Monday, December 14, 2009

My French retreat, Part Two

I thought I should write today about how I organized my hours during my writing retreat in Arles. It was the first time in years, maybe decades, when I had complete control over my schedule from sunup to sundown, and that, I must admit, felt like a real gift. I think my natural waking time is somewhere around six a.m. This sounds early for most people, I realize, but when I'm engaged in the busyness of a semester's teaching/parenting/etc. I find I have to set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to actully get writing done. (No, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.) In Arles, I found myself waking on my own between 5:30 and 6:00 inside of pleasantly cool mornings. I'm a newspaper addict--a habit I am both proud of and regret--but in France I found myself pleasantly exiled from the morning paper. Instead of a newspaper with my morning pot of coffee I read real books (I brought a stack of English language novels with me), priming both my body and mind for the work ahead. Every once in a while, I'd finish up a journal entry from the night before. I suppose I ate something, but it was usually light. The coffee was the main thing. I'd then work for 2-3 hours, kind of a moderate, getting-into-the-swing-of-it-session. After, mid-morning at this point, I would slip into running clothes and take my ritual exercise. There's nothing like running to clear your head, and to get to know a place better. This was certainly as true in Arles as anywhere.

I'd lunch on good bread (often I go down to the bakery as soon as I returned from the run) and cheese and Perrier and apples while I indulged my ancient fondness for game shows, French style. (I'll have to cover that in another post.) After lunch I carried out a long afternoon writing session, usually about four hours, occasionally longer. As you can imagine, by the time I finished this session my mind was more or less shot. So that meant it was a perfect time to go to the grocery store or take a swim--once the weather starting warming a bit--or just fix an early dinner. If I had reason to go into Arles for something, I would let myself wander, enjoying the slowed down feel of the place on a weekday early evening, when typically the tourists were gone and it was only locals around: lounging on benches at the public park, wandering through some half-hearted window shopping, skateboarding at the Place de la Republique, a big central square outside the Cathedral de Saint Trophime. One day I saw a bicycle race start from the square. There was as excited and energized a feel to the place as at the start of any marathon race in the U.S.

As I mentioned in my last post, I took some day trips for Van Gogh research during my retreat, two or three a week. On those days, I would make sure to carry out my full morning writing session and do my run. The trips were usually to sites no more than an hour away and I always could be back by mid-afternoon. On returning, I'd fixed myself another pot of coffee and screw my butt to my writing chair for a couple hours, just to make sure I didn't waste any working time. I knew darn well the clock was ticking, always ticking, on my retreat, and I was determined to get my money's worth.

With dinner--the house came with a very serviceable kitchen--I'd allow myself a couple beers or glasses of wine. I am not ashamed to say I took advantage of the great prices on French wine at the Geant store, where I bought almost everything I ate or drank during my stay. I think anyone who has really worked all day at a writers retreat, or at any mental work, can appreciate the special bliss of a couple well-earned drinks with dinner. I'm not and never have been a smoker but I'd guess that only the "first cigarette in the morning" bliss that smokers recall can rival beer after hard mental work as a pure soul and body pleasure. After dinner, I'd sometimes write in my journal. Or I'd read. Or I'd email my wife with the day's news. (Sometimes, she'd just be getting up while I was heading to bed.) I usually skimmed through French tv, a never ending fascination, mainly to see which American shows they liked enough to show (with dubbed French, of course) and to try to figure why those shows. I probably conked out around 10:30.

It was a serviceable and successful schedule and I kept to it, more or less, seven days a week. (All right, so maybe I lounged a bit more on Sundays.) I don't know if it sounds to you like I made it too easy or too hard on myself, whether I allowed myself enough opportunity to simply see Provence, but I'd say that I pushed myself exactly as hard as I should have--and, besides, I got to see Provence every single morning of my stay when I went out for my run. When my family arrived at the end of the month, I put down writing work and enjoyed the place as thoroughly and normally as any visitor does. At the point I was ready, I was so ready, to see them again; and because I'd worked so hard I didn't feel the least guilt in soaking up the south of France for another fortnight. We did a lot of great things as a family, but looking back the really glorious and unique time was those three, nose-to-the-grindstone weeks.

(Above: My writing desk in Arles. In order to give my knees room, and not kill my back from leaning over, I had to prop up the thing on old books I borrowed from the homeowner's shelves. I hope I didn't ruin them. I took this picture shortly before I pulled away the books and "broke down" the desk in anticipation of my family's arrival. I spent as much time at that desk as anywhere in the house. I was feeling nostalgic by the time I started setting it in order.)


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