Reflections on Writing Residency by two Straw Dog Members

Bernadette with Patricia (owner of Patchwork Retreat)

Writers Desk in Eagles Nest

Desk Buddy SD Coffee

Many details of Patchwork

Rainy day run

The Sound of Silence by Bernadette Duncan Harrison

In my world, silence is not necessarily golden. I’ve spent much of my media career as a radio and television talk show producer and writer. For 26 years, I worked with the likes of stars such as Larry King, Lou Dobbs, Tom Snyder, Sally Jessy Raphael and Ricki Lake. That translates into thousands of hours of lively, sometimes intense, conversations. Today, my husband and I run an active radio business hosting and creating talk shows and podcasts for stations and networks around the country, as well as publishing an industry trade magazine. Whether we work from the fully-equipped radio and production studio in our basement, a Skype-connection in our dining room, or a cell phone in the living room, it seems the whole house is “wired.”

So, as one of five fortunate Straw Dog members recently granted a writing residency at Patchwork Farm Retreat, I asked myself a serious question. Would I – could I – actually disengage from my non-stop, audio-packed life for immersion in a bubble of silence on a writers’ retreat? (I had never experienced this type of thing before.) Thanks to the generous donation from an anonymous member of the Guild – and the nurturing kindness of its organizers – the answer made itself known when I dove into the adventure this past October.

I had no idea how inspirational six days of sustained silence could be – especially when nestled in a rustic, yet elegant, mountaintop home surrounded by nature. This temporary escape from the distractions of day-to-day life showed me how easily the world can hijack this writer from that special but elusive place that exists beneath (and beyond) surface consciousness. It was a silence that allowed me to focus on the “simplest” sights and sounds so often lost in my noisy world back home. From my second floor cocoon aptly named “Eagles Nest,” I heard autumn leaves rustling, an acorn pinging on the rooftop, and the call of an unfamiliar creature in the surrounding darkness outside my window. And, yes, somewhere in the distance, I could hear chimes – which at one point made me wonder if they were real or imaginary. To reference a song title from Simon & Garfunkel, these truly were the sounds of silence.

My eyes also gobbled up their own sensory feast: a billowy fog rolling in from the peak of Mt. Tom and the stunning sunrise at dawn. This is quite a planet we have here. Funny, when you are in a city or just even a town… you are in a city or town. When you are in a place like Patchwork Farm Retreat… you are on a planet!

My calm mind regularly erupted with ideas and I found myself writing up a storm.  Speaking of which, the “writerly gods” ordered up a five-day, moody rainstorm for this newbie retreater. It not only enhanced the experience but sparked a special new friendship, as well.

What would a writers’ retreat be without a little drama? After nearly 45 hours of non-stop rain and winds, the lights dimmed, then went out, as did everything else. Talk about silence. Moments later, Patricia Lee Lewis, our esteemed Straw Dog colleague and host of Patchwork Farm Retreat, met me at the stairs to report that the electric company was checking to see if a fallen tree had snapped any of the wires leading to the house. A likely possibility given the hundreds of trees that surrounded us.

I must have been in full “retreat mode” because even though Patricia offered me keys to the truck so I could “escape” and work at the local library, I did not budge. “Let’s stick it out together and check in with one another in two or three hours,” I said. When 45-minutes passed and the lights came back on, here’s what happened next: a friendship was ignited. Patricia and I were like schoolgirls bursting into laughter, following up with a bear hug.

In keeping with the spirit of the silence, I never used an alarm. And despite the extended rainfall, I jolted my circulation every morning by going for my ritual run through many of the trails that snake through the property. I discovered that this was the part of heaven where it snowed red and yellow leaves.  Back to the original question – could I actually disengage from distraction and write? The answer was yes. I was at my desk every morning before 7:00 am. Ten or more hours later, I was still there, interrupted only by a run. Two days in, I was at one with the new routine. Part of a retreat, I gathered, was to live the life of which all writers dream: write when you want, hike when you want, and read when you want. Or you could just stare out the window and think about the outside world, the inside world, and the one growing in the document on your laptop.

