By Milli Thornton. Photos Copyright © Milli Thornton
In a post written on the first day of May (How to Dream a Writing Retreat Into Your Life), I announced that I was leaving the next morning for a writing retreat at a B&B two hours down the road in Ashland, Ohio. I said I would be staying for two nights and I called it a mini retreat.
That post was all about how I’d been dreaming of a week-long (or maybe even a two-week-long) retreat so I could start a new book. I talked about how finances ruled out that kind of expense for accommodation and how Brian came up with the suggestion that I go for just a couple of nights. So I did.
Even with this low-key plan, things turned out differently than I imagined they would, and on just about every front.
I did not end up using the privacy of my room at College House B&B to write for hours on the computer, as envisaged. I mostly wrote on a beach towel in the backyard or stretched out on a wicker couch in the sun room. And I mostly wrote by hand in my journal.
I did not end up writing the book I went there to start. After a yummy and eye-catching breakfast on the first morning, the B&B owner Cathie said something during a long conversation that gave me an idea for an entirely different book.
I laid my beach towel in the freshly-mown grass and started journaling. All kinds of material I didn’t know had been hanging around inside my head poured out. It was fun to journal about it first from various aspects without having the pressure of “writing the book.” I’ve decided to adopt that as an enjoyable approach to any book I might write in the future.
I soon realized I would need a special house for the new book. I started making bullet points to represent aspects of the house that would suit my main character’s needs and personality. An hour later I was in the dining room making tea when a particular brochure in the tourist info rack called out to me. I saw that Malabar Farm, once home to novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield and now a historic landmark, was only about 30 miles away.
The farmhouse at Malabar had been added on to with great ambition and style by Bromfield during the 1940s and is now open to the public for tours. It looked like the perfect model to help me flesh out the kind of house-of-many-rooms built by an eccentric owner that I was creating in my journal. I knew I didn’t want to copy the exact style of the house (my character is very different from Bromfield and his interests) but I needed the physical act of walking through such a house to help me visualize it more clearly.
I took off for Malabar Farm after breakfast the next morning. I also made a call to a place down the road from the farm and secured the Teddy Bear Room at Angelwoods B&B for two nights. I was able to add this expense onto my trip because of an unexpected discount I was given when I arrived at College House B&B. (If you caught my post about dreaming a writing retreat into reality you’ll recognize this as another of the magical aids that showed up once I started taking baby steps to make my dream come true.)
Angelwoods was exactly the quiet I’d been craving that was never quite possible at a B&B in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in a town full of the usual noises. At its name suggests, Angelwoods really was out in the woods. It was also surrounded by herb and flower gardens and buzzing with the biggest, fattest bumblebees I’ve ever seen.
The tour of the house at Malabar Farm was fascinating and I was totally enthralled with the tour guide’s historical and anecdotal monologue. I also partook of the farm tour, conducted by tractor. After that I had a wonderful time in the visitors center choosing some novels by Bromfield, as well as some Heritage Playing Cards (Spices, Insects & Spiders and Reptiles & Amphibians) to play around with and inspire me visually as I write the book.
I was lucky to be adopted by a staff member at Malabar who gave me some research materials that he’d compiled himself, and which were not available in the store. He also surprise-gifted me with a pencil drawing he’d done of the statue of Lord Ganesh that sits in an alcove above the front door of the farmhouse.
Lord Ganesh is an Indian god with the head of an elephant and he’s known as the Remover of Obstacles. (Bromfield spent time in India, one of his novels is set there and Malabar Farm is named for the Malabar Coast in India.) I had a previous interest in Ganesh so this almost seemed psychic on the part of the staff member.
At Angelwoods I met a lovely couple from nearby Cleveland. This led to all kinds of plans to get together based on various interests we share. We talked for hours.
Somehow, in the middle of all these interesting episodes, I managed to do some writing in a comfy armchair in a room overlooking the garden. I also wrote on an upper deck, where I had this view of the herb garden.
By the time I left Angelwoods my senses felt full to the brim and I thought I was ready for nothing but the familiar routine of home. But the adventure wasn’t over yet. About 30 miles from home, when I was back on familiar roads, a hot air balloon sailed over the tree tops. I pulled over, hopped out of my car and managed to get some photos just before it landed behind a house.
We’re talking farmland Ohio, where you don’t expect to see exotic sights like hot air balloons—I should have taken it as a sign that my writing retreat wasn’t finished with me yet. But I didn’t realize that until after I was home and Brian left for a business trip. I had the house to myself, I was hot on the trail of a new book . . . what else is a writer to do but continue her retreat?
Strangely, this part of my retreat felt the most like an actual sanctuary where I could write undisturbed. I occasionally interrupted my writing to fulfill some creative commitments (such as helping my writing students or making a new post on my travel blog) but for the most part I stuck with my journal and let the story unfold.
What unfolded was not at all what I expected from the book idea. It turned out I was afraid of a particular room in the imaginative house I was creating. (Oh, dear. Sounds very Freudian, doesn’t it?!) The room represented an emotional wound I had sustained as child and which I had never been able to resolve, no matter what I tried. The deeper I went into the contents of the room, the more I realized I wasn’t ready to write the book. I need to resolve the issue first. And my writing gave me plenty of clues on how maybe, at long last, I can do that.
At one stage I became very distraught at the idea that I couldn’t just write the book as a way of resolving the old wound. After all, that’s what I did for my own fear of writing when I wrote my first book, Fear of Writing, so surely it should work again. My journaling finally helped me see that you can’t always force an issue to work itself out the same way that something else did. This one requires its own unique resolution.
Besides lots of writing and some walks in the sunshine, I took lots of afternoon naps and slept 10-12 hours a night, which felt very retreat-y. It also fed my writing with a certain serenity that doesn’t happen when life is busy, busy, busy. All up, my adventure lasted for 12 days.
My “mini” writing retreat morphed into so much more than I’d been expecting. I could not have planned it to happen that way—not if I wanted to make all kinds of magical (and sometimes emotional) discoveries that led me much deeper than I could have dreamed up to fit a travel itinerary. Or a writing agenda.
I also learned some valuable things on a practical level (such as what doesn’t work on a B&B retreat) that I plan to share with you in my next post.
Milli Thornton is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She is owner of Unleash Your Writing! and the Fear of Writing Online Course, where her mission is to put the fun back into writing. Milli also blogs at Screenwriting in the Boonies and Milliver’s Travels and coaches writers at Writer’s Muse.