Musings + Essays

Finding Walden.

By: Jen Shoop

Last year, I briefly contemplated applying to attend a weeklong writer’s retreat held at a lake house in the strip of Maryland that thinly divides Pennsylvania from West Virginia. It sang out because, for years now, I’ve cultivated a fantasy of absconding to a cottage to write. The dream is realised enough that I can hear the creaky pine steps in the morning, feel the cotton midweight of the navy quilt over me in the evening, and fall asleep to the cricketsong and starlight at nightfall. There are lunches of farmstand peaches and cherries with fresh bread and Emmentaler cheese enjoyed on a slatted balcony in the sun when I am hungry, and walks down to the lapping lake, with Tilly at my side — because this is a dream after all — when my writing sticks in mud. There is honeysuckle, an old bike with a basket, the sound of my feet running the mountain trails, and I sit at a worn desk with windows open to let the air in, and I find words that communicate before they are understood. Time slips by like a field mouse, disturbing no one.

The vision is a far cry from my daily footfall, where, despite my focused efforts, my maneuvers are time-boxed. Even my roundest writing has grown between tight hedges. I have thirty minutes to ____; I must get ____ before ____; can I squeeze in _____?

But I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert last summer, while sighing at the delta between my daily life and my would-be Walden, and she said (paraphrasing): If you’re waiting for there to be some summer of untrammeled time to write, some period in which you have nothing to do but craft, you’re dreaming. There’s only today, right now. Get started! If memory serves, she also made the point that Toni Morrison wrote several of her best novels while maintaining a nine-to-five. So, yes. Write now, even if you’ve only got margins to work with.

I love her get up and go. It nests neatly with my own philosophies on writing, which are, in short: 1) publish frequently; 2) what the reader thinks of your writing is none of your business; and 3) inspiration will not always find you, so you must learn to be disciplined. Elsewhere, Gilbert has written about an exchange between a filmmaker friend of hers and the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Gilbert says her friend was complaining how difficult it was to create as an independent filmmaker, and Herzog wrote: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.” Oof! I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that note, but I can’t disagree with the medicine. “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Amen, amen. And so we continue to write without the worn pine underfoot and the lake breeze in our hair and the sainted Tilly at our feet.

But there are a few things I have braided into encouragement as I’ve internalized Gilbert’s, and Herzog’s, wisdom. The first is that I can find small ways to welcome Walden into my daily life, and it’s always by doing the narrowest, almost stupidly simple things, like sitting outside for ten minutes without my phone in the morning, watching and listening to my backyard. The bees in the climbing hydrangea, the cardinals’ whistling, then trilling, call and response: cheer, cheer, cheer / birdie, birdie, birdie. The way the forenoon sun feels on my skin, the smell of dew-kissed grass. A suburban sinfonia. As Mary Oliver put it: pay attention, and be astonished. The other tack: I wonder sometimes what I would actually feel if I did abscond to a cottage for a week. If I press my face to the glass, I think I would be lonely, and miss my husband and children, and the clatter and comfort of their feet in my orbit. I would be so far from my source material that I worry my writing would suffer, too. And so I think the grass is always greener (the lake always bluer) and I return with congeniality to the starts-and-stops of my everyday.

There is only today —

now get back to work.


+More thoughts on getting started with writing.

+On reading slumps.

+Do you consider yourself creative?

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation. 

+A great $35 H&M score in the blue and white stripe pattern especially!

+LOVE these white eyelet pants. For beach / beyond!

+This dress and this one are giving Doen vibes for under $50. But also Doen’s new collection is straight-up summer magic…love everything.

+Great summer earrings.

+Fun $30 top.

+Toss these in your beach/pool bag!

+This striped skirt is en route to me. Will pair with this white tank and brown leather sandals!

+These ballet pink mesh flats appeal at 40% off!

+The quilt in my imagined lakehouse….there would also be sconces like this.

+Lewis has some really cute clothing finds for kids, like these strawberry shorts and this seahorse-print dress. I’m a longtime fan of this brand — I have some of their sheeting for my son! The best patterns.

+My son loves fact books — prefers them to fictional ones! — and I know this encyclopedia will be up his alley.

+I own and love this swimsuit in a different pattern, but kind of obsessed with this print, too?!

