My Writer's "Retreat." And How The Sausage Gets Made

This morning's New York Times Book Review included an essay about how writers struggle with online distraction --- even at "legendary" writers' retreats. For those who don't know (and count yourself lucky: these retreats are legends only in their own minds...): some writers apply to to spend time in isolated locations so that they can finish their work without distraction.  

The setup presumably varies from place to place, but essentially the writer gets living space (think small cottage) for a span of time (a month, three months, whatever) and they can write all day without worrying about the phone or making food (it's often delivered to their door). At night, if they like, they can go to a communal space and talk with the other writers on retreat. (*1)

The point of this essay in today's NYTBR is that a) the people who run these retreats struggle with how much digital access to provide; and b) writers find that despite the idyllic circumstances, they slip over to the "wired hub" so they can go online to check Facebook or whatever. The person who wrote the essay discovered his phone got access from one isolated spot on his porch. There went his productivity.

The author also noted that some writers, in their "regular" lives, use software to keep themselves offline:

Many writers try restrictive regimens, whether at a residency or in the outside world. Michael Chabon and Meghan O’Rourke, for example, have installed software programs like Freedom and SelfControl, whose very names evoke a self-help cry for intervention.

I use Freedom and have now for maybe two years? I also use its sister program "Anti-Social," which gives me online access to sites that I want to access, while restricting access to those I don't: So the university library is "on," but Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, and my email are "off" while I'm working. (*2)

So where am I going with this? Writers' retreats. And how I inadvertently had one in February.

This last push to finish the meat history manuscript was grueling almost beyond belief. I'm not complaining; just stating a fact: I had about eight weeks of work to do in roughly four weeks.

The only way to do it was by working about ten hours a day. And I don't mean what passes for most people's workdays (meaning people who work in offices with lots of other people): go to work; spend ten minutes chatting, spend another fifteen going down the hall to another person's office; thirty minutes at lunch; twenty minutes on the phone. Etc. (That's not a criticism of those people. That's simply how the eight-hour-workday works.)

I mean: ten hours (some days twelve) at my keyboard. About ten minutes for lunch. Peeing when necessary. Otherwise: nothing but focus and concentration. (*3) No housework, no cooking (that part I'd prepared for in advance: I did a lot of cooking and filled the freezer), no errand running, no nothing. (THANK YOU, HUSBAND!)

But here was the beautiful, wondrous aspect:

For ten days of this last push --- ten days during which I still needed to write the final chapter and the introduction and the conclusion and verify hundreds of notes --- my husband was out of town. (*5)

That meant: I TRULY didn't have to deal with anything or anyone. Only the work.

I spent those ten days in a mental cocoon, isolated almost completely from the world around me.

I took my usual mental health breaks (that's "coffee breaks" to the rest of the world) for a few minutes here and there, often digitally. Otherwise: no phone. No going outside (I went out of the house to the end of the driveway to empty the mailbox, and went to the grocery store one time). No socializing. No nothing.

At night: virtually no television (it was too intrusive). I read parts of a novel. Mostly I stared into space. (I'm not kidding. I couldn't handle the mental distraction of, say, a sitcom or CNN.)

It was amazing and wonderful and so fruitful. I was on a free writer's retreat. In my own home. Free! In my own home. Did I mention it was free?

You've NO idea how lucky I was and am to have had those ten days unimpeded. I told my husband when he got home that it was just as well he wasn't there because I probably would have made him leave anyway.

Okay, now back to that point that you sharp-eyed readers noticed a few sentences ago: Once or twice a day during those ten days, I used my iPad to look at email and Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes I posted something. I communicated with a reporter who emailed about a question. Missed out on a talk radio opportunity because I got to my email too late in the day.

And now --- finally! --- the main point:

None of this was the me of, say, six years ago. Back then I struggled to manage the online part of my life. I was addicted to email and writers' forums and the whole nine yards of life online.

There were days when I feared that I would never again know the joy (okay, it's more like ecstasy) of creative "flow" and complete mental immersion.

That prospect terrified me. And I don't use that word lightly.

