For the past week, I’ve had the great good fortune to be on a solo writing retreat in the seaside village of Onset, which is a small peninsula (just 1.3 square miles) that extends into Buzzards Bay near Cape Cod. It’s a lovely, eclectic, peculiar community of tiny cottages inhabited by close-knit neighbors whose families have been connected to the village for generations. And when I say “connected,” I mean connected: The village was originally built in the 1880s as a summer camp meeting for Spiritualists. The cottages were used as second homes for people from Boston and other northeastern towns who would come to Onset for gatherings in which mediums would speak to the dead. What better place for a writer in search of a whispering muse?
One of the many joys of being here has been biking and walking nearly every street in the compact village. The cottages sit cheek by jowl, so in a short walk there are plenty of homes to gaze upon. And dream about. And wonder how much square footage and is there a downstairs bathroom and how old is the septic system…? (If you haven’t yet read my August 7 blog post “There’s a Reason They Call It an Obsession,” now might be a good time to do so, just so you’re up to speed on my relentless desire to own property that I really, really don’t want to own.
Many of the cottages here in Onset have names. Weather-beaten signs attached to the front door or the chimney or the widow’s walk announce the house’s appellation. Some of these designations seem to be mostly about the house itself: Eastlook or The Red Cloud Cottage or Shellpoint House or Gull's Nest. Some seem to reference the spirit of the community itself: Happy Ours or Seas the Day. But others seem to point directly into the soul of the resident.
For example, when I see the house named Happily Ever After, a neat little cottage facing the ocean, I picture a retired couple. They worked for years to raise their family, launch their children into the world as adults, keep up the family summer cottage—probably renting it to out-of-towners for most summers to help pay the double mortgage, doing the weekly housecleaning and yard work themselves to make the income go a bit farther. They did without when they had to, but always kept their eyes on the horizon. And finally, they were able to sell the triple-decker in Boston and retire to the village to become “year-rounders.” At least that’s my version.
Or the house on West Boulevard named, Night Rule, which brings to mind wild nights of sweaty poker playing in one’s underwear; the thick, blue smoke of cigars; and the occasional but always ill-conceived skinny dip in Shell Point Bay. I wonder if the residents of Night Rule know that “night-rule” is a “nonce-word,” that is a word created for one single occasion only. In this case, “night-rule” was coined, used, and discarded after one use by none other than William Shakespeare. It’s spoken by Oberon, the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and its very definition is in dispute. According to some scholars, it means “revelry” or “frolic” (that is, something lighthearted, fun, and of no lasting consequence). But other Shakespearean scholars insist it means “havoc” or “mayhem,” which connotes something a little darker and more menacing.
Now that I think of it, I’m certain the owner of the lovely seaside cottage is well aware of the meaning and origin of the house’s name: Night Rule. I’m revising my original picture of the bacchanal. (Writers are allowed to do that. Change their minds completely and rewrite a scene. Isn’t that awesome?) Now my revised picture is of wild nights in the seaside cottage spent reading The Riverside Shakespeare, which contains the complete works of the bard and which was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received as a teenager. (While Oberon was King of the Fairies, I was Queen of the Nerds.)
All of this makes me think about what I would name my own summer cottage. (Not that I’m going to buy one because I really, really don’t want to own one. (See Obsessions.)) I can picture it: gray-shingled and weathered, facing the sea without fear, a place where writing has a chance to happen. I think about the rhythm of my writing days this past week and the work I’ve accomplished on not one, but two books.
In the morning, I wake up, knowing that the entire day lies before me, uninterrupted, unfractured, full of possibilities and free of all responsibilities. At that moment, I would name my seaside cottage Great Expectations.
The work begins. There are many false starts. I stumble. The pathway is unclear, unmarked. But slowly, the story begins to take shape and there is the beginning of something. It isn’t much, but it’s unmistakable: something is on the page that wasn’t there before. That’s when I would name my cottage Birth of a Notion.
The hours pass. I’ve been unusually productive in this retreat house. I’m so grateful for the time, the silence, the emptiness that allows the ineffable process of writing to take place. And then, something unexpected happens. A character says something I hadn’t seen coming. Or an idea pops into my head as I sit on the beach, burying my toes in the hot sand. Or it suddenly occurs to me that the plot needs to move in a wholly different direction. Ask me the name of my cottage then, and I would say Unexpected Revelation.
Now I’m in the zone. The new idea has re-energized me, and all kinds of “stuff” is spilling out. It might be god-awful crap, and thankfully I won’t know that until tomorrow when the whole process begins again, but for now, the pages pile up and it is all glittering brilliance. My cottage is named Spun Gold. Or perhaps simply Bliss.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. After many productive hours, the gears start to grind a little more slowly. The ideas don’t seem quite so shiny. My brain is tired and my body wants chocolate and my spirit begins to sag. The sign banging against the outside of my cottage has changed. It now reads Diminishing Returns.
At day’s end, I assess: did I accomplish as much as I had hoped? If not that, did I at least get enough done? Or, on the darkest days, I ask myself did I get anything of value done? These questions are pointless. When I’m on retreat, the best I can do is the best I can do.
I’ve recently taken up bicycling again. Just as a means of transport. A way to get to the grocery store, the library, and the bank without taking my car out of the garage. I’m hopelessly out of shape. I plod up hills. Packs of ten-year-old boys zigzag past me, sometimes looping and circling me, just because they can. Occasionally, I have to get off the bike and walk—head hung low and filled with shame. But I’ve developed a new mantra as I struggle to keep pedaling when the bike seems to be traveling negative miles per hour: “Go as far as you can, and then stop.” It’s also my new mantra for writing retreats. Great expectations are wonderful at the beginning of the day, and I’m always astonished by and filled with gratitude for those unexpected revelations, but in the end, you go as far as you can and then you stop. And it’s good. So when all is said and done, I think my cottage would be named: A Good Place to Stop.
And here it is.