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Hollyhock Journal: Deep Writing with Eric Maisel


I’m turning forty in September, and as a birthday present to myself, I went to Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing workshop at Hollyhock retreat centre on Cortes Island. (Eric is my creativity guru. He trained me as a coach and his teaching has had a huge influence on my life. So meeting him in person and spending six days in session with him was a big deal for me.)

Inspired by Nova Ren Suma’s Writer’s Colony Diary, I kept a journal of my time at Hollyhock.

Here it is. (I’ll warn you now that it’s a long post, almost 4,000 words, but I trust you’ll find it interesting.)

Day 1: Friday, August 9

9:56 pm

The basement Chat Room is the only depressing place at Hollyhock. Almost as if they made it drab and gloomy on purpose to punish us for needing technology when we’re supposed to be having a glorious unplugged experience in nature. And yes, I plan to breathe the fresh air and do yoga and walk in the garden.

But I also plan to write like the dickens. And for that I need my computer.

Computers are not welcome in the Lodge or the Ocean Deck or my dorm room. Computers are only allowed in the Chat Room and in Bluff House, where Eric Maisel is leading our Deep Writing workshop. So I am looking at cement walls in fluorescent light and listening to some kind of generator noise because my computer is verboten elsewhere. This will not stop me.

My alarm woke me before 5 am today so I could make the day’s journey to Cortes Island. My itinerary was thus:

  • City bus downtown
  • Greyhound bus to Horseshoe Bay
  • Ferry to Nanaimo
  • Greyhound bus to Campbell River
  • Ferry to Quadra Island
  • Taxi across Quadra
  • Ferry to Cortes Island
  • Shuttle van to Hollyhock

I happily spent the time by myself, reading Small Damages by Beth Kephart, listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, napping, watching the scenery, and taking self-portrait photos. But the whole way I was dogged by what I would normally call guilt but is more accurately named “distress at making others’ lives more difficult in order to do something nice for myself.” It’s not that I feel undeserving of this five-day escape to what is basically summer camp for grown-ups. I just struggle with how it puts other people out. My friend Alex babysat the kids for the day. I left Shawn with practically no groceries in the house and a scribbled meal plan on a sticky note. He will have to go to Costco with two children BY HIMSELF. He will have to leave work early to pick Lia up from circus camp. All the things I usually do. I should have let myself feel exultant to get away, but instead I felt distressed.

But when I arrived on Cortes around 4:30 pm, the specialness of this time and place started to seep in. I went swimming in the ocean and saw a purple starfish. I ate plums from the garden, and cake sprinkled with marigold blossoms, and dates so pure I was sure they were the Platonic ideal of dates of which all others are a pale imitation.

Best of all, I spent 90 minutes in a room with Eric Maisel and eleven other writers. Eric is masterful at telling writers what they so desperately need to hear — that creative anxiety is utterly normal, and that we can still show up, trust the process, dispute the thoughts that don’t serve us, and do the hard work because we are writers. With the assured cadence of his voice, he had us eating out of his hand in no time. At the end of the discussion, instead of sending us to our rooms, he told us to write for 20 minutes. We all dove in with pencils and pens scratching, chomping at the bit to get words down on paper.

Afterward, I came to the Chat Room so I could download my 750words.com journal entries from last year. My plan is to write Part 5 of Pilgrimage of Desire while I’m here. Twelve or fifteen thousand words. No, scratch that. My plan is to write like the dickens, as much as I want, whenever I want. Look at that, I just did.


Day 2: Saturday, August 10

10:39 am

It’s our first Deep Writing morning session and I’ve spent the last twenty minutes staring and sighing at my laptop screen. I’m trying to figure out where to re-enter Pilgrimage — I stopped working on the draft three weeks ago, just before we left for our Ontario vacation. I did do some free-writing about our time in Europe, but I’ve lost the thread of the narrative, a sense of the structure, what belongs in each chapter. There’s too much, and I don’t have all the building blocks in front of me, so I’m not sure how to start piecing things together.

