Writing retreat? You can still dodge

One can never underestimate the self-sabotaging power of procrastination.

I spent four days this week at a remote retreat center near St. Martins, New Brunswick called In the Stillness (www.inthestillness.ca) because I wanted time to jumpstart a special project. I whined about needing a place with no interruptions and no distractions. No stifling, familiar surroundings, no domestic duties.

When I arrived on top of the mountain retreat overlooking the Bay of Fundy, my hostess led me to a tiny, rustic cabin in the midst of an overgrown stand of aged spruce. On the deck was a dishpan and drying rack atop a long wooden bench beside a water source. Across from the deck was a lazy hammock hanging among the tall trees.

Inside the cabin was a twin bed, a desk, a couple of chairs and two lamps. An electric heater for chilly nights and a cooler for coffee cream. But no Internet or cell phone access, no television or radio. No connection to the outside world.

No distractions. My husband gave me one of those looks and he snickered. “Hey, look! It’s exactly what you wanted!” he said. “I bet you’re going to have a great time. See you Friday.” And then he was gone.

I sat on the bed, panicking a little. Through the window, I watched a little red squirrel skitter along dead logs and branches in front of the deck. I watched him eat. I’ve never seen a creature nibble so fast, like his life depended on it.

At that moment, I felt just as manic as he. I imagined myself at a twelve-step meeting. “Hel-ll-llo… I’m… Rh-rh-onda Bulmer and I’m a procrastination addict.

You see, I came here to put a huge dent in a big project, but now I don’t think I can do it. There’s no Facebook, no email messages, no Internet surfing, no telephone (except up at the main house, and who wants to walk all the way up there?) There’s no kitchen to take one-too-many snack breaks or reheat my coffee. I’m actually going to have to do what I came here to do and produce something—anything—decent, or I’ll feel like a big, fat fraud. It’s too much pressure! I can’t deal with it! ARRrrgh!”

Then I shook myself. Good grief—There’s fantastic coastline to explore, even though it’s an awfully long trek down. There are walking trails, too…if you’re not afraid of bears or coyotes. (Maybe cougars!) Come on, I thought, this is going to be great. By the end of it, you’ll only wish you’d had more time.

So I arranged my work on the desk close to the window. Every once in a while I glanced up, wondering what the squirrel was doing. I noticed the water spigot on the deck was leaking. My goodness, maybe the owners should know about that. I mean, who wants to waste water? I pull on my rubber boots and squish through the soft moss to report my findings.

They thanked me and I returned to my perch by the window. It’s so quiet here. I put my chin in my right hand, thrummed the desk with the fingers of my left. What am I going to do for the rest of the day?

I looked at the bed.

So I lay down to read until the book grew heavy and I took a nap—a good one, actually.

When I awoke, I went to the computer and wrote a paragraph.

But then I had to pee. So I put my boots back on and trudged up to the bathroom at the main building.

I came back and wrote a couple lines of dialogue.

Then I looked at the bag of Easter-coloured peanut M&Ms sitting by my laptop and popped a few in my mouth. Would the squirrel like some? I threw him some walnuts instead.

A mouse appeared and grabbed a fragment greedily and then darted back through a hole under a tree root. I was angry. “Those aren’t for you, you dirty little monster!” I cried, tapping at the window.

Later, there was a tap at the door. The owners’ daughter brought me a couple of chocolate chip cookies. “How sweet,” I said. “Thank you.” She smiled shyly and left.

Well, if I have cookies, I should have some coffee. I waited while I brewed a pot.

There’s always a way to procrastinate.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain references the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the state of being he calls “flow.”

“Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity—whether long-distance swimming or songwriting, sumo wrestling or sex. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.”

I have experienced this during writing sessions, but not often.  Mustn’t something come easy to you in order to experience flow?

The answer is in the next paragraph. “The key to flow,” writes Cain, “is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings.”

Dare I suggest two other keys to flow: maybe discipline and persistence?

My muse the squirrel stayed with me all week, lured by copious amounts of walnut fragments. I did manage to put a dent in my project and developed a roadmap to finish—but not as much as I hoped. Let’s face it, I’m unrealistic. My reward-oriented brain expected more, but despite all that I did experience a couple of magic flowing moments.

And I suppose that’s the lesson a hopeless procrastinator needs to learn: That life cannot be a continuous stream of perfect productivity. But if you’re persistent, there can be beauteous moments of “flow” flanked by long periods of simply being in the present—what C.S. Lewis refers to as, “God’s eternal Now.”


  • Lynda MacGibbon on May 4, 2012

    Good for you, my friend. You made the dent. That’s a start.
    But seriously, I wouldn’t have lasted as long as you…you had to truck up the hill to the bathroom?!!!

  • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on May 4, 2012

    That’s right– No bathroom in the retreat cabin. No big deal, except at 1 am when one might be afraid of what is rustling in the bushes.

    It might be a good idea to add one to the cabin as they keep expanding. I suspect they have a pretty big vision. Beautiful location, though. And the owners are very sweet.

  • Deborah Carr on May 5, 2012

    I’m so glad that you did this, Rhonda. It is, as Lynda points out, a start. Buckling in, finding the flow is not easy – give yourself a pat on the back! (especially for handling the 1AM pee-times) We exist in a world of distraction – it’s hard to escape the lure of it. I read about one writer who learned to book herself into a solitary retreat for 8 days, twice a year. The first 3 days, she spends sleeping or doing whatever her body feels like. On the fourth morning, she wakes up rarin’ to write – she’s in the flow. She needs the 3-day transition zone to let go of the distraction and thoughts of busyness. I like this idea.

  • Kathy Mercure on May 5, 2012

    I had a version of your experience on the west coast, Rhonda! I’m much more of a procrastinator now than I was then, so I shudder to think what I would be like today. But just being in the stillness and thinking about your project throughout the week has a way of distilling it in your brain, so it does flow easier once all the cleaning, laundry, email and facebook is done.

    That’s how it works for me anyway.

    I read “Quiet” too and it changed how I see myself, but have you ever read “The Procrastination Equation” by Piers Steel? There’s a book for everything!

    Congratulations on your journey. Next time just go with the flow of your body and maybe that’s how you’ll catch flow.

    • Kathy Mercure on May 5, 2012

      Did you do the drawings, by the way? They’re lovely!

  • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on May 5, 2012

    Yes, I can see that would be a good idea. Eight days: that’s kind of long to be away from my family, but I would probably enjoy just spending the first couple of days painting and reading and walking. It’s very difficult to jump right in and be productive the moment you arrive. I think you have to spend the first day at least, just decoding that thing called “silence” all around you.

    I bet it’s an even more difficult process for extroverts.

    I managed to write three short sketches in 3.5 days. Not bad. I think at least two of them are viable. I’ll definitely be doing it again. (But probably in a cabin with its own bathroom and kitchenette!)

  • Marlene Oulton on May 5, 2012

    What lovely drawings and great blog posting as usual. Sometimes I wonder if procrastination hasn’t been given a bad rap. I personally love it! I can sit and do nada for hours at a time… then rush like mad to finish a last minute project. You’re much more organized than I am plus you DID accomplish what you wanted to on this retreat. Kudos for taking time off just for YOU!

  • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on May 5, 2012

    @Kathy: Yes, I did the drawings. The trees are the view from window…I didn’t draw the red squirrel, though. And the two others I drew while sitting on the beach. Very much like Fundy Park, but the rocks were much redder. I used a little pastel kit that I was given for Christmas, and I never opened. I usually work with acrylics. I find pastels so smudgey and inexact, but it was a nice little portable kit to take with me. (In lieu of camera, there are always drawings.)

    I have not read the book about procrastination. I might look it up.

    @Marlene: I might as well accept procrastination as a good thing, I suppose, because I’ve fought the good fight all my life. But for me it’s always been rooted in the fear of failure and in perfectionism, so I always thought there was something inherently wrong in it. Oh, well…I should just relax and not be so hard myself, either. I don’t realize how self-critical I am. When people point it out, it’s like waking up from a dream.

  • Carole on May 14, 2012

    Rhonda, I can so relate to your procrastination abilities! I usually write with five other tabs opened so that I have options of other things to divert my attention (I like to refer to it as proof of my undiagnosed ADD). I recently came across “flow” as I was researching it’s opposite, “apathy”. Flow it certainly the preferable state to be in! Blessings on your big project!

  • Suzanne LeBlanc on May 27, 2012

    I found myself procrastinating by thinking, oh how I have been thinking!, and reading!, I’ve been reading about writing blog posts too!, and thought I would come over here to read stuff by a writer whose style I love.

    I am not much for procrastination in general but I could teach you a thing or two about procrastination and writing.

    You’ve given me a bit to think about and I have found motivation to just write and to worry less about the issues I have with dyslexia and perfectionism. After all, I now have a computer/word processor, and so, dyslexia taken care of!

    Now I will go find the flow, or the eternal now, or the groove. And, I will do it by beginning and putting to rest the voices of perfectionism.

    I wonder if the concept of “flow” applies to help me understand why I tend to write most creatively on a train or on a bus? Hmmmm. Thanks Rhonda!

    • Rhonda on May 27, 2012

      Yes, Suzanne, I’ve found throughout my life that perfectionism hasn’t really produced any good fruit. It has led me to give up or not keep trying because perfectionism’s great nemesis is the fear of failure. I think it’s better to re-frame your goal by just giving everything your best effort–because nothing, no-one, is perfect.

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