So I faced up to the issue. I taught myself how to manage the "online" part of my life.

How? By recognizing that it had become part of life. It wasn't something separate and "out there." It was here. It was everywhere. And I HAD to learn how to live with it, rather than in opposition to it.

I had to master this intruder.

Here's how I did that (other than just plain ol' willpower): I bought a second computer. One was connected to the 'net. The other was not. I wrote on the one that was not. When I needed to switch tasks and do, say, research rather than write, I turned on the wired machine. But I made the decision to do so with care and sparingly.

And something happened.

I encountered the obvious: There's nothing that's SO URGENT that it requires our immediate attention. Nuthin.'

And once I got that; once I understood that my presence or absence at, say, Facebook, or a writers' forum I once frequented, or Twitter make zero difference to the rest of the world --- well, my addiction simply faded.

Now I use one computer. And yes, I use Freedom. Less because I can't restrain myself than because using it alleviates that sub-cranial, nagging sense of irritation that is the digital world.

But: I've learned that the irritant, or the sense of the irritant's presence, sets in most often when my brain and eyes need a break. (*6) I've learned to walk away during those "I need a break" moments; walk away rather than go online. It felt much like giving up smoking: Do something else when the urge hits. (I quit smoking in 1986.)

And in that respect, having an iPad is something I could not have done four or five years ago. I had to kick the addiction first. Otherwise --- well, I'dve been on that damn thing constantly.

And, yes, once again, I've led you down this twisted path to a non-earthshaking conclusion: I got a free writer's retreat and how great was that!?

But really? It's probably better to figure out how to get along without a retreat in the first place.


*1: This is where the "legendary" stuff supposedly comes in: Writers talk. Writers drink. Writers hop in the sack. Writers make connections. Writers get better contracts. Etc. Frankly, it sounds to me like a) a total snore; and b) egos in collision. But that's me. And I'm a true loner. (Heh. I initially typed "loser" rather than "loner." The former likely more true than the latter.)

*2: I generally only use Anti-social at specific times in the process: Toward the end, for example, when I was revising and needed to verify citations for my notes. At times like that, I need to use the library's online catalog. But when I'm actually writing (composing), I use only Freedom.

*3: What was I doing? The final, final revision. The "no kidding, this is it, this is the text, this is what goes into print" revision. No mistakes. No typos. The right word in the right place. The ideas expressed clearly, succinctly, and convincingly (meaning they're backed up by shitloads of evidence). Making sure the sources for every quotation --- and there are hundreds of quotations --- are correct, down to the page number and date of publication. I know that doesn't sound like much, but that kind of labor requires a herculean level of mental concentration. It's not the kind of work that can be done on such a tight deadline. At the end of each day, I was completely, absolutely, thoroughly drained of all energy. I wanted to do nothing but sit as still as possible and stare at a wall. Which is what I did at night for a few hours until I crawled into bed, so I could get up and do it again the next day. The one luxury I allowed myself was sleep. I needed it. (*4)

*4: Last time around, the beer history book, I had a horrific episode of insomnia (a ?ailment that I've had since I was seven years old (alas)), a case that ran on for two years. Toward the end, I slept two hours a night, from about ten or eleven to midnight or one. Then I'd get up and work until about six pm. It was so awful. I vowed I would not go that road again. THIS time as I neared the end, about six months ago, I began taking a half a sleeping pill. For this last month-long trek, I took a full pill every night. I was able to sleep six hours, enough to keep my brain focused and fresh.

*5: The first draft of the manuscript was seven chapters. My editor said she wanted a new last chapter. She was, of course, right about the need for it, so I spent December and January writing and researching what is now Chapter Eight. But when Push Time came, that chapter was still in a first-draft version. It needed LOTS of work. In effect, I had to write a new, new chapter.

*6: I've gotta say: this last push was MURDER on my eyes. Wow. They took a beating. Valuable lesson: Look away from the screen and out the window every twenty minutes. At least. I'm working making that a new habit. But I may have to use some kind of chime or timer to remind me until the habit is formed. Do yourself a favor: LOOK AWAY.

