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Reentry from My Time Away and What It Taught Me
Creative discoveries from my time in the woods + some exciting announcements.
I’m back from the incredible writing retreat I went to deep in the woods of Oregon. My much-needed out-of-office time away finally cracked open some exciting new creative projects, thanks to a very special place called Soapstone.
Last year, while on tour in Portland for my book Listening in the Dark: Women Reclaiming the Power of Intuition, my friend and contributing author Nicole Apelian gave me an unexpected gift. She told me about the property she owned on the Oregon coast that used to be a beloved women’s writing retreat center named Soapstone where icons of the literary world such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Toni Morrison once wrote. Cheryl Strayed even wrote parts of her memoir Wild there. Nicole asked if I wanted to make the ninety-minute drive to visit Soapstone on my day off. Yes was the only answer.
Soapstone, now a private residence available to rent, sits on over twenty-two acres of protected land with a creek that runs alongside the house where you can watch salmon and other wild fish spawn. Surrounded by gigantic spruce trees and the ghosts of 400-year-old cedars cut down many moons ago, Soapstone is a magical place that holds a special kind of energy conducive to creativity and letting the mind wander. Built in the 1970s by Will Martin, the home was created to feel as though it were just another tree growing out of the earth, as one with nature as any man-made thing could possibly be. There was no internet, no electricity, and no heating or central air. The “front door” was a door in the ground floor of the house that you had to access from underneath, much like climbing up into the bottom of a treehouse.
In 1991, six years after the architect died in a tragic plane crash, a group of women purchased the home from Martin’s estate and turned it into a writing center, updating it with electricity and internet and a whole lot more, including planting edible native plants throughout the property. The women conspired there, wrote there, and rested there. Years later, the writing program would come to an end and Soapstone would go up for sale. Nicole would become its new owner. I can’t think of a better person to own such a property than a survivalist and scientist with a PhD in biology who stole all our hearts on the hit docuseries, Alone. (Nicole survived off the grid for fifty-seven days on Vancouver Island, living in a shelter she built by hand alongside a salmon run which she shared with a whole family of black bears. You know, as one does, I guess?)
The first time I visited the house with Nicole, it took my breath away. A blue heron flew downriver. Moss-covered spruces the size of skyscrapers draped their shade over the trails Nicole led me down, pointing out edible berries and plants along the way. That night, we drank whiskey by a massive outdoor firepit and ended the evening on the rooftop deck of Soapstone’s second floor, under a glimmering sky of a million stars. “I’m coming back here to write,” I said to Nicole, slurring my words but meaning them. “Yeah, you are,” she said, knowing it.
More than a year went by before I found a window of time where I could step away from my responsibilities for a solid ten days. When the window finally appeared, I made plans for my trip to Soapstone to begin fleshing out some big ideas for new books and a screenplay. It’s been almost ten years since the film I co-wrote and directed, Paint It Black, came out. Since then, so much has happened in my life, making me even more ready to get back on the page and back behind the camera as a director.
If I wanted these ten days to be what I had hoped—a real writing intensive—I knew I needed two things besides Soapstone itself: camaraderie and accountability. So I invited two friends to join me, both of whom happen to be stunning writers working on some big new projects themselves: author Nafissa Thompson-Spires whose book, Heads of the Colored People, rocked me when I read it; and the playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury who won a Pulitzer Prize for her fantastic play, Fairview. With them, I had a vision to revive our own mini Soapstone Writing Retreat, an ode to the women who came before us and to Will Martin’s vision of what a thoughtfully conceived space out in the natural world can provide for a person.
Once the three of us settled in, chose our bedrooms, and put our groceries away, it was time to get to work. But work at Soapstone was not going to reveal itself like work usually does in an office, a coffee shop, or any other more typical environment. Work here looked and felt different. There was an unexpected period of adjustment to the all-consuming silence of the woods and the absence of regular stimuli, like a big city’s low hum of electricity running through everything all the time. For me, there were withdrawals from regular life and the stresses of being a mom, a wife, and human person in general. In fact, I didn’t even touch my writing journal until the fourth day I was there.
At first, this was concerning—You only have ten days! Don’t waste them!—but then I returned to advice gifted to me by a mentor of mine, the late great poet, Wanda Coleman. Wanda used to always say there’s no such thing as writer’s block. That when you aren’t writing, the muse is resting, and you need to let her do it in order to create. This is the time to absorb, take in, allow the mind to wander. Or, as David Lynch so aptly says, it’s the time to let your mind go fishing for ideas and see what you catch. When I feel this happening, I don’t denigrate the process as a derogative by calling it “writer’s block.” Instead, I call it “writer’s gestation.” Because if I’m really paying attention, it’s not a block that I’m feeling—it’s a marinating, a time of percolation, of absorption.
