Because I’m a writer, I have about 4,000 screenplay pages in a folder on my computer screen. The only problem: they’re all the first page of 4,000 separate screenplays. That’s not to mention all the ideas floating around in my head, the “I should totally make that!” fantasies that I’ve soft-pitched to my hairstylist and then abandoned when I decided to binge season three of Queer Eye instead.
I want to finish a project, I really do, but there are just so many distractions. With the endless happy hours nearby, new restaurants popping up, and hot surfers in need of sunscreen application, writing my own stuff has taken a backseat. I mean, someone needs to help protect those chiseled surfer abs from UV rays. I’m of the general opinion that it should be me.
Finally last month, I decided enough was enough. I need to get away from the temptations of city life and head someplace quiet. Somewhere I could be alone, shut off the noise, declutter my brain, and create. I needed to be an artist again. So I packed up my laptop, booked the most adorable AirBnB I could find, and treated myself to the perfect weekend-long artistic retreat — a cabin in the woods near Idyllwild, just a few hours from both LA and San Diego.
My plan was simple enough: unplug, create a masterpiece, and hopefully not get eaten by a bear. I felt confident that brilliance would ensue just the second I escaped the urban grind. At the very least, there are no surfers in the mountains.
I begin my journey on a Friday morning, winding along the 243 highway, into the pine-riddled mountain town of Idyllwild. It’s a town I know well. I spent high school at Idyllwild Arts Academy, a pre-professional arts boarding school. To this day, when I think of Idyllwild, I think of artistic purity — a teenage me who wore “Free Tibet” prayer flags as clothing and wrote, produced, and starred in her own one-woman show about God. That young lady got things done.
As I drive, I wonder, “Where has that weirdo gone? Is she completely lost? Swallowed by the infinite scroll of Instagram travelers and the irresistible draw of destination festivals?” This self-reflection (okay, self-pitying) acts as my only co-pilot on the two-hour drive to the quaint town — 5,400 ft above sea level with roughly 4,000 people and precisely six billion churches.
It would be easy to arrive feeling depressed after pondering my squandered potential, but pulling into the little village center I can almost feel the creative spirit returning. It seems to surge in my brain. The air is clean and everything locks up at 8 PM. Not a distraction in sight.
I soon nestle into my cozy, little A-frame. It’s perfect, a two-story cabin decorated as if the interior designers were somebody’s great-grandmother and a four-year-old who had a little too much fun at a yard sale. Think gnomes. Lots of gnomes. Other than that, it’s mostly empty. Exactly what I’d craved for my mini artistic oasis in the woods — a (mostly) blank canvas.
I need space. I need a void. I need to mutter lines of dialogue to myself, naked, while pacing across the deck. You know, normal artist stuff.
Before I can really get down to business, I realize I’m starving. I need to immediately go into town and get sustenance. I mean, I can’t write the next Handmaid’s Tale without carbs, can I? So I drive about a mile to Cafe Aroma. It’s pretty much the spot to eat in Idyllwild: Italian fusion, live music, big brunches, and perfect pasta. I look at the menu and wonder if I’m in the mood for the beef lasagna, rib eye, or Osso Bucco.
For an appetizer, I order the Pinot Amore — bacon wrapped Filet Mignon, Pinot Noir glaze, bacon wrapped asparagus and sautéed mushrooms. Apparently, my singular artistic vision requires lots of protein.
I finish my food, but now I’m too full — which has left me sleepy. I just need to grab a cup of hot coffee at the village coffee shop, Higher Grounds and then I’ll be 100% ready to write a masterpiece. I order a latte. They ask me if it’s for here or to-go. I know damn well that the to-go cups are worse for the environment. I decide to drink it in the cafe. “Besides,” I think, “it’s all work from here on out. Relax while you have the chance.”
I find a big, comfy chair and munch on a dark chocolate almond coconut macaroon while a group of hippies in oversized flannels standing nearby talk about SoundCloud rap. After about an hour, I’ve run out of reasons to sit in this coffee shop (and they have run out of macaroons, a sure sign you should start putting words down on your screenplay). I head back to my cabin, sit down at the kitchen table, open my laptop, and….go on Facebook.
Nope. Not that. Shut it down.
“Maybe I should go on a hike, get some scenic inspiration,” I think. “That’ll get my creative juices flowing.”
Off to Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail, located a few miles down the road from Idyllwild center. It’s a fairly easy stroll that starts at the south end of Idyllwild and culminates with a beautiful view of Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks, which, despite the name, is a lovely place to have a picnic before looping back around to finish.
At some point on my walk, I realize that I have spent the entire first day of my retreat not working. I’ve found endless distractions in the one spot that was supposed be distraction free. “It’s time!” I decide. “Time to write the thing that will catapult my career into the stratosphere.” But every inch I draw closer to my cabin, I begin to feel my stomach clench. I find myself desperately searching for just one more thing to do. More food? Very important emails to send? Does that squirrel look injured? What kind of person would I be if I didn’t help a poor innocent squirrel?
“Okay,” I say, this time out loud, “am I really considering picking up a rabid squirrel to avoid writing? What’s happened to me?”
A decade ago I was in this same place. These same woods and coffee shops and restaurants. But I was different. I was crazy and free-spirited and motivated — my god was I motivated! I would write wildly, just whatever came to my head. Was it all good? Of course not. But it didn’t matter because I just kept creating, unconcerned with outcomes but obsessed with process. In love with words and scenes and ideas.
Where is this part of me now, when I need it?
I get back to the cabin and mull this blockage over for a while, which is — in itself — a form of procrastination. After an hour and three Instagram check-ins, I realize that when you’re young art has no end game. I wasn’t writing or creating to achieve anything or concentrating on what a particular project might lead to. It wasn’t for money. It wasn’t for self-promotion. The thought was never, “If I make this, it’ll help me get this new agent or get into this festival or score a meeting with that hot shot exec.”
Everything I wrote was just because I loved creating. It was fun. Now, with a whole weekend in front of me, rather than actually doing the work, I’m worried about the fate of a squirrel (which I’m pretty sure was never injured in the first place). The fun has been replaced with ambition — a desire for greater status, for money, for signifiers of success. Joy is a distant memory.
I sit back down in front of the screen and I make a promise to myself: I’m just going to write for the rest of the day. Anything. Everything. Something that I might never use for gain. A terrible haiku about a gnome. A shitty song about pine trees. A pilot about a writer who never finishes her draft because she’s daydreaming about hot surfers.
It doesn’t matter. Just something for me. Because if I write and write, I might find my way back to that old me — the one who loved making ideas come to life in these same woods. The one who thought the creative process was enough, in and of itself.
Sure, my agent will be disappointed when I tell her about my experimental script from the POV of a squirrel. Yes, when I get back to the city there won’t be time for slowing down. Rent is due and I’m going to have to keep hustling, keep branding myself, keep making money, keep trying to climb the ladder. But for right now, if only for a night, I set myself free of ambition and just start to type.
Want to go there?
From San Diego: It’s just a little over 2 hours on I-15 N, then CA-79 S, CA-371 E and CA-74 W.
From LA: Take the 10 to I-15 S and settle in with your favorite podcasts for the 4-hour drive. Once nearby you’ll follow the same “CA-79 S, CA-371 E and CA-74 W” dance as above.
Rent the same AirBnB I did: It really was lovely, even if it drove me to further distraction musing on where the gnomes came from. It books for $179/ night.