My Own Personal Tuscan Blitzkrieg

For Valentine’s this year, Dan gave me something I’ve hinted (except without the subtlety part) about wanting for ages: a few days away from home by myself with absolutely no responsibilities other than taking dictation from my muse. No one except myself to feed or clothe or deodorize. No interruptions. No need to operate on a normal or even a sane schedule. My own personal Tuscan writer’s retreat.

I couldn’t have arranged it any better than Dan did. He booked me a room in a tiny hillside town that I’ve visited before (i.e. – no pressure for me to sightsee) and loaded up a grocery bag with tea and chocolate and sandwich fixings and ramen “nudolini.” I asked him about a thousand times if he was sure he and the girls would be fine, and he assured me a thousand times that not only were they going to be fine but that they were going to party it up and have company every day. (While the introvert is away…) The man has often outdone himself in the gift department, but this one left me particularly wobbly-kneed.

We kissed goodbye, and I drove off into the Monday morning sunshine last week dreaming of my return trip in three days’ time, at which point I would have twenty or thirty—or hell, why not two hundred?—brand new single-spaced pages saved to my hard drive. The prospect of focusing and digging into my current writing projects felt like a giddy secret. I was so going to win at this thing.

If you have any experience reading stories, you’ll know that that last sentence portends doom.

The champagne bubbles trailing across my imagination lasted until the moment I had finished unpacking my suitcase. I looked around my hotel room, realized with an awful kind of clarity that I would now be spending 84 hours in my own company, and began losing my mind. Truly, that’s the best way I can describe what happened. My brainwaves began to scatter like so many spooked chipmunks. Thoughts dropped out of my head the minute I reached for them and began running up walls, scrabbling under doors, whirling themselves down drains, and tucking themselves into the impenetrable sheet folds at the foot of my bed.

I went to bed at 8:00 that night with exactly three sentences written, each one of which had required an unmedicated wisdom tooth extraction of the soul. My plan was to bid this day good riddance and get up at 4 the next morning with all of my brain cells back in their proper places and waves of inspiration lapping my fingers. I couldn’t explain what had gone wrong so far, but I was sure it was nothing that a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure.

This may actually have been true.

I wouldn’t know though. That night, I managed about two hours of total sleep, snatched in fifteen-minute increments while insomnia was on coffee break. I can only remember two other nights of my life dragging by so agonizingly, and both of them involved childbirth. This time, it wasn’t my uterus taking me hostage but a mind that had turned as spastic as a volcano full of Pop Rocks. My 4 a.m. wakeup call came and went in a fog of despair that pleated itself as firmly as hotel sheets around the corners of my room.

By lunchtime the next day, I’d realized that this retreat wasn’t going to be a “retreat” at all. Not if I stayed, that is. Every minute of that morning, I’d had to consciously beat back the impulse to give up, and not just to give up on the projects I was[n’t] currently working on but to give up on writing altogether, on the idea of ever again sitting down in a quiet space with the intention of creating. Fears that I had never seen before came scuttling out of shadowed cortexes. Writing, the creative outlet I took up out of pure joie de vivre when I was five, was suddenly the most terrifying construct in the whole world, and I wanted nothing more than to drive home and pretend this getaway had never happened.

I couldn’t have been more bewildered by how my writing retreat was going than if I’d gone to Disney World and promptly been bludgeoned comatose by Winnie the Pooh.

[For the sake of your sanity and mine, this is gonna be a two-parter. Stay tuned! Oh, and if you’ve ever experienced similar terror over something you love to do, feel free to share. Misery loves company, even in retrospect.]

[Ed: Part 2 here.]

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  1. You’re good at the two-parters. I just hope you realize what a sheer blessing it is to say you had the chance to go away on a 3-day retreat to some remote town in Tuscany. Everything’s coming up blessings. I look forward to Part 2.

    • Trust me, I don’t take this for granted. Although… a small hotel room in remote Tuscany is pretty much the same as a small hotel room in central Dallas, and ramen is ramen. Just in case you thought I was living it up TOO much. 😀

  2. PART 2!!! PART 2!!! PART!!! 😀

  3. I’ve gone away to write before. But only on ‘projects.’ If I had to have 3 days to write in a more unpressured setting, I’m not sure what I’d do! I imagine I would love it, but. . . as you are so carefully pointing out, life as this weird way of surprising us. Looking forward to Part 2.

  4. Oh luv, nothing like solitude to bring out the panics and flashbacks and fears EN MASSE!!! I’m looking forward to seeing how this all unfolded for you. XO

    • It’s definitely strange for me to be in the position of having solitude and wishing I didn’t rather than the other way around! I’m glad you get it. <3

  5. Bethany, your description of your retreat reminded me of a similar retreat that I took at a convent in the pre-alps of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. My retreat wasn’t for getting in touch with my muse. It was for getting in touch with God. Although, come to think of it, they may be one and the same thing.

    After 10 years in Italy, we had been Stateside for a year on an extended furlough as I tried to sort out if missions was still going to be our vocation. The reason I was questioning that was a deep sense of spiritual unreality. God seemed like a figment of my imagination. I wasn’t even sure I believed in him anymore. And yet, my job was to represent him before a watching world. The spiritual/mental dissonance was driving me out of my mind until I finally decided to simply make a decision to believe. I did that one day in a park where I was jogging. I sat on a bench and told God that I chose to believe, as an act of my will. I confessed the sin of unbelief and asked him, in his good time, to open the windows of my soul and blow in some spiritual refreshment, some new life…which I very much needed.

    We were asked by mission leadership to consider returning to Italy to help bring the church we had helped start to autonomy. It scared the heck out of me because that “renewal” I was asking God for hadn’t really started yet. But we agreed and started 10 months of frenetic support-raising and sorting & packing. I told God that I knew I didn’t have the time to really dedicate to “seeking his face”, but that if he would get us back to Italy, the first thing I’d do was take a personal retreat–just Him, the Bible and me–and open myself completely to him for several days so he could bring that New Life that I knew I needed.

    We got back to Friuli and I kept my word. I went up into the mountains to this retreat center run by nuns and just walked in the mountains, praying, reading the Bible, taking communion on a mountainside from elements I had in my backpack. It was all so lovely. So natural. So real. Surely God would meet with me on this mountain, and I would return to my work with a new spirituality throbbing in my soul, and overflowing into the lives of those I came to serve.

    Nope. Despite the walks in God’s great outdoors, the Bible reading, the soul-searching, the pray, pray, praying, I drove down off the mountain with the same barren heart that I took up three days earlier. Yeah, I was disappointed.

    I’m guessing that Part 2 of your Tuscan Blitzkrieg account is going to end better than mine did. I’m looking forward to it, Bethany, as I look forward to all your blogs!

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