The Retreat   1 comment

I arrived a few minutes early, there was already one woman there plus the facilitator.  It was an ideal setting: a small house on the tip of a remote peninsula in Down East Maine, just past the the town of Starboard. (Population maybe 5).  We arrived at low water and the kelp beds reached far from the edge of the tiny rock.  It was an ideal day, too, with the rain holding off until we were all there, then coming down relentlessly.

It was a great relief to see that one other man was in the group.  That meant I wouldn’t be spending the entire day cooped up with a bunch of literary women.

By nine we were all in, and the facilitator (whom I shall refer to as ‘Laura’, for no particular reason except that I have never created a character by that name) began by telling us that, just for today, we would be doing nothing but writing and that all of our other life-activities were to wait at the other end of the causeway.  Then she led us into a writing exercise:  Write for fifteen minutes and use each of the five words or phrases she supplied.

I was reluctant to share my thoughts with this group, as I knew none of them, and I’m sure they felt the same way about me.  But, I asked myself, what the hell was I doing here unless it was to let my emotional guard down.  It was very much like the art-school environment I had experienced in San Francisco when I was studying Fine Art Photography.  If you keep up that reserve, and never let your knickers down, you gain nothing.  So I plunged in headalong.

The short piece I came up with from the opening exercise was (in my ever-humble opinion) actually pretty good, even though I had to write it out longhand.  Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad wrote in longhand too, and look what they did.  I did revert to my own genre, but that is not indictable.

Come noontime Laura had us all off working on our own writing; the only sound was the rain pounding on the roof.  I was surprised to see that the kelp beds outside the windows had been replaced by open water that reached almost to the lawn.  Since the place was ‘off the grid’, and had no electricity (except for a generator that our host was loathe to start), my laptop became an issue.  I watched with dismay as the little battery indicator plummeted.  Even though I felt that I could continue, my computer was indicating otherwise.  Later, others mentioned the same problem.

At two we had all finished our lunches and Laura was ready to move to the next phase.  In the pre-retreat instructions, we were offered the opportunity to bring our own work in for critique.  I had printed off a rather tense scene from Neap Tide, which at the time was a work-in-progress and the initial draft was yet incomplete.  I wanted to gauge the emotional effect of that 3-page passage, and didn’t believe it had any structural faults.  Apparently, it worked.

The other man told us he felt he had a hard time writing from the POV of a woman.  During one of our breaks, I spoke with him and provided a few pointers, based on my own paltry experience.  I told him that since I’d known women all my life, including my wife and lover of nearly forty years (and counting), that I had a good foundation to put myself into a female character’s skin.  By the same token, I added, I would feel reluctant to go very far into the personality of a character who was black or gay, lacking any foundation into what members of those groups would have experienced.  Later I realized that what that really means is this: I am precluded from putting any of their dialogue into subtext.

By five thirty we were ready to go, albeit reluctantly.  No longer a room of strangers, we now understood the hopes, aspirations, and fears of each of the others.  Offers of suggestions were met with rapt attention and none of the reserve and push-back that had been seen at nine.  As we walked back down the causeway towards our cars, a cluster of friends, the kelp beds again surrounded the house.

October 1, 2011


So here’s what I did for the exercise.  Remember, this was done in fifteen minutes, longhand, and required the use of five words or phrases Laura provided.  There was no time for any editing or re-writing, and I’ve put it down just as it came from my pen.  See if you can figure out what the five were…


When Susie awoke, she knew it had not been a good night.  Fortunately, Brad had left before midnight, the cigarillo dangling from his mouth, hooked between his yellow teeth.

“That’ll learn you,” he sneered, slamming the door behind him as he vanished into the gloom.

She stood by the window, trembling as the egg-yolk-yellow sun rose above the harbor fog.  All that was left in the kitchen was one stupid bottle of Tang and a loaf of bread.  The bread wasn’t so bad, really, if one shook out all of the crawlies first.  But there was nothing more.

Her head felt like a pincushion and her back had that bicycle-chain-jumped-its-sprocket feeling, like it no longer connected her shoulders to her hips.  Her bruised eye throbbed.

“What did I see in that creep?”  She’d been asking that question for a long time, but last night was when it all burst out into the open.

She picked up the phone and listened for the dial tone.  At least she still had that much.  George would laugh when she came crawling back like one of those creatures in the bread.  But if he did, that would be a Very Good Thing.

Posted October 2, 2011 by JD Rule

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