Last week I was interviewed by Leanna James Blackwell, director of Bay Path University’s MFA in creative writing, where I have been leading a workshop this semester. Among other things, she and I talked about the importance of making time your friend — of being patient with the writing process, plus the development of your work, and yourself as a writer. Everybody, myself included, is in a rush to get their essays done and accepted and published. It’s a competitive creative field, and we all want to be successful NOW — at least before civilization collapses, as it seems to be in the process of doing.
In the past that impulse has led me astray; back in the xojane days especially, I published more than my share of half-baked pieces, which I am so glad are no longer online. But I’ve often also swung to the opposite extreme, avoiding working on particular essays for way too long, wasting time as if I have a guaranteed unlimited amount of it. I’ve probably mentioned here (possibly 100 times?) that I’m obsessed with the fact that both my grandmothers died around my age — one at 53, the other at 55. (I am 54.) Who knows how much time I have? We have, as a species?
Now I’m working to strike a balance: carving out time for a daily writing practice; neither rushing to publish nor procrastinating on writing; asking myself, when I feel resistant about writing a particular piece, why I do. Am I maybe not ready yet to write what I’ve set out to? Have I not yet achieved the critical distance necessary to saliently interpret the particular story at hand?
This week I carved out a sizeable chunk of time for my writing. This missive comes to you from a writing retreat I’m taking in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, with another writer. I’ve been angling toward this for three years, since I bid on a week at a the lovely house we’re staying in at a TMI Project silent auction, and won. I’m a bit of a workaholic, and it’s hard for me to press pause. I postponed the trip three times, but the owner finally said I had one more shot, and here I am, taking it.
I’ve strived to set realistic, reachable goals for this retreat so I don’t leave feeling disappointed in myself. I gave a lot of thought to what material I might want to work on, and chose a beast of an essay so fraught with painful memories that I’ve been wrestling with it for years, and am considering trying to publish it under a pseudonym.
But now I am rethinking that choice, and it’s possible I have Mercury-in-Retrograde to (reluctantly) thank.
If I ever doubted whether the astrological phenomenon of Mercury-in-Retrograde was real, this instance of it has cured me of my agnosticism. I mean, things go pretty haywire just about every time it occurs, which is three or four times a year. Computers, electronics, cars, and other machinery break down. Miscommunications between people abound. Everything … s-l-o-w-s … d-o-w-n. Achieving anything can feel Sisyphean.
Astrologers insist Mercury-in-Retrograde is an important and valuable occurrence, despite how disruptive it can be. They say it forces us to slow down so we can review and reconsider our choices before moving forward more thoughtfully.
Some advise against certain activities during those periods — signing contracts, buying homes and cars. Traveling.
Aaaaaaand…here I am, traveling.
The day before we left, Delta misspelled my name on my boarding pass and ticket. I did not want to show up to the airport for an international flight holding a boarding pass and ticket that bore a different name than the one on my passport. Because I’d booked through Travelocity, Delta wouldn’t just fix it on their own, even though we’d later figure out it was their fault. I spent three hours on the phone with Travelocity trying to straighten it out as I packed — stopping occasionally to shame them and Delta on social media, as one does after more than an hour of cheesy on-hold music. In that time, the person helping me out got disconnected twice.
Next, when we arrived in San Miguel at 10pm at night, it turned out we had the wrong address. We knocked on the wrong door, and this poor older couple on vacation from Canada, were naturally upset to be informed (mistakenly), at that late hour, that, no, we were supposed to be staying there instead of them. We finally figured out what the error was, and made it to our house at close to 11 p.m..
My friend and I tried to settle in, but were both wired from 14 hours of travel, door-to-door, and the snafu with our address. I went to make some tea — a pot of it, except there was no tea pot, so I thought I’d make it in a glass pitcher. I boiled the water, poured it over the tea bags, then, bam, the pitcher exploded and boiling water shot out and hit me square in the belly.
My friend reached into the freezer and threw me a tray of ice cubes to apply to my abdomen before cleaning up the water and shards of glass that were everywhere. I now know ice on a burn is ill advised, causing blistering. I googled it after the massive, throbbing blisters appeared. Actually, I did my googling at around 1 a.m., with shaking fingers, because I was shivering uncontrollably — a side-effect of treating a burn with ice, I learned — and wanted to determine whether I needed to seek medical attention.
In my hour of shivering, I berated myself for my stupidity, and panicked over the possibility I’d ruined my whole trip just as soon as I arrived. Would this calamity also put a damper on my friend’s vacation-slash-writers’-retreat? Would I not be able to join her at the hot springs? Worse, would I be in agony the whole time? What about my writing goals?
In my traumatized state at first I was hard on myself, grumbling at the thought of not leaving San Miguel with a completed draft of that piece. Then it dawned on me that I am just not ready to work on that one. It’s been years, but it’s still not the right time. Period.
I could change my mind, and write something else. I have so many other ideas. I have a spreadsheet with something like 165 essay ideas! I also have other essays in the works that I can turn my attention to.
In the morning, my next natural inclination was to pressure myself into picking another essay to work on NOW, commit to it, and get going on it pronto. But I hadn’t slept well. I was up and down all night, and unable to fall back asleep after 5:30 a.m. When I finally arose, my head was pounding. The fluid in my blisters now strained against my stretched skin. They were (and they remain) gargantuan — I’ll refrain from posting a gruesome photo, but one is the size of an egg. We face-timed with a nurse my friend knows, and she said she didn’t think I needed to go to a doctor; that I could apply some aloe, and then Neosporin and gauze. If I got worse, I promised to call her.
Still, I was (am) in no shape to jump to attention and chart a new course for the writing retreat part of my trip. Maybe I will be tomorrow. Today I need to take some time to recover.
And yet I had an impulse to write this. I decided to follow that impulse — and I also decided that writing an installment of my newsletter counts as something in terms of achieving writing goals. Writing any piece in which I try to make sense of an experience I’ve had contributes to my development as a writer, something that takes time, and which you can’t skip over (unless you’re a rich influencer with a ghostwriter).
There’s still plenty of time — another six days here — for me to decide what I want to work on, and get to it. If I give myself ample time to recover, I will likely make better choices in my writing when I’m ready.
I’m not sure I want to forgive Mercury if it’s the reason I badly burned myself. But I might have begun to appreciate the way it’s slowed me down, allowing me to redirect, and stop being such a task master toward myself.