I wonder whether I should work on something else, something that’s easier to start. I don’t want to waste my time here (waste? How would I waste it? I’m engaged with my writing. What more can I do than show up and trust the process and make mistakes?). This morning I woke up before 6 am (thank you, jet lag) and read over my journal entries from last summer. Flooded myself with emotions and images from that turbulent time in my life when we were trying to get settled in Ontario and then suddenly took a wild left turn to Vancouver, when I was trying to write two books at once and getting thoroughly over-worked-up.

Afterward I went to yoga and continued to be bombarded with random images from my past: the library in Alphen aan de Rijn, a street in Beijing, Nico’s Angry Birds pillow that I used as a zafu in Malaysia, the cover of a John Gardner book. Feeling buffeted by double-vision, here and not-here. Is Pilgrimage the thing I want to work on here? I do want to make progress on it. But I want to be open to this experience in the present, not living in the past. But that is what I must do to write a memoir. So I dither, re-read, edit, worry. Then I come here to work it out in words.

For a while I’ve been thinking of writing cards for the Post Secret project. When the idea came back to me last night, it gave me a jolt. I wonder whether the gift shop has post cards? I wonder why I feel this need to get the secrets out. I wonder whether I dare to even write them down. I wonder what that experience would be like. I wonder whether I am just trying to avoid sitting with Pilgrimage.


11:29 am

Next writing session. I’m trying again with the book. Here are the thoughts that are not serving me at the moment:

  • That chapter is banal and needs a lot of editing.
  • I am so sick of myself.
  • Why can’t I see the shape of this chapter? Usually I can see it.
  • Now I have too much source material. I could spend hours reading notes and not write anything.
  • I am really sick of myself.

Eric is talking about ways to calm our anxiety and stay with the writing. If I weren’t in session, I would probably take a nap right now. A way of fleeing the anxiety. Instead, I need to disperse it some other way. This journal helps. But I need some better thoughts.

  • I can always go back and edit.
  • My story will be interesting to the people who need it.
  • Sometimes I see the shape, sometimes I don’t. I know I’ll find it.
  • I’m here to write.
  • I love my story, even when I’m sick of it.

Tears on that last one. And here’s another one: “I am not my story.” Pilgrimage is not me, it’s my work. I can be sick of my work without rejecting myself. And I can stay with my work even when I’m sick of it. I can find things I like about it.

I’m also watching myself go through this, saying, yes, yes, you know how this goes. You recognize the resistance and how to persist and reframe. You’re moving around, trying to find out what the work requires. You’re okay. You’re not doing it wrong. You don’t need to have prepared better. You showed up where you’re at and you’re curious about how this process will unfold. It may not be dramatic. There may be no epiphany. That’s okay. You’re okay. You can keep trying again.

What Eric is teaching us, and what I’m remembering again, is that writing isn’t a mountaintop experience. It’s part of our daily life. So in a place like this, with the pressure to have a really profound experience of change and enlightenment, I need to give myself extra permission to just have the experience I’m having. I anticipated this issue ahead of time, of wanting the retreat to count EXTRA SPECIAL MUCH, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid it.

I used to only have mountaintop writing experiences, because I had so much resistance and anxiety that it took a crucible like this to break through it. Now I have a regular writing practice — yes, it could be more regular, but it’s pretty darn regular. Isn’t it more valuable to have a regular practice than a spectacular experience?

Am I thinking now that I didn’t need this workshop, I didn’t need to be here? I already know deep writing, I just need to keep doing it? Hmm, I’m going to say, I haven’t discovered why I need this workshop yet. I am prepared to discover why. I won’t try to decide why ahead of time.


2:07 pm

I went to lunch stewing in my funk. It didn’t help that I was ravenous — I overate at dinner last night and promised not to repeat the experience this morning, but I should have had another egg and more apricot polenta to tide me over.

I ate alone because I was too rattled to make small talk. But after lunch I took my coffee to sit with a few other Deep Writing participants. Pyx, a painter in her seventies who lives on Hornby Island, asked me how my book was going.

