Monday, May 14, 2018

My First Time: Lisa Romeo

My First (Disastrous) Writing Retreat

There is a key scene at the end of my book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, set at an acclaimed New England artist center, a place where I’d been awarded a grant and two precious weeks’ time to work in peace, away from house, husband, and children.

A few months before I applied to the center, where many writer friends told me they accomplished so much, I had completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in a low-residency program in southern Maine. Freeport and the Portland suburbs are not remote or isolated, but the area was enough of a calming switch from my home in the crowded, busy New Jersey suburbs 10 miles from Manhattan, that my time there felt slowed-down and sheltered.

I grew used to, and counted on, those on-site residencies, five times over two years. While I worked at home between semesters, amid the chaos of two growing boys while juggling part-time work as a public relations consultant and freelance writer, my eyes were on the calendar, counting down the months until I’d be back in Maine, where for 10 glorious days without cooking, chores, or chauffeuring, I could immerse myself fully in writing life.

And then, graduation.

And then, panic. What would I do without those residencies dependably dotting the calendar? My head pounded and my pulse quickened just thinking about the stretch of unbroken days that lay ahead at home, where I’d be writing in-between school runs, sports practices, scout meetings, and work obligations, for months, for years. I’d have to find a way to get away.

Writer friends told me about the great strides they made in their work while at an artist colony, writing retreat, or residency. I decided I’d have to go get me one of those. And I did—an invitation with financial support, to spend two weeks in the hills of northern New England. I’d have a bedroom in an old but quiet house with a few other artists, and a soundproof private writing studio in a modern new building.

For months, I looked forward to the retreat dates. Certain I would get an impressive amount of work done, I planned a typically overfull to-do list. I packed six notebooks filled with rough crappy drafts of essays for one book project, a half-baked anthology proposal for another, and ideas and notes for a half-dozen new essays.

Let me assure you, I get things done. A workaholic with a bit of a perfectionist streak and the practiced mien of a multi-tasker, there were few tasks I took on that didn’t come to fruition. Not that everything I wrote or proposed was wonderful or won acceptance; of course not. But if I decided to write X or submit Y, damn it, I wrote X and submitted Y. With two weeks to myself and no boys barging into my office ten times each afternoon, with no household or other work obligations, I’d surely accomplish all my goals.

But that’s not what happened.

It wasn’t the sub-zero January temperatures and daily snowfall that unsettled me; I’d lived in Syracuse and spent two winter residencies in Maine. It’s true that I didn’t care for the food. And though my room was comfortable and toasty, I could have done without the 5:00 a.m. start-up of a fleet of snow plows in the lot next door. But those were minor annoyances.

My writer’s studio however, was a dream—quiet, and elegantly appointed with much nicer furnishings than my home office, which was populated by dinged and dingy second-hand office furniture.

But when I sat in the very comfortable leather desk chair, all I did was flip from notebook to notebook, then pushed them aside. I’d open my computer, switch from document to document, then snap it closed. Even on day one, I spent several hours in the plush wing chair staring out the capacious window, watching a small river flow by, the snow falling, the fog creeping across the edge of the adjacent college campus.

By day two, I was catching up with TV shows, my computer propped on my knees in that same chair. Every few hours, I crept down the eerily quiet hallway to the shared mini-kitchen to make popcorn or heat a noodle cup; if not for the thin line of light under doors, I’d have sworn I was alone in the large building. Clearly the designers of the building—as well as the directors of the overall program—had thought of everything artists need: comfort, quiet, space, isolation.

By the third day I was distraught, guilty. I curiously noted that I just didn’t crave, or even need those things. It was too damned quiet! At home, I already had space—a room of my own. Sure, it wasn’t pretty, but it was mine, and comfortable enough. When the boys were at school or sleeping or playing quietly in another room (which pretty much summed up the times when I did most of my writing), my interruptions were really quite bearable. Yes, I love quiet, but the kind that punctuated periods of the normal hub-bub of family; I realized I didn’t need to be isolated from mine in order to write. On the contrary, for someone who writes personal creative nonfiction—memoir, personal essay, nonfiction narratives carved from my life—being surrounded by family actually worked to my benefit.

