“Maybe I have Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.”
– Susan Sontag
From March 28th until April 6th, I was on a break. My publisher, God love’im, flew me to Charlotte, NC to be a featured reader in his Final Friday Reading Series, and the next day, I taught a workshop on point of view. Then on Sunday, oh, Sunday, I drove to Myrtle Beach, SC.
I drove to Paradise, actually.
Every year, I try to take myself on a two-week retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to back away from my teaching responsibilities, and from all the other willy nilly responsibilities that come with running a small business. I also back away from being a wife and a mother. For those two weeks, I am just me, and the purest form of me is being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be; it’s what I’ve always been. I took my retreat a few months ago, in October, in South Thomaston, Maine. In that two weeks, I made it through an entire draft of my new novel (at that point, about 350 pages), and wrote a short story and seven poems.
Good grief. Even on retreat, I’m a workaholic.
So this trip, to the Atlantic Ocean and Myrtle Beach, wasn’t supposed to be a retreat. I challenged myself, the most addicted workaholic I know, to take a vacation. I was going to sleep. I was going to sit in the sun and read. I was going to walk the ocean. I was going to visit a garden that housed a labyrinth. I was going to eat well and have a nice cocktail every night.
My typical work week? Busy. Not Monday through Friday, but Sunday to Sunday. I teach about 85 hours. I read 150 – 200 manuscript pages a day. I maintain the studio’s ledger and correspondence and general upkeep. I make appearances at readings and book clubs. I have a thirteen-year old daughter, and I take her to and from school and interact with her whenever she emerges from her bedroom. I try to be a good wife. I deal with two dogs and two cats. There are three adult kids and a grandchild. Oh, and of course, I write. Monday, Tuesday and Friday, I write from 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00, depending on when the evening clients and classes start. Wednesdays, I teach in the afternoon, so I don’t write. Thursdays, I market anything that has been rejected during the week. If nothing has been rejected, hallelujah! Then I write some more.
So this week in Myrtle Beach? A break. I coached myself on what that meant. Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat. Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat. And drink. Mustn’t forget drink.
The Tuesday before I left, I finished the fourth draft of my new novel. This was perfect – I always take a couple weeks off in between drafts, in order to gain some distance and a clear-eyed perspective. Typically, I fill those two weeks with writing a story or poetry or both. But this time, a break was in order. A real honest-to-goodness vacation. Whatever that was.
I took a peek on dictionary.com to find the actual definition of “break.” There were a number of them, because break is a noun as well as a verb. But I think the definition I was trying to apply was:
Break (n): a brief respite or interval between two actions: a break from one’s toil
a sudden rush, esp to escape: to make a break for freedom
Yes, I was taking a break from my toil, though I was certainly leaving behind more than two actions. And was I making a break for freedom? In a sense. For one week, I wasn’t going to do anything for anyone but myself. I guess that’s freedom.
Though please understand…I like my busy life. I choose to be a workaholic. But in general, yes, a week where I was only responsible for myself would be considered by most to be freedom.
And toil…well, part of my “toil” is writing. Would I really not write for an entire week?
When I arrived at Myrtle Beach, I was given a room on the ocean side of the hotel, way up high on the fourteenth floor. As I walked down the hallway, I could hear the ocean, but not yet see it. But then I opened the door. Ohmygosh. I dropped my suitcase and ran to the balcony. I threw open the slider, and oh, there it was. Ocean, ocean, everywhere. The sound, the smell, the color, the LIFE! I typically don’t like heights, but right then, I didn’t care. I grabbed the railing, leaned over as far as I could, and promptly burst into tears. Salty tears for the sight of salt water.
I guess you could say I connect with the ocean. I have no idea why I was born in the midwest. When I’m by the Pacific or the Atlantic, I am at peace. But that day, seeing the Atlantic right there, in Myrtle Beach, I’ve never felt so completely at home. As big as the ocean was, she settled around me like a massive mama-blanket and gave me comfort. I was exactly where I needed to be.
And so the break began.
I slept in. When I finally got up, I made my breakfast in the teeny kitchenette and I carried it to the balcony. I read while I ate, and the ocean kept me company. And the sun. Oh, the sun. After a long hard winter in Wisconsin, the sun just brought every sense out of hibernation. My skin inhaled heat. I was infused with it. Lit up from the outside in.
After breakfast came a shower, then I tugged on my swimsuit and I went down to the beach and a lounge chair. Where I read and read some more. I took a break to walk in the ocean and down the long stretch of sand. I walked next door to Starbucks, a Starbucks you could go in barefoot (!), got my grande cinnamon dolce latte, sat back in the lounge chair…and read.
Another shower (had to get the sun screen off – ick), and then out to dinner to a different place every night. But a place that was oceanfront. And where I could either eat outside – in the sun before it disappeared – or had large open windows.
But see, things happen, even when I’m reading and lounging and walking. I couldn’t shut down my hearing or my vision or my sense of smell. And there were sensory conversations everywhere. Dialogues. Accents. People wearing next to nothing – those of us who understood that the 70’s were really warm temperatures – and some wearing sweatshirts and even one parka – maybe visiting from the equator? Children shrieked, college boys and girls swore and drank and played volleyball and frisbee, dogs trotted by, seagulls begged, and a busybody pigeon kept landing on my balcony and mooing at me. Yes, mooing, that is not a typo. There just wasn’t any way to keep from paying attention, from taking it all in, and from hearing sentences and syllables and consonants and vowels…Everything in this world is a word. And words just…well, words just make me jive.
I lasted until the end of day 2. At midnight, I threw a poem onto my screen. Day 3, I worked on that poem, and at midnight, I threw down another one. Days 4, 5, 6, I abandoned the first poem, but not for good, it’s still there, safe in a file, and I hunkered down over poem 2 and then lit on fire with a short story. A short story set in South Carolina. In Myrtle Beach. On the fourteenth floor of a hotel, in a room where a belligerent pigeon mooed on a balcony. And the opening line?
Cheryl wondered about the different definitions of the word “break.”
And I was off. Into another life. Is Cheryl me? Of course not. Yes, it’s Myrtle Beach, it’s the fourteenth floor, there’s a stupid pigeon, but everything else is the sheer CHARACTER, the sheer FEEL of that place. The college boys. The drinks. The ocean, the ocean, the ocean. The sun. And Cheryl is a fifty-something woman who has never been married, never been caught up in the fight between passion and responsibility, duty and dreams…But she still needs to find her own respite. When she checks into that hotel room on the fourteenth floor, she too runs and flings open the balcony door and bursts into tears. But in my mind, she was in the room next door, separated from me by a concrete wall, and her life was not my own. I dove into her like I dove into the ocean. And like the ocean, she talked to me and I paid attention and I drew in all my senses and that place came home with me, alive and well in my computer.
The story is still underway. My last two days in Myrtle Beach, I didn’t write. I let myself settle back down into my break. Because I knew I’d work on this at home.
So did I truly have a vacation? Did I truly take a break and leave my workaholic ways behind me?
Well, another definition of break is this:
Break (n): a fortunate opportunity, esp to prove oneself
Oh, yes. I took a break.