I didn’t know I needed the silence until I had it, and then it totally freaked me out.
I didn’t know I could do less and still feel like I’d accomplished something.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
I spent the weekend at a writing retreat. On a farm. Nestled in the mountains of Virginia. Months ago, my mom graciously offered to pay my way to the retreat AND take my kids so that I could go. Best birthday present ever. As the weeks passed I was varying degrees of nervous and anxious and excited.
Writing is such a solitary endeavor, yet some of my closest friends I’ve met through writing. I knew this would be a fun weekend of hanging out with other
weirdos writer types, and I hoped it would be as relaxing as it sounded. I just wasn’t prepared for the weekend to live up to my greatest expectations. (Spoilers: It did.)
The views were spectacular from every side. Whether you walked the grounds or sat in the barn, the natural world screamed for attention. And if the trees and mountains didn’t catch your attention, then the animals were sure to steal the spotlight.
I’m not much of a dog person, but I think I could become a Basset Hound person. This is Mosey, and he was the official welcoming committee for every person who arrived. Also, he might sit low to the ground, but that neck and nose stretch a good distance. I was smitten with this pooch from the moment we pulled into the field where we parked.
With a welcome like this, the tone was clear: Be here. Enjoy. Relax.
A Friday-night-to-Sunday-afternoon schedule could have been packed full of information. Instead, it was open to the imagination. With a free hour before lunch on Saturday, I found myself unsure of what to do. I am used to packing my days with tasks to be completed, places to be, but at 11 a.m. on a Saturday in the mountains of Virginia, I had nowhere to go, nothing I had to do, no one who needed me. I pulled a camp chair between two trees offering shade and there, overlooking the mountainous terrain, I read a book. (And not one single person thought that was strange.)
If I had to sum up the weekend with a word, it would be “relief.”
The retreat opened with the acknowledgement that we did not have to produce a single thing while we were there, the encouragement that this weekend was meant to refresh us, not add pressure.
By Saturday late afternoon, this was starting to bother me. It was more than half over, and we’d be going home the next day, and I had yet to feel that “high” that sometimes accompanies conferences and special events. If anything, I was feeling more mellow than I ever had in my life. Was I doing it wrong?
I often leave writing conferences or one-day events feeling excited and pumped up about getting out there and doing my best writing work. But I’m also generally overwhelmed by all the information and mentally exhausted. When I left this retreat, I felt rejuvenated and fulfilled. Tired, but not exhausted. Like something deep inside had shifted and I might not see the ripples of change for a few days.
In college, people used to say this to me, and about me: Still waters run deep. I was quiet. I didn’t say much. But when I did, it was usually meaningful and thoughtful. I believed this about myself, mostly, but lately, for many years, I’ve felt more like Niagara Falls on the inside. Like my thoughts and feelings and worries are just spilling over a steep drop and churning on the bottom. Like I’m trying to grab a clear thought before it cascades out of reach.
One of my favorite things we did at the retreat was spend 15 minutes in silence. It was some of the hardest work I’ve done. My body wanted to resist and fidget and my thoughts wanted to swirl and overwhelm, but at the suggestion of the woman leading the silence, I kept returning to a word or a phrase that would anchor me in the still waters. When she rang the bell signaling the end of the 15 minutes, I couldn’t believe it was over. I had a similar experience the next day. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like much time to do anything but sitting in silence that long sounds impossible.
Until you do it.
When I think about the amount of time I spent thinking about or talking about my writing this weekend, it doesn’t feel like that’s what the retreat was about. I mean, we talked about writing and we learned some new techniques and we helped each other with something we’d written, but the space is what I remember most. The silence is my biggest takeaway.
The silence, I realized, is as important to my writing as the actual words.
I typically want to fill my life with words because that is how I process and I think that to be a successful (whatever that means) writer, I have to always be cranking out words on a page. I do need to put words on pages, but I need the silence, too. I wasn’t doing it wrong at the retreat, but maybe I’ve been doing it wrong all the other times.
This is all to say that for one glorious weekend, I was invited to slow my frantic pace. To be rather than to do. I was given grace to set the writing goal and practice that works for me. No one told anyone else how to do it right. No one promised measurable growth in five easy steps.
It was easily one of the highlights of my writing life.
The people I met this week, they are treasures.
If you are a writer or a creator and you have or can find the means to make it to Virginia in June, I encourage you to consider the retreat at God’s Whisper Farm. Dates have been set for next year: June 22-24. More information will be available soon. (And if you’re anywhere within hearing distance of my voice or my words, this won’t be the last time I talk about it!)