I spent last week at a writing retreat in rural Virginia called The Porches.
Unlike writing residencies and colonies I’ve attended in the past, The Porches isn’t an official program; it doesn’t have an admissions process or board of trustees. It’s simpler, and for that reason, arguably better: a beautiful, historic farmhouse where writers go to create.
Since 2006, the owner, Trudy, has welcomed writers to stay on her quiet grounds, where all that stands between you and your writing is… yourself.
It’s the type of place where you can’t help but make serious progress on your project. (And it’s affordable! Just $65/night!) I arrived with a vague idea of the ebook I wanted to write — about all the financial stuff you need to know to run your own business — and left with a partial draft and a goal to release the guide by the end of the year.
Because I’ve attended quite a few residencies, I fell into retreat mode rather quickly. My days began with reading in bed, then a few hours of writing, followed by a break for a walk or cycle (I brought my bike) and lunch. In the afternoons, after a nap, I moved to the second-floor porch to write, where I was encouraged by this view:
Finally, dinner, perhaps some conversation with other visiting writers (you’re expected to interact minimally if at all during the day to keep your focus), more writing and then an hour of reading before bed. Oh, and some squishing of stink bugs that tended to enjoy inhabiting my sheets. (That’s the one downside to Virginia in September.)
The days feel long when you spend them by yourself with only writing on your to-do list. I’m so used to multitasking and Internet-hopping that being disconnected, both from the online world and my own social network, felt unfamiliar during my time at The Porches. Yet eliminating those distractions has an inevitable result: you get sh*t done.
And not just any old sh*t. Meaningful sh*t. Stuff that matters.
Putting words on the page is great, but coming up with big ideas and getting hit with ah-ha moments and experiencing breakthroughs that change how you think about your work… that’s what happens when you give yourself true mental space to create.
Being still in a distraction-free environment, something I rarely accomplish at home, opens the opportunity to do meaningful work. To do deep work, as computer scientist Cal Newport calls it. After this week, I better understand what he means. Giving my brain some much-needed breathing room allowed me to develop innovative solutions to problems that were previously unsolvable.
Here are a few of the breakthroughs I experienced during just four full days at The Porches:
I’d planned the guide to appeal to both freelancers and entrepreneurs, but I found myself struggling to write for both audiences. When I finally recognized this audience identity crisis as the source of my writing strife and made the decision to write only for freelancers, the ebook began to write itself. (Well, not really, but you know what I mean.) Without quiet time to let this problem marinate, I might not have pivoted in the same way.
The ebook was, at first, kind of boring and tedious, as you might expect from a guide to taxes and financials. But during a walk on a quiet country road, I realized that’s not really what the book is about — it’s about helping readers accomplish their goals and reach their dreams. I knew I had to appeal to readers’ emotional side in this ebook, and to do that, I had to include my own personal feelings about money, my own personal journey. Now the book’s centered around how I moved from resenting to loving the money side of my business — so readers can grow in that way, too.
This third and final revelation had little to do with my writing project, but that’s what happens when you have space to think — your mind wanders and explores and discovers wonderful ideas hiding in the nooks and crannies of your brain. It came about because I was reading The Referral Engine (such a great book; here are my in-depth notes) and thinking through what makes my business unique, and how we might present that in the next iteration of our website.
What we offer that few other content marketing companies do well is managing and growing multi-author blogs. We’ve developed a process that allows us to publish awesome content and subsequently grow quality communities, one that takes us from strategizing to recruiting writers to creating content to optimizing to publishing and promoting. That’s what makes Socialexis unique — that process. And that process is what needs to be front and center on our new website.
Each of these big ideas is worth so much more than pure productivity; I’d trade 50 well-written pages of an ebook for an ah-ha moment that changes my business or the way I work.
Productivity is what we all aim for, what we all talk about, the mecca of writing, our muse. But these breakthroughs, this deep work — this is how you change lives. It’s what really matters. It’s why we’re here.
This is a lesson I will keep reminding myself as I continue my writing journey at home, where every opening is full of emails, every second of downtime stuffed with URLs. It takes a conscious effort to make space, to let the light shine through.
But now I know the potential for deep work — my best work — is there, buried, waiting for me to be still. And what kind of writer would I be if I only shared what was easy to reach?