Pack light. Downsize. Less is more.
I realized these mantras last week at a writing residency at Weymouth Center in Southern Pines. This writers’ haven occupies the grand home of novelist James Boyd and his wife Katherine who entertained such literary giants as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe back in the 1920s and 30s.
These days the Boyd mansion is owned by a nonprofit that allows North Carolina’s writers to work at Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities for up to two weeks a year. Such serene surroundings demand creativity.
I’ve been going for several years to enjoy this respite from distractions, though the house and the grounds are their own distraction. They’re from the “Downton Abbey” era, when stories were written by hand and submitted with a postage stamp.
Completing my most recent stay at Weymouth in February was a success, I line-edited more than 100 pages and pondered another and wrote 15,000 words into a new one. That’s a lot of work for a few days.
I like to credit the Weymouth magic that helps writers write like superheroes. It is inspiring to “be” in a place once occupied by some of the America’s greatest literary figures. The place is surrounded by a nature preserve and gardens and a horse barn and it’s stimulating to walk among the long-leaf pines and who has been there and who may come tomorrow.
But the true magic of the place is escape from routine. There are no phones or doorbells to answer, no pets to feed, no laundry to fold, no TV to watch. There’s no mail, no bills to pay or meetings to attend. At Weymouth, writers enter a quiet zone to think and write. Simplicity rules.
You can re-enter civilization walking four blocks past quaint clapboard cottages to a downtown Southern Pines with a passenger depot that could whisk you as far as Miami or New York, an operating movie theatre offering thought-provoking fare such as “The Big Short”, a bustling bakery, a vibrant independent bookstore, shops and boutiques and studios. It’s a place you would want to be from if you weren’t from someplace else.
I’ve been in residence at Weymouth three out of four seasons. Each stay is different. One time the stores were festooned for Christmas. Another time the Weymouth hounds and hunters gathered for a foxhunt during a gentle snow. It really felt like Downton.
I’ve been there during flower shows, weddings and recitals. I‘ve seen Clyde Edgerton read and play his guitar on the lawn. And in spite of those diversions, I’ve moved essays and stories along, proving once again how writing is not the destination but the journey.
Weymouth’s “magic” is the solitude and “simplitude.” Being away–even pretending to “live” in a grand place like the Crawleys.
It’s no accident that some great writers have created their best removed from the familiar. Carson McCullers, Harper Lee and James Agee all composed their best Southern fiction in New York City. Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot wrote in Paris along with F. Scott Fitzgerald who also composed stories staying at the Grove Park Inn, Asheville.
Being away helps one see more clearly what is at hand. Ridding the writing space of clutter helps declutter the mind. That’s the magic of retreat—carving out time and space for something simple and special.