It was mid-September of 2012, and I was driving home after a three-week residency at Playa in south-central Oregon. Only an hour or so into the 11-hour drive, I stopped at a one-man fruit stand, just outside Lakeview. He was set up in the shade of a big tree, just off the main road; he was selling only one thing—Donut Peaches, also known as the Saturn Peach—small and squat, donut-like, the pit where the hole would be. Without even tasting one, I bought a dozen of this man’s September bounty.
Back in the car, I used my water bottle to rinse one of them, and took a bite. What? This was the best-tasting peach in the world. My pleasure was audible as I consumed it, bite by bite. I washed another one off and began eating it, as I pulled back onto the road. “These are fantastic!” I called to the farmer. He gave me one firm nod.
Soon I wasn’t even bothering to wash these fuzzy delights; each one was maybe only four good-sized bites. They went quickly and deliciously, and before I’d driven half an hour, I’d collected half-a-dozen pits in the drink holder cubby. I don’t know that I’d ever enjoyed fruit more than in those moments, in that car, just south of Lakeview, Oregon, on Highway 395.
I know it sounds like I was high on something—I was—high on the effects of a three-week retreat at Playa, Summer Lake. My perception was altered by the experience I’d had. A combination of the beauty, the quiet, the vastness, the newness, the generosity, the utter expanse of the playa itself, had left me feeling anything was possible. Had left me so drenched in my own ideas that I couldn’t write them down quickly enough. As I drove on that next hour, I kept having to pull over to photograph something—something that felt like a miracle, but was really a dilapidated barn. The barn, in its demise, was exquisite, and I took about three dozen photos to capture how rare it was.
Soon, the Playa high began to wear off, just enough to notice something was changing. How to keep it from parting ways with me completely? How could I prevent the real world of my regular life and work, from flooding in on me, and flushing all the goodness I’d cultivated—the peace and direction, the discipline and the naps, the solitude and the camaraderie. The farther I got from Playa’s dry lake bed, those layers of mud and cracked dirt, the more I felt the glow fading. I spent a good bit of the remainder of the drive home identifying just what it was that had made the time there so transformative, and how I might bring some element of that feeling into my life on my return.
This is the first step: naming the specifics of the goodness. It can vary person to person, what is most unique or most valued. One person may feel it’s the landscape, its wildness, the birds. For another writer, it may be the “room of one’s own”—that freedom to spread out, be messy, not have anyone else in the creative space. And for another, it may be the luxury of that many days off in a row, to focus exclusively on a project and make great strides.
Once you’ve identified what made your time productive, unique, and to be cherished, you can ponder ways to replicate aspects of those features in your home life. Even though you’re not likely to have three weeks of 24-hour days to work on your writing again anytime soon, you can decide on some amount of writing that is workable in your daily life. Maybe it’s one hour every morning before going to work. Or maybe it’s only one hour per week, Saturday mornings from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., getting up while everyone else in the house is still asleep.
On the last day of your retreat or on your way back home, pose this question to yourself and take it seriously: How can I take the way I’m feeling home with me? What does this feeling consist of? What contributed to it? How can I replicate even a smidgen of it in my post-retreat life? Come up with a concrete plan and commit to it. One writer may decide to invest in the rental of office space, to have a quiet place to go that becomes the writing studio. Another person may request a different schedule at work, to accommodate a few hours of writing time per week. Some may commit to a weekly visit to the closest place where the natural world is protected and celebrated—a bit of wildness akin to that at Playa. Or in the absence of proximity to such places, some might adopt a meditation practice geared at recalling and invoking the mood, tone and atmosphere of the last place they had a successful retreat.
It can help to bring home souvenirs. Often there will be something you see on your walks—plant matter or a certain kind of rock, bird feathers or strips of bark. You can decide this thing—this rock, this feather—represents the peace you attained at Playa, the belief in your writer-self. By attributing the rock with this meaning, you turn it into a symbol of your experience. Put the rock or feather or long strip of bark on the desk or table where you write. Believe in it. Use it as a physical way to tap into what was most meaningful about your stay in this place.
The windowsill above my desk is filled with these pieces of various retreat settings. Some of them, I honestly don’t remember anymore where exactly they came from—which retreat in which year? Was that long soft bark from Norton Island, Maine? Was this the feather I brought from Hawk Valley, Montana, a friend’s cabin where I wrote most of a young adult novel? I may forget as decades pass, and I experience more and more of these places, which talisman came from where, but I never throw any of them away. I know all these souvenirs are important—attempts to bring the lusciousness of particular landscapes and experiences home with me. And to help me, once the retreat is over, to access that landscape within the self where the writing feels possible.
Melanie Bishop has taught writing or led writing retreats at Prescott College, in Arizona’s Sierra Ancha Wilderness, at Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, in the Cycladic Islands of Greece, and in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
Bishop recently took early retirement from Prescott College, where she was on the creative writing faculty for 22 years, and was founder and editor of Alligator Juniper, the college’s award-winning, national literary magazine. Melanie holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona, and was awarded a screenwriting fellowship from the Chesterfield Writers’ Film Project, co-sponsored by Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The Makeover, a screenplay written during the fellowship year, later went on to place in America’s Best Screenplay Competition.
Bishop’s young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, was released in January, 2014 by Torrey House Press, and was a top-five finalist for both the John Gardner Award in Fiction, sponsored by University of Binghamton, and the Firecracker Awards (sponsored by Council of Literary Magazines and Presses). She’s also published short fiction and nonfiction in Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, Greensboro Review, Florida Review, Potomac Review, Valley Guide, Hospice Magazine, Puerto del Sol, The American and Family Circle.