My goal was to dive into one of two manuscripts I hoped to finish before the end of 2018. It’s designed to help the published writer strategize and prep the skills it takes to be a successful guest on talk shows – that is, if first he or she can get the producer’s attention. (I know how hard that is, having combed through thousands of pitches over the decades when I was on that side of the desk.) Having already written a book about my 26-year career as a talk show producer, I understood the commitment of plunking one’s bottom in a chair to tap out ideas. With the almost “white noise” of rain pelleting the windowpane for most of my retreat stay, I discovered I could actually do that and for hours at a time.

And talk about cozy. My new habitat had all the basic creature comforts at arm’s length: tea, coffee, a refrigerator packed with my favorite goodies from home, and plenty of natural light. If you’re into details as am I, you’d also be taken by the treasures inside and outside this little nest – the cherry-wood shelves jammed with books, a bright blue-and-yellow porcelain bathroom sink that takes you on an imaginary detour to colorful Latin America, and multiple outdoor Buddha statues that greet you from around the property serving as a reminder of the retreat’s deeper mission. And then there was Mother Nature’s fingerprint – an exposed tree root on one of the trails that appeared to feature the carving of a wolf’s portrait.

On the sixth day, the rain stopped. I awoke at 5:38 am and was taken by a sight I’ve never witnessed before: Venus twinkling outside my window directly in my line of vision. As the “morning star” faded ever so slowly, the rising sun brought on purple-blue-red-and orange from behind the mountain, until, finally, I was forced to “swoosh” the drapes closed.

On this final day with iPhone in hand, I bounded for the outdoors. Purple mushrooms had popped up everywhere and a minty scent rose from the brush. Patchwork Farm looked different in sunlight. Before long, I was back in my perch again, tapping out a few more words. Inspired again, even without the rain.

We all have to go back to our lives… and we should count our blessings that we have them – along with all those distractions that come with the deal. But as a writer who has experienced the sounds of silence at Patchwork Farm Retreat, I know there is a place within me – regardless of my surroundings – where I can go to connect to that amazing well of creativity that bubbles just under the surface of this noisy world.

Bernadette Duncan is author of YAPPY DAYS: Behind the Scenes with Newsers, Schmoozers, Boozers, and Losers and is currently working on a project to help authors refine their skills as guests on radio and TV talk shows.

Photos by Bernadette Duncan Harrison

Letter from Ziji Beth Goren

Hi, Straw Dog Writers!

I am feeling so deeply grateful for the opportunity gifted to me at the SD/Patchwork Farm writing retreat this past week. What an amazing experience I had during my 6 days–the ability and time to truly focus, make choices undisturbed by day-to-day activities, walk daily on land that recalls my history and service.

This special quiet time on a vast and penetrating expanse of long-spirited woodlands inspired an inner fire for completing a work-in-progress. It renewed my faith, allowed me to concentrate on a chosen manuscript that has been sitting for a looong time awaiting this opportunity. The clear block of designated time held a structure that assisted me to the finishing touches and the finish-line. And the residency as a whole offered me the unbridled privacy and freedom on the horse of writing, editing, getting it right!

What an extraordinary blessing ?. I completed my work the night prior to departure, checking in with it again the last morning. With my deepest being refreshed and confidence renewed, I now have the courage to SUBMIT (the manuscript, that is!)

A new swell of appreciation fills my heart. Was it simply the space and time to move gracefully ahead with the work day by day? Or the way the full moon rose up, shining above the cupola, preparing my heart for the final morn?–the sweetly satisfied goodbyes, the packing up and driving down Westhampton’s hilly terrain back to Amherst.

Whatever it was remains within every cell of me as I write this message.

Thank you Straw Dog readers/organizers!
Thank you Patricia and Patchwork staff support (Jenny!)
Thank you, generous donor who laid the financial foundation for this amazing program!

I BOW to YOU ALL as I encourage other writers to apply for this fulfilling residency.

Ziji Beth Goren

Interested in applying for a residency

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