Writing Retreat: Home Again

While the writing retreat is officially over, I am still in writing mode. It doesn’t look like it as I putter around my apartment trying to put it back in order after the flood that forced me to pull everything out of all of my closets. I’m not a neat freak, but the chaos caused by having boxes and suitcases and shoes and furniture in the middle of my apartment is maddening. While I put things away and spend time watching the peonies I bought the other day bloom one at a time, I know I’m still working. The pages I wrote are floating around in my head, and I know when I look at them this week, I’ll be able to see them differently and, hopefully, more clearly.

I must say it was a lovely week, but I was right when I noted that the peace of the week was coming to an end. By the time I finished what turned out to be my last writing session on Thursday, the sidewalks and shops were filled with a different species—rotund men in plaid shorts and windbreakers talking about their boats, thin women (all of whom looked so hungry) already looking bored with the “season,” and the shop owners whose fiscal well being depends on catering to their every whim.

When Karen and I walked into the restaurant for dinner our last evening I wondered in passing whether or not shouting “Obama!” would have the same result as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. These are the people afraid of “class wars” and having to pay taxes and, after about five minutes, they all look alike. Seriously.

So while I was sad to leave Sadie and Karen, I was glad to wake up at the crack of dawn and head back home. I left early (5:22 am) and got to enjoy a quiet Newport. It really is a lovely town, and, in addition to getting good writing done, I found the time I was there very soothing. There is something about feeling good pressure to write all day every single day that allows other things to fade and heal. Walking along Thames Street in the morning and then again in the afternoon and then again in the evening was good for me. I’m not sure how it was good for me, but I’m sure that in a few weeks I’ll really be able to feel it.

I noticed a lot of things about myself. For example, with my new hair cut, my shadow looks exactly like a bobblehead. Deep stuff, man…


Writing Retreat: Day the Fourth

It’s time to go home…

The tourist are trickling in bit by bit, stroller by stroller

I’m down to my last pair of clean knickers (they’re from Marks and Spencers so “knickers” applies)

Adam Lambert lost “American Idol” to the sweet but bland Kris Somebodyorother, and that awful fourth judge proved why we will never have a woman president

The Starbucks café card I bought to get “free” internet only has 41 cents left on it

My essay isn’t finished, but I expect it will be in my first few days back in the hell that is my Jersey suburb

Given my teaching schedule, I never remember the Memorial Day holiday, so I couldn’t figure out why my quiet little street was bustling so early in the morning and why the café I’ve spent three or four hours in every morning this week was almost full when I arrived. Unfortunately, my ipod battery died, so I was forced to listen to the charming chat of some local young’uns:

Guy #1 Yeah, she’s a nutcase.

Guy #2 Didn’t she go out with that guy who worked the back?

Girl #1 mumble, mumble F*!&^&@ mumble.

Guy #1 Yeah. But he couldn’t stand her, so they broke up and now he just does her on the weekends.

Girl #1 mumble, mumble F*!&^&@ mumble.

Guy # 2 Do you have to say mumble, mumble F*!&^&@ mumble all the time.

Guy #1 It’s really cool how it works out. He gets exactly what he wants.


Desperately pushing the middle button on my ipod-mini, I realized I’d left my pencil case back at the house and took that as a sign that it was time to leave.

The local Starbucks is quieter, and I’ll spend the day reading. The walk here is just long enough to let breakfast settle, and it’s relatively quiet. And it’s interesting to see a town getting ready for the start of tourist season. Shops that have been closed this week are open, new shops are putting on the final touches, and new mannequins have appeared in some of the store windows.

I’ve contributed my part to the retail community, which is astonishingly cheap. I’m not sure what black ballet slippers contribute to writing, but I’m convinced the pair I bought yesterday will help me with this final productive day. I also bought a totally touristy Newport hoodie. It was red and fit perfectly, and I couldn’t resist.

