Sunday, December 13, 2009

My French retreat, Part One

Lots of writers take retreats, stays of weeks or even months at various artists colonies around the country, usually--especially for writer/teachers--during the summer. The higher profile retreat locations are very competitive; many offer scholarships or at least partial financial assistance. For better or worse, I've always kept an arm's length away from the world of writers retreats, preferring to simply work at home during summer breaks, saving myself the expense and trouble of the travel, and enabling me to take care of / stay connected with my two sons while my wife carries out her summer duties as director of the Great Bear Writing Project. I kinda sorta understood the idea and the utility of the artist colony but was not exactly driven to participate in one. That all changed last summer.

Before last summer, I'd twice visited the south of France to conduct research for my Van Gogh novel, trips of a week or two that left me wishing I could stay longer. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to come here for a month or two and just work on my novel? About a year ago, it occurred to me that there was nothing really keeping me from doing just that. The spring semester at UCA, where I teach, ends in early May, and my sons are in school until late May / early June. Why not spend a May in the south of France, writing about Van Gogh? Well, why not? My wife graciously agreed to the plan. (It didn't hurt that we decided she would bring the boys over at the end of the month, so everyone got to enjoy Provence.) And so that was that. I already knew of a place where I could stay (see my earlier post about Mas Ballot), and I had reason to expect I could get research funds from the university to cover the costs of my travel and stay, albeit not the family's.

Well, it wasn't as smooth as all that. There certainly were bumps in the planning road. (One big bump: No funds of any kind proved to be forthcoming.) But the long and short of it was that last May I ended up spending a few days in Paris and then almost three weeks in Arles--by myself, slaving away on the novel. I have to say, I never enjoyed slavery so much. Before I went, friends warned me of the dangers of trying to get write in a beautiful location. "It always sounds like a good idea," they would say, chuckling. "But then . . ." No, I said, if I'm spending this much money to just be there, I'm going to get serious work done.

And I'm proud to say I stuck to my word. Sure, I took plenty of day trips--or rather half-day trips--to different locations around "Roman France": Saint-Rémy, Fontvielle, Tarascon, Salon, Montpellier, the ruins at Glanum, the Abbaye de Montmajour. (Driving roads that look like the one pictured above.) I took ready advantage of the two bakeries and the spectacular rustic scenery within easy walking or driving distance of my house. Afternoons I took swims in the pool. Mornings I jogged the country roads. I watched my fair share of French tv and probably spent more time than I should have discovering what could be had at the local grocery store. But I think I got more writing work done during those three weeks in Arles than during any three week period in my life. Before I went, I told everyone (I guess to sound more practical) that I was doing another research trip for the novel, but really what I was up to was a self-financed writer's retreat to the south of France. My advice to anyone considering a similar idea? Get on the next plane!

(Next post: What exactly I did there.)


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