Retreat into Chaos

This past weekend, I not only attended my first-ever writers’ retreat, I hosted it. “Sandy Feet Writers’ Retreat” took place at our new house on Salisbury Beach, where four writer friends joined me.

A month or so prior, I sent out an “itinerary” for the weekend, in which long stretches of writing time were mixed with a dinner out, yoga on the beach, and sunrise meditation. It seemed unrealistic and implausible to expect a group of five women in a small-ish house to sit quietly and write all day long, so I wanted to offer activities to reset our minds, nourish our spirits, and soak in the coastline. Also, part of me felt it wasn’t enough to simply provide the venue. I wanted to make it special.

It soon became clear, however, that all this planning was unnecessary. When I came downstairs on Saturday morning, two of the four were already hard at work on their computers. To my delight, coffee was made, and a fruit plate complimented the homemade blueberry bread on the kitchen island.

“Ooo, this is good,” I thought. “Forget the sunrise meditation.” (It was well past sunrise anyway. There were some night owls in the group…wine-drinking night owls.)

A steaming mug in my hands, I opened my laptop and started in. The day before, I’d imagined I would hole up in my room, where a writing desk juxtaposed our upstairs balcony–the view from here even more glorious than from the main level. Instead, I planted myself where my laptop had been waiting for me, on the dining table, where I usually check my email during our mini vacations to the house.

I was soon lost in my story, and time became an abstract phenomenon.

The remaining two writers awakened much in the same manner as I, and soon all five of us dotted the living area at different “stations,” and the day opened into an sea of creativity. No radio. No television. No media at all. The only sound besides the gentle roar of the ocean was the clicking of computer keys. The limited conversation was hushed, and revolved around food: “I’m making myself a sandwich. Want one?” (Though in truth we were all so nourished by practicing our craft, we barely ate.) Later in the afternoon, three of us walked the beach—the only real break from writing all day—and wasted no time in getting back to it upon return. Our 8:30 dinner reservation came too soon; I’m sure we could’ve kept going, contenting ourselves with the five separate tubs of hummus in the fridge. (I’ll have to plan the pot luck thing better next year.)

to Seaglass

Just before heading to dinner.

At times, the miracle of what was happening struck me, as I took a break from my work to observe—the collective productivity more inspiring than the setting. At one point, Anika joked that, judging from the excessive clicking, Betsy and I were on impressive writing streaks. This kept her going. And when I felt stuck with my story, instead of shutting the screen and doing laundry (which I’d do at home), I forced myself to get through it. Maybe taking a moment on the deck to work out the next scene. While some of us walked the beach, others opted to stay so as not to lose their momentum. I was proud of our little group. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.

A common attribute of all writers, I think, is the ability to focus. Sure, the weekend was set up for this. We all planned to focus on our projects. But if there had been hidden cameras in the house, the footage would make for a remarkable display of perseverance (albeit boring to watch, perhaps).

I honed my skill to focus years ago. In my mid-twenties, I started a web design company with a friend. In the early days, our office was his second-floor Somerville apartment. In a time before Wifi, we used one phone line for Internet, fax, and phone (the latter only when our dinosaur cell devices were out of charge). Our first client was Johnson & Johnson, and we conducted conference calls on the living room floor via the fax/phone on speaker. It was ridiculous and thrilling. Things moved extremely fast. I remember one day in particular, sweltering in record humidity and insufficient AC, I was on deadline. Our client expected a proposal for a new website design by end of day. For whatever reason, I crafted this document while sitting on a crate—my laptop propped on a box which contained a yet-to-be-opened printer/copier. Hours passed and my ass turned into a waffle. We won the project.

Weeks later, we moved into office space. We converted the third floor of a Summer Street warehouse in Boston, just past the sandy construction of the never-ending Big Dig. In favor of the open concept office space that had just become popular, our desks were lined in rows with no dividers. Our “conference rooms” were sectioned off with floor-to-ceiling fabric (“like a sail,” my partner had said wistfully as he described his design). This meant that my client calls could be heard by anyone within earshot (and I have a tendency to project). There was no privacy. On more than one occasion, some of us celebrated a launch in one corner while others toiled late hours to fix the online glitch-du-jour in another.

I developed a keen ability to tune things out. At times, my colleagues would have to stand directly in front of my desk, calling my name multiple times, before I answered. Without that extreme focus, though, there would be no way I’d be able to get my job done.

(I’m happy to say, that job is long done! )


Photo by Betsy Devany Macleod

On Sunday morning at Sandy Feet, I noticed the five of us had adopted not only our favorite writing spots, but also a variety of writing uniforms—and this was the one and only use for yoga pants all weekend. (Except Betsy, who even in her pajamas looked like something out of a magazine—and I still refuse to believe she has grandchildren).

Later that day, as we all felt the weekend pulling away from us, Michelle shared how happy she was with the progress she’d made. “When I get home, it will be tempting to use the excuse for not writing because I don’t have the ocean. But that’s crazy. As much as I love it here, I don’t need the ocean to write.”

It’s true. None of us need the ocean to write. None of us even need a dedicated place to create our stories. I love the idea of an office with a quaint writing desk, flanked with bookshelves and framed, inspirational quotes. But my reality is a constant juggle of household tasks, negotiating sticky spots on the counter, and bargaining with my kids for computer Minecraft time. I’m used to working in the midst of chaos. (Remember the bedlam that surrounded my book launch?) Secretly, I think I thrive on chaos. I wonder if I would be nearly as productive if I had all day long in a quiet house, every day, to write. Even if it was on the ocean.

Although, when I opened my story last night, taking advantage of a short pause within my mommy duties, it all came back. Seeing my characters’ names on the screen with a glimpse at my last scene-in-progress—something magical happened. I could almost hear the rolling waves. I could almost feel the salty wind snapping my hair. I could almost smell the foamy tide, the curls of kelp along the beach. I could almost feel the tiny shells that stuck between my toes…

…the sand at my feet.

sandy feet

Photo by Betsy Devany Macleod


  1. I love this! And it is all so true! Thank you again, Johanna, for a spectacular weekend! I can’t wait to hear updates on everyone’s progress or for the next Sandy Feet Writer’s retreat!

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