A Silent Writing Retreat

It’s Spring Break—finally!  Later this afternoon, I’m heading up to Signal Mountain to do a silent writing intensive.  It’s only for three days, but I’m hoping to get a lot of writing done.  While I’ve done three-day writing intensives, I’ve never done one in silence. 

The thought is frankly terrifying.  The only experience I’ve had with an extended period of silence did not go well.  I found myself in this situation unexpectedly, and it was like dropping off the face of the earth.  There were tears…

In the summer of 2010, I traveled to Taos, NM, for a three-month writing residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation.  I had idyllic fantasies of what my time in Taos would be—tranquil, wildly productive, mind-blowingly inspirational. 

I left Chattanooga the day after final exams.  I posted my grades and packed for the summer. 

After around 16 hours of flying, a delayed flight in Chicago, and a shuttle to Taos, I arrived at my casita on a Thursday after 5 PM, which meant I missed meeting the director of the foundation until the following Tuesday.

I couldn’t find the main house or the other writer’s casitas. Nothing was marked. 

The casita was perfect for a summer of writing -- a bit austere and monk-like with white, bare walls and arched doorways.

But the shock of landing in Taos with no internet, no TV, no car, a broken boom box, a cell phone that didn’t get service at all, no land line (this was before I had a smart phone), and no people I knew, became quickly real. 

It was completely disorienting.  I stared the white walls.  I paced back and forth.  I went on walks.  I talked to myself.  I had the shakes, man—bad.  Think junky coming off of cocaine, except it was technology I needed.  I wanted to talk on the phone, connect with someone from home. 

Finally, on Sunday, after wandering around Taos trying to find wi-fi for several days and failing, I found an ad for a coffee shop with wi-fi.  I walked a couple of miles there, only to find that the wi-fi was not working that day.  Walking back along Paseo del Pueblo Sur, I have the vivid memory of crying.  Not a subtle cry.  Full on blubbering. 

Eventually, after I got a cell phone that worked in Taos, I enjoyed my time there.  It was mostly silent.  I began to notice other sounds.  These great Chinese Elm trees have hundreds and thousands of papery seeds that get blown into the air and along the streets.  I began to hear them scuttling along in the crevasse between the road and the sidewalk.  They became music, a rhythm I listened to while I walked.  

Recently, I read about silent writing retreats that Erik Ehn conducts.  He takes writers on these retreats for 10-days, at the end of which they have a complete play.  He somehow structures the retreats around the St. Ignatius spiritual exercises.  I would love to learn more about this.  I’ve heard that they begin their retreat by praying for a play, which seems a good place to start.

I found an article in American Theatre about Erik Ehn's silent retreats called “Erik Ehn’s Code of Silence” by Helen Shaw.  In it, he says, “Silence isn’t magic—just the mere act of shutting up is not going to get you anything.  Rather, it’s a way of working, and it helps you do your work.”

So, we’ll see.  I’m thinking of it as an experiment in my process.  But I’m also going with a sense of expectation.  I’m having new thoughts about two plays that I’ve been writing on and off for the past few years.  I feel like I’m on the verge of a big discovery or breakthrough in them.  

That said, off I go.  I’ll be blogging more about silence and my experience after the fact.