For the past week I’ve been on the Toronto Islands at Artscape Gibraltar Point. I had a bedroom and, just around the corner from it, a little studio with a desk, a lamp and a large window looking out into the yard behind the building. I brought with me a backpack of groceries, my laptop and a stack of books, and promptly got to work.
It’s been awhile since I’ve spent a large chunk of time dedicated to writing and I’ve actually never done a retreat like this. It was slightly daunting; I was worried I would waste my time, that a week would pass and I would have nothing to show for it. One of the reasons why I chose Artscape was because of its proximity to Toronto – I didn’t have to travel very far to feel removed from my every day life, but I also wasn’t in such a foreign place that I felt like it was a waste to spend my days locked up in a room when I could be exploring.
But the Toronto Islands are beautiful, and I couldn’t help explore them. Gibraltar Point backs onto the beach, and it was so comforting to walk onto the sand, dip my feet into the cold water and look at Lake Ontario stretch out into the distance. And, after years of letting an irrational bike phobia get the best of me (i.e. I didn’t bike once in Montreal! What!), I got over it and biked all over the place. About twice a day I would take a break and circle around, sometimes down to the pier to buy a Coke and then read on a picnic bench, once to eat an entire Funnel Cake by myself in Centreville (je ne regrette rien), sometimes over to Wards Island to look at the houses or have an iced coffee at the Island Café. Andrew visited once on the weekend and we had a barbecue by the water, lamb and asparagus and potatoes and rose. It was nice.
My time here was low key and peaceful. I perpetually had sand in my shoes. I saw flocks of cormorants flying low above the lake and I got hissed at by Canadian geese guarding their goslings. But I spent most of my time at my desk, typing or thinking about typing. I kept to myself and got into that headspace where talking to others made me feel a little tongue tied. We’re responsible for our own meals here, so I would sometimes bump into people in the kitchen and it was good to have little conversations then, to remove myself from my bubble and hear about what others were working on.
I won’t lie, there were many, many Internet breaks. I tried not to feel guilty about them because I do think I need idle time to think things through. I trust in my subconscious mind to work problems out while my active mind does other more inane things. I guess I could’ve taken more walks on the beach, but one of the biggest challenges in writing is just keeping your butt down on a chair. I knew that if I sat there long enough, eventually I would write something. And I did. In the end, I got 20,000 new words down, and while I have no idea if they’ll make it into the second draft, I almost doubled what I started off with. Plus, it’s more than anything I’ve written in the past 6 months, so that has to count for something. There’s also something about crossing the 45,000 word mark in a book that makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul.
I came into this week uncertain of the trajectory of the book. I had vague ideas of where I wanted it to go, but making the leaps from point A to point B alluded me. And they still do, but I’ve started building little bridges between them. There’s also pleasure in writing something completely new. I came prepared with some ideas and thoughts I wanted to flesh out, and while I worked on those, I wrote other parts that I hadn’t even considered. One particularly long section was a pleasant surprise, how naturally it flowed out.
But mostly: writing, ugh, what a slog. Because I was more concerned about getting words down on paper, I was highly aware of just how not-so-pretty they were as I was typing them out. My goal was to capture feelings and tones, to create a skeleton that I could return to later and fill in. Sometimes foundations aren’t the prettiest of objects. You’re working on a shitty first draft, I told myself, it’s okay. Promise.
While longer than a week here would have been great, at this point I think it was just the right amount of time – any more and I would’ve started to flounder. There’s a lot of percolating involved with long pieces, and while I’d hoped to work on other things in the meantime – I could write a story, I figured– I soon realized that I was too into this particular groove to break out of it.
I wrote this essay, though, on my food blog. I wrote it the day I arrived, slept on it, then posted it in the morning. Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to write about publicly, but it was. I’m still figuring out ways to write about this.
Anyway, my biggest regret was not bringing enough fiction for pleasure books. My new novel is about a photographer, so I had a bunch of photography books for reference and ideas, and while they were enjoyable, they weren’t always what I felt like reading. I had Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on my iPhone, and while I’ve read many books on my phone, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right when I was sitting by the water or under a tree. I wanted a real book, with actual pages.
But, if my only regret was not lugging an additional hardcover book with me, I think I can conclude that this week was a success. Thanks, Artscape.
(Pictures taken from my Instagram account: 1) Various lakeside scenes. Sigh, dreamy. 2) Toronto in the distance. 3) My bike in its rusted glory. 4) One of the houses on Ward’s Island, shrouded in foliage. 5) A lovely painting by a painter I met working here this week. 6) The glorious trees! 7) Hallway still life.)