“Wherever you go, there you are.” That’s the most significant lesson I brought home from my week at a writing retreat in the Berkshires the last week in July. You can change your surroundings, plop yourself down in an idyllic setting with maximal solitude and minimal distractions, but it’s fiendishly difficult to jettison your habitual ways of frittering away the hours you ought to be writing.
My husband had spent a couple of highly productive weeks at Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, so I decided to give it a try. My goal: to get a good running start on Sunlight and Shadow, the second in my vampire soap opera series. In particular, I wanted to get inside the head of my heroine, Abigail Hastings. Hope Dawns Eternal, the first in the series, is told entirely from the point of view of the hero, Jonah McQuarry, who fears he’s being possessed by a vampire played by the actor Mark Westgate on a long-cancelled soap. This time, I plan to alternate between Abby’s and Jonah’s viewpoints, especially since that will give me more freedom to describe Jonah in more explicitly loving detail.
Wellspring is a beautifully restored, rambling old two-story house run by Preston Browning, a retired English professor. There are bedrooms for from eight to ten writers, each nostalgically furnished in New England bed-and-breakfast style, each with its own writing desk and chair. There’s no television, and the spotty cell phone service works only if you have Verizon, which I don’t, but they do have WiFi. A shared kitchen, but no set mealtimes, and you’re responsible for your own food.
The atmosphere is quasi-monastic. Talking isn’t forbidden, but people tend to speak in hushed voices, and if you encounter someone in the common areas, it’s perfectly okay not to speak. Since people spend most of the time in their rooms, presumably writing or confronting the reasons they can’t write, it’s possible to spend an entire day in silence.
I booked a five-night stay and arrived Monday evening, vowing to write at least 2,000 words per day. Only after a full day of successful writing would I allow myself to tap into the box of Almaden Pinot Grigio I’d brought along. But Monday was practically over and I was tired after my drive, so I decided to take the night off and get an early start on Tuesday.
I settled in with wine, cheese and crackers. I’d brought a few library books, so I cracked open Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. Next thing I knew, it was two in the morning—an all too common bedtime, I admit—so I slept till ten, then went out for a leisurely breakfast at Elmer’s, the restaurant down the street. Back in my room, I whiled away a couple more hours with Abe, rationalizing that the book counted as research into vampire lore. When I finally buckled down to work Tuesday afternoon, I was delighted to find myself back in the flow. Jonah and Abby were trading lustful glances and barbed witticisms in their favorite bar, and I was happily channeling their words as fast as I could type. I felt good about meeting my word count for the day.
Wednesday morning, I was still in the flow. Around noon, I decided to take a break and check my email. As usual, my inbox was dominated by Facebook notifications from the General Hospital fan groups I belong to. I clicked on one of the links and brought up my Facebook page. Within moments, I was clobbered by devastating news: Michael Easton, my favorite actor on General Hospital, was leaving the show, and Friday would probably be his last day. Although he’d signed a three-year contract renewal in March, the news didn’t come as a total shock. His character, Dr. Silas Clay, had been given increasingly crappy story lines, and recently, he’d barely been seen at all. But had he quit? Been fired? I surfed from one site to another, checked out all the soap gossip columns I could find, but nowhere could I find an explanation.
This called for more than a cursory lunch break, so I headed to Elmer’s again. I ordered a Chardonnay and silently toasted Michael, whereupon Wednesday morphed into an official day of mourning and goofing off. I hung out at the beach, did some leisurely swimming, showered and changed, then decided to dine at the Ashfield Lakehouse, a boisterous blue-collar pub. What the hell, this was hardly the time to count calories, let alone words. Their sandwich of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil pesto went fabulously with the house red wine. After dinner, I retreated to my room and lost myself in the memoir of a classical pianist who had been molested by her father until I drifted off to sleep.
Thursday I tried my best to write, but I never got back in the zone, never reentered that state of creative flow where the words spill onto the screen of their own accord. I kept clicking back to the web, searching for the rest of the story of Michael’s departure, trading conspiracy theories and wallowing in collective grief on the fan sites. Rumors were flying that Silas Clay would be murdered on Friday’s show. What choice did I have? I headed back to the Lakehouse for a repeat of that yummy mozzarella sandwich.
Although storm clouds were threatening, I chose a seat out on the deck overhanging the lake. I was midway through my mozzarella sandwich when a drenching downpour let loose. The waitress helped carry my stuff inside, where I found a seat at the bar. I was back to Abe the vampire hunter once more, trying not to drip cheesy grease onto the pages, when a man asked what I was reading. When I told him, he grinned and said, “I think Abraham Lincoln had an evil side. I have kind of an evil side myself.”
(to be continued)