Mayakovsky's Revolver: Create Your Own Writing Retreat

March 29, 2015


            It’s a little past eight on a Sunday morning, the third-last day of a very long March, in what’s been a seemingly never-ending Narnian New York winter.  I am sitting on a plastic folding chair in Washomat Laudromat on Montrose Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  William, the clever and gentle Filipino manager, is listening to a basketball game on the radio as he transfers wet clothes in mini-shopping carts to the dryers. I am listening to the handful of other customers talking to, and over each other, in rapid staccato Spanish. I strain to keep up, to follow, and to understand.  Across from me, a hunched, ancient, Japanese woman, barely three and a half feet tall, is folding her laundry slowly with a degree of meticulousness and care that feels like a slap on my wrist.

                Laundry wasn’t on my plan for this morning. I thought that I’d be on the 8:14 a.m. United Airlines flight to Cabarete, a laidback beach village in the Dominican Republic. But, when I checked my e-ticket a couple of days ago, I realized that my plane leaves tomorrow, Monday.  I am going to Cabarete to write for a month. I am going to Cabarete because Mexico didn’t work out. I am okay with that. The surfing is good in Cabarete.

                 At first I tinkered with the idea of combining a writing retreat with yoga. A spot of yoga would be good for me; I could benefit from better mental health. And I’m sure that would be nice for the people who live around me. But I never got past the tinkering stage. There’s just something about yoga that I find annoying. I’m not quite sure what it is . . . everything, that’s it; I find everything about yoga annoying. So I’m going surfing instead. That’s the plan, surfing from 8am to 10am and writing for the rest of the day. Writing and surfing are such similar creatures: You paddle furiously, working as hard as you can, hoping to catch a wave (at my skill level, a small wave). Usually you don’t catch it, usually you end up in a wipe-out, tumbling over and over in the water, with increasing terror that you are going to drown, trying to figure out which way to the surface, fighting your way back up there towards the light. But every now and then you catch a wave and the flow, the elation, the euphoria, make the fear worth it. Surfing is just like reading or writing or music, untethered joy in its purest form . . . with the bonus of catching a bit of a tan.

                The timing of my self-made writing retreat is fortuitous. I’ve just finished a three-month soft-time, prison sentence (my temporary job), and the sublet is up on my temporary home. I have a temporary life. We all do. Moving to the DR for a month seemed a great deal more attractive than going back on the hunt so soon for an apartment share, and it’s much cheaper to live in Cabarete. It is cheaper to live everywhere other than New York. But I always go back to New York. And I always go back to writing. I don’t care about the Write Every Day maxim (although if that works for you, great!) because sometimes I don’t need to write every day. Sometimes I need to focus on earning money to pay the basic bills because the unfortunates living under Brooklyn Bridge aren’t getting a lot of writing done. I’m wildly excited about my writing retreat and I also have the usual cocktail of writers’ feelings – the guilt, the sense of self-indulgency, the peculiarly Irish brand of who do I think I am? yada, yada.  But those feeling don’t matter . . . because I’m going anyway.

                Over the last few weeks, I gave more thought to the surfing aspect of my writing retreat than the writing itself because that was easier.  I have to revise my latest novel, and I didn’t know how. I sent the draft out right after Christmas and it came back to me almost as fast. It’s rushed. It’s not quite there. Send it back when it’s right . . .  Right. Ok. Em, how do I do that?  But nobody can tell us that. We, the writers, have to figure that out . . . I did rush my novel. I’m a girl in a hurry. That’s why the unhurried care and respect that the old Japanese woman is paying to folding her laundry, feels like a slap on the wrist to me.

                A slap isn’t always a bad thing. Last night I got one right across the face. Wait, I have to back up. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a dinner party thrown by my friend, the wonderful poet, Elaine Sexton, at her home on Horatio Street. We drank a lot of white wine, and we talked about the kind of things people talk about; Elaine’s new book, which is coming out in the Fall, the price of real estate on the north shore, relationships, a PBS documentary about gifted kids from the projects who fail at Ivy League schools. Someone told a funny story about dogs. That might have been me or, maybe it was Nora. And, at some point between courses, I pointed to the spines on Elaine’s book shelves. ‘You have a lot of Frank O’Hara. He wrote my favourite poem, Mayakovsky.’

                Elaine got up, walked over to her shelves, selected a slim volume and handed it to me, as a gift. It wasn’t Frank O’Hara. It was Mayakovsy’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman. I’d never heard of him. When I got home, I threw the revolver on the table beside my bed and promptly forgot about it.

                Last night, I met some friends at Floyd’s bar on Atlantic Avenue. It’s a chilled-out bar with a bocce court in the middle and a clientele largely made up of well-mannered lumbersexuals. ‘God, there’s another one,’ I said to my friends. One of them looked over. ‘Nope, that’s not a lumbersexual, that’s just a guy in a plaid shirt.’ I looked again. Yep, she was right. That was just a guy in a plaid shirt. We had a good night, a few laughs, but I didn’t drink much, a couple of beers. A hangover is not a writer’s friend.  Later, back in my temporary home, I knocked over the revolver so that it landed in my lap. I picked it up and started to read, and when I had finished, I turned back to the first page, and read it through again. Because Matthew Dickman sticks to the truth; often intense and painful, sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable, but always recognizably the truth. And I know now how I’m going to revise my novel.

                My clothes finished drying a while back, and I’m getting some odd looks. Not many people choose to overstay their time in laundromats. I better go. I’ve got some packing to do. I hope you find a way to take a writing/creative retreat. Maybe you can do a stint in prison to help fund it, or maybe you can find a different way to do it, even if the retreat has to take place in your downstairs loo under the stairs. And fine, go ahead and feel guilty about it if that’s who you are. But do it anyway.

Back to the Blog