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Retreat Notes

It’s funny that both Tayari Jones and Michelle Richmond wrote this week about knowing when to let go of a writing project, because that has been my week, during my tenure as self-appointed Artist in Residence at the Monterey Nonsmoker’s Hotel in Albuquerque (what a great place — more on that in another post).

First, I canned the idea of working on the big essay I thought I wanted to work on. I need to do more background reading. It can wait. Maybe I am not as pulled toward it as I thought.

Then I realized that no matter what, and regardless of all my noises in this direction, I don’t want to write a short story. Not right now. Not maybe ever. I am not interested in “graduating” to writing fiction of any length. If it happens, it happens, but with four days to write, bringing yet another amateurish short story into the world just didn’t seem important. The stuff fueling that story may become an essay. Who can say?

Then I sent an essay to a writing friend who had asked a question it answered, and when I skimmed it (don’t you always re-read your own stuff when you send it along, if only to wonder how you missed all those typos?), I had this tingly feeling. I have always had this idea that this essay was unpublishable, and maybe that’s still the case. But I am still fond of it and have always wondered if it didn’t need something I couldn’t see. When I looked it over (all a-tingle), I thought, “Start this on page 5, and you almost have something.” Maybe what it really needs is to lose the first third of its adipose self — a weight problem that isn’t visible because it feels so whole as an essay. So I shipped it off to my friend, this time for her opinion. Just seeing this essay anew was worth the experience.

Well! That got me going. I took an artsy, edgy essay that had received very nice rejection notices and gutted it, then rebuilt it with half the parts. I like it much more. I then gave one last (for now) hard revision to another essay which had made the rounds of two critique groups and looked up several places to submit it.

I moved on to a “light” revision of an essay I wrote for Malena Watrous’ class this spring (through Stanford CE) — it was a little thing and I expected it to stay that way, but I dug into it and couldn’t stop digging, and it’s a strong second draft. (2 down, how many more to go? Oh, at least 2 more. Maybe 4.)

Then today I had a marathon session pulling together a strong second draft of another food essay I started in Malena Watrous’ class. I was startled by how much research and work I had done on it (and forgotten I had done)… interviews, deep database searches, statistics, book-larnin’, and much more. Obviously it means something to me. It’s still rough, but it leaps out of the gate with a strong thesis and stays on topic. I’m surprised at how sound it is structurally, which is usually not my strong suit. Maybe I am learning something. Imagine that!

Finally, there are several essays I thought I might look at but I didn’t touch, and I know why. Because I’ve moved past them. They were my good friends, and they aren’t terrible. They just aren’t wonderful, and they never will be. There are no guarantees in writing, but given how rare and precious this writing break has been — I expect it will be at least another year before I have a siege like this again, and I’m going to be BIZZZZZY in my new job — I am reminded that I only have writing time for essays I deep-down-trulio believe I have a chance of pulling forward into “wonderful.” My little starter essays, thank you for what I learned from you, and please don’t take it personally.

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