Writing

What I Learned Going Thoreau for a Couple Days

Here are the life and writing lessons I learned in a cabin in the woods.

Photo by Hugo Villegas on Unsplash

For the past two days, I’ve been holed up in a cabin in the woods working on my memoir. It was just me, my laptop, a handful of pens & some old school composition notebooks. The cabin had internet, but it might as well have been dial-up. It was so slow it took me forever just to check my email. There was a TV but no cable or streaming, just a DVD player with really random movies from the 90s that I’d never heard of, and I’m a cinephile.

I had no choice but to write.

This was the plan, of course. Since COVID started, I’d been home with my son and husband, and it felt as if I was constantly being interrupted. Not to mention, the other distractions that being home presents. For me, those distractions include the laundry that I don’t do but think about doing, the dishes in the sink and the dishwasher, cleaning that I should be doing but don’t or wait to do after things have gotten worse. It’s the house projects and weeds growing in the grass, and whites that need to be soaked, and making the bed, and I could go on, but I’ll stop for your sanity and my own.

A few weeks ago I told my husband I needed to go on a writer’s retreat.

“Why?”

“I just get so distracted by everything. All the interruptions…the house shit.”

“Well, don’t think about that stuff and just write.” His advice is always so simple, but it’s never easy.

“I just want to be alone. Alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. I don’t want to think about laundry or what’s for dinner. I just want to write.”

“You can do that here, but if you want to do this, do it.”

You have to love a partner who is cool with you wanting to go all Thoreau.

So, I searched from some cabins in the North Carolina wilderness and booked something.

I arrived, and it was exactly what I was looking for. It had a bed, a small kitchen, a large kitchen table, a few different seating areas. I had packed a couple of salads, a small brie wheel, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and two frozen meals for the two nights I’d need dinner.

I learned a lot about my writing self this past three days and two nights. Here are the five lessons I learned trying to go all Thoreau.

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

I distract myself.

When I walked into the cabin, I immediately set up my writing station. Pens, my notebooks, the checklist of chapters I was writing, and my laptop. I sat down and opened Word.

The cursor blinked at me.

I got up, grabbed my phone, and checked Instagram. Nope. Cell phone service was not great so that wasn’t going to happen.

I sat back down and thought, “I’ll check my email and then get going.” Nope. Internet service was too slow and everything took forever to load.

I returned to my Word doc and just started typing. Before I knew it, a few hours passed, and I was staring at ten pages. If I’d been home, I would have picked up my cell phone ten more times to check — anything. I’d track an Amazon purchase or make a grocery list or check my email for the ten billionth time. All of these moments would have pulled me away from my work and then at the end of the day, I’d have nothing to show for it.

Seeing how productive I can be by eliminating distractions has forced me to look at myself in the mirror and stop blaming the child and husband for my self-sabotage. Do they interrupt me? Yes, but not as often as I interrupt and distract myself. Now that I’m home, I’m instituting some strategies to prevent distractions.

  • Keeping my phone in a different room from where I’m working.
  • Blocking distracting sites on my web browser for specific blocks of time. I’m using the “Stayfocused” extension which I really like and is free.
  • I started a “distraction list” of things I want to do. Usually, these are things I need to do, but that I would do to walk away from my work. While I’m writing I might think, “Oh! I need to call the insurance company.” Instead of stopping my work to call our insurance company, I write down that I need to do it, and move on.

Change of Scenery

Going to the cabin was really a game-changer. Not being home meant I wasn’t around the house projects or my husband’s flirtations (which I do love, but also, ya girl is trying to write a book, boo!). It’s easy to get focused on your work when you’re not seeing a stack of dishes in the sink that you have to wash. The cabin was a much-needed reset. There is also something really invigorating about being out in the middle of nowhere with trees and birds and bumblebees.

Now, I know not everyone can just pack their bags and head to a cabin in the woods for a few days, but you can move to different parts of your house to work. I do this when I’m home and have always found it helpful. I never work in my bedroom because I’m an insomniac and studies show that working where you sleep exacerbates sleeplessness, but I do move around the house. I work at my office desk, then on a small loveseat in my office. I also move to the kitchen table or living room, too. When it’s nice outside, I’ll sit outside in a shady spot, so I can see my laptop screen. I did this in the cabin as well.

I spent most of the day at the kitchen table, but I did sit outside and in different nooks and seating areas in the cabin.

Moving to different spots in the house is helpful for a few reasons

  • You’re literally moving your body. Movement helps jog your brain.
  • A new location is like a reset. You have to restart your writing rituals which help get you into the groove of writing.
  • A new place helps you see things differently. Maybe your butt started falling asleep so standing up got the blood flowing back to your rear. Perhaps when moved locations you reclined your legs and are seated in a more relaxed posture. All of these things can help you regain momentum.