+Two very chic brands, Rixo and Ciao Lucia, did a collab — this dress is perfection!

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13 thoughts on “Finding Walden.

  1. Those images at the top instantly made me calmer! Especially love the bunk room one…reminds me of how exciting it felt to sleep in the built in bed at my aunt and uncle’s long-gone lake house. This was also a good push to dig out some writing prompts this summer. I have never been a writer (except of meal plans, to-do lists, greeting card messages, and blog comments) but every so often I get the urge! And then I remember that my writing usually mortifies me once it’s on the page. But now that I’m firmly in my 40s, maybe I can try to be less concerned and just give it a shot!

    1. I agree, just thinking about the lake lowers my blood pressure! I find the deepest satisfaction bringing my children to my husband’s family’s lake house — it just feels like all things good, simple, unfussy. YES to writing prompts! The point is to create, not to polish. Release, bloodlet, wander, play!


  2. Jen, you’ve read my mind as all of this has been on my heart and the writerly areas of my thought landscape a lot.

    I know this is a wild card, but I was wondering if perhaps there are other writers here in the Magpie community that are looking to have a more remote, ongoing retreat space where we could have that collegiality and a regular co-working space? Perhaps not as idyllic as the physical retreat somewhere spectacular (though this is on my vision board to build), but somewhere with likemindedness that functions as the rising tide of anyone who’s interested working together?

    Putting up my hand that this is something I would love to be a part of — and with the longer-term dream of an annual Magpie creative retreat xx

      1. Yay, Sara and Jen! I would be so keen to have a remote group and also to plan towards having an in-person retreat in the future. Will keep following this thread to see what we can work out ☺️❤️

    1. I love this idea so much – wow. What a dream — a creative retreat! You sent my mind spinning! Going to noodle on this…


  3. Love the thoughts and advice on writing, especially not worrying or investing in what others think/say about it! Would LOVE to know of any lake/mountain/beach writing or reading retreats upcoming!

    1. Thank you for the note! Yes, I often think about something that Natalia Ginzburg said (going to paraphrase): “I know nothing of the value of my work; I know only to write.” I find this line of thinking to majorly unblock me and free me up to focus on creating and not worrying about reception, etc.

      For retreats — I just got an email that Mary Hall Surface is running one in the Berkshires in a few weeks with some spots still open:

      Sounds dreamy…


      1. I have taken several workshops w/MHS locally; she is wonderful and can inspire/jumpstart some nice work. Some of my favorite poems I have written recently were started at workshops with her. She pops up locally at the Smithsonian and the National Cathedral. A little further afield, the Omega Institute has some great retreats. I got accepted to one years ago (most are pay-to-play, this one was invite) and it was an amazing place to write!

        1. I’ve also taken a few of the MHS virtual workshops and really love the format of looking closely / studying closely followed by generative free-writing in short bursts. Strongly rec as well! Thanks for the Omega Institute call out!


  4. Love these sentiments, Jen, and they really resonate at the moment. As a full-time writer too, in the throes of finishing my new novel, I was just reflecting about how this past week I’ve set up a sort of self-imposed writing retreat. I’ve canceled and said no to most plans and commitments, and am just devoting myself to finishing my book. The last stretch of a book for me often flows best with my near-complete concentration and time, and so I am devoting that. Of course, there are things to navigate around–family in town, other work commitments–but I’m dipping into my novel, and dipping out, all day, every day. And as a result, I’ve been getting a ton of quality writing done every day because I’ve made the writing my top priority for this limited period. I’ve been to many writing retreats, both as a participant and as a teacher, and they are AMAZING, don’t get me wrong, but I still find that this “staycation writing retreat” has been more supportive for my goals than any retreat away would be.

    And just a note to say, I adore your blog. I don’t comment often, but I read every day, and your thoughtful and beautiful posts add joy and nourishment to my life. xx

    1. Jaclyn! Thank you so much for the lovely note — I’m so flattered. Thanks for taking the time to let me know your appreciation.

      So interesting re: “staycation” vs proper retreat. Good corroboration from someone who has tried all formula! I can imagine there are huge benefits to having all your creature comforts around you. I mean, my writing studio is my most productive space! I know its light, its sound, its feel so intimately.

      Thank you for the note —


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