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It was a dark winter’s night when I drove onto the ferry from Point Defiance to Tahlequah. I was off to nearby Vashon Island for a day-and-a-half solo writing retreat to start my novel. On the short trip from Tacoma to Vashon, I tried not to think too much about the enormous task I was about to undertake and instead focus on the surreal sight of the ferry dock disappearing into the mist.
It may only be a fifteen-minute ferry ride away, but Vashon feels far away and remote. In contrast to the cities surrounding it, it is home to only a few thousand people, spread out over a densely wooded area about the size of Manhattan. After I told her about my goal of finally finishing a novel over the next three years, my amazing spouse bought me two nights at an Airbnb for my birthday. So, I packed up my laptop, a few books on writing, and a bag of snacks and hoped inspiration would follow.
I have often found that I need to leave behind familiar spaces to start something new. Working at home, it’s easy to get distracted by thoughts of laundry that needs washing or what to make for dinner or a thousand other domestic considerations. Even though I was only a few miles away from my house, the process of packing up, of traveling, of arriving on an isolated island, sparked my subconscious to get to work.
I woke at daybreak (not a spectacular feat at these northern latitudes), made a cup of tea and setup my laptop. My retreat was a small Frank Lloyd Wright-style cabin with wood-paneled walls and a clean, modern aesthetic. A desk was built into a wall of windows overlooking Puget Sound to the north. Nearby, I discovered a turntable and a collection of LPs. I put on a Crosby, Stills and Nash album, gently lowered the needle onto the record to set it spinning and opened a new Word document.
I’m not sure if it was the view, the curl of steam coming off my tea, the crackle of vinyl or the fact that my brain had been secretly preparing for this trip for three weeks, but for some reason, the words started flowing. I wrote twenty pages that day — my entire first chapter — which is far more productive than I’ve been in months. To be fair, I didn’t dream up the premise then and there. This is my fourth attempt (or is it the sixth?) at a novel idea I’ve been playing with for years. But this time, my fingers moved at the speed of my ideas and the ideas themselves were significantly better. I left on the twelve o’clock ferry the next day with a good start on my manuscript, a few pages of character notes, and a severely depleted snack bag.
Retreats are amazing like that. They give you uninterrupted time to focus and the time leading up to your departure gets the gears turning in advance so that you can be creative right out of the gate. But the retreat is not what’s important. What’s important is what happens after the retreat. One day of productivity and inspired writing does not a novel make. You have to sustain it the next day, the next week, and for months on end. The retreat is the beginning, but once you arrive back home and realize that the laundry still needs to be done, the challenge is keeping the momentum and not succumbing to the inertia of the everyday.
I’ve never managed to keep up that momentum after a solo retreat. It has always evaporated. But this year will be different. Because this year, I have a deadline. My retreat was only one day, but I have 328 more days until I need to have a completed first draft. The retreat is over, but the work is just starting.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA working on his first novel. You can get first dibs on excerpts from his novel-in-progress by subscribing to his monthly email newsletter. You can also follow him on Twitter. Thanks for reading!