I don’t know what I should be writing about. I don’t even know why I’m still pretending to be a writer. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? Sarah cursed herself for ever letting her mother persuade her into applying for this writer’s retreat.
26, single, and unemployed, she felt that she was failing not only herself but also everybody around her. She used to waltz through life with confidence but now seemed at a total loss for it. When she was 18, she wrote a letter to her 25-year-old self, promising to become a successful, and happy adult. She found the letter in her bedroom closet when she moved back in with her parents three months ago.
Five years ago, she quit college, despite all the efforts her parents had put into persuading her of doing otherwise. “I can’t live my authentic life if I’m being inhibited by social constructs!” she had shouted then, sweeping her purple hair back with a dramatic gesture. She vaguely remembered that during that same monolog, she swore that she would become a bestselling writer that same year, and prove them all wrong. There was only one problem. To become a writer, she had to write a book.
That’s why her mother thought it would be good for her to ‘immerse herself’ in the writing atmosphere. To ‘get inspired’. She brought it up when Sarah was inspecting the pimple above her upper lip in the reflection of her smartphone. Distracted, Sarah agreed. For a month, her mom looked through leaflets and magazines and even tried looking on the internet – although that plan quickly fell through – to find a writer’s retreat ‘suitable for her daughter’s needs’. What exactly her mother had meant by that, Sarah didn’t know.
Her father was less enthusiastic about the idea. “Janie, she hadn’t written anything for the past four years. She just isn’t going to be a writer.”
“All she needs is some encouragement,” she overheard her parents say during pillow talk in the adjacent bedroom.
Her father was right, of course. But it’s not that she hadn’t tried.
Eventually, they settled on the Walden Woods retreat, which had nothing to do with neither woods nor Thoreau. However, it was the cheapest option, and pretty much the only one her parents could afford since Sarah got fired from her checkout job for always coming in late.
Her mother insisted on driving her, and Sarah didn’t have the guts to tell her no. It made her feel like she was 15 again, on her way to school. But her mother was the one who had arranged it, after all.
That’s how she found herself in a room full of strangers, every one of them probably hoping to turn out an undiscovered writing prodigy. It was the first workshop and Sarah was twenty minutes late because she couldn’t find the right room. The retreat took place in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, together with an AA convention and a gathering of Jehova’s witnesses. By accident, she had first followed the sign to the meeting titled ‘Letting go of disappointment and anger’, which she thought meant something. She only realized that she was at the wrong place when the man sitting next to her asked her how long she had been sober for.
When she came into her writing class, all eyes turned on her. A woman with silver-gray hair handed her a pillow to sit on, and made room for her in the ‘circle of creativity’. “Let all your creative energy pass through you and into this circle,” the woman said. “This circle is where we will share our ideas and initiate a fearless flow of stories. All of you have the magic of storytelling. Now is the time for it to get out.” After the speech, some people clapped, but the applause quickly died out. Most of the people stayed silent and just watched the woman skeptically.
“Let’s dive in!” she cried cheerfully, not paying attention to the doubtful looks. She pointed to the man in front of her, and the gesture was accompanied by the clanking sound of the metal bracelets on her arm. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Jonah.” Jonah was a white male in his early forties and had ginger hair that was covered up by his baseball cap.
“Well, Jonah, tell me, what do you want to write about?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, and Sarah smirked.
“I sense some negativity here. Don’t you believe in your writing talent? The only thing you have to do is believe.”
“Then I wish they would have told me before I had paid a thousand bucks to be here.”
“Now, now. Let’s start again. Everybody has their own writing method. Maybe yours is more structured than mine. To me, writing comes like a wave, just as sudden, just as uncontrollable. But you, I see, are different. Try to let go. You’re blocking yourself. What about you?” she asked the woman sitting next to Jonah.
After the writing session, Sarah stood in the hallway peeling the orange her mom had given her in the car. She hadn’t been asked what she wanted to write about because the hour was up before it was her turn. Saved by the bell.
All the other guests had already gone, but Sarah didn’t feel like getting back to the stuffy hotel room, where she would be forced to sit by herself, nervously awaiting the next workshop. Suddenly Jonah walked out of the classroom. She hadn’t noticed he was still in there.
“This retreat is just a crapload of shit. I have no idea why I’m here,” he said, addressing no one in particular.
“It was only the first workshop. Maybe it will get better,” she replied. She couldn’t understand why the man was so worked up. She hadn’t liked it either, but it wasn’t that bad.
“I know, I know. I’m just so frustrated. I’ve been trying to write a book for twenty years now and all I’ve got is two sentences and a blank page.”
“I know how it feels… Not twenty years, I’ll give you that. But still.”
“I wonder… At what point do you come to terms with the fact that it’s not going to happen? When do you admit to yourself that you’re just not good enough?” Jonah asked. Sarah didn’t reply. She just nodded.
“I don’t think it’s even a question of coming to terms with your abilities. I think it’s a matter of realizing that something is not your dream anymore. I always wanted to be a writer. I just knew. But now I can’t think of any reason why anymore,” Sarah said after a pause and stuck an orange slice in her mouth. “Want some?” she offered and Jonah nodded.