"Blessay"? "Translations of Expertise"? "Blogging For Intent" You Be The Judge

The problem with stalling around waiting for an editor to come back with comments so I can revise the manuscript so we can push forward to publication is that my brain has time on its hands. (CAN a brain have hands?) Which means I'm thinking about not just this and that, but the other, too. To whit: I read an essay the other day written by Dan Cohen, a historian whose area of expertise is the "digital humanties." (No, I'm not gonna  explain. Ask ten people, and you'll get ten different explanations of what that is and does. Google it. Or Bing it. Or whatever.)

Cohen, suggested using the term "blessay" to identify a particular form of "new" writing: The blog essay that is relatively short, and both expertise- and idea-driven. An essay that's not just a short "here's what I had for dinner" blog entry, but also not a five- to thirty-thousand word essay weighted with footnotes and written for a peer-reviewed or for a traditional publication (like The New Yorker). An essay written for "an intelligent general audience." (Nope. Can't explain that either.)

His essay prompted a Twitter-based debate and quite a few comments at Cohen's blog. I missed the debate (and only came across the essay after the fact on my Google reader feed) so I had to do some backtracking to find said Twitter-debate.

What I found intriguing, however, was that the discussants quickly shifted from the merits of Cohen's term of choice to a discussion of the audience for "blessays."  For whom are such blessays intended? (Other than "an intelligent general audience"?

One Tweeterer (I'm waiting for someone to tell me that's the wrong term to use) suggested that the audience is

 para-academic, post-collegiate white-collar workers and artists, with occasional breakthroughs either all the way to a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.”

To which I mentally replied: Ugh.

(I hasten to add that the people who were responding via Twitter to Dan's essay were all people I "follow." They're all WAY smarter than I am, and way more educated than I am [not, frankly, that either of those states is hard to achieve].)

Others chimed in to say that such essays were similar to the work created by "public intellectuals" back when there were still such things (there are still), back, say, in the mid-20th century. And one person wondered:

 Do academics who blogs get readers from outside? (not so much big but wide audience)

To which I thought "Hmmmm."

So where am I going with this? (Bear with me; I'm thinking on the fly.)

A large chunk of what appears on THIS on this "blog" are precisely the kind of essays that Cohen suggests naming "blessays": I use my particular form of expertise (I'm a historian) to comment on what teachers back in the old day called "current events": I discuss Events of the Day by framing them in a larger historical context. (Sometimes I also describe/talk about my work as I do it, to give readers a look behind the scenes of how historians "do history.")

I write "blessays" in part because doing so helps me think about my own work, but also because I'm aware that, in general, Americans don't much care for history, and who can blame them? (Read: the teaching of history, like the teaching of most subjects, is done badly if at all.) So my general goal in blogging is to "do" history in real time, if you will.

Who is my audience? Anyone who comes strolling past. I don't care if the reader is "intelligent," a "para-academic," an "artist," or works in a "white-collar" job. I don't care if the reader collects garbage, collects debts, or collects comic books. I don't care if the reader is from the "outside" world, wherever that may be, or the inside one.

All I care about is communicating the complexity of the human experience to ordinary folks like myself. That means I intentionally structure my blessays to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

After all, the truly amazing and wonderful aspect of the web (and of software/platforms that have made "blogging" so simple and accessible) is that our potential audience is everyone, and so we need not limit our content for a specific audience.

Can we (self) impose limits to our intended audience? Aim the content for a specific slice of possible readership (eg, "para-academics," and no, I don't know what that is or means. I'll look it up when I'm finished.) Of course!

But slapping a label on the scholar-who-uses-blogging-as-a-way-to-communicate-with-a-general-audience strikes me as defeating the purpose of the scholar-driven blog. If we wanted to aim at "intellectuals," middle brow or otherwise, well, hell, we can all just write conventionally (on paper) and send said writing off to someplace like The Atlantic or The New Yorker and hope the editors there will take the piece.

So:  it's the big, 'ol high-middle-low brow audience for me and my decidedly low-brow form of scholarship. But if no one minds, I think I'll just stick with "blogging."

