Author, Speaker and Entrepreneur

Author, Speaker and Entrepreneur
Valerie Anne Burns

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Runaway Retreat

     Since my manuscript was taunting me and I couldn't seem to get a footing to launch into the daunting revision notes from my editor, I decided to seek a quiet space to write. After a few hours of research, I came across a retreat that appeared to be the answer. It was all about where I could sequester myself and get to work with focused concentration. Over the Internet, I concluded that it would be the perfect solution since my living space is continually over run with traffic noise.

     What's the expression - "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

     My first experience on this adventure was getting lost after driving 4 1/2 hours. Once I started up the mountain, my cell reception dropped and along with it, google maps. I went old school and stopped at a stranger's home for verbal directions. I was so grateful for friendly help because I would never have found my destination up a curving redwood canopied road to the top of a mountain.

     I arrived at Mount Madonna near Watsonville in Northern California among the majestic redwoods - a rather rustic site with basic accommodations. It's an Ayurveda and yoga retreat with all vegetarian meals included. It was a mix of Hippie and Hindu. Everyone was nice and deeply laid back, and most of the staff lived there full-time for free in trade for working at the retreat. As a newbie to retreat life, it was a stunning thought to think of being so cut off from the real world.

     It dawned on me that the day I checked in on June 30th, marked exactly one-year since my eighth surgery. I was immediately struck by the serendipity. I never fully grasped that I'd not taken any time to heal and nurture myself in any type of retreat - spa or otherwise. It was due to a combination of no money for luxuries and in a state of continual fight-or-flight. I feel as if fight-or-flight state-of-being has been second nature since early childhood--a necessary tool for racing over high hurdles, keeping a roof over my head, fighting for my life and surviving. It's not a matter of avoiding the dark and difficult, but the way I found to get through... that, and noticing the exquisite beauty in nature on a daily basis.

     I went to the retreat with an intention to write but it blossomed into something else. I knew it would at least get me in the zone... or so I hoped. I was distracted by interesting conversations that spontaneously came about. I couldn't find a writing spot since it was an active retreat, and my cabin room consisted of two twin beds only. I allowed for the unexpected, which I discovered was far easier to do away from home and routine.

     It was like closing my eyes, taking my hands off the steering wheel and allowing myself to trust without the expectation of what I thought it would be.

     I booked a massage and spa treatment that followed Ayurveda practice. It was life-changing. I felt myself melt and booked a second treatment meant to be healing, grounding and good for the nervous system. Because of a last minute cancellation, I slipped into a consultation with the best Ayurvedic doctor on the property - her last appointment before returning to Nepal. I attended the hour 1/2 Asana yoga class twice, which is complimentary to guests. I met a woman from Manhattan who, like me, wanted to hike in the redwoods but a mountain lion had recently been seen on a trail. We decided to buddy up and and brave the woods. We were talking so much and commenting on the beauty that the mountain lion nervousness stayed behind. It was a near two-hour hike in a towering redwood forest where we appeared miniature in its centuries old magnificence.

     There were three tasty and nourishing meals a day where connections and conversations flowed in the most natural way. Time flew by from one meal to the next. I was hit with an awareness that unfolded without a moment's thought. I didn't resit, I opened to it being what it was - a restorative retreat. A first for me! The twists and turns that changed my sincere efforts in an intended plan became a blessing in disguise.

     Other interesting and revealing things took place: A new friendship, meeting a potential romantic partner who lived up that way flat-lined, connected with an old crush, and a random email came in to announce that I was awarded a free healing retreat in Cancun for breast cancer survivors--I had applied for it a few months ago and forgot about it. Total surprise and a gift.

     The second retreat I was going to (where I really thought I'd really get writing done) since I couldn't get enough consecutive days in one place called to tell me that their construction would not end at the planned date. I had to cancel. Construction noise defeated the purpose of being enveloped by quiet in a Buddhist retreat that's known to be a place where sounds of nature and bells are the only sounds you hear. What I thought would be a 10-15 day trip to get a good start on the book revision and possibly a romantic adventure, didn't happen.

