The writers’ retreat I’d planned was perfect. I rented a cabin in the Pocono Mountains for the weekend. It had a fire pit and string lights. Before I left, I researched for hours developing prompts based on Hemmingway, Didion, William Carlos Williams, and Edward Hopper. When the weekend arrived, my two friends and I loaded up the trunk with firewood and wine, selected Olivia Rodrigo on Spotify, and set off to write.
My commitment to a creative writing practice is aspirational. I finished my MFA program in 2017 and continued as a career content writer. I tried to keep up the momentum after grad school, but like many of us, I struggled to make time while focusing on paying the bills and without a school structure. Over four years living in multiple states with multiple jobs, I kept promising myself that when X happened, I’d devote more time to creative writing. When I got a job that didn’t zap my energy, when winter confined me indoors, when Grey’s Anatomy got cancelled.
The biggest X was having my own business. If I could work for clients I wanted on my own time, I would be able to make space. When I finally built my business composing copy for companies and tutoring students in writing, I discovered that playing every role from receptionist to CEO takes up more time than working for someone else. I still couldn’t commit to morning pages, 250 words a day, or even a paragraph a week. There was always something I had to do. There was always an X.
We did write during the retreat. Two sentences each. Six sentences total. To be fair, we were busy with other things. We binge watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, played drinking games by the fire pit with Rosé that tasted like licking a bike tire (we imagined), and tossed French fries at two grateful feral cats stalking our dinner table. And in the middle of a hike, we paused by a waterfall for 10 minutes to write and share our two respective sentences. I was proud of mine:
They’d stood on either end of the waterfall for hours, separately, tossing their lines out and reeling them in until he ran out of bait and had to trace the rock path back to where the day began.
In the light the fire pit made, in the space that wasn’t even theirs, she saw her clearly for the first time.
Promising, right? But I didn’t follow through. On the way home, Alex asked if I was upset the retreat didn’t go as planned. I wasn’t. We left with deeper friendships and a new word, “crun,” a drunken combination of fun and cool. But for weeks after, I felt uncharacteristically frustrated. This trip was supposed to reignite my creativity. It was the opportunity to refine my craft, to finish the short story I’d been avoiding for over a year, and I wasted it. I tried to console myself with my favorite anonymous quote—“Every dead body on Mt. Everest was once a highly motivated person so…maybe calm down”—but in this case, I didn’t believe it.
Even though I wasn’t writing much, I nurtured other writers. My middle and high school creative writing students had incredible ideas. A woman who cleans out dead people’s homes for a living. A young girl’s encounter with Satan. A Finnish soldier facing an old friend on the opposing side of a war. Yet when it came to discussing motivation, we all had the same problem. How do we make ourselves sit down and write? I shared best practices, but I was honest—I couldn’t seem to develop a consistent practice that worked for me.
Then something happened. Between my angst over the Poconos trip, feeling inspired by my students’ stories, and a friend reestablishing a shared 250 words a day accountability document, I started again. I wrote once a week, then twice a week. I wrote for 10 minutes, edited for 30. I wrote about elementary school crushes I forgot or never realized I had. I wrote about social media turning us into commodities to be seen and owned. I wrote dystopian lesbian fiction. I wrote this.
The more I wrote, the more I got inspired by my interactions and surroundings as story fodder. The more excited I became to write, the more I wrote. I found myself constantly on the lookout for valuable concepts, phrases, and plot points while working, doing dishes, and scooping the litter box. Now, instead of waking up in the middle of the night to pee and going right back to sleep, I pee, type a semi-coherent idea into my phone, then go back to sleep. Life feels a bit more magical. I see a change in my attitude and motivation.
I don’t show up every day, but almost. It’s never at a consistent time or for a consistent amount of time. I don’t know how long it will last. But I see myself making progress in a way I haven’t since grad school when it was mandatory. The Poconos trip did reignite my creativity, just not in the way I’d planned. Sometimes you have to hit literary rock bottom, or what feels like rock bottom in your dramatic brain, to start back up again. Sometimes you have to be at your wits end—and then write about it.