Creating any kind of art out of thin air—a book, a painting, a script, a great letter—is a practice in patience, of opening yourself up fully to your idea and giving yourself grace when you try to derail it, over and over again, which all artists inevitably do. When I’m going through this period of writer’s gestation, I imagine I’m a bullfighter holding a red cape as a rage-filled bull charges forward. Most of the time, I am also the bull—not wanting to submit to the work it will take to make an idea come to fruition. I dig my hooves into the ground, threatening my idea with long, sharp horns ready to bludgeon. But the bullfighter already knows this is part of the process, and that part of me carefully and patiently dances with the beast, riding out the waves of its emotions until it tires.
So I waved my red cape and let the bull thrust and rage. I let myself have those first necessary days at Soapstone to unpack—not just my suitcase, but my head—to go for long walks, smell the fresh air, think about my ideas or think about nothing, and sit on the porch and listen to the sounds of the stream. I answered every email I could, paid every bill that wasn’t even due yet, and even started up other projects that would be much easier to complete. Slowly but surely, the big ideas I had been thinking about—the one for the novel, the one for the memoir, the one for the screenplay—began to crack open. Slowly, storylines began to break, characters began to introduce themselves, new worlds began to build.
I spent my extra time having a joyous, laughter-fueled two weeks with Nafissa and Jackie in which we formed a band called The Valium Girls (inside joke, we are not Valium-takers) with a debut album called Slug Life. (Banana slugs the size of a hand roam the property at Soapstone, much to Nafissa’s chagrin.) We made friends in the town about twenty-five minutes away where we went each night to drink wine, eat delicious food, and talk about the day: what breakthroughs we had, what breakthroughs we didn’t. We brainstormed about each other’s projects, shared stories both painful and hilarious, took tipsy deep dives into the subtext of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony lyrics. We danced around the wooded living room to ’90s R&B with moisturizing face masks on. We even foraged in the woods with Nicole, who dropped in to spend an afternoon with us.
On our last day at Soapstone, I finally made my way up to the room where so many brilliant women writers had written before me. It’s a small, cube-shaped room with two desks and large, round windows. On a shelf, a collection of well-worn books left by authors over the years, including dictionaries and thesauruses. I sat at the desk and opened my notebook to begin work on a poem I had been commissioned to write. I had enthusiastically said yes to the offer but secretly, I was scared. I hadn’t written a poem since Jack Hirschman died, and all writing of poetry since felt tied to him; as if with his death, so too went my poetic voice.
But in that cube-shaped room, perched high up on the top of Soapstone like its very own bird’s nest, something took over. I felt the energy of all the brilliant women writers who had shared this space before me. Their many pens pouring out ink or computer keyboards clicking away, or even just their silence—their writer’s gestation—as they stared out the round windows at the tops of spruces, letting their minds go fishing for a good catch or thinking of someone they loved who they too had lost.
I felt it all in the room there with me, and for the first time in a long time, I sat down, I picked up my pen, and I began.
Now that I’ve written a novella about my love affair with the great coastal region of Oregon, we’ve got some exciting announcements of what’s to come in the next few months:
New! Join us in the Chat for Good Riddance, a weekly space to let go of something that’s been bugging you from the week before. Every Saturday I’ll share something I’m letting go of: a bad interaction that left me feeling a certain way, a shirt with sentimental value I should’ve gotten rid of a long time ago, or just some mom guilt stuff. Come hang with us in the chat and share something you’d like to let go of, however big or small. For All Subscribers.
New! October 6th is my wedding anniversary and to celebrate, we’re soft launching Further Ado, a new video series where I’ll be interviewing a guest about a topic that will aim to exhilarate. We’ll cover everything from how to cross new creative thresholds; how to remain politically activated within the boundaries of self-care; or just fun, petty deep dives on current hot topics. (Drew Barrymore, anyone?) Our first in the series will be live over Zoom and my guest will be—wait for it!—David Cross discussing why I’m the perfect, “no notes” wife. Mark your calendars for Friday, Oct. 6th! More details to come soon. Our first Further Ado will be open to All Subscribers.
New! Speaking of writer’s gestation! A couple times a month, I'll share a video post reading something I've written over the years—a poem, an essay, an unpublished work (GULP)—as well as a unique writing prompt based on that work. Come get entertained and creatively energized. For Paid Subscribers.
Here, Take This, I Love You is back! Every month we will give away memorabilia and artifacts from the vaults of my office. A signed Joan of Arcadia script! Limited edition broadsides of poetry! Some gum David once chewed! (I would never.) For Paid Subscribers.