I started reading Jeanne Murray Walker’s book of sonnets, Pilgrim, You Find the Path By Walking, on an early summer morning, a couple of hours before my daughters’ swim meet.
The sun rises before 6 am in the summer, and it wasn’t dreadfully hot yet, so that morning I sat outside with my coffee and my book, sipping and reading slowly while the world was still and quiet.
I decided I would read one poem a day, and journal about it using methods Megan Willome and Tania Runyan write about in their books, The Joy of Poetry and How To Read A Poem. Reading a poem a day was a relatively new ritual for me. I’d completed reading my first book of poems this way that spring, using Melissa Reeser Poulin’s book, Rupture, Light, and found that the practice was a way for me to retreat daily, something I understand is vital for my well-being, creativity, and productivity.
This is not to suggest I am always in need of quiet. That morning, as on all swim meet mornings, I was excited and looking forward to watching my girls compete. It is always a raucous and inspiring time, and I’m grateful to be a part of it. In a similar way, when I am teaching, I love leading discussions, exploring stories and finding meaning in literature with my students. If I’m giving a reading, I love answering questions from the audience, or reading excerpts from my work.
I give everything I am to those moments, and I’m happy to do it. I suppose, in my moments of retreat, I find everything I am. My moments of retreat allow me to share myself with the world, and since that is something I strive to do daily, I find ways to retreat daily, too. Reading poetry is one of those retreats.
And like all the seasonal pairings I’ve written about for Nicole Gulotta’s Wild Words, the season of retreating blends together with the season of finishing. In fact, I don’t think I can get to one without the other.
I remember distinctly the afternoon I wrote the last sentence of my first book. It was a Sunday, and normally, I try to keep that day free of work. Writing however, has never felt like work. It’s always felt like something necessary—like retreating—in order for me to thrive.
So I filled a bag with my notebook, my pen and pencil case, my copy of Romeo and Juliet, and I set out to look for a coffee shop, with Shakespeare’s last act of this teenage romance and what I would write about it on my mind.
I’d never written at this coffee shop before, and haven’t since, as it’s always been crowded. But that day, there was a table open, so I set up camp, hoping this was a good sign. I was feeling trepidation about coming up with something to say about the loss of two young lives that felt and understood and yearned for so much. I was also having fun with writing this book, and I think I probably didn’t want to let it go.
In her introduction to “The Season of Finishing,” Nicole writes, “I’d say this is where it all ends, but it might also be the start of something new.” I could not articulate this at the time, but what Nicole writes here is something I felt. I felt a new beginning forming, but I also knew I’d need to let this story go in order to allow it to, well, begin.
I was conflicted, and so that’s how I began writing. At a little table in the corner, hovered over my notebook, I wrote how hard it is for me to write conflict. However, it is that tension between good and bad, joy and sorrow, peace and angst, that the story grows and becomes whatever it’s supposed to become. It’s the responsibility of the writer to cultivate that, and it’s the responsibility of the reader to allow oneself to feel this tension throughout the story.
What’s more, stories (to piggyback Nicole and Mary Oliver’s phrase wild words) are wild. Stories are maps showing you both where you’ve been and where you could go. But they cannot be tamed. They cannot fit into neat little boxes.
This comparison to maps and stories happened to be what made up my last sentence of my first book. Writing it, I knew I was finished, and I was startled to understand this. Of course I knew there would be revisions, possibly total re-works of chapters or even cuts, but I knew this last sentence is how the book would end.
I was startled, yes, but it felt good to be in a moment of retreat when it happened. I closed my notebook, and my copy of Romeo and Juliet. I put the cap on my pen, and put it all in my bag. I brought my empty mug to the tub of dirty dishes, left the coffee shop, and then went across the street to the bakery for a celebratory blueberry muffin (my favorite).
I walked around the block, slowly, thankful for all of the seasons a writer goes through working together to help me finish.
And then help me begin again.
1. How do you find ways to retreat? Do you have a season for retreating, or do you find weekly and/or daily ways to retreat?
2. Do you ever take a social-media cleanse or retreat? What does that do for you or for your writing?
3. Have you ever finished a writing project in a strange place? Did it surprise you or startle you to find it the ending?
4. When you embark on a writing project, do you map it out before beginning?
5. What sorts of things do you do to celebrate and/or honor finishing a project?
Editor’s note: Join us this month as Callie Feyen leads a book club discussion of Nicole Gulotta’s Wild Words: Rituals, Routines and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path. We’re reading on the following schedule:
A Writer’s Dream Book
This book gives language to the fierce concerns of an ordinary woman. It tracks small but defining moments, attesting to the joys of design and the pleasure of color we feel as we choose and joke and work and play in jeans, sandals, a coat, T-shirts. Start reading and you will be hooked.
—Jeanne Murray Walker, author of The Geography of Memory