I am standing on a concrete-and-glass balcony, watching my peers, on a yoga platform in a writing circle, when the thought comes to me.
I am so done with writing.
I close my eyes and can see the words spelled out, letter by letter, on the dark backs of my lids. There’s an ache in my chest, a deep fluttering that slips like time.
Here, where it’s perpetual spring, terracotta pots boast hot pink petals. The sun warms my shoulders. I have a lovely view of turquoise waters and dormant volcanoes. Several boats sail past.
I’ve been here for a few days now. What’s to complain about?
Everything. I am so done with writing.
I put my earbuds in and find some peppy music. I dance.
The place I am staying is an incomplete “treehouse” perched on a steep incline. It is on the grounds of a Famous Author’s home. Inside, there are hookups for kitchen appliances, but none are installed. Some windows are only framed, no glass, or consist of bamboo grids. No doors lock, lest you count the twine-and-nail one must twist from inside the door. Once outside, steps lead to a locked gate connecting our insular world to the town. The gate never opens; I use the stairs as a sort of StairMaster.
Could I be trapped? Where is the point of entry?
For us, the “treehouse” sleeps three but is really a two-bedroom abode. One roommate has placed her bras and underwear in baskets on a shelf because there is no dresser, no closets. Her shower is en-suite, but open-air and backs to a dusty road where tuk-tuks motor past day and night, stripping her of privacy. Another roommate’s twin bed is crammed against a plate glass window in a space not deemed a proper sleeping quarter. To get to my room, I must ascend a set of concrete stairs — like Cinderella banished to the attic, no railing — no door either — though it’s been framed.
Have I been framed?
The windows in the treehouse are expansive, no coverings exist, except in the bathroom, which could be observable to passersby on the road below. No curtain nor door exists for the shower. Water sprays everywhere; it is not a wet room.
If I dance too close to the edge of the balcony, I will tumble 15 feet, likely causing bodily harm, possibly death. I will disrupt the writing circle I am not part of.
With the sky above and water below, I feel exposed, vulnerable, and I wonder if that is the intention.
“I don’t think Famous Author likes me,” I told my roommates the second night of our time together.
The three of us circled around the table in the make-shift kitchen, snacked on nuts from street vendors and drank wine. We shared perceptions and observations, and killed scorpions, for which we were scolded.
I have been writing my whole life. I may not be a Big Time Author; but I take my work seriously.
“Maybe,” they say, “she’s a little intimidated by you.”
I shake my head. “No . . . that’s impossible. [Famous Author] has been writing much longer than me and to more success. That’s not it.”
They say, “Don’t be so sure.”
Before I left, I received an anonymous comment on my website: “You sure do pander to [Famous Author]. She’s a despicable human . . . a drunk bipolar. She can’t be trusted.”
I was wise enough to realize the comment could have been from anyone, anywhere, even a bot or troll. I deleted it and moved on. The trip had already been paid for, my flight booked. Plus, I had spoken with Famous Author on the phone. The conversation was mostly one-sided, but she convinced me that my time with her, and the other women in our group, would prove supportive and nurturing. She suggested my manuscript — the one my agent was trying to sell — was killing me, that I needed to stop writing about my mother.
I knew I needed a change of scenery — and, moreover, I needed to distance myself from the ravages of my dead, mentally ill mother.
“Write something else,” she said.
My hardworking, supportive agent had suggested something similar.
Like the memoir-on-submission, it would just be another mound of work with no payoff.
But I had a revised proposal, published excerpts in literary journals, read comps. I made notecards and 8-beat character arcs. I still had a lot to do before I could say I had a draft, or felt confident about it, but I was 20,000 words in. The characters haunted me.
I planned to break my retreat time into reading on the sun-drenched dock, followed by writing in my room, overlooking the waters. Later, I would join my peers for dinner, maybe go to town for gelato. It sounded like an artist’s dream. I should have been happy.
What I am, is questioning everything I knew about writing, my abilities, my drive. Instead of crying big ugly sobs, which is what I want to do, I dance.
I am tired. So fucking tired.