I Always Loved The Part I Didn't Hate

There's apparently a theme circling 'round this blog these days, much to my surprise (by this particular theme, I mean). This is first hilarious, and then not, and then rueful and wise. I'm glad (and lucky) that I never hated the part I love most. (Well, except when it won't cooperate, but that's what makes it interesting).

The gist:

But I secretly drew a line in the sand at Twitter. Most prostitutes have their boundaries, and for me tweeting was the one act so degrading I had to quietly take it off the table.

Most writers are closet exhibitionists, shameless only on paper, and having to perform and promote themselves is a kind of mild custom-designed torture . . .

I learned the meaning of the German word “sitzfleisch” — literally, the ability to sit, to spend serious time at something, devote your sustained attention to a single subject for four, six or eight hours, and resist the impulse to get up and take a break or check e-mail when you get fidgety or bored. I became a more disciplined person than I’d ever imagined I could be.

When you’re doing any kind of serious work, one of the most hazardous distractions you have to figure out how to ignore is the interference field of hope and anxiety associated with the results of that work, its imaginary payoff.

The part you hated was your favorite part.

All true ---. Glad he wrote it. Glad I read it. And damn! I'm STILL the luckiest person in the world.

Dumbass Comment of the Week (If Not the Year); Or When Business Isn't

Oh, boy. Just ran across this while reading a blog entry by a self-publishing maven.

Most agents, especially those in very large firms, no longer represent authors. Those agents represent themselves, and exist to make money off writers. It’s that simple, and that disillusioning.

Uh, duh? And: WTF? OF COURSE agents exist to make money off writers (and athletes and actors and artists). OF COURSE they do. They're in BUSINESS. What the fuck? Does this person think agents (of any kind) are in business to "help" someone? Uh, no. They're in business to make MONEY.

(I should add that the article from which I took this inane quote is otherwise quite good: smart, detailed, solid. Which makes the inanity of the quote even more, well, inane.)

Lately I've been thinking about "business" in a general sense (all toward pondering my next book). I keep being surprised by how many people-in-business ascribe "noble" motives to various kinds of business people --- while not failing to ascribe those same motives to themselves or to their employers.

Eg, agents are there to represent authors, but not to make money. But self-publishing authors are there to make money. Craft brewers are supposed to represent the noble art and craft of making "artisan" beer, but the beer-drinkers who get pissed when those same craft brewers expand in order to make money are themselves interested in earning money from their own jobs or businesses.


Is Cheap/Free Worth It?

I ponder that question often, and in many contexts. (Perhaps because I've been writing a book in which "cheap" features so prominently? Maybe? I don't know. I just thought of that connection.) Anyway, I'm one of those dinosaurs who believes there is no free lunch, and on that note, here's a blog post worth reading. It comes from a site devoted to "scholarly publishing" (something else in which I'm interested for a number of reasons, many of them only tangentially related to the "publishing" part). Here the author is thinking about "social costs" and "social good" but doing so in a broad context. Worth reading.

Two money quotes:

Cheapness has consequences in the long run. We all end up paying for it somehow. And cheapness has a funny way of being expensive.


You can save yourself poor as a business or an industry.

Ain't that the truth. (Hey! When else will I have an excuse to use a Zappa album cover?)

Cheap Thrills (Frank Zappa album)

I May Live To Regret This . . .

UPDATE: The comments section for this post is FAR more interesting than the post itself. I'm grateful for all those who've stopped by to comment. I'm learning a lot from it, and what I'm learning makes me even more eager to see someone from The Human Wave get out there in front and tell the rest of the world what they do and how they do it. Because honest-to-god, folks, the rest of us DO. NOT. KNOW. UPDATE #2: Kate Paulk has taken my challenge and made a first stab at a "here's what we do" piece. Read it here.

. . . because I said that I rarely write about writerly stuff. But, damn! Again: from my point of view as a historian, these are exciting times. VERY exciting. So this is more the historian speaking than the author.

A bit of background: as I noted in a blog entry a few days back, publishing is in total disarray at the moment thanks primarily to the power of the digital. Thanks to that, it's now possible to publish a book without the middlemen who have long held sway.

