Retreat! Retreat!

The second annual retreat for the female portion of the Circle of Christian Authors took place last weekend.  At 3:30 Friday afternoon, Cheryl, Mary, Nancy, and I departed Denton in my Suburban, which had been freshly washed, vacuumed, and filled with gas by Greg and the kids.  We arrived that evening at two little cabins outside Glenrose.  All told, the four of us spent two days together, driving, writing, critiquing, praying, reading our Bibles, walking the nature trail, laughing,  cooking, and eating.  We marveled at the goodness of God and learned surprising things about Nancy’s propensity for setting ovens on fire.  (Fortunately, we were spared a demonstration.  Our pyrotechnic endeavors were confined to some sparklers–courtesy of Mary’s son Kyle–which we lit at the pool area, to the accompaniment of piercing screams.)  We did not see any venomous snakes as we did last year, but we did learn to identify poison ivy.  Knowledge is power!

One odd thing that happened this year is that, though I drove us there and back again, Mary and Nancy stubbornly persisted in believing that Cheryl, not I, had done the driving.  Cheryl was the driver last year; hence the confusion.  We CCAers are creatures of habit, so much so that apparently a thing only has to happen one time for us to consider it natural law.  (At our meetings, most of us find it disturbing for other members to sit someplace other than their usual seats.  When we speak of an absent member, we gesture towards the spot where that person would be sitting if in attendance.)

We heard Nancy’s latest hilarious and reverent devotionals.  We saw some terrific concept artwork for Cheryl’s new series of easy reader books–the clever kind, like the Frog and Toad books, that adults can enjoy reading–and heard the early chapters of her next installment in her Chosen Girls series.  Mary, who over the last several months has seen much success publishing short stories, launched into her latest, a thought-provoking, well-executed work.

My own current novel tooled along at a respectable rate.  Reckoning up, I find that I composed around eleven pages of first-draft-quality text, plus five or so pages of what might be called pre-draft notes, over the course of the weekend.

I have belonged to the CCA for fifteen years, since my strapping teenage son was an infant and my daughters were not yet invented.  The group has more members than the four who were able to attend this year’s retreat; membership has fluctuated considerably over the years, but the core has remained solid.  We meet every other Tuesday morning for critique, conversation, and cups of tea.  It is because of this group that I regard the approach of Tuesday, even a non-meeting Tuesday, with a gut-level, Pavlovian sense of pleasure.  I feel happy just driving past the highway exit that leads to our meeting place.

I have been writing novels, successfully or otherwise, pretty much all my adult life.  It is great fun, and also excruciatingly slow and solitary work, a process Stephen King likened to crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub.  Each of my novels represents a huge investment of time and effort with absolutely no guarantee of a reward, other than the intrinsic kind that they don’t pay you for.  This uncertainty presents practical challenges in terms of time management.  If I spend a certain number of hours cooking, gardening, or working on a quilt or other textile art, I am fairly sure that I will get a particular result.  (Yes, I know nothing is certain, but I am speaking comparatively.)  Barring accident or loss, I will have at the end of my labor a finished product which can serve humanity in some way:  cover a bed, feed my family, even be sold for profit.  There is no such assurance in writing a novel.  I might spend all morning toiling over a passage, only to realize in the afternoon that I must cut it entirely.  After investing hundreds or thousands of hours in the current opus, I can’t guarantee the thing will be good in my own eyes, let alone sell.

It’s hard to repeat a behavior that is not rewarded.  Sometimes the fires burn low, and I wonder just what it is I’m getting up at five in the morning for, year after year, wrestling with plot, syntax, and self-doubt, when I could be sleeping or working on something that will give a tangible return.  Many and many a time, the only thing that has kept me producing is the thought that come 9:30 Tuesday morning, I will have to face the CCA, and if I don’t have my ten pages in hand, I will have to give an account of myself.

The approbation, support, and advice of people whose taste and judgment I respect is more valuable than I can express.  The encouraging word, the unexpected heartening email, the suggestion which smooths out a difficult passage, all refresh my spirit and empower me to keep on.

In moving to the farm, I will leave behind the CCA, or at least give up attending the biweekly meetings.  My plan is to spend the regular meeting time online, posting my pages for critique, and critiquing the pages posted for me.  (This worthy plan will be a lot easier to execute when certain people learn to use a Yahoo! group.)  I will visit when I can, and attend the retreats, which I hope will become biannual.  Still, things will not, cannot be the same.  Perhaps there can be no meaningful gain without a loss of some kind.

Thanks, guys.  I’ll miss you.

There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.

–G. K. Chesterton

The world does not need more Christian writers–it needs more good writers and composers who are Christians.

–C. S. Lewis

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person:  having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them out.  Just as they are–chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.

–George Eliot

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