Helena Writes #15: On found time, process, and the gifts of writing retreats
Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers (Writing for Children and Midwifing a Small-Scale Memoir), has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In a blog series called Helena Writes, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time. Learn more about Helena through the Center’s Teacher Feature, her reflection on teaching writing, and her artist’s website.
In her 15th post, Helena shares the surprises of planning and leading a memoir retreat, along with some of her teaching process. Enjoy!
The following is based on my own introductory, round-robin writing, our first writing of the memoir retreat that began on Thursday evening, September 19, and ran through to Sunday noon, September 22. It is the only writing I completed at the retreat.
The five of us, myself and the four writers who registered for the retreat, had dined together. We then drove to the place that would be home base for the next four days: The Lazy Pond Bed and Breakfast, in the town of Liberty, New York, where I live. Lazy Pond is just down my road, but the others had traveled from all over the country.
After dinner, we sat together on big, soft couches and chairs. The weather was to be gorgeous for the four days of the retreat, and that forecast would hold. Night sounds were humming. I never know quite what makes that gorgeous sound on the warm nights here—insects, certainly, maybe frogs, the farmer around the road has told me, though not the peepers that begin the spring here. It’s just the sound on warm nights, and it encloses me in a quiet joy, one of the many joys that are of this place, that come to me from living here. The sky was clear with stars.
Three weeks earlier
The momentum built as the hour, five o’clock, approached. I was in pieces.
I had focused on the structure of this retreat, the finer particulars of each morning, afternoon, evening, three weeks before, something I never do. I know generally, of course, what I want to work with, the material I have to present; but being an anxiety-driven person when it comes to deadlines, I fret and stress and finally write a class or retreat just in the nick of time.
Then I discovered that I’d scrambled the date! In the process of speaking on the telephone to each person who had signed on, something I do to make a first connection, I’d said this as I was about to hang up the telephone after one conversation: “Well, see you in a few days!” To which my partner in conversation responded, “…in a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?”
After we’d hung up, I sat on my couch in a kind of stupor. The pressure and momentum had befriended me, and I was in a state of high preparation, the only state that allows for me to encounter people in a way I hope will be helpful, exciting, provocative. I understood long ago that I need to be in a state of high excitement to transmit something like that to my students. If I’m not there, I can’t teach.
I figured this out, of course, by preparing and preparing for classes, and never feeling prepared. It was that gap, that Lord-please-help-me fear, that performance anxiety, that evoked the excitement that my classes produced, and the work that issued from them. This is no boast! I say this as bald, functional truth. It’s my process. I have to be on edge to convey…I as-yet know not what. I have no idea what really will be required that will mean something to a particular group of people.
But in my stupor, I felt the let-down of adrenaline, a deep relaxation I rarely experience. I felt on holiday—no plans, no commitments, just time. I think I painted, napped, hung out at home. Talked to my cats, long, many-syllabled conversations of the peculiar language that comes out of me when I talk to Oliver and Sebastian.
I don’t, I’ll add here, allow myself this cat language in public—that is, when I have guests. Except if the company is my son. He speaks the same odd language these two kitties evoke from my tongue. Neither of us can discuss this rationally. We lose ourselves laughing then fall silent. I haven’t ever spoken this way to cats. It must be something about these two brothers, I always conclude. What else can I do with this odd manifestation? I may be speaking a language they understand. They certainly seem to. The communication feels quite intimate. So goes my thought process, until I give it up.
Now, writing about it, I do have to acknowledge that I live alone in a house in the woods, and who knows what such a life brings forth? Yet my son, naturally much younger than I, does not live in the woods. And, as always, I just can’t take this inquiry any further. I accept this language for what it is, am comfortable speaking it, but only to my cats, so far.
The weeks passed. I knew my retreat preparations were safely in their cloth bag in a basket in my bedroom. I’d done that work very carefully. I went on with the other work of my days, painting, teaching a few classes, talking with family, writing in the mornings, with a sense of moving toward the week that was, once again, coming up. An odd repeat of time—The Memoir Retreat Week.
On that Thursday, the sense of the momentum built as the hour of five approached. And I was in pieces. All day, I kept thinking I had to re-read my daily plans, assuring myself that I’d gone through the necessary thought, the creative process of seeing how to structure the retreat and fit it all together. I also believed I had figured out how to function as a group with people who were working with different tasks: two students beginning our work together, one student well along in the development of her memoir, and another student who was entering into the process of deepening the writing that had come out of the first two parts of my memoir course. I’d gone through that bottleneck, my own creative teaching process, to shape the course of the retreat that now sat safely in its cloth bag, waiting to be put to work.
But what followed was like a recurring dream—a nightmare, to be truthful. I could not get through reading Thursday, the first evening’s work! The words moved from their places. The writing didn’t hang together. Now I knew that was not objectively true. I got up and paced, talked, not to the kitties, but to myself. Helena, you’ve been teaching for 60 years…I said it like a mantra. I began to think it slowly through. You always have known what to do, dear heart. Prepare, take a shower, get dressed, comb your hair, brush your teeth, put on some lipstick and set out for the place you’re due to be. Yes—show up.
We’d go to dinner together first. After, we would drive to the Inn and do the first writing of the retreat in that wonderful, cozy country parlor off the Inn’s kitchen. I held on to that thought for dear life. The folder with the title, “Retreat” sat in the bag right next to me on that brown, plush couch with all its perfect, back-supporting pillows.
It was that gap, that Lord-please-help-me fear, that performance anxiety, that evoked the excitement that my classes produced, and the work that issued from them. This is no boast! I say this as bald, functional truth. It’s my process.
It is true that I’ve been teaching for 60 years—and in my anxieties, my terrors, I forget the most important, the central thing, and that is this: there will be people there, the very people to whom I want to impart something of great value. People who have come to this place so that such a thing may occur, something that may change the course of their lives—the discovery of the depth and freedom, the riches of their own creative process.
The opening door
The surprise is the thing that happens to me. My life is changed. My creative process is deepened. Life is enlarged, expanded in a way I can never have imagined.
I have the privilege of listening to people who have come to experience something they long for, mostly not really knowing what that is, just as I mostly don’t know what has brought me to the profundity of this group of people, except that this moment grew out of the nuts and bolts of living every day.
I am a writer, a painter, and a teacher. I write, I paint, and, I believe, most miraculous of the three, is the teaching, because it involves the presence of other human beings. And the mystery of the spirit that moves through a group of people, gathered together for a sincere and good purpose—ours was to write—causes a door in life to open. What lies beyond that door are dreams of the stars, given substance in the words that begin to tell our lives, to each other, for ourselves and for anyone who may ever read what we have discovered.
And the greatest, the undreamed of thing, is the bond that develops between all of us in that place.
It was a wonderful retreat. The weather was glorious!
Have you ever rigorously planned for something and then discovered it was still weeks away? What did you do with that found time? How do you handle unexpected changes to your plans and process? Most importantly, do you talk to your cats? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts
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