7 lessons from a liminal space (or a writing retreat)

Last week I took myself off, all by myself, with nothing but my laptop, notes, and a couple of books. I was in search of a liminal space – a place between worlds, almost, where I could join the dots and create.

It turned out to be as much of a footpath: a journey through many stages and emotions. So yes, it was wonderful. It was also uncomfortable, challenging, thrilling, relaxing and pressurised.

Here are 7 lessons that I’ve learned – some of them only since I’ve come back.

1. A ‘retreat’ isn’t comfortable

Going away doesn’t mean making things easy. Liminal space, is, after all, a place of discovery and transformation. Once I’d taken away all my daily distractions, I had to confront myself, and my purpose in being there. I like to imagine the process of writing being thrilling, and just occasionally, it is. But more often, I found myself striding round the room swearing and asking myself what I was doing there since it was all SO DIFFICULT. But…

2. Discomfort drives action

Since I didn’t have anywhere else to run to, I was forced to recognise that the discomfort was nothing more than a process of trying to organise and articulate ideas. When I actually started to acknowledge that directly, I found myself problem-solving more effectively and consciously. Sometimes it meant doing something else: listening to the birds outside, going for a run, having lunch, but even they became much more deliberate choices than ‘escapes’, which so easily become procrastination until, well, the next activity arrives. 

3. The benefits might come later 

This is something I’ve learned since coming home. An ongoing struggle is to sort out a structure (currently on approx #827). I thought that being away would help me sort it quickly and easily. It didn’t, and even after three days I was wrestling with it. But – and I find this interesting – since I’ve got back, I’ve finally had some breakthroughs. At the time, I felt I was wasting my precious writing hours, and getting annoyed with myself for not being a different kind of writer. But now I see that I needed that time of immersion and experimentation to allow my brain to start to grapple with it in a different way. 

4. Writing gives clarity

Thinking is good. Reading is good. Notes are good. But honestly, actual WRITING  is where clarity happens. That means that if I’m stuck, I have to make myself sit down and start to type, not wait until I’ve solved the problem first. That might sound clear, but I still find myself procrastinating with ‘I don’t know what to write about’. In fact it’s mainly an indication that I’m not putting enough words down. Honestly, for the first two of days I didn’t get nearly as much writing done as I’d hoped, and it took the fear of going home with no word-count that reminded me that ‘just write!’ is the best advice of all. 

5. Music has a place

In general, I can’t listen to music when I’m writing. It’s too much of a distraction, and I can’t ‘hear’ the words I want to write. But a couple of times, putting upbeat, mindlessly happy music on actually allowed me to break through blocks. It felt as though my brain had to work so hard to cut out the distraction, that it didn’t have any energy left to niggle me with self-doubt. 

6. Standing up!

The friend I was staying with had a huge kitchen island, with acres of empty workspace. I’d imagined myself sitting at a desk, but in fact I found myself thinking way more creatively by spreading my notes and papers all over it, pacing round with post-its and scribbled notes, and just keeping moving. There’s plenty of evidence on the benefits of moving to the creative process, but I generally think of doing that by going for a walk. That’s something for me to experiment more with. 

7. Progress doesn’t always look – or feel – like progress

I’ll be honest – after day two I was feeling quite blue about how little I’d achieved. I’d been re-reading old work, going over ideas and connections, and feeling I hadn’t created anything new. But having another day and a half actually allowed me to start to turn that into new connections, and I wrote way more on day 3 than on the previous two. What’s more, I’ve continued to write almost daily since getting back. In that way, having a retreat long enough to do this was essential. I suspect 4 full days (or even 5) would have been ideal, but two would have been two short (for where I was, that is). 

Would I do it again?

Yes, absolutely. Ideally I’d be more prepared and immersed in my material already, but I’d planned to do that this time, until life got in the way. I’d also like to do it in a small group of like-minded creatives, perhaps using the evenings as a chance to share progress and some accountability. If you think you’d like to join me, leave me your details below, and maybe I’ll organise something for next year.

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