If you can get away for a few days, even if it’s not a cabin in the woods — maybe your friend is on vacation and you can just stay somewhere that isn’t your house, I would try it. Not being home made it a lot easier for me to push away the things in my house that take up space in my mind like my chores and house projects I want to take on or the never-ending weeds that keep growing in my lawn.

Underestimating My Endurance

Over the course of 2 days, I wrote fifty pages — I finished two chapters of my memoir. This might not seem like a lot, but it’s a major momentum builder. These two chapters have officially pushed me to the halfway mark of this project.

When I write at home, I find I’m only able to bang out a couple of pages at a time. I never really tried to write 25 pages in a day, but clearly, with no internet, social media, and chores to distract me, it’s possible. Will I be able to write 25 pages today? No, but I can probably write ten.

When I looked at what I’d completed over these two days, I couldn’t help but realize I was really underestimating what I’m capable of. In general, this is absolutely how I operate. I think it’s some weird defense mechanism to think I can’t do something and then let myself be surprised when it actually gets accomplished. This is not a healthy way to operate.

Now that I see I’m capable of so much more, I’m going to have to hold myself to a higher standard. Are you underestimating yourself? How can you change that?

Photo by Diego Rosa on Unsplash

Moving My Body Helps Me Write More

Writing for a long duration of time is taxing. It’s hard on my body because it’s unnatural to stay seated for long periods of time. It also lowers my vibration. I find I write best when I’m feeling energetic. Sure, coffee helps with this, but I’m not going to drink coffee all day.

One way that I found to break up the monotony of sitting down for hours at a time was taking 10-minute dance party breaks. I put my headphones on or used a Bluetooth speaker, put on some music, and just danced around. I love pop music, so I enjoyed a Britney Spears dance party, a Madonna dance party, and an Ariana Grande dance party. I made sure to get my heart rate up and jumped around like an ass.

The perk of being completely isolated was there was no one around to see me look stupid. I will definitely be continuing my dance party breaks at home, and my husband and son will just have to learn to live with the fact that I’m a bit of a weirdo. I will also be bringing back morning workouts, which are, in general, a wonderful way to get the day going.

When I’m home, I do use my piano for breaks as well. I might play a couple of songs, sing for about 15 minutes, then head back to the office to keep writing, but I found the dance parties to be more effective, and I’m fairly certain it was because I got my heart rate up.

Arbitrary Goals and Shifting Expectations

When I went to the cabin, I knew I just wanted to see how much writing I could get done. I didn’t go into this writing retreat with an end goal. Would I have been stoked if I had finished writing my memoir? Of course, but I didn’t think this would be a realistic goal to set, and I didn’t want to be disappointed if I didn’t finish it.

Currently, I have about 20 outlined chapters. When I got to the cabin, I had nine written. Did I think I could write 11 chapters in 2 days? I didn’t know. Maybe, if the chapters were short. Spoiler alert: I’m an over-writer.

By not setting expectations and putting undue pressure on myself, I can look back at my two completed chapters as an accomplishment.

Am I bummed I didn’t get more written? Not really. I’m always going to want to have more done, but I’ve got quite a bit of momentum going, and I’m closer to finished than I was a couple of days ago. I also wrote the two hardest chapters while I was away, which means the other half of this book will be much easier to write.

Not having expectations and pressure made it a lot easier to just write.

I’m the oldest of my sisters. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. I have every single first-child characteristic. I am obsessed with achievement, so when I don’t accomplish the (sometimes arbitrary) goals I set for myself, I feel really bad about it. Being alone with the one realistic goal of writing has left me feeling eager to keep going because ten pages or ten words is more than I had the day before so yay me!

That isn’t to say I don’t have a very real deadline for this project, because I do. However, getting overwhelmed, shutting down, and getting nothing done (you know, how I generally operate), is not going to cut it.

Final Thoughts

While I’m aware I didn’t go full Thoreau — look, even he didn’t go full Thoreau — I think I did a pretty good job of embracing the Thoreau-ness of my two days away from home. I was out in nature with no distractions. It was just me and my thoughts, and there are so many of those. At the end of the day, I think being away from home gave me the nudge I needed to finish this project on time. Also, it was nice to be mocked by that pile of laundry sitting in a basket at the foot of my bed for yet another day. I see you, laundry. Fold yourself.

Writer, wife, mother, amateur movie critic, wannabe foodie, lover of coffee, wine and books. Check out my work at gloriapanzera.com and twitter @gloriapanzera.

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