     But, what did happen is that I became aware, as different things unfolded without my doing or control, that it was easy to accept and even embrace the experience. It may have been a runaway retreat, but I didn't mind being a runaway from my routine. As much as I steer clear from cliches and guru-type quotes, all of it was truly 'meant to be'. It was, in fact, a restorative and healing getaway where I felt pampered, connected, and safe enough to let go of a familiar fight-or-flight state-of-mind. Writing will come and possibly flow better than I expected.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

My Manuscript is Taunting Me


     There it sits. After years of work and literally blood sweat and tears, (including gallons of fluid post-surgeries) I have a draft. A couple months ago, I was connected to a smart and capable editor through an old friend, and knew immediately she was the perfect one. There was no long Google search for fabulous non-fiction editors and asking other writers for a referral. My experienced editor magically came into my life. I was 3/4 of the way through my second pass when we made the decision to work together.    
     Truly motivated, I worked day and night to finish. I felt this great sense of relief to hand it over for a fresh pair of eyes to hopefully ground me in some brilliant way. I was both terrified and excited to see what would come back. Six weeks later, I received my manuscript with smart and daunting notes to create a polished draft. My editor, enthusiastic about my writing and the potential of my book creating a new form of creative non-fiction, decided it was her calling to shepherd me through to a finished draft. Needless to say, I was deeply grateful. There is nothing simple about the next step though... more like 10 steps to accomplish this re-write fete. 
     I printed out the 200 plus pages. It's the first time I've seen my book in hard copy. I was struck by its weighty content. For several days, it sat on the table taunting me. I simply stared at it. So many thoughts ran through my head: I can't do this. The editor has such astute notes and I don't want to let her down. I'm not a good enough writer to pull off the vision my editor has in mind. I was the one who supported writers for film by working story ideas and editing, but never the writer. I can't survive another failure...on and on the thoughts flowed. All my insecurities ran amok forcing me to face the dragon.
     Several years ago, when I took the one and only writing class through Adult Ed, my beloved teacher, Anne, told me to apply for a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I asked her to repeat what she'd just said. I was a rookie. For the next few weeks, Anne continued to ask, and I trusted her so I relented and applied. I won a full scholarship. I was surprised--Anne wasn't. It was no different when I applied to the prestigious Prague Summer Writing Program. I was in the middle of a difficult recovery from a 6th surgery, and I was seeking something to occupy my mind...something to dream about. It was also an exercise to gain experience in putting together a writing submission. 
     When I received not only the acceptance, but a $1000 scholarship, I sobbed. It was the most exciting and stunning news I'd received in a very long time. Every talented writer (my co-students where 95% of them were younger than me) in the program possessed a B.A., M.A., PhD or even a Doctorate. Not me. It was both flattering and intimidating to be attending. One thing's for sure, it kept me on my toes! And I basked in the stimulating beauty of Prague while gaining a learning experience that will never leave me.
     By now, I should be use to being the fish-out-of-water. It seems as though I've flown by the seat of my pants my entire life. Jump in and do it. No formal training. I talked my way into the film business and proved myself from there. I have fashion and design background, but having a good eye is an instinctual talent. I started my business as a makeover specialist for wardrobe and home with a business card only. I knew no one in town and built it brick-by-brick. Writing the book is my latest venture and it's been a long winding road to get to this moment
     But, I've never fully tasted success. Certainly not financially.
    Like I said, I get by by the seat of my pants. I rise to the occasion as best I can. And, as the manuscript weighs down my little drop-leaf table, I must meet the challenge. I feel exhausted knowing the concentrated focus it will require to succeed. I vacillate from renewed faith to a feeling that the book is drifting out to sea while I remain isolated and frozen in contemplation of a lifetime of insecurities and setbacks. 
     Personally, I find it fascinating that faith in myself is buoyed by a person I highly respect having immense faith in me. Why do many of us do this? Why do artists continually doubt themselves? I envy those who possess strong foundations and go boldly in the night. There's a part of me that believes that kind of brazen faith in oneself comes first, from a parent's unconditional love, support, and pride. Perhaps this is naive, but I have a nagging sense that it's the missing link for me.
     When I attended a reading recently, the director of the event asked if there was any news from the audience. I raised my hand to acknowledge the friend I'd shown up to support who was doing a reading from her book of short stories--A friend and co-student, I hadn't seen since our Prague writing program and great adventure. I quickly added: "And, I just finished a draft of my book". Everyone acknowledged my statement. It was an impressive reading by seasoned writers. Later, when I gave kudos to one of the writers who read poems, he said, "hey, congrats on completing your draft... that is a big accomplishment". Yes, I must give myself credit for getting this far. I've yet to celebrate a giant step toward the finish line, but I plan to.
     Maybe when I clink cocktail glasses with a friend for my accomplishment, I'll take a deep breath and muster the confidence and energy to take on the task at hand. The task and worthy adventure millions of writers have taken on before me. 
     I will finish my book.

Keep on swimming through life,