This article is part one of a two-part series on parenting and pursuing a creative vocation.
Last month I shared about my journey as a young mom to find my creative life within the limitations and challenges of parenting. Creative parents are in a time-resource bind that can feel unbreakable: not enough money for childcare if you stay home, not enough time for a third vocation if you work. The miracles of creative friends, timely encouragements, and a lot of hard work got me back to the page when I thought I might never find my way there again. But one of my biggest saves has been the time I’ve spent in retreat from normal life to focus completely on my writing.
I know, it sounds like a ridiculous luxury. Like how are you going to get a vacation from parenting when you can’t even afford a babysitter? Or how do you find hours of time to be away from home when you haven’t even slept in on a Saturday since God made the earth? Again, I’m grateful to have a supportive partner who has seen that I need to create and has chosen time and again to help me find that space, even before we had kids.
Amy Poehler says in Yes, Please, “Every mother needs a wife who takes care of her and helps her become a better mother.” Someone to help you with the kids, or have dinner ready when you get home, or encourage you when you’re a puddle of overwhelm. She says sometimes her wife is her mom, sometimes, her nanny. Sometimes my wife is my husband. Sometimes it’s my in-laws. Sometimes it’s the teenagers working the YMCA childcare. Many times it has been friends willing to spend time with my kids. Later I return the favor. There are ways to get a break. There are more people willing to help you than you assume. I believe the world is more full of goodness waiting to be unveiled than we can fathom. But you might have to raise your hand and ask for help.
My first retreat was with a writer friend. I think if I’d gone alone the first time, I would have been paralyzed by the enormity of it–staring at blank pages with the clock ticking down like a bomb when the beautiful dream would shatter, and I’d have to go back to real life again. Like any good quest, it’s a good idea to bring a sidekick. They might just save your life when you least expect it.
I was racing to the finish line to complete a draft of my first novel before my first writing conference (more on that in a moment), and this friend was midstream on a large project of her own. So we hopped a ferry and headed to an island cabin–something I’d long dreamed of doing–for a weekend retreat. My daughter was one-year-old and just weaned, and my husband took time off of work to spend the long weekend with her.
We Pomodoro-ed our way through set after set of 25 minute writing sessions. We ate soup and started a fire when it rained. We walked in the woods. We kept ourselves alert with a steady ration of coffee and chocolate. But mostly, we wrote, read particularly good bits out loud to each other, and kept writing. I left with 5000 new words to my manuscript and a newfound confidence in what I could do, given the creative space.
Six months later found me at my first writing conference. This experience was pivotal for me. I didn’t just show up, though. I prepared. It began with another incidental miracle, like the ones I described in my last article. Months before, one of the girls in our writing group had bumped into a local writer who coaches book-pitching and invited her to visit us. She told us about the professional writing conference in our area–the PNWA, and she encouraged us to go for the learning opportunity, and, if we were serious about our projects, to pitch to agents. She taught us how to elevator, sit-down, and one-sentence pitch. And she encouraged us to submit pieces to the conference’s contest beforehand because if we won, we’d get free admission and special access to agents, and if we didn’t, we’d get at least two professionals’ feedback. It was December and the conference was in August. I had never even begun to imagine what the publishing process entailed or how I would approach it, and here on this one night, I had a path laid out for me. 8 months seemed like a manageable goal to complete my half-finished novel. I resolved to have a polished draft and a pitch ready by the conference so that I could begin the process of querying agents.
Again, I went with friends from my writing group, which made it less intimidating and more fun. One of the girls in our group was a finalist in the contest and we basked in the proximal glory of her success, immensely proud of her. We attended breakout sessions, keynote addresses, and, most importantly, had appointments throughout the weekend to pitch to agents and editors. I learned so much about the publishing industry, the craft of writing, and I got the experience of speaking out loud what I’d created and sharing it with people who could help it find its way into the world. I met my future agent there, though not at a pitch session. We were seated together at the contest finalists dinner–which I was invited to because of my friend–and we hit it off in conversation about books and authors we love. I never even pitched my book to her! But before we parted ways, she told me to submit a query through her website and to mention we’d sat together at dinner that night. She’d remember me, she said.
I can’t say enough how wonderful (key word: legit) writing conferences are. You meet lovely, eccentric, and like-minded people and you learn what publishing looks like and what it can mean for you. It’s professional development for your writing life and it is worth every penny and every minute spent away from home.
In the years since those first brave, and what felt like groundbreaking, steps forward in my creative life, there have been other retreats. I’m much more comfortable now with going solo. I channelled my inner Thoreau and actually rented a one-room cabin in the woods for a few days. There was a screened-in porch, table settings for one, and a tiny desk to write at. In those solitary hours I came to terms with a revision I thought would either kill my book or my soul. (Both survived). I also applied for a low-cost residency for one week at a defunct World War II military base turned state park on the Washington Coast. There were Victorian officer’s houses, ghost-hunter worthy gun batteries in the woods, and the massive sweep of the Pacific Ocean from every cliffside and hilltop.
In taking these small respites for one’s writing, there is also a stirring of the sleeping artist mind, surrounded by the beauty of nature and the novelty of the unknown. Solitude is a welcome friend to ostensibly haggard mothers and overworked employees whose creative souls have been buried beneath the tyranny of the day-to-day. Retreat can give you what a vacation or a good night’s sleep cannot: alertness and receptivity, the belief that there are creative messages forthcoming addressed directly to you. Rest is one thing–a mathematical equation of energy in and energy out. Retreat is something else–soul restoration, still waters, homecoming. It’s turning from the constant, distracting clamor and turning in to the still small voice that speaks your name, your calling, your truth to utter to a waiting world.
As a mom, this has been a balm to me. I have come to retreat empty and full of longing. Tired and simultaneously twitchy with the need to work. Retreat has healed and soothed. As a creative, though, it’s been ambrosia–nectar of the gods. It’s given me a taste of what is really possible with my writing, given me the space I need to work out problems that need more than the allotted time in a normal day. It’s provided a link between spirit, mind, and body. To be physically transported out of your life is an occasional necessity, a conduit for impossibilities and revelations.
A final disclaimer: Don’t wait for a retreat to begin writing. The real work of writing is done in the daily slog, the faithful butt in the seat. There’s no way around it. I can do more in a month of short, daily writing sessions than I can do on an entire retreat weekend. Retreat is a feature of the writing life, not the whole package. Still, find the courage to run away from home from time to time.
Mamas, (dads, too, if you’re reading), take heart. Fight for what you need. Receive with gratitude what comes to help you on the way. Hold it loosely–all boons have a way of wriggling away. Don’t worry. They’ll come back, and you’re in it for the long game anyway. You’ll be ready for the next one. But fight for this: people who will support you, space for your creative life–both daily and in occasional retreats, and teachers who will guide you. These three things are like dirt, sun, and water to a plant. You need them all to live and grow creatively, but they’re all you need, and, really, they’re free and all around you. It’s up to you to gather them and plant the seed of your creative life in them. Pray for what you don’t have. Watch the world open up around you to provide. Watch the miracles start to unfold.
J.M. RODDY is a freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living.