Recently, I was invited to be one of two special guests at a writer’s retreat that was organized through the LDStorymakers Tribe. I was flattered to be asked, but I was also a little unsure of what exactly this would entail. Because all my years of writing, I’d never actually attended a writing retreat before. I have friends who attend writing retreats regularly, and talk about the rejuvenation they experience as though they had just returned from a weekend at a spa resort.
I was a little more skeptical. My inner introvert wasn’t relishing the thought of other people seeing my in my pajamas with a fresh case of bedhead. What if my roommate snored? What if I snored? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write, and ended up staring at a blank Word document for three days? Not to mention that the idea of sharing a house in the mountains with a group of strangers felt a little like the beginning of every slasher movie I’d ever seen. Was I being cast as an extra in Writer’s Massacre IV: The Revenge of the Red Pen?
I asked my sister Lisa—who was to be the other invited special guest that weekend—to help fill me in on the details.
“So, everybody just sits around and writes?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” she said.
“Are you allowed to talk?”
“If you whisper. Most people put their headphones on, find a comfortable corner, and tune everyone else out.”
“But everyone is essentially writing in silence.”
“For the whole weekend?”
“And that’s it?” I said. “Nothing else happens?”
“No, they will probably have writing sprints from time to time,” she said.
“And writing sprints are what, exactly?”
“Everybody still writes, just faster.”
This was going to be an interesting weekend.
Shortly after arriving, I dropped my stuff off in my room and took my bag with my writing gear in search of a place to hunker down. I found Lisa sitting in the home theater room, feet already up in a leather recliner, laptop already open. I sat in the chair next to her.
“Just to clarify—this is it?” I said. “Everyone just writes now?”
“Yep, this is it until dinner. Start writing.”
I looked around the room. Other people were plugged in to their headphones, and the air was filled with the clicking of fingers against keys. Most everyone was either working on a NaNoWriMo goal, or some other lofty work in progress they had in mind. Their eyes were fixed on their screens, and their brows were furrowed with determination.
Then there was me. I wasn’t hip-deep in a novel, and I wasn’t trying to hit a word count. I had zero preconceived notions about what was going to happen. I opened up my laptop and stared at the blank document. What now? Someone was going to look over at my screen and see nothing but white, and then they’d know I was a fraud and a hack. They’d laugh and point and run me out of the house in shame, I just knew it. I began to panic a little.
I nudged Lisa. She took her headphones out of her ears.
“So, one more time. . . ” I began.
“Yes,” she interrupted, “everyone just writes. So write something.” She put her headphones back in and her fingers resumed their steady staccato.
I stared at the blank screen for a bit, then took a deep breath, and wrote the first thing that came to my mind. It was the title of a song Lisa and I had been listening to in the car earlier: Blood Red Skies.
It looked good there on the first line. I center justified it, and at looked even better. I had the title to a story. And then I started typing. I imagined a creature on Mars a billion years ago, the last of his kind, spending his final moments in a dying world. I imagined what his thoughts and feelings must be like, and what it would be like for him to gaze up at the blood red skies of his home one last time.
Before I knew it, I had a perfectly decent little story right there before my eyes. It hadn’t existed an hour before, and yet here it was. It wasn’t great, and it wouldn’t be winning any awards, but doggone it—it was my story, and it was alive.
I was feeling good, and I wanted more. I opened up an old file I keep that is filled with random thoughts and brainstorms, and scrolled down until two words caught my eye: Last meals. Maybe it was because it was getting close to dinner, but I found my thoughts turning to food. I imagined the chef of a fancy, Michelin starred restaurant who volunteers her time to make last meals for prisoners on death row. I could see her face, I could smell the kitchen where she worked, and I wondered why she would do this on the side. So I started writing her story. I imagined what condemned prisoners would ask for their last meal, and what that might say about them. I explored the chef’s motivations, and found an interesting backstory on her that explained why she did what she did.
Just as before, this story wasn’t going to be sounding any alarms at the Pulitzer committee’s secret world headquarters, but I was liking where it was going, and it felt so good to just write, unencumbered by any kind of distraction.
The rest of the weekend was spent in a similar manner: I felt the ideas flowing in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time, and I just wrote story after story. Old ideas got dusted off and reexamined, and brand new ideas tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they could play. Whenever I finished one story—or, more often, whenever I felt myself getting stuck on an something—I kept hearing Lisa’s words echoing in my mind: “Everybody writes. So write something.” And instead of getting frustrated, I’d switch gears and write something else.
It was amazing to me how the simple act of writing proved to be the end-all, be-all solution for any problem I faced. Stuck on a plot point? Keep writing, and see if you can bust through it. Written myself into a corner? Keep writing, and see if you can turn it around. This idea just isn’t gelling like I’d hoped? Keep writing, and write something else that does. It’s like what the Marines are taught, when faced with an obstacle: Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.
By the end of the retreat, I didn’t have anywhere near close to the highest word count, but it didn’t matter. I had recharged my creative batteries, had written some good words, and I was moving forward. In fact, I think it’s ironic that the weekend was called a “retreat,” because I ultimately learned it’s the forward movement as much as anything else that is the key to success. So long as my fingers were keeping a reasonable pace with my mind and heart, I was headed in the right direction. And it feels good to move in the right direction.
So if you feel like you’re stuck, or if you feel like giving up and retreating, I offer you the same words from my sister that helped me through that weekend:
Everybody writes. So write something.
And move forward.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.