Burden of Plenty

On beating a retreat

I would write much of the manuscript during solitary marathon sessions in a cabin in the Alberta woods. That, at least, had been the plan. I had been offered a stay in a magical land of exception, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I had never gone to a residency, nor did I know anyone who had. But I knew what a rare opportunity it was: I would become a father a few months later, and I would not have a similar period of calm for years to come.

The small cabin held a large reserve of coffee and a view of the Rocky Mountains. There was a whiteboard, paper, drawerfuls of pens. There was even a piano. Forget Walden Pond, I thought when I arrived. Thoreau never had it so good. For those two weeks, scarcity was abolished. I had been taken out of the menial obligations of daily life, the routine distractions of cooking, cleaning, and commuting. I was free at last to engage in the vita contemplativa.

I intended to keep to a strict regimen: rise early, write before noon, and leave research for the afternoons. I would limit myself to a single coffee in the morning and another after lunch. To keep my eyes on the prize, I established a daily writing quota: five pages. If I could only steer clear of the black bears, I would pick the fruits of an unprecedented bounty of creativity. If not here, in these unworldly conditions, then where?

I got to my cabin early the first day. I brought with me stacks of material and high ambitions. Yet nothing much came of that morning. I sat as if waiting for a guest who never appeared. The thoughts I was trying to form, sensing they were being stalked, scurried away from me. I felt like an insomniac, kept from sleep by the grim determination of falling asleep. Somehow, the knowledge of the place’s purpose — its very optimality — proved stifling. I blamed jet lag. But then the second day, and the one after that, looked much the same.

More than anything, I felt embarrassed. I thought of overworked friends who would kill to have a day’s respite from their many chores. I made sure not to reveal my petty struggles in the land of plenty. Who was I to complain?

On the last day of my stay, having managed to produce only platitudes and thinking of my return home, I threw in the towel. I decided to cut my losses, skip my desk, wrap a hard-boiled egg from breakfast into a napkin, and go for a hike. And like the insomniacs who pass out only once they’ve resigned themselves to reading until morning, just as I gave up trying to grasp at ideas, they began arising on their own.

I then saw a previously unsuspected parallel between my circumstances and the very book I was working on, about how the market treats labours of love. We are so intent on solving problems of scarcity — securing enough money, time, and space for ourselves — that we give little thought to what we might do if we briefly succeed. The approach that gets you there, it turns out, is not the one that’s called for once you arrive. Writers’ retreats in the woods do not usually come with users’ manuals — but they should. Because switching to the required mindset demands a wholesale rethinking of how the means relate to the ends.

Surprisingly, once I returned to my familiar life in Montreal, the ideas flowed more freely than they had in the sheltered calm of the residency. Later I would come across others, in person and in books, who had similar experiences. “When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art,” the Nobel laureate Louise Glück once said in an interview. “After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont . . . and the minute I started teaching — the minute I had obligations in the world — I started to write again.”

My brief stay at Banff affected my very conception of creative work. I began thinking of it as something that has to be surreptitiously pilfered from the day, rather than bought in the open. The only way of attaining some of our highest aspirations — and creative flow may be among them — is to take our eyes off the prize. I found that paradox so intriguing that I ended up devoting much of the book to it.