My three-week writing vacation in Provence
A writing vacation? Really? I’m retired, so I should have all the time in the world to write. Right? If you’re currently in a ball-busting job (sorry all the juicy descriptors don’t have gender neutral equivalents) you are nodding in disbelief. But that’s okay, I get it. When I was working and my retired friends told me they were so much busier after retiring from their demanding careers I wanted to tell them, well, to suck my dick.
But for those of you who are off the clock, you understand completely. Day-to-day life is now filled with volunteering; being a better daughter, sister, neighbor and friend; caring for your home, garden and lawn because you no longer have to hire it done; reading, writing, exercising, being kind to yourself — and traveling!
After arguing with those annoying voices in my head, I concluded it was okay to take the money out of my retirement fund and travel 4,400 miles to write. I confirmed my stay with friends who own a chambre d’hôte (Bed and Breakfast) and went online last Black Friday to book a cheap flight to Marseilles.
In mid-February, I returned to Fox-Amphoux, a beautiful countryside village in southern France. It was there, in 2010, where I attended my first Women’s Writers Retreat. The workshop was co-led by fellow iPinion contributor and author, Georgeanne Brennan and author and advisor to the Alliance for Global Sustainability, Joanne Kauffman (who has since become a dear friend.) I returned in 2012 to hatch my second short story about growing up in difficult circumstances. Under Joanne and Georgeanne’s nurturing guidance, I felt like a writer.
But each time I returned home, that confidence slipped away. I couldn’t seem to buckle down to add to my collection of two short stories and ultimately combine them into my book. Discipline, rhythm, whatever you want to call it — I didn’t have it. So I decided to return to Provence for inspiration and serenity.
I’m happy to say I found that and more. Eventually.
First I had to suffer the eight-hour flight from Chicago to Madrid and then another 90 minutes to Marseilles. I came down with the unavoidable airplane cold and accompanying binding of the bowels (I finally sent my brown submarine out to sea by day four.)
In my fourth trip to Europe I was quickly reminded of their respect for the environment, not always shared by the États-Unis. The B&B’s main source of heat is solar panels, followed by a wood stove and supplemented by natural gas. Menopause robbed me of my usual hot flashes the entire time. I piled on the layers and was thankful for the sunny days of banked energy. Clothes dryers are rarely used overseas so my bath towels were crunchy. The only soft terry for this Terri was the washcloth I brought from home. . . Europeans don’t use ’em. It was funny but I found myself missing that immediate gratification of hearing my wee splash in the toilet bowl — no water is wasted there!
I settled into French life and scooted off to outdoor markets and lovely little shops in nearby villages.
Although many Europeans speak English I used my sketchy French every chance I got. One day we drove about 90 minutes south to Sainte-Maxime and I saw the magnificent Mediterranean for the first time. I popped in to Catholic churches in Tourtour, Aups and Cotignac to light candles for family and friends. I’m basically a slacker when it comes to religion but there’s something so moving about being in these beautiful and ornate old chapels after hours, just you and a match. Oh and two euros donation per candle!
After about a week I finally found a rhythm. I slept in a lot. Most mornings I took nice walks in the fields or just sat in the sun with my iPad, catching up on emails and the news of the day. I’m a political junkie and the primary elections were just getting started. Oy vey! I found a very comfortable spot in my spacious room and worked from late morning until I had enough. I brought along writing exercises and, of course, kept a journal to hone my craft. And I read a great little mystery set in the French countryside.
Most evenings I had out-of-this-world dinners with the friends I’d made at the writers retreats, B&B owners, Katja and Martin. They’re a sweet Dutch couple fluent in English, French and German and fascinated with our politics. I had my hands full trying to explain the whole Donald Trump thing. How could American voters be so stupid? I had no answers. So I kept my mouth full of goat cheese and salmon and bread and pizza with goat cheese and quiche and profiteroles to stall while I made an attempt to explain the stupid, mouth-breathing fools who believe Trump will make America great again. It didn’t work but we had lots of laughs at those fools’ expense.
By the end of my holiday I had come to some very important conclusions.
My two short stories written long ago are not very good. You know how Anne Lamott coined the phrase “shitty first draft”? Well these were just plain shitty. Which isn’t a bad thing. I humbly believe I’m a better writer now. And I’m happy to have documented the incidents from my childhood that occurred when I was three and ten. They will be rewritten as chapters in my book. I was hung up on the short story concept and had been stuck trying to figure how to avoid repeating the background in each separate story to have it all make sense. And honestly I think I was a bit lazy because I’d already written two and didn’t want them to go to waste. It seems so obvious now, but I didn’t see it.
I plowed through 12 years of journaling and notes from therapy sessions I’d brought along. I categorized them by reoccurring themes to outline what my story is about. When you’re writing an unsettling memoir you worry about exposing yourself and your family to the world. You feel shame for things you had no control over and guilt over betraying family secrets. I learned that, in addition to the normal battles all writers go through to pen even the happiest of events, my impasse was what I was writing rather than where or when to write. In the unplugged calmness of the French countryside, I heard the voice of my younger self, wanting her story to be told.
So I’m unapologetically going to write this book. Not to shoot for the New York Times Bestseller list or show other little girls they too can rise from the ashes. I need to do this for myself. And once it’s done I’ll decide if I want to go the literary agent route to try and get published, or to self-publish or to never publish.
This trip taught me it’s okay to be gentle with myself and to invest time and money towards my well-being. It’s not only okay to be alone with my thoughts but it’s necessary to face all the memories head-on so my history doesn’t disappear. So I don’t disappear.