As the week unfolded, near paralysis set in. Not only did I miss the backdrop of family routines, noise, and even nonsense, I was learning something about how I write—or, more precisely, don’t write. Multi-tasking is one thing when it applies to multiple deadlines for clients or editors. But when it comes to my own creative work, I found I did best when writing one main thing at a time, with the occasional foray to just one other side project, something in nascent stage, to fiddle with when I need a break from the main work.

There I was with too many notebooks, too many files and competing projects I had vowed to make progress on, too many ideas screaming for attention. After three full days, I jettisoned the belief that I would get a huge amount of work done in several areas. Finally, I settled on making a solid start on one essay burning to be written; it would later turn out to be an anchor chapter in my book but of course I couldn’t know that then. I fussed around a bit with the anthology proposal, more as a worthwhile distraction/break from the essay.

Day four was productive, capped off by a private consultation with a renowned writer who had read one of my essays and offered excellent feedback—the kind that’s not only about the one piece, but from which you learn something profoundly important and elemental about your writing itself.

That was the only day I got anything substantial done. The food was beginning to rankle. My car battery died in the cold; not that I needed to go anywhere, but just knowing I couldn’t upset me. The snow plows growled me awake far too early each morning.

For two more days, I stared out that studio window. I mulled what I’d learned from the feedback session. I walked around, back and forth and back and forth, going nowhere. And stared and walked. And, I thought about my father. I even saw my dead father…walking into the distance, slipping between the pines. He was leaving me—after we’d “talked” for nearly three years since he’d passed away the first semester of my MFA studies.

That day I knew two things.

First, I would leave the next morning (as soon as AAA fixed my car battery). And I knew how I’d end any book I would eventually write about grief and my father: with that scene of Dad in the snow, the fog, the trees. I wouldn’t know for another seven years that that book would not be the essay collection I planned, but a more traditional narrative memoir—built from essays, including the one I was working on that week, which I finished over the next few months, back at home.

It would be incorrect to say I never needed more solo writing time. But I got lucky. My husband and both sons began spending a full week camping each July, and another four days on a scout trip each fall. In between, the soundtrack of my regular life fueled me. I found that what I had created for my own home writing environment was enough. And that staring out the window, taking walks, and some days not writing—but thinking deeply about the story and about what I may be avoiding writing about—can also push the work.

Finally, in 2016, I created a do-it-yourself retreat of my own, to kickstart my memoir manuscript, which would require that I first pull apart a dozen published essays to see what would survive, map out a chronology, and begin writing all the new material. I took myself to a remote part of far northern Maine in January and settled into a quiet bed-and-breakfast.

For seven days, from just after breakfast was cleared until around 7:00 pm, I worked at their large dining room table. It wasn’t completely quiet. The proprietors walked through or talked quietly nearby. Once in a while, another guest trekked in or out. The doorbell rang a few times. Delivery people came and went.

I broke once each day for lunch, and occasionally for a walk in the snow. I had coffee one day with a friend from my MFA program who lived nearby. I knew it was time to stop each evening when my elder son—now 22—wandered over from his nearby internship. In between, I wrote. The first day, I wrote the closing lines of Starting with Goodbye—about what I saw while looking out the window at that “failed” retreat years before.

Lisa Romeo’s first book is Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss. Her work is listed in Best American Essays 2016, has been nominated for additional Best American Essay and Pushcart Prizes, and published in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and in essay anthologies. Lisa teaches with the Bay Path University MFA program, and completed her own MFA degree at Stonecoast (University of Southern Maine). She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and sons.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.


  1. Fascinating how the method is such a part of the work!

    1. Exactly! The more I think about it, the more I see in the pages the influence of the place/time I wrote something!

  2. I could see myself doing the same thing. I'd want to go out and explore rather than sit inside doing a bunch of work. I like the quiet but get more done when there are things going on around me.

    1. Indeed. Some of us learn to create out own version of "quiet" amid the hub-bub.

  3. The classic, "don't know what you got until it's gone" syndrome. It sounds like you learned a lot on that "disastrous writing retreat." Well done. I enjoyed reading your story.

    1. Thank you, Mary. Yes, that's exactly it! And when we find out, we can adjust!

  4. Thanks for the insight. One message I need to tape to my soul: Stop looking for the right environment and start writing. The story will evolve. (And don't spend so much time on social media.