This isn't a bad thing, and as I also said here, I wrestle every. single. day. with what to do with my own work. (That was the point of my original post about this: When your work consists of 85 to 90 percent research, and only 10 or 15 percent "writing," it ain't easy to give up the subsidy that traditional publishing offers.) (*1)

No one knows how the disarray will shake out because that's how "history" works: We don't know the end until the end gets here. (Unless you're a writer of historical fiction, in which case you can make things turn out any way you please, lucky you!

The ramifications of the "new" publishing are being felt by everyone in the business, as evidenced by this absolutely bizarro article in the New York Times a few days ago. That in turn prompted this response from a group blog I'd never heard of but somehow stumbled across in pursuit of who-knows-what, and there I found a link to this thoughtful commentary on the nature of "writing." 

But I digress from my main point, which is this: My original post about publishing generated, um, a response. (Not one I expected. I assumed no one would read it.) The response was, well, interesting, not least of which was this.

That got me thinking. Yesterday when I was walking, I contemplated the snarkitude of the response and thought "Wow. This is what a revolution feels like!"

This kind of rage is what, for example, the rich of Moscow likely felt as rebellion gained power and heft in 1916 and 1917. This is what ruling classes feel when the fury of the "oppressed" takes form and turns into outright revolution.  (Not, I hasten to add, that I'm either rich or a member of the "ruling classes." Rather, my point is that the self-publishing crowd regards people like me as elitist and they wanna see me suffer.)


But then today, I was out walking (again; yeah, like most walkers/runners/swimmers --- I do all three --- my best ideas come when I'm in motion) and I thought "Well, okay. This is definitely what a revolution would feel like. Except --- they've already won!"

The self-publishers have won both the battle and the war. They've won. The spoils are theirs. They're making money. They call the shots. They're building audiences and did I mention they earning money from their work?

And no, I'm not being snarky. They've won. I'm the loser, as is anyone else who still clings to traditional publishing. (Which is why I a great deal of time pondering how and when I should move to The Other Side.)

So here's my question: Why are the winners so angry? I only follow one blog devoted to self-publishing, and its proprietor is a mostly mild-mannered guy; full of snark and condescension toward us losers (which, again, seems normal to me), but through his blog, I've landed at plenty of other self-publishers' blogs, and man! These people are ANGRY. (*2)

Is this normal human behavior when the oppressed finally gain power? They lash out at their former oppressors? (Again, I'm hardly an oppressor. I'm a mild-mannered, middle-aged historian. But in their eyes, I'm an elitist, whiney jerk with an overly developed sense of entitlement.) (*3)

So please: someone 'splain this to me, because I don't get it. And I swear this is my last take on writers' crap for awhile. It IS fascinating to me, but it's not something I can take a lot of time to ponder because, well, I've got to ponder equally historical shifts in the American food system and, hey, a girl's only got so many hours in the day.


*1: I've thought about this often enough that I'm daunted by the prospect. Should I opt for self-publishing, I'd have to get a job, obviously. The only thing I know how to do other than "history" is waiting tables. So I could do that and then use my off-time to research. By my calculation, and under those circumstances, the kinds of books I write would take 10 to 15 years to complete, and that includes giving up any other kind of leisure activity. (Bye-bye, husband!) (*1.1)

*1.1: The self-publishers scoff at such calculations. According to them, people like me simply don't work hard enough. I think what's really going on is that they simply don't know what historians do, and for that, as I've said on many occasions, I blame the historical profession for its unwillingness to engage with the public.

*2: I inadvertently got a load of that contempt/condescension/rage myself a few days ago. And again: I get why the self-publishers are smug about their success. I would be, too! But angry? What the hell are they ANGRY about? They've won! They should be happy, not angry.

*3: I must say: that's the other weird thing about the response from the self-pubbers who responded to my blog entry: They somehow got that idea that I believe I'm entitled to some kind of public subsidy. To which I say: Huh? I'm not asking taxpayers to fund my work (something many, many writers do, I might add). My arrangement with my publishers is entirely legal and private and takes nothing from anyone's pocket.