a lower trail along the Blue Ridge called Lookout Trace, a hike described on my map as “a little burst of energy,” a moderate half-hour climb to its summit. At the time, I was under the influence of Henry David Thoreau, who suggests that a good walk allows us to “shake off the village,” free ourselves of worldly engagements. He claims that the art of walking purchases the freedom and independence that are the capital of poets and writers, a commodity that no money can buy. He writes, “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return–prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” I had no intention of sending my embalmed heart back to my husband. The kingdom I’d left behind was hardly desolate. I simply wanted to sharpen a basic skill that had come naturally to me when I was younger–the ability to let go of what Thoreau calls the “daily palaver” that muddies up the senses, and prevents our minds from remaining open to the sights and sounds that keep us in touch with the world around us and ourselves, the sensations that feed into our writing.
The best way to recover this skill is by walking, the kind of aimless sauntering that sets your mind ambling. The beginning of Lookout Trail was a steady climb through a rhododendron tunnel, cobbled unevenly with petrified tree roots. As I reached the old trestle road, the halfway point, the gentle grade gave way to four-foot sandstone steps arranged like a giant’s staircase that required rest and more oxygen after climbing each one. The rising sun flickered through the understory, mingling with the blue shades of night lingering on the path. Bear musk wafted across the path. I began to feel very alone and foolish for being up here alone, but the quest for truth and the freedom to write fiction don’t always co-exist with common sense. Climbing steadily above the earth, my mind remained more fully within my body than it had been for a long time. I felt newly awakened, independent. When I hit the bare rocks near the summit, I scrambled the rest of the way up, pulled by the promise of a vista. I scooted out onto the ledge, where spruce and fir grew as if out of air, bristling against the deep blue sky. On the other side of Montreat Valley, the Seven Sisters reclined like the smooth backs of women, all leaning toward their father, Greybeard, a dark, outlaw mountain fringed with clouds.
Thoreau believes that the art of walking is a direct dispensation from heaven. Sitting on the unearthly summit, I felt as though I’d been given something that I could not purchase. Later, I learned that I had climbed 700 vertical feet in the last half a mile of the hike, reaching 3,621 feet at Lookout Summit. I felt a pleasant loosening in my mind and body, the hitches of both opening. I could see everything around me with more clarity. I had been lost and blessed by a few hours in the woods.
It took a few more days before I was ready to write. Every day, I walked and read until one day I simply drifted to my desk in that little blue room. I started by editing the early chapters of the novel. Then I moved onto revising the “troublesome” chapter that I charged myself with finishing. Around the time the fall rains started, the rest of the chapters of the novel poured forth in a relatively short amount of time. Two days before my lease ended on the house, the thunderstorms moved in. As black clouds glided over the ridges, and cloud tendrils rose like the smoke of ancient fires from the ridge clefts, it felt like the mountains were telling me to go. So I went. I brought home a draft of a finished novel, and enough energy to sustain me as I continued to revise and submit my book for publication over the next year.
A Few Tips for Creating Your Own Writing Retreat
- The place you choose for your retreat doesn’t need to be far away, elaborate, or expensive. It simply needs to have a bedroom that is separate from your workspace, preferably a place to cook simple meals. Talk to people who own cabins or guesthouses near you. The best, more affordable places tend to be found by word of mouth. Also, it’s not always possible, or feasible, to get away for a long stretch of time. Ask around. You may know someone across town who would be willing to “loan” you her place one day a week.
- Choose a place that speaks to you, preferably one that your characters might inhabit. There were many times when the plant and animal life of the Western North Carolina mountains found their way into my novel while I was writing it. For instance, those enormous swans on the lake and the mystical sewing room found their way into a chapter. I also received visitations from a doe that led her two fawns beside the window of my sleeping room every evening so that she could spy on me while her fawns grazed on the shade grass at the side of the house. She made it into the novel, along with the trails I walked, and many other sights and sounds of the Appalachian flora and weather that I became attuned to while living there.
- Keep your expectations simple. Don’t tell yourself that you’re going to write an entire novel, or an entire book of poems, in one month. You’ll only intimidate yourself out of writing anything at all. Try bringing one chapter, or a story, that you’ve already been working on, and start with that. Keeping your goals simple will decrease any timidity, and, most likely, you’ll surprise yourself by far exceeding your expectations.
- Treat yourself to a trip or meal into a nearby town every 2-3 days. If you don’t take periodic breaks, you might risk “undoing” all the good work you’ve completed. I happened to be living near the town of Black Mountain, which hosts several family-run restaurants, so every 2 or 3 days I’d treat myself to a meal at one of the local restaurants. I am decidedly an extrovert, so this satisfied my hunger for food and my hunger for the company of other human beings all at once.
- Stay connected with people who understand what you are doing. I don’t remember how, but my most disciplined writer friend and colleague, Leslie Pietrzyk, found out about my mountain retreat. She sent a handwritten note, via my husband, who hand-delivered it during one of his visits. It was a lovely note of encouragement. I sent her a thank you email, describing the details of my day, the daily sights and sounds that had astonished me or fed my writing in some way. Looking back, my emails detailing the minutiae of living in a mountain camp house were probably pretty boring, but Leslie wrote back to me every few days, offering encouragement, insights, and stories of her own. I recall not having very good cell service, so I had to stand on the back deck of the house, and lean out over the railing while typing my notes to Leslie while the doe and her fawn spied on me, coming closer every day. These “conversations” were as valuable to me as the quiet, meditative stretches of time I spent “shaking off the village,” freeing myself from worldly concerns so that I could create a fictional world.