I finally got up to the “sunbathing” deck, but I kept my clothes on, thank you very much. It was cold (Karen and I went up at sunset to enjoy a drink and the view), and I hadn’t had enough to drink.

While I was walking to Starbucks this morning, I was thinking of what one needs for such a wonderful, productive writing retreat, and I came to the conclusion that there is no formula or recipe. This was luck, and I don’t know if, or when, the stars will line up again. Karen found a great place at a very low price, we’re here the week before the town gets too crowded, I was at a good place with this essay, and the dog was in a fabulous mood all week.

I will say that if this is a taste of what my summer will be like, I’m looking forward to the next few months. I have lots of interesting writing I’m looking forward to, great friends and family to hang out with, a lovely new wardrobe (thanks, Onie!), and some celebrations on the horizon.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll head home. I’m hoping to wake up early to beat the weekend traffic. But I have a day left, good writing ahead of me, and tonight Karen and I are going to a festive seafood place for dinner. I don’t know if they have chicken-fried lobster on the menu, but if they do…

Writing Retreat: Day the Second

This morning I wished I were a person practiced in the arts of yoga or Pilates. The sundeck seems the ideal place to stretch and meditate in the morning sun. I certainly have the yoga costume: yoga pants and a tank top (both in black). But, alas, I’m a pajamas-and-bowl-of Crispix-with-cranberries kind of girl, though I do enjoy starting the day doing stretches with my hand weights while watching “The West Wing” and reveling in the knowledge that Josh Lyman is really Rahm Emmanuel no matter what Lawrence O’Donnell says (the author is dead, indeed!).

Yoga or Crispix. It really doesn’t matter: I’m here to write, and it’s working. With no domestic duties beyond washing my cereal bowl (and to be honest, Karen did that for me), I happily walked the two minutes to a nifty café, Peaceable Market, run by a group of young, cool women. I spent the morning eating toast and reading Felicia Hemans’s poetry. I’ve taken a bit of a risk trying to work with Hemans in this way as I’m not as familiar with her as I am with Shelley, but a morning with her poetry makes me think my argument holds more than just water.

It’s a great little café—hardwood floors, lots of natural light, generous portions of peanut butter for my toast, and a view of the harbor from my window.

But there’s something here I hadn’t counted on. Men. Lots of them. Most of them H.O.T.

Maybe it’s because it’s spring, but I’m finding the Men of Newport very distracting. Anyone who knows me would explain that my “type” tends towards effete metrosexuals with hands made for playing piano. I tend to like handsome men over homely ones, but wit and creativity are more appealing than many other qualities and can turn an Urkel into a Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also have a thing for nerdy academic types, though six years as a professor has all but cured me of this unfortunate ailment (male academics are so much sexier from a distance than they are up close and personal). These guys are not at all my type, so it’s surprising that they have me looking up from my Hemans all too often. They ooze a kind of ease that I usually am not attracted to. Perhaps it’s all in the packaging. They all look like prototypes for Ralph Lauren glossy ads but not in a pretty boy, airbrushed way. No way. These guys are the real thing. They all look so healthy, as if they really do spend their time working or playing on the boats in the harbor. They all have great hair, and they move with an appealing masculine grace, walking easily along the narrow sidewalks of Thames Street. Good lord, I sound like some twenty-first Danielle Steele.

When I call my mother to ask if she’d like a sweatshirt from this charming town, I tell her about the fact that I’m amongst these beautiful men and she replies, without missing a beat, “what are you wearing?” I don’t have the heart to tell her I have on sweatpants and a faded yellow hoodie. Poor woman just plunked down a chunk of cash to buy me a summer wardrobe fit for a modern-day, mocha-colored Holly Golightly, and I’m in sweat pants and a faded yellow hoodie. At least the sweat pants aren’t baggy and the hoodie shows that I have a waist.

In other news, I’ve forgotten my book weight and realized that I have a serious internet addiction.