For 17 months, I had been writing essays and articles, interviewing authors, pitching stories and profiles, submitting pieces to literary journals, applying for residencies, collaborating with publicists at publishing houses, reading advanced copies of forthcoming books, reviewing them, photographing them, posting on social media, remembering who to tag and which house they “belonged to,” keeping track of their on-sale dates, and waiting for my agent to say we had a contract on my memoir.
Every waking hour had been devoted to the literary life. I read and responded to emails on the exercise bike, at breakfast and lunch, from the couch, in bed, on weekends, I was listening to literary podcasts in the car. Also? I’m married and raising teenagers, all during a global pandemic.
Write something else?
It seemed like a taunt, a joke. Seriously?
I am exhausted. Empty. Wrung-out.
And Famous Author doesn’t like me. At all.
There are several kinds of retreats and residences, workshops and conferences. Some are hippie-dippy-free-love
Our first night’s stay was in a boutique courtyard hotel surrounded by lush vegetation and a river-like canal, a rooftop terrace. We were served an elegant meal and a brief orientation.
To access Famous Author’s home, I had traveled 2,600 air miles, followed by three-and-a-half hours in a van on potholed, meandering roads, and finally, a choppy lake-crossing. I have no vehicle, no way of leaving except my own two legs and spotty Internet.
I am at once unhindered, yet tethered.
It helped to know, at least, why I was dancing. It allowed me to take a deep breath and pull myself together. Which was good, because not pulling myself together was not an option. Yes, I was a bit of a wreck; yes, I was exhausted, almost to the point of collapse.
One of my peers was given the main bedroom with a giant elevated bed and fireplace, a private bath. Another was personally invited to extend her stay a week, after we all left. Someone else was a longtime personal friend of Famous Author. Another held Famous Author’s dental crown in her pocket and would perform dentistry on the patio. My roommate, who sleeps in the space below me, in the house with no locks, with windows wide as oceans, with the lights on, received a scholarship to attend. What did I bring to the group?
I wanted to ask: What is my purpose in your life? In some ways, Famous Author’s promise to help me with my writing felt as empty as the unfinished treehouse.
Famous Author often moved past me in a flurry, rarely made eye contact, and did not photograph me as she did the others. I felt unseen. When I reached out to Famous Author, in a gesture of gratitude, she flinched and pulled away. More than once she inquired, “was your mother as pretty as you?” What did my appearance have to do with writing?
My confidence had declined so much that I needed something that felt good and normal.
Dancing was it. Never mind the fact that the patio balcony had no railings, that the drop — should I fall — would likely kill me. The idea of joining the writing group on the platform below me twisted my gut into tight knots.
Famous Author began her circle sessions by informing us all that this was not a “democratic method,” then launched into deconstructing everyone’s personal narrative, one by one. Her whiteboard became blackened almost to the point of unreadability as she scrawled columns and notes. She needled and coaxed stories not intended to be shared. Soft-spoken women were berated for not enunciating and projecting. Each woman broke down in tears.
When it came to me, she said, “I don’t buy this,” she poked at the manuscript clutched in her hand. “This isn’t memoir.”
“Why did you come?”
“You told me to write something else. This is the ‘something else.’”
“This isn’t memoir,” she repeated.
“I think it can be.”
The group fell silent.
She turned to my peers, “What do you remember about this story? Can you draw a picture of it?”
No one responded.
“See? No one cares. It’s forgettable. You should write historical fiction or a children’s book, or essays, or something.”
It’s a writing instructor’s job to nourish and help writers grow, to help them feel stronger. Instead, I was shrinking, becoming smaller in my chair.
“But you can write. I mean, this is beautiful, but there is no story.”
What’s a writer to do but nod?
Famous Author wanted to know about my memoir-on-submission, which, being a memoir retreat, and the new stuff decidedly not memoir, I felt obligated to share. Many of the women knew it was on-submission. They knew it was about my mother’s descent into psychosis when I was a kid, our estrangement, her suicide. Immediately, she said, “I don’t know your agent, but I don’t like him. I believe your manuscript went out prematurely. I do wish you’d read it.”
Was that a threat?