“I’m struggling,” I confessed. “If I were at home this would just be an off writing day and I’d try again tomorrow. But it’s the big, expensive retreat that I’ve been looking forward to for a year, so it’s frustrating that things aren’t going well.”

“What would you say if you were coaching yourself?” she asked.

Good question. The fact that I’m supposed to know this stuff already makes it worse.

“I guess I’d say that I should decide to relax and just have the experience I’m having instead of feeling bad for not having a peak experience.”

“Does it make a difference that Eric is here?” I had told Pyx that I studied with him and looked up to him very much.

“Most of what he’s saying is familiar — I’ve heard him say it before or I’ve said it to others. I’m not going to have the exciting epiphany that I see others having, where they have a sudden hope that their writing life can be better, because I already have a pretty good writing life.”

“You miss the high,” Pyx said.

“Yes. That’s right.”

Pyx talked a little about her own creative disappointments. She’s worked as a painter for decades, but her art is not in the Whitney or MOMA. She didn’t have a solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. And yet there are three hundred, four hundred people who have bought her paintings and find them meaningful. Shouldn’t that be enough for her?

I’m blinking back tears as she talks because I feel her disappointment and my own, and because I’m glad to be having this moment of connection with her.

“I notice that I discount other people’s meaningful experiences with my previous work,” I said, “because I’m no longer having a meaningful experience with that work. So the book of short stories I published a decade ago, or the blog post I put out last year, they don’t count with me anymore, even though other people are just finding them and appreciating them. Like Eric was saying, it brings me back to the primacy of my own sense of meaning when I write.”

“Yes,” said Pyx. “I decided that, whatever happened before, I am here, now, writing.”

We talked more about my book. I told her that the last section was about our move to Vancouver, about grieving something that’s over even when the new thing is very good, about trying to preserve the values of Operation Hejira even when we weren’t on the road. About being ordinary again after you’ve been special.

“I missed the high,” I said.

Pyx asked more questions and we wrestled the themes back and forth: the call to adventure, adapting to changing needs, material simplicity. She said that she thought the thread of connection with family would be especially compelling for young parents struggling to enjoy each other amid the avalanche of stuff and activities.

She got me excited again about the book. And she helped me look at it as a book again, and not as a mass of memories.

“Thank you for talking to me about it,” I said. “I’m going to try to stay in the now.”

“Could this moment be any better?” Pyx asked, holding my eye with compassionate intensity.

I didn’t know whether it was a rhetorical question or not, but I answered anyway. “It would be better if I hugged you!”

So I hugged her. And yep, it was better.


5:41 pm

This morning, as I was sitting waiting for session to begin again, Eric asked, “Are you okay?” Maybe he noticed me struggling and sighing.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m just trying to find my way back into the book. It’s been a few weeks.”

“Trap door!” he said.

“That would be nice!” I said.

I’ll have to tell Pyx that her conversation was my trap door, because I’ve dropped right back into the book again. I wrote almost 500 words during our first afternoon writing stint, and I’m set to do more now. Working on Pilgrimage just feels normal again. How amazing that it can turn on a dime like that. This (by which I mean Eric’s teaching, the structure of the class, and the people I’m here with) really does work.


Day 3: Sunday, August 11, 2013

6:11 am

Typing out the date, I realized it’s my brother’s birthday. I just texted him.

Yesterday added up to a great writing day. Almost 1,000 words done on Pilgrimage, which finished off Chapter 15. After dinner I spent a little time in the hot tub, then came back to my computer to do a few hundred words so I could start fresh on Chapter 16 today.

Now that I’m working again, I feel like I can set a more realistic goal. I’ve decided to go back and finish Part 4, so that means three chapters of 3,000 words each in three days. I have two hours now before breakfast. And, go!

12:00 pm

I don’t know why I’m always surprised to be more productive. I’ve written 2,000 words in 2 hours today, which is almost double my usual speed. I think I try to protect myself from disappointment by not expecting more, but that sometimes backfires by making me settle for less.

This is our second writing session of the morning and instead of writing I went to the yoga studio and did a little movement. My left shoulder was very tight even before we went to Ontario for vacation, and it’s still tight now and getting worse because of all the writing time. I didn’t realize there was a yoga class this morning — that would have helped.

