Chasing Gold: RIPE FRUIT Writer's Retreat
By Leslie Kirk Campbell
Leslie Kirk Campbell, longtime OPEN EXCHANGE lister, offers year-round writing classes and retreats through the Ripe Fruit School of Creative Writing.
There comes a time in one's life, filled with children and errands and jobs and social obligations and activism and urgent important things and urgent unimportant things and home improvement and pet care and shopping...when one feels the need (if one takes a moment to step outside and see the moon and notices, in the unexpected silence, what it is that one needs) to get away. Like the Hindu and the Taoist wanderer, like the monk and the nun, like the elders of yore, there comes a time when one's inner hermit comes to starve for her hermitage, which is exactly what happened to me.
It happened five years ago when my inner writer was flopping on the beach unable to breathe out of water. It happened when my youngest son was finally six and could spell ten words that rhyme with CAT and my oldest had begun writing hiphop style essays about the Self. It happened when my creative writing school was well-established, speeding down the highway on cruise control, and my students' eyes were lit up like streetlights. It happened when I realized that my recurring nightmare would not come to pass (the kitchen cupboards exploding, the dishes crashing to the ground) if I were to leave.
The moment I knew in my heart I was expendable was the moment I was free. And when one is free, what one wants arrives at one's door (even if one does not realize what one wants until what one wants arrives at her door), which is exactly what happened to me.
A writing student of mine told me about it. And off I went. What I found was an old convent in Marin, a deer park surrounded by a swathe of eucalyptus trees, a courtyard with flowers and fountain, and tranquility that wouldn't quit. Up the stone stairs behind the convent, standing by itself was a modest hermitage. Yes, the real thing, with a desk and a door and a window and a pallet to sleep on and electricity for my lap top. What it didn't have was a radio, a TV, access to the internet, cell phone reception, other humans, and any interruption. So there I was. The hours laid out before me. Nothing but me and my monitor. "The page," Annie Dillard writes, "that eternal blankness... which you cover slowly, affirming time's scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity ...that page will teach you to write." Which is exactly what happened to me.
Smitten, I arranged to come every Tuesday. I live in San Francisco but ensconced in my trusty old Volvo I would cross the bridge to another world. Every week, I would enter the Rainbow Tunnel at the northern end of the Golden Gate (holding my breath and wishing for "a writing life", unsure of what that really meant) and exit reborn. Thirty miles later, I pulled up to my hallowed retreat, swung my backpack over my shoulder, and walked on air to the hermitage gate. I flipped over the hand-carved wooden sign to read HERMIT IN, swung open the gate, stepped guiltily across the threshold (as if I were doing something illicit), and closed it with a snap. On the other side, I became a different person. A reflective person. A reverent person. In love with everything I knew and everything I did not, mounting the stone steps to her hermitage.
Tuesday mornings I would wake up in the city with a start, skip into my clothes, take the kids to school and head north. "I feel like I'm having an affair!" I would announce upon returning home. My husband was jealous but supportive. After all, hadn't I run up those steps as if to a lover? Hadn't I categorically, though metaphorically, ripped off my clothes? Yes. Yes. I had. At my retreat, my intellect, which suddenly seemed bountiful, wandered every road to its heart's desire, unimpeded. My words were free to slip out and then falter, to sprint and then lay down exhausted on the track. I was no longer starving. No longer flopping on the beach but back in the water: unseen depths below; blinding light shimmering at the surface.
And as the years went by, my tunnel wish came true. It was only one day a week but yes, I was living the writer's life, something I had craved and finally understood. Week after week, I filled that blank page until one day I noticed my tunnel wish had changed. It was no longer to live some undefined "writer's life" but to complete specific essays and stories. I added on a day at my hermitage. I added on a night.
The next year, I held my breath and wished for publication, a concept which at first seemed absurdly remote. Yet before long my wishes became more specific. Now I was wishing to have "Bulletproof" published in the Chroncle Magazine. And it was. I wished to have "Not in the Lesson Plan" published in sfgate. That, too, came true. I wished to read The Secret Life of Melania Ozonian at the Center for the Book. And I did. Meanwhile, my children grew smart and strong even without me on Tuesdays (and then Tuesday nights and then Wednesdays). At home I became a better mother, a better activist, a better lover. I had been fed.
The gift of no interruption, I learned, is priceless. And so I decided to spread the word and give it to others. Now, twice a year, I invite a community of writers to come with me. What each writer receives is his or her own quiet room and a desk by the window. They get fullness: solace and emptiness: the page. They are permitted to revel in what the famed poet Adrienne Rich describes as "the freedom to press on, to enter the currents of [their] thought like a glider pilot, knowing that [their] motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of [their] attention will not be suddenly snatched away." Which is exactly what happened to me.
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