Already two months into our Digital Nomad adventure and in our last few days left in Thailand, we signed up to a Writer’s Retreat. The location was Koh Tao, an island not far from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. The duration was five days. The level of commitment was flexible. The price was within budget. The clincher was that there would be yoga every morning. What’s not to love?!
Even though we have spent a fair amount of time in Thailand previously, we had never actually made it to Koh Tao, mainly because it’s a diver’s dream island, an activity that my partner and I have never felt drawn to. Arriving on the island on a sunny Sunday morning though, I knew this island was going to be perfect… perfect for writing, for yoga and for a little holiday from my business.
The little town at the ferry stop, Mae Haad, is delightfully similar to a village and such a relief after our time spent on the hectic roads of Koh Samui. Its main street is more of an alley way, narrow enough to fit some people meandering and some scooters skilled enough to dodge all obstacles in their way. In the heat, it’s difficult to ignore the many fruit stalls displaying their mouthwatering choices for the ultimate smoothie that will cool you down. There is a real down-to-earth vibe about the place; maybe it’s due to the young, hip divers who inhabit the island or maybe it’s the lack of ‘bling’ and pretentiousness that can often accompany tourists in this country. Whatever it is, this place that made me feel immediately at home.
Erin, a vibrant and not-over-the-top American who has a passion for diving and writing, facilitated the retreat. Our group was small and intimate, which put me at ease about sharing my written words. Even though the level of participation was completely flexible, there was an air of dedication for each of our goals, something that can only be achieved by a group dynamic.
So, onto the main event… writing. During the first session of the retreat, we were asked to contemplate a piece of writing that we are most proud about and one that we felt most displeased about. I could easily answer the first… writing a book was a huge accomplishment and I’m still amazed to my core that I did it. The second piece of writing… that had me briefly stumped until I thought back to the old school days… I mean literally, my days back at school. Even though I enjoyed grammar and spelling, I dreaded any and all of the assignments to do with creative writing. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time but the more I pondered it, the more the associated dread, anxiety and embarrassment from English class came back to me.
Thinking back, I couldn’t put my finger on any one piece of writing at school that I was most disappointed in but generally knew that I wasn’t proud of any of them. I just wasn’t good at putting a fictional story together… they always started out well but lost their steam towards the end. The endings were always the worst from memory.
Since then, the writing that I’ve put down on paper has been non-fiction. I’ve written international business assignments during my university days, marketing reports at various employments and a non-fiction book full of tips. These were less feared and less dreaded probably because they were either based on statistics and referenced work or, in the case of my book, it called upon my direct experience.
I had no idea that attending a writer’s retreat would be so confronting but in a way that was foolish of me. It was only the first day and already these past emotions were getting the better of me. What if my writing isn’t up to the group standard? What if I’m the laughing stock of the group? What if I can’t do it? What if?
One of my spiritual teachers, Dr. David Hawkins, has a technique for just this type of negative self-talk. The practice is loosely called “And then what?”. Whenever a negative, fear-based thought comes up, for example, “What if my writing isn’t up to the group standard?”, I can ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”. For this example, I could answer:
The others in the group could snigger and laugh at my writing and I’m embarrassed beyond belief.
Ok, so then what?
The facilitator could question my right to be even on the retreat, leaving me feeling unworthy and depressed.
Ok, so then what?
I am asked to leave the retreat and go back to high school, with the other group members disgusted that I would even consider myself worthy of such an opportunity.
Ok, so then what?
I spend the reminder of the retreat swimming at the beach, drinking coconuts and reading a book.
Ah ok, so that isn’t so bad, is it? The end result isn’t always as bad as we first imagine it to be. We can easily get so caught up in our emotions, negative thought patterns and fears that we lose sight of the bigger picture and we forget that everyone feels this way at some point. It’s a matter of realising that to fail at something isn’t so bad and really the worst thing for us is to be ruled by fear and not giving something a go.
Using this technique can often dissipate a fear that has been holding us back for a long time. For me, on that first night of the retreat, this is what helped me to work through my hesitations and to show up the next day for creative writing exercises. Even though there were still hints of self-doubt every now and then, it really wasn’t as scary as I had imagined it to be. None of the “And then what?” scenarios actually happened. The group was supportive and gave thoughtful feedback, the facilitator wasn’t judgmental and I didn’t get asked to leave.
The retreat, and my fellow writers, did succeed in teaching me to be more descriptive with my writing, to include more dialogue when appropriate and to ponder some questions about my new book. It also taught me that even though my writing may not be as eloquent as it could be, it’s my voice and and my style. As the anonymous saying goes, “I am perfectly imperfect!”.
Writer’s retreat… I just had to get out of my own way.