Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lessons Re-Learned

Not everything in life is a metaphor for writing. Probably. Maybe.

For the past few days, people have been staying at the larger, less-rustic-but-still-rustic cottage* we own next door to our house (as opposed to the extremely rustic cottage on the other side of us). Their cottage has a wood heating stove in the kitchen and a fireplace and electricity; it has running (and hot) water pumped from the lake. It has no insulation, however, and significant gaps at a few places where walls don't quite meet rafters, and baseboard heat only in the bathroom (and the temperature has fallen below 5C/40F at night regularly for several weeks) with no organized heat anywhere else.

In short, these people--who claimed to know what they were getting into, who claimed to welcome what they were getting into--have had to be a hardly lot. Their planned experience, a sort of retreat from their own lives into a physical location where they control their level of interaction with the outside world and get a lot done, sounds great. However, retreats aren't for everyone, and retreats in a rustic cottage are happy experiences for even fewer.

In short, I've been concerned and busy. The place needed significant cleaning and a few improvements (a toilet that isn't cracked, for starters), which have taken our time in the past few weeks. And I've been nervous about their experience.

Fortunately, at least from the outside looking in, the experience seems to have gone well. At least they're saying so (how polite Canadians are!). Although I'm not an official participant at this writing retreat, I invited myself and was invited to participate in social evenings. It's lovely, on occasion, to spend time with other writers, and these evenings were two nice occasions.

Best of all, the retreaters seemed to be good sports. They have accepted the place on its own terms and inhabited it--they participated and interacted with it.

On the whole, I'm relieved.

Before (or after) they go, I'll of course ask how it went. I'm especially curious about the particular mattresses one person brought, since we go through air mattresses occasionally and I'd like to know what others consider comfortable.

This morning, I finally recognized why my nerves felt so familiar: because it's like getting feedback on writing.

See, I love this camp. My grandfather built it in the 40s and 50s. I've spent a lot of time ditching the detritus that built up in the decades since then, and even more time disturbing spiders with the shop-vac. When I'm there, I feel connected to family members long gone. And I wanted those staying there to enjoy it too.

Sometimes getting feedback on writing carries this much emotion, especially if I've struggled and wrangled and sighed over a piece and my revisions are just making it different, not better. What I long for at that point is for someone--who recognizes that I love this piece--to accept it on its own terms and tell me how to make it more a successful thing-it-is-trying-to-become.

I don't need people to say "you should insulate this place and winterize it" or "maybe you can tear it down and start over." I already know I don't want that piece of writing to be a house, and I'm not ready to give up on it completely. I do need people to say, "the mattresses aren't comfortable" and "the pots and pans are an odd and inconvenient assortment" and "the living room is pretty dark," and "we learned that hard way that there's an insistent and annoying leak over the fireplace."

Readers can tell you what keeps them from wanting to spend time in the place that is your piece--and how you can make being there an enjoyable experience. Even if "enjoyable" isn't the same as "luxurious."

It's still not easy to be a gracious recipient of a list of specific things that are "wrong" with a cottage or a piece of writing. But that list is valuable. It gives you options. It can remind you of why you love the cottage or story in the first place.

So yeah, maybe not everything is a metaphor for writing. But this experience is.

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* It's actually a "camp" in northwestern Ontario parlance, but many people know these structures as "cottages." But don't confuse this "cottage" with anything HGTV's Sarah Richardson has seen. In no way does it aspire to become a verb: no one will ever "cottage" there.