Lessons From a Writing Retreat

It was autumn in this pleasant Baltic Sea corner of northeastern Europe. I arrived at the Litinterp guesthouse in Klaipeda, Lithuania in September 2007 with one objective; to spend seven days in relative isolation and emerge with a draft of the book that despite best intentions had not come together over two preceding years. 

The venue was perfect.  It was a long three-story house built in 1768. Situated at Puodziu 17, just north of the old town not far from the harbor. My modest rooms were in a third-floor garret 

The walls were sharply angular conforming to the steep pitch of the tiled roof. There was plank flooring and a blister window that poked out in the direction of the harbor.  There was a single bed along the far wall, a chest of drawers, and a small table and chair on the opposite wall. 

Two or three steps away was a spartan kitchen with a fridge, kettle, and cutlery and flatware for two people. There was a tiny bathroom with shower.

Puodziu 17, Klaipeda

Putting my few belongings in a drawer, I was ready to work. I placed the laptop on the table and connected the ethernet cable.  But within minutes my first and mostenduring challenge arrived. 

Lesson 1: RESIST DISTRACTIONS

While there was neither radio nor television in the flat, the internet offered every distraction possible.  It’s so easy to rationalize diversions. “It’s necessary for my work,” or, “I won’t be long, just a few minutes on these emails.”  Nonsense.  

Sinclair Lewis said, “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  And Mark Twain wrote, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”   Easier said than done.

Regrettably I have a life-long proclivity of giving in to distraction.  The best advice I’ve found on writing discipline came from Anthony Trollope. The prolific English novelist wrote in the memoir published after his death in1882:

When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work.  In this I have entered day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face….

Trollope was something of  a fanatic, turning out book after book, few of which were highly regarded. 

Somewhere between obsessive work and constant distraction lies a happy balance.

During my week in Klaipeda I overcame most distractions and registered more productivity than any time before.  I recorded my progress just as Trollope advised. For example, on the first day I did 1,400 words, on the second 2,500 words,  then 3,900, 4,100, and finally 2,200 words.  However, those numbers are a bit misleading as I had arrived with many pages of manuscript. Editing and organizing what already existed doesn’t really qualify as writing. 

Lesson 2: BELIEVE IN YOURSELF 

In the course of preparing the book I was tempted to give up multiple times, discouraged that I couldn’t find a literary agent or a television producer who believed in the project. Yes,  I had ridden 2,500 miles through 14 countries in post-communist Europe presenting portraits of people I met along the way. But the agents I talked to simply weren’t interested. The usual reply was there were too many travel books, mine  wasn’t a known name, the book market is terrible, and does anybody really care? I should add that marketing is not my strong suit. 

Yet, through it all I believed I had something useful to say.  Back in the 60s and early 70s when I was teaching in university, dozens of speakers would visit campus.  And the key question busy students and faculty would ask is whether that person had something useful to say. Otherwise attending the talk was a waste of time.  Fast forward to 2007, I knew I had something to say as very little had been written about how ordinary people in post-communist Europe were coping with momentous change.

While I believed in the project,  I was less confident in my ability to write effectively and organize a compelling story. There were two elements of writing I wanted to learn–fluidity in the narrative and transitions from one element of the story to the next. 

Fluidity is that smooth flow of words that engages the reader, and  developed over several paragraphs it becomes a pleasing style. Achieving fluidity is akin to formulating a lead sentence. It must grab the reader’s attention and propel him forward. There’s no formula for a successful lead. But you know a good one when you see it; it either works or it doesn’t.  

Then there are transitions, the vital links binding one paragraph to the next.  Without transitions the narrative can be merely a collection of disjointed fragments and the reader is likely to bail out. 

On these matters I had constantly to say to myself, ‘I can do this. I can become an effective writer.’ I remembered Henry Ford’s dictum, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” 

Barry outside Puodziu 17, Klaipeda

Lesson 3:  REVISION, REVISION, REVISION

In the late 1990s at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, I met Bill Safire, the famous wordsmith and columnist at the New York Times.  I asked him the secret of good writing.  He answered emphatically with three words, “revision, revision, revision.” 

In the same vein Mark Twain—one of America’s greatest writers– wrote, “the time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

In Klaipeda I worked on what I really wanted to say. I systematically revised my copy and to my pleasant surprise found the process rewarding because the benefits were visible.

George Palmer, my mentor and legendary editor of the Financial Mail in Johannesburg, liked to say, “never use two words when one will do.”   Bravo. When I went through my copy, invariably there was clutter. When I removed it,  I saw improvement.  Further, I found that the text gained vitality when passive verbs were replaced with an action verbs.  Which brings me to my final lesson.

Lesson 4: TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS

Moving away from what you’ve written—if only for a few minutes– is useful because you return with fresh eyes. 

In Klaipeda I took two or three breaks every day.  Typically I would walk or cycle the few blocks to the Iki supermarket where I would browse for easy to make meals and chat with sales people, like 19-year-old Vaida who was eager to improve her English.  

Returning, I welcomed the brief distraction that always came from reaching the top of the steep stairway.  At the center of that upper-most pine tread there was an indentation in the shape of a shoe. It was here over a 200 year period that people  halted to retrieve the door key. The indentation endured despite a relatively recent coat of black paint.  Who, I wondered, were the people who climbed these stairs before me?  What were their names, what did they do? What were they like? 

Worn top step on the stairway to the garret apartment

Putting those unanswerable thoughts aside,  I would retrieve the key from my pocket, unlock the door and return to work.#

Barry D. Wood’s book, Exploring New Europe, was published in 2017. A revised edition is forthcoming.

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