[Part 1 of this story is here.]

By Tuesday evening last week, I’d spent the first 30 hours of my long-desired writing retreat in a headlock with myself, and I was “cotta” as we say in Italian. Cooked. Burned out, beaten, and too exhausted to keep hurling myself at the wall of senseless panic standing between myself and my blank document.

I suspect that this is frustrating for some of you to read. After all, I was in Tuscany—Tuscany!—with three glorious days all to myself. I’ve watched friends go on similar retreats and thought, If onlyMy assumption was always that prolonged peace and quiet would act as creative steroids. If only I found myself in a similar setting, then I too could produce something out of this world. But now I was there, tucked up on an Italian hillside with a project idea I loved and an awareness of my own privilege cloying the air, and I couldn’t write a damn paragraph. You’ve heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It would seem that I had gone to Tuscany and run smack dab into myself.

One thing depression taught me about myself years ago is that I will fight to defend my personal collection of shoulds until sheer rock-bottom exhaustion loosens my grip on them. I don’t surrender the expectations I have for myself any other way. And why should I? In the thick of depression, it only seemed right to keep trying harder and harder to act sane, to pacify God and be an uncomplicated wife and smother desperation on sight. If it wasn’t working, I just needed to double my efforts, yes? Not until much later, after the rock bottom and the rebuilding, did I see what a chokehold those expectations had had on my soul.

Now, I’m not saying that going on a writing retreat is anything like going through depression, but I’d certainly arrived at my hotel last week clutching a stack of notions about how the time should go, about how I should be. Privilege-guilt factored enormously into them, as did something else… something I couldn’t put my finger on with all of my thoughts bolting away the instant I got close. I didn’t know what to do with these expectations other than cling more and more tightly to them though. If I let go, the trip would instantly be rendered pointless and earlier versions of my jealous writing self would show up to punch me in the throat to the tune of “Loser.”

Thank God for exhaustion.

If I hadn’t surrendered my weary, 96% certifiable self to the idea of a writingless retreat and clicked over to Facebook for some distraction therapy that evening, I wouldn’t have seen this:

Curiosity not fear
(Liz Gilbert’s Facebook page is a gem. Get thee there, stat!)

And if I hadn’t seen this, who knows how long it would have taken me to recognize the “something else” that had been giving my brain a 30-hour swirlie as fear?

Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact. Being afraid of writing is essentially getting worked up over nothing. That was my first thought when I read Liz’s quote. What do I possibly have to be afraid of? I’m here to transcribe thoughts, not diffuse bombs. This is a zero threat situation. WTF, brain?

When I took stock of how I’d been approaching my project, however, curiosity was nowhere to be found. Stephen King refers to stories as fossils that we excavate through the writing process, and ideally, I would have been on my knees with a trowel and an old toothbrush, intrigued to see what I’d unearth. Instead, I was paralyzed at the side of the dig. Because what if I uncovered a fossil so hideous that it made folks clutch their pearls and call their congressmen in protest? Or what if the fossil turned out to be so boring that museum viewers would ask for their money back? Worst of all, what if I had the wrong tools and botched the whole operation? What if I failed?

Fear, meet Bethany. Bethany, Fear.

Getting myself in a staring match with fear was no more helpful to me than beating myself over the head with reminders of my own privilege had been. This wasn’t something I could power my way through. (Depression 101.) When I latched onto the word “curiosity” though, it pulled me right off my petrified feet and through the murk to a new perspective on what I was doing. I closed Facebook and opened Google. Research time.

Writing retreat - research

The rest of my retreat looked very different from the productive type-o-fest I’d expected. I went on long walks in the cold, ordered espressos, and adopted various park benches near my hotel for the purpose of daydreaming. I scribbled sideways and upside down in my pocket journal following looping threads of whimsy. I clipped about a hundred of the most bizarre search results to Evernote (out of curiosity, how likely is the FBI to investigate writers?) and then filled another page with follow-up questions. I still had to beat back the granddaddy of all F-words, Failure, which was all too happy to inform me that I was squandering my retreat and that research was basically procrastination in a pair of pince-nez, but curiosity kept me on a joyful forward momentum that no collection of shoulds has ever prompted in me.

I returned home last Thursday about as tired as I’ve ever been. Winning a battle doesn’t mean you’re unscathed by it, especially when you weren’t expecting the fight in the first place. I’m still feeling tender and bruisable, and I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that I didn’t return from my retreat with a manuscript of any length. I’ll be wrestling with the hows and whys of that for a long time, I suspect. However, I did bring back one significant treasure: the outline of a fossil, as clear and intriguing as a headline. And I’m not afraid of it.

Writing retreat - Bench

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  1. LOVE this – and this? “procrastination in a pair of pince-nez” PRICELESS. I’m hung up, too. Got a book project I started pre-surgery that needs to be reworked (I’ve been invited, very nicely, to re-work it) and I’m unable, UNABLE to even look at it. Time to get curious, I have a hunch. Thanks for your usual brilliance.

    • Diana + “book project” = mega delighted Bethany. I’m sending you all the happy curious vibes I can muster for that book to make its completed way into my hands!

  2. That “very productive” photo up there made me so happy! I am sorry that your retreat was not what you wanted. However, this advice about curiosity is SO important. I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s facebook stuff. I go there often when in need of inspiration, and I am not even a writer! This story is so wonderful, and TUSCANY! I am swooning! For some reason The Rolling Stones are singing in my head right now: “You can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometime, you just might find…you get what you need.” That song in NOT just for you at the moment. I need to pay attention to it as well.

    Sending hug, love and blocks of time to use that fossil to build a dinosaur!

  3. by far, my favorite line: “Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact.” i will never get that image out of my head because it says EXACTLY THE FEELING. 😀

    also: i will be your second biggest cheerleader on earth. i’m so grateful you’re pushing in against all the allergies and odds. i love love love love love you times infinity plus calculus to the nth degree forever.

  4. How can you write (in part 1), “a fog of despair that pleated itself as firmly as hotel sheets around the corners of my room” and not recognize what a wonderful writer you are?! But that paralyzing fear can overtake any writer, I think. Just last week I re-read Ann Patchett’s kindle single The Getaway Car, about her journey to becoming a writer, and she describes how she applied to the Providence writer’s retreat and got in, and showed up with nothing to do but write her novel, and she had absolutely no idea where to start. You are not alone, Bethany. You’re in good company, in fact. And I for one am really excited to read the stories you write, starting with this fossil you started unearthing with your research.

    P.S. I’m jealous too, and really want to do something like this!
    P.P.S. The other thing that came to mind as I read was that part of the writing process is quiet time, and walks, and reading too. You need all of those so-called procrastination tactics to get into a space where the words come. And these kinds of quiet times are very hard to come by with young kids, so while it wasn’t what you expected, it does sound like your three days to yourself were exactly what you needed at this moment in your writing process.

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