Retreat / Advance

Before COVID-19, I’d occasionally think about renting a vacation cottage somewhere, or booking a hotel room on the other side of town, and locking myself away for a few days to write. I’d daydream about another (quasi-)spontaneous weekend away, getting lost and taking photos and not thinking about anything else. A DIY creative retreat, with nothing to do but make art.

You’d think—part of me thought, back when all this began—that lockdown would be the next best thing. I mean, I knew it’d take some adjustment, that it wouldn’t be easy—and of course, I knew I’d worry about the people I care about getting sick—but I still kind of had this idea that once I got used to the new normal, I’d have that time I always craved.

Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way.

I have time. I have endless time, more than I would’ve thought possible. Even with all the new quests and tasks that lockdown has forced me to undertake, I’ve got more time than I know what to do with. 

I’ve also got a million things vying for my attention, all of which are so much easier to focus on than art: the pandemic that hasn’t gone away (despite what some people would have you believe), the necessary fight for justice and equality—and the pushback against it (again: still happening, even if it’s disappeared from your newsfeed), the news that gets weirder every day. The dumb iPhone game I reinstalled because I needed a distraction from all of those things, and the endless scrolling through Twitter and Pinterest.

I’ve only left the apartment a handful of times in the past three months, and I’m still daydreaming about that retreat, about that little cottage in the middle of nowhere. About getting lost in a strange city and not talking to anyone for three days.

It’s not an option, and I don’t know when it will be. 

Even the old normal, when I could spend my mornings writing in an empty apartment and then go to a coffee shop in the afternoon, when I could step away from distractions through willpower alone… I don’t know when that’s going to be an option, either. 

That might be a good thing.

Because maybe it’s been difficult to focus on writing fiction or taking photos, but I’ve been able to use some of that endless time to think about writing and photography. In the last couple of weeks I’ve even managed to get back into the habit of studying craft and thinking about the directions I want to go.

And it’s become very clear that the old normal wasn’t really working for me. I thought it was; if you’d asked me back in January, I would’ve sworn I was finally figuring things out. I would’ve said that the progress I was making might be slow, but it was still in the right direction. But the pandemic has brought some things into focus for me, and I can see a disconnect between the art I make and the art I ultimately want to be making. (Not just in skill, which is to be expected, but in the stories I write and the types of photos I take. Not all of them, but… a lot.) 

I’m realizing that it’s easier to focus on everything else because I’m not fully engaged in my own art. I’m easily distracted and looking for inspiration, but then the things I’m seeing, in the doomscrolling and trying to stay informed, and in the art I’m consuming… it doesn’t inspire me. Social media is a constant stream of publishing scandals and layoffs, mixed with unqualified advice on how to make six figures in your first year as a pro photographer. Plus the occasional scrap of genuinely important information, presented entirely without context. Even when I don’t seek it out, algorithms decide—based on the things they’ve shown me in the past—that that’s what I want to see. The same algorithms show me photos just like the ones I’m already taking, they show me books like the ones I think I should be writing.

It’s a never-ending cycle, and I need to break it.

This isn’t one of those times when I’ve got a plan (or the beginning of one) in place. I don’t have a list of habits I want to adopt or discard, or routines I want to build. I know I need to step back from social media for a while to reset, and that needs to be a clean break. (So, no exceptions for specific networks, and no daily or weekly limits. I’m going to keep letting WordPress post notifications to Twitter, but that’s it. And I’m not putting the blog on hold… or at least, no more than it already is.)

I need to take some time to figure out what I want to be doing with my writing and photography, and to learn how to do it. I need to eliminate the distractions and temptations and give myself permission to focus exclusively on my own path. I’m going to figure out how to write and take photos in the world that exists, rather than wishing for the world I imagined at the beginning of 2020.

I’m going to go on that creative retreat, even if I can’t leave the apartment.