She fell asleep during my reading, then said, “Beautiful, but I see problems with it.”
I read a personal essay and received accolades from the group. They asked where it had been published. It’s not published.
During yet another reading, Famous Author gasped, “I didn’t see that coming. Very good.”
The next day she said, “I don’t really care about that grandfather in that piece you read . . . you can do better.”
I skip to another song on Spotify.
I glance at my reflection in the large windows. I smile because it inherently improves one’s mood, neuropeptides releasing blocked stress. Fresh air, sunshine, music, and movement release other neurotransmitters, which act as pain relievers and antidepressants.
Famous Author will not make me cry.
Writing is more than an act, it’s more than being “good” or “publishable;” it’s a spiritual pursuit. I think of my grandfather, of the story Famous Author “doesn’t care about,” the one that’s “not memoir.” I think: my ancestors would want me to tell this story.
Windows are the soul of the house — but I once heard one can tell how poor (or wealthy) someone was by how many windows they had growing up. More windows, more wealth.
My grandfather had an eighth-grade education. My grandmother was raised in a house with dirt floors. Famous Author’s mother graduated with a doctorate from an Ivy League college. Something tells me there was a window-to-words discrepancy.
The “treehouse’” is nearly completely windows, floor-to-ceiling. The place is bearing into my soul, exposing my vulnerabilities. Does it convey affluence? Is it simply a point-of-entry?
In all respects, the treehouse has potential. It’s designed beautifully; it’s just not ready. To feel secure in one’s environment, one needs window coverings they can adjust; providing the allusion of privacy.
Here, we are all exposed. Our intimate stories and traumas are extracted piece by piece, word by word in an often insidious, yet deliberate manner. There’s a type of glee in this, in a I’ll-hurt-you-but-put-you-back-together way. Does Famous Author like watching us squirm? Is she a trained trauma counselor?
At the top of the treehouse, I glance to my glassed-in room. It dawns on me that my personal space and Famous Author’s private room, at the main house, are the farthest from one another, as if exerting a physical distance between us. As the only guest on the second-floor of the treehouse, it is apparent that I am separated from our host, but also: my fellow writers.
Is it just me? Am I reading into this?
To become a proficient writer, one must expand boundaries and styles and format. I try to remain open. Writing is a lifelong process. I am not an expert.
In addition to skewing what stories get told, Famous Author tells us how to in craft talks. After dancing and reflecting, I attend her discussion on “container stories.” I visualize a transparent cube filled with words. The lesson becomes clear: shrinking frames, the passage of time, paragraphs as thresholds, first-person.
I ask about second person.
“Why would you attempt that?”
I am thinking of Ocean Vuong’s “A Letter to My Mother She Will Never Read,” a second-person epistolary piece brimming with lyricism and his book, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief is told in a series of letters and visual collages. I ask about hybrid forms and speculative memoir.
“No. This is personal essay. It implies first-person. The ‘you’ form is tricky and rarely effective.”
End on a power word.
I realize now that my time at the retreat must be reframed. The lessons were not about writing, per se, but about human nature, friendship, the fluidity of space, of becoming. We are all flawed humans, famous or successful, or not. That’s what makes us writers, including our instructor; writing as a means to process and heal.
What can you learn about yourself? How can you make that universal?
That I am a writer, that I have an innate love for words and language, that there is more than one way to tell a story. I know one must spread wings, experience new cities, countries, and oceans to emerge. Each writer requires a shred of cloth: a word, a phrase, a prompt. Something to cover the nakedness, to wander with eyes and ears open.
When we leave, at the port, under the weight of my luggage, I stumble, the cobblestones embracing my body, stripping the scaffolding, breaking the walls.
Flesh and stone: emotional weight.
My peers lift me up.
And the unfinished ‘treehouse?’ It’s a bit of an objective correlative — perhaps representing my manuscript, but also maybe a transitory place of stucco and glass, screws and nails, locks and keys, dust and grit. That we require both — and all — to be effective.
Light and dark.
Privacy and Intrusion.
Teacher and student.
Reader and writer: a work-in-progress.•