On Having Solitude to Write

By Brenda Buchanan

Backshore, Peaks Island, on a late September morning.

I was blessed to have the opportunity in late September for a writing retreat on Peaks Island, where I lived year-round for a dozen years a decade ago, and where, incidentally, my first protagonist Joe Gale came into being.

Every writer needs a good dictionary.

I was in need of a deep dive into Big Fish, my book-in-progress, a head-first immersion to tighten, clarify, sort out, button down, amplify, sharpen and better describe a hundred (maybe a thousand) details. And revise a scene or two. Or maybe eight.

The ferry landing.

Thanks to the good people of the Illustration Institute (for more about this amazing organization founded by my friends Scott Nash and Nancy Gibson Nash, go here: http://www.illustrationinstitute.org/) I was able to stay for an entire week at a marvelous, century-old cottage in the heart of a forest glen tucked above the backshore.

Chock full of art and books, the cottage was an inspiring space that offered several possible writing nooks. I chose a spacious table in front of two huge swing-up windows that overlooked the peaceful (except when a rafter of wild turkeys sashayed past) woods.

My writing space for the week.

Once settled, I wrote. All day, every day. After an early morning walk along the shore or through the woods, a quick shower and a cup coffee, my hands were on the keyboard by 7:30 a.m.

Dawn on Peaks – beauty everywhere you look.

When my stomach growled at midday I wandered downstairs for a sandwich and a cup of tea. Then it was back to the writing desk to take apart each chapter of Big Fish, then each scene, each paragraph, and finally, each sentence.  I worked until well after nightfall, stopping only when the dark fully enveloped the house and the night insects hummed outside the screens of its only illuminated windows.

When I had no more words to write or reconsider, I sat on the screen porch and recharged my brain listening to my beloved Red Sox on the radio. Later, my characters showed up in my dreams, blurring the line between sleep and wakefulness when the day’s first light filtered through the surrounding trees each morning.

The morning sun illuminating the woods.

I was following in the steps of some of my MCW colleagues who’ve found opportunities to get away for periods of intensive writing. Kate Flora spent two weeks at a prestigious writing center a couple of springs ago. Barbara Ross, Jessie Crockett and several of their Wicked Cozy Writers blog mates hold a group retreat each spring. Most recently (maybe even the same week I was on Peaks) Maureen Milliken was holed up at a friend’s lakeside cabin.

I’m sure they agree it’s a gift beyond measure to have the time, the space, and the solitude to immerse oneself in the imaginary but very real world that is your book, and to stay there for hours on end. Stepping away from routine allows a level of focus that’s increasingly elusive in our busy lives.

In another measure of grace, the Illustration Institute and the Friends of the Peaks Island Library organized a reading for me one evening at the beautiful Fifth Maine Regiment and Museum.

Stained glass windows commemorate the Fifth Maine Regiment, which fought in the Civil War.

Friends old and new at the reading.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to introduce Neva Pierce, my protagonist in Big Fish, to talk about writing and creativity and about how the island is the kind of place one can slip into the magical zone and stay there all day and into the night.

My time on Peaks was extraordinary, and I thank all who made it possible.

Writers and other creative types who read this blog: Does it help you to get away when you need to do a significant piece of work?  For the non-writers, do you seek out a retreat for other reasons? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Brenda Buchanan’s Joe Gale mysteries feature an old-school reporter with modern media savvy who covers the Maine crime beat. The first three Joe Gale books—Quick Pivot, Cover Story and Truth Beat—are available in digital format wherever ebooks are sold. She’s now working on a new series featuring a Portland lawyer named Neva Pierce.

Brenda can be found on the web at www.brendabuchananwrites.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BrendaBuchananAuthor and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda

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14 Responses to On Having Solitude to Write

  1. Michele Dorsey says:

    Brenda, thank you for this thoughtful post. I am consoled during a rough writing patch to be reminded how a retreat can revive the writer’s soul. The generosity of those who provide these sanctuaries is often missed.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Given the enormous stress you’ve faced this hurricane season, Michele, you need a retreat for all kinds of reasons. Those who offer us use of their special places are angels indeed.

  2. bethc2015 says:

    Your first paragraph gives a clear picture of the numerous details a writer has to consider. I like the way your photos and writing convey how a retreat like this can nourish both the soul and creativity. Lovely photos.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Beth. Having the solitude allowed me to go deeper into the book than I can go in an afternoon or even a full day in my own study at home. It was nourishing indeed.

  3. Barbara Ross says:

    My goodness, this sounds so wonderful. You’re making me long for a time like this. Your productivity is inspiring.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Barb. Do you get a lot of work done on your WCR group retreat? Do you talk about writing when you are done for the day?

      • Barbara Ross says:

        Lots of talking, about the writing, the business. This year Jessie and Liz demonstrated a plotting technique they’re using and we did vision boards and then 5 year goals. The activities have changed from year to year. Sometimes writing, sometimes marketing, sometimes writing career. It depends on what we feel we need that year.

  4. Great post. In a perfect world, I’d live on a hill overlooking the ocean in Washington County AND I’d have the ability to shut down those parts of my brain that seem determined to natter and wander. That’s unlikely to happen, so I make do. Glad you had that amazing opportunity.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      The nattering parts of my brain did not come with me to Peaks. I refused to buy them a ferry ticket so they stayed on the mainland . . .

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful! And lucky you! I’ve been blessed by two (separate) weeks of silence and retreating …. I have a writer friend (not a mystery writer) who takes frequent weeks away from home and appearances to write. I am jealous. So much can be accomplished under those circumstances. I wrote my first book while working 10-12 hour days, raking care of my mother and 3 daughters and a granddaughter. Somehow I made it work. But, today … I long for peace and solitude. Thanks for posting, Brenda!m

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Typically, given the demands of my day job, I write in two-hour blocks each evening and then longer periods on weekends. The immersive experience is preferable for sure.

  6. amreade says:

    Brenda, your writing retreat sounds heavenly and I’m so happy for you that you were able to get away from your day-to-day life to experience it! Big Fish sounds intriguing…

  7. What a lovely setting to create your work!

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