My writing afternoon session was less productive than my morning of reading and note taking. But the day is not over yet. Perhaps after a walk with Sadie (Karen’s adorable pooch), I’ll write some more. Writing about poetry really does feel like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

Writing Retreat: Day the First

I think I have a new personal rule: if anyone invites you to anyplace in New England with “port” in its name, say, “yes” and “thank you very much,” throw what you need in the back of your car, program the GPS and race them to the meeting point.

A few weeks ago my good friend Karen, who couldn’t fall into a rut if a team of ruts ganged up and tried to attack her, sent me an e-mail inviting me to go on what she called a “writing retreat” in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m skeptical of such things because I’m not a spend-all-day-writing kind of writer. I’m a write-for-an-hour-daydream-for-an-hour-then-go-take-a-nap kind of writer.

But I have an essay due May 28th, the academic year has ended, and since, apparently, this is my year of avoiding ruts, I decided to go for it.

Now the idea of Karen taking a writing retreat makes sense—a mother of two, wife of one (that I know of), dog owner, band member, and domestic queen needs a break. I am responsible for two (sometimes three) plants and can’t even commit to an internet provider. The idea of needing a “retreat” seemed the height of indulgence.

But now that I’m here it feels, like so many other luxuries, so very necessary, and I think President Obama should start a fund for struggling assistant professors teaching at colleges and universities who expect scholars to teach full loads while “contributing regularly to their fields of specialization through the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship.” But I digress…

This is a good, productive thing. In the first place, going away to write for a week requires the kind of preparation helpful for finishing a twenty-page essay on Mary Shelley’s complicated novel Valperga and its relation to the relatively unheard of Felicia Hemans. Since I couldn’t bring everything with me, I had to go through the files for the essay and figure out what I really needed (as opposed to things that were interesting but not useful). My reward for completing this project was permission from my inner Suze Orman to buy a new file organizer. It also forced me to reread the essay, something I’d been avoiding, to see precisely what I needed to do to finish it. I’m closer than I thought, and after telling everyone that I was going on a writing retreat, I have to come back with something!

Day 1—Monday

After a mid-morning nap (don’t judge), I packed up the car and headed up to Rhode Island, stopping along the way at an outlet mall I spotted (this as a way of paying homage to my mother and our shopping traditions).

I knew I was right to say yes when I noticed two things: the sky seemed bluer and, with the exception of the outlet mall, I hadn’t seen a retail chain in hours.

I’m not really a boat person, but they sure are purty to look at as they bob up and down in the water, and as the English accent in my GPS directed me to “turn left” over and over again, it began to dawn on me that when the description of the place read, “near the water” the owner wasn’t kidding.

My home away from home is a three-story duplex at the end of a little road, a block away from the harbor. It has a deck and a sunbathing deck. Karen has explained to me that the sunbathing deck is higher than the surrounding houses so that I can be naked up there in private. I should note that it’s about 60 degrees, and I get cold in the summer…and I think the sea-gulls would laugh at naked Tricia “sunbathing” on some random roof.

Karen brought the dog, rum, tequila, and some green concotion she’s calling soup. I brought a bottle of good Zinfandel, a few movies, and grapes. Oh and we both brought the stuff we need to write.

I went on two walks in my first few hours here. That’s a good thing.

Dinner at the restaurant around the corner was delicious, and I’m tempted to go back to try the chicken-fried lobster. I mean, seriously—chicken fried lobster? Oh. My. Gawd.

It’s quiet and we’re living among the locals, talking about our multiple writing projects, men, some model who married some athlete, and the mixed pleasures of dog ownership.

Last night I knew I was in retreat mode when I ended the day reading the poems I’ll be writing about this week. I put on the ridiculously fluffy robe my father bought me for Christmas last year with the new slippers I bought for the trip and did a bit of writing, something I rarely due after 7:00 pm unless an editor is pestering me for revisions.

In the words of Orphan Annie: I think I’m gonna like it here.