Retreating to write
ALL WRITERS WORK IN DIFFERENT WAYS. Some need absolute quiet, while others white noise is a must. Others borrow holiday cabins, country cottages, city flats, isolated bungalows, and even castles, so they can write. Most people don’t have the luxury of friends with extra, empty properties or time to get away. So writing is often done before or after one’s day job, after the end of the bustling day, after the children have gone to sleep, or just before the world awakes, before the children wake up to go to school.
When—often miraculously—you find yourself with time and a place to go to for a retreat, it’s an irresistible opportunity. I had been wrestling with the idea of a retreat for years, always making excuses for myself, thinking that it was an undeserved luxury and why couldn’t I just save some time and money instead and just write a little every day, in between work, in between meeting family and friends? Children do not occupy my time and I have no charge, young or old, in my care. An artist friend, who had been suggesting the idea of a retreat since a year ago, mentioned it again when I finally said to her: I think I’m ready.
What I had in mind was quite different from reality. Like the danger of writers who write because they are in love with the idea of writing, I was already deep in my fantasies, imagining an idyllic holiday more than an actual writing boot camp, which a retreat has a tendency to become and for some, what it actually is. I’m not saying there’s an instructor there with a whip shouting out orders. If there were one, it would be myself. And that’s the difficult part—I’m a terrible instructor. Discipline is also not in my nature; it has to be forced, cajoled, coaxed out. So as I was imagining quaint little budget hotels, clean with modern amenities, she suggested a spartan apartment in Bukit Tinggi, a mere forty minutes out of Kuala Lumpur, yet secluded and quiet enough to work.
If I had earlier imagined two artists (a painter and a writer) inspired by nature or stillness, hard at work for most of the day and exchanging (artistic) ideas at mealtimes, my fantasy was once again dispelled when my friend said she would probably meditate instead.
When she is deep in meditation, I do not speak to her and try not to make any noise. Even mealtimes are quiet, and she says to speak only in emergencies. We do not make small talk and I, not knowing the decorum and still struggling awkwardly with the foreignness of the act, try not to even make eye contact. Although it wouldn’t make a difference, as my friend says we will be invisible to each other, or at least try to be.
The first two days feel like a holiday. We settle in, and spartan though the apartment might be in most areas (there is no TV in the living room, there is no couch, only a dining table, there are no beds, only mattresses), the kitchen is well stocked, with a microwave and a fridge. I make endless cups of tea—the water up in the hills seems to taste different somehow—and enjoy the freshness of the icy cold water when I wash my face umpteenth times a day and put the heater on for the shower when it gets chilly, a luxury I had not expected. My friend is familiar with Bukit Tinggi so she brings me to her familiar eateries, mostly kopitiams with simple food and sundry shops to buy basic groceries—eggs, kaya (coconut jam), bread, even canned food.
We walk, we talk, we settle down. She dives immediately into her work. She has a paper to prepare, so when she’s not meditating for hours at a stretch, she sits at her desk to complete it. I too sit at the dining table with my laptop before me, thinking that in this quiet, chilly place, with fresh air and fresh water and almost zero distractions from family and friends, that the words will come rushing in, engulfing my head and hopefully my pages.
I was wrong. Like any other time, the discipline required comes from within. My mind has to settle itself, instead of waiting for external forces to settle it. There’s the whole day to work on my writing, instead of the schedule I’m used to, juggling other editing jobs and dissertation writing. I had looked forward to the conceived paradise of having absolutely nothing else to do but to write what I want to write.
As I pace about restlessly, making cups of tea that now remain undrunk and washing invisible dust off my face, I tell my friend I’m not as productive as I thought I would be. She does not understand: “Why not just be disciplined, sit down and do the work?” She’s right, of course, but the wild, flighty animal in my mind scratches itself, scratches me and begs to go home. It begs for television, for my usual routine, for an escape hatch when the writing is blocked.
I email friends and family, letting myself lament a little, but just a little, because it feels like a sin to complain about paradise. If on the first day I had banned even SMSes from family because I would be “busy working,” I now craved for them to distract me from my hostility against myself and my surroundings. I felt cheated even though nothing was ever promised to me, except the many assumptions my mind had made.
Once the mind accepts its fate glumly, there is nothing left to do but to make the best of it. It is not a holiday. You can take naps—or walk, eat or rest—if you want to. But when you’re not doing what the body and mind needs to be productive, be productive. Write, even when you don’t feel like it. For the first two days, without venturing very far to start a story from scratch or do some major rewriting, I do minor editing and frantically Google and read articles about publishing and writing and short stories by other writers, feeding on them like a cocaine addict. When I’m utterly stumped and frustrated, I go to my room, pick up my copy of East of Eden and try to let Steinbeck’s dense descriptions seep into my mind. I can only manage a few small chapters at a time, so I come out again to the living room to try to “write.”
The routine becomes like this: when I’m not writing, whatever else I do should be facilitating the writing process, whether directly or indirectly. If I’m not reading, I can take walks to clear the mind. I hear swimming is a great way to do this, but unfortunately I do not swim. Checking emails is fine, but obsessively doing it and praying someone will write is not.
I observe my friend, who, when meditating, is completely absorbed in it, the way it should be. Everything else, for this moment, for this retreat, is unimportant, except for the process on which she is focused. Her determination is effective medicine for me, and after a night of contemplating what must be done, without complaints, without self-pity and without second-guessing or self-doubt, I sit in front of my laptop—wherever it may be—and just write, as if it is the only thing left in the world to do.
Reproduced from the October-December 2011 issue of Quill magazine