“I know what you mean. This is not even my first writing retreat. I’m just so afraid of admitting my failure. When my wife and I met, all I did was write. She thought I would be famous. And look at me now. What will she say if I tell her that when I see a computer screen, my mind goes blank? And that I don’t even care?” After having eaten the orange slice, he wiped his hands on his white t-shirt. Sarah watched him without saying anything. “Anyway, good chat,” he muttered and left. She slowly exhaled.
After dropping out of college, Sarah had moved to the city, working as a cashier and a babysitter. But her jobs didn’t get in the way of her writing. Every morning she woke up with dozens of new ideas, writing whenever she got the chance. She was so sure that she would make it if only she gave it a try. But after one year, the rejection slips kept pouring in, and only two of her short stories had made it to some obscure online magazine.
She wasn’t sure what her breaking point had been. Whether it was when she broke up with her boyfriend and at the door, he shouted: “You’re a bitch! And your stories are crap!”, or whether it was when her uncle took her apart at Christmas to say that she should think of her parents and get a proper job. Maybe it was Emily, her friend who never left college, but published a book anyway. Whatever it had been, one morning she woke up, and her head was empty. She sat in front of her computer for two hours, typing and deleting, but nothing came. It was as if she had been transformed into a block of wood overnight.
Their first assignment was to write a short story based on some personal experience. “Don’t shy away from confronting your past,” their other instructor said. He looked the way a writer should. Glasses, brown curly hair with streaks of gray, checkered shirt. A bit like Allen Ginsberg, when he still had his hair. “You will read your stories to each other tomorrow. No exceptions.”
Sarah stayed up all night writing. Or trying to write. What experience could she write about? Her work as a cashier? She could only tell about how she always let a seventy-year-old woman sneak in her chihuahua into the supermarket in her bag. Or what living with her parents felt like? The highlight of her year was when she found two hundred dollars in one of her drawers, the money she had been saving up as a teenager.
But although her ideas weren’t necessarily terrible, she couldn’t get any of her words right. She typed and retyped, occasionally dozing off in her chair. When the sun started seeping through the window, she had only written two sentences. It was the first time she had pulled an all-nighter since college. She sighed, closed her laptop, and dragged herself to bed.
“Have you finished your story?” she asked the man sitting across from her at breakfast. They all had breakfast together to get the creative juices flowing in the early morning. The whole retreat was based on the idea that if you put people who wanted to be writers together, they would magically become them.
“Yes, I have,” the man answered. “It’s about how I got mugged three years ago and was too afraid to go outside for eight months.”
“Man, I wish something like that had happened to me,” Sarah muttered, and, realizing what that sounded like, she added: “I mean, it’s horrible, of course. But at least you have something to write about.”
After breakfast, she went back to her room to get her laptop. She was hoping she would get a chance to write something at lunch, although she knew that she was just clutching on to the last straw. In the hall, she bumped into Jonah.
“I was just looking for you,” he said. His eyes looked bloodshot and his hair was greasy.
“How come?” Sarah asked suspiciously.
“Have you finished your story?” His voice trembled with despair.
“I haven’t,” she admitted.
“I can’t go into that workshop and tell everyone that I couldn’t even write one story. It’s so humiliating.” She knew what he was talking about. That was exactly the reason why she had stayed up all night. She realized now that she probably looked just as bad as Jonah.
“But what other options are there?”
“Just not go. We could say we felt sick or something,” he suggested. She knew how farfetched that sounded – everybody had seen them at breakfast, completely healthy. But right now, any excuse would do.
“Let’s get out of here for a while. I need a break.” He started for the exit, but Sarah didn’t budge. “Are you coming?”
“But it’s a writer’s retreat. We’re not supposed to go anywhere else. We’re supposed to write.”
“And how is that working out?” he smirked.
They drove to the nearest McDonald’s in Jonah’s metallic Pontiac Vibe, that was filled with empty coffee cups and Coke cans, “my wife’s”, and ate burgers and French fries. Sarah had never felt that much like a failure before, but at the same time, she felt relieved that she wasn’t in the retreat anymore.
She realized that whatever she kept telling herself, she didn’t want to write anymore. She had fought the feeling, hoping it would pass. She had given up college to become a writer, and now she that she didn’t want to be one, she didn’t know what to do. But maybe it was better to not know something than to pretend to know it.
“Jonah,” she started, “maybe it’s time for us to be honest with ourselves. We’re shitty writers. We can’t even write one short story about our own fucking lives. And we don’t want to. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take up responsibility.” She opened the car door and stepped out for air. Jonah pressed his forehead to his steering wheel, giving off an overall depressing vibe.
“You’re right, Sarah! You’re right! But how do I tell my wife that I’m a failure? I don’t even have a job!” Jonah cried. Sarah got back in.
“Let’s drive,” she said and gave him a pat on the knee. “You’ll be fine.”