Eric had us write “I will not” statements for our writing practice. I don’t like to make too many rules for mine because I just know I’ll break them and get down on myself, and I also know that I don’t need too many rules to get the writing done. So I wrote “I will not give up.” Just that one rule will get me to the next book, and the next one.

Then I wrote, “I will not neglect my body.” I really do need a regular yoga practice and proper food and massages and shoulder exercises to stay in good form. By naming them to be in service of my writing, I can make them meaningful to me.

Finally I wrote, “I will not discount the importance of my morning writing practice.” When I first started trying to develop a morning writing practice in 2006, I saw it as the be-all end-all solution to my writing life. I was ecstatic when it worked and despondent when it didn’t. I tried again in 2009 with more success, but still was never regular. Afterward, I downgraded early rising to just one of the tools in my toolbox for getting my writing done. (Others were coffee shops and retreats and “writing in the middle of things.”)

I have used early rising quite a bit in the last few years, but during the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I got into a bad cycle of writing very late at night and sleeping in. I know that’s not sustainable for me, so I’d like to once again elevate the importance of writing first thing in my day and writing in my office.


Day 4: Monday, August 12

11:42 am

Ah, how quickly we get used to the good life. Already I am starting to take for granted the gourmet meals prepared for me, the absence of children’s demands, the freedom to read, sleep, and write whenever I want to. This life is beginning to feel normal, routine. I get up early and write, I go to yoga, I eat blueberry pancakes and eggs dijon, I listen to my foremost creative mentor speak, I work on my memoir. This is the most perfect, luxurious life I can imagine, and on the third day in I have already adjusted to its wonder.

I’m not judging myself for this, just noticing. It’s human nature to acclimatize. I am trying to keep myself slow and appreciative. And I will carry away with me what this retreat is providing — chapters of my memoir finished, creative lessons reinforced, new friendships, a deep hunger for rest and nourishment fed.

I am a little stalled on Chapter 17. I have the theme, “Anything Is Possible,” but I’m trying to decide which scenes to include that speak to the theme, and how overt to be in addressing it. Eric says, “Choosing causes anxiety, and writing involves making choices.” I have fifteen more minutes of writing time, and I will spend it sitting with my options and making choices — no pressure to write.


Day 5: Tuesday, August 13

10:20 am

I finished Chapter 17 yesterday — just kept sitting with it and adding to it over and over again until it was done. I’m ashamed to say that I also let myself get distracted during my writing sessions with my email and internet and that felt . . . almost poisonous, somehow, that I let the world into my sacred space. I want to remember that feeling so I remember to avoid it.

Today has begun emotionally. I got up a little later than usual and sat with the beginning of Chapter 18, but didn’t add much. This is the chapter about our return to Canada and our decision to move to Vancouver, a tumultuous time to go back to.

Then I went to yoga class, because despite the wonderful Thai massage I had yesterday, my shoulders and upper back are still very tight and sore, and I knew I needed to move so I could get through the writing today. At the end of class, when I was rolled on my side in the fetal position, the instructor had us thank ourselves for our practice and for one other thing. I opened a tiny crack to the love I feel for myself, and was suddenly aware of my deep need for that love, for feeling myself beloved. And of the need for releasing all this stirred up emotion, and of how very precious and important this time here has been to me. I sat on my mat with the tears coursing down my face, waiting until everyone left, just breathing into the feeling of longing and blessing.

Just before our first writing session today, Eric had us write our shoulds on a piece of paper so we could tear it up and throw it into the air — a little ritual to help us release those tight places. I wrote, “I should have finished and published several more books by now,” and the emotion welled up again. And I know this thought passed through yesterday, dry and intellectual, just a cool observation that if I could write a chapter in a day, surely I could have finished a book or two by now. And here was the thought working itself out of my skin like a piece of shrapnel.

Around the room we went, everyone reading their should and tearing it dramatically into bits. I wept the whole time, my writer’s heart and my coach’s heart breaking in sympathy with all these regrets. At the end, I read mine with feeling, adding a petulant coda at the end — “like all my friends from grad school did!” — then ripped and tossed it away.

And now this page absorbs my emotions, like the tissue I needed afterward to mop my nose and cheeks.


Day 6: Wednesday, August 14

10:33 am

Our last Hollyhock deep writing session.

We are already saying good-byes, exchanging email addresses, planning Facebook groups and writing retreats to stay in touch. Twelve writers began the retreat making small talk about where we live and how old our kids are, and those conversations spun out wider and deeper, into threads of ideas and sinews of feeling that connected us close.

What am I taking home with me? A renewed commitment to daily writing practice, particularly in the morning. The sound of Eric’s voice calmly reminding me to “err on the side of my own opinion” and “trust the process.” New writing friends in Vancouver, Victoria, the States. The bedrock assurance that I will finish this memoir. 13,000 words, including three new chapters of Pilgrimage, and the reminder that I can write a lot when I put in the time. A vision of the next writing project and the one after that, which I know are waiting for me. A decision to do things for my body that support my writing: yoga, singing, eating protein.

Last night I wrote a little after dinner, not much, but enough to remind myself that this work is important to me. Then I went back to the Lodge, where writers were gathered over wine and chatter. I become engrossed in discussion with the writer next to me, Adriana — a discussion we carried with us to the hot tub overlooking the ocean, and then into the ocean itself, on bare feet over rocks and logs, the bioluminescence in the water mirroring the stars overhead (I’m sure I’m not the first writer to say that, but it’s no less beautiful when you see it yourself for the first time). I told Adriana that my word of the year is Stardust, and I added these little creatures, dinoflagellates, to my list of the many ways stardust has appeared to me in 2013.

I’m sorry that this time is over, a memory now instead of an anticipation — or am I? Because now I have the tangible gifts of this time to take home with me. And this record, in words and pictures, of what it was like.

A peak experience. Not noisy and ecstatic like whitewater, but quiet and powerful like an ocean current. Happy fortieth birthday to me.


P.S. One of the things Eric talked about was the importance of owning your identity as a writer. We went around the table and each of us had to say, “I am a writer” out loud. It felt momentous and also matter-of-fact to assert this about ourselves.

My mini-class, Claim Your Artistic License, is about just this thing: recognizing and declaring your identity as a writer or artist. Sign up on my mailing list to do it yourself!

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Rachel August 27, 2013, 2:38 am

    Thank you for writing this! I enjoyed going on the journey with you.

  • Rhonda August 27, 2013, 7:43 am

    Alison, you sweetheart! Happy 40th! Good for you for doing this for yourself and thanks for writing about it to share it. Inspiring stuff, as always.

  • Paul Kendrick August 27, 2013, 6:56 pm

    Thanks Alison, a good read and it felt like I had company with all my own doubts, ups,downs and all arounds with the writing journey. I like your candid frankness, your knowing when you are off track and your ways of getting back on that horse again. I look forward to your book.

    Hugs, Paul

  • Heather August 28, 2013, 3:11 pm

    Hi Alison,
    thank-you so much for sharing, and your honesty. The insights into the writing process you have shared here are so helpful.

    I have been working with my memoir for a long time, and now I am reminded I am not alone, and its okay. I will let go and trust (and enjoy) the process.

    Happy 40th birthday, and I look forward to your book,

    Sincerely, Heather

  • Jennifer Louden September 4, 2013, 2:51 pm

    what a wonderful gift, happy belated birthday, and may I say – hope this is okay – separated at birth!

  • Kimberley McGill September 22, 2013, 7:51 pm

    Thank you for allowing us this peek into your experience – I saw my own struggles reflected in yours. So happy you gave yourself this gift!

  • Lois J. de Vries October 20, 2013, 7:47 am

    Happy belated birthday, Alison. I’m one of Eric’s long time students, too, and am currently struggling with issues of production and writing on purpose. I enjoyed reading about your experience and clipped out some of your comments for my Focused Journal so I can refer to them again.

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