Or however you would title Part Two of Retreat 2.0.

My 10-day multi-themed approach to plowing through my to-do list is drawing to a close this weekend, and I’ve written a lot of words, sent a lot of e-mails, and had some spectacular meals and beverages.

More themes include….

New Age Wankery

Over the years, as a bookstore employee, a writer, a writing group participant and leader, and as a professor, I’ve managed to accumulate quite a collection of books about writing, from A (The Artist’s Way) to Z (Zen in the Art of Writing), with all the major hits along the way. Here and there, I’ll pull out elements that are useful. Prompts. Exercises. Suggestions. Worksheets. Overall, thought, I’ve noticed that more often than not, writing guides tend to skew inspirational and metaphysical rather than practical, and are aimed at the new writer.

Sacred space. Dream-visions. Creative exploration of personal expression. So many of them are less about writing, and more of a New Age manifesto about how each writer is a silhouette of an isolated figure on a mountaintop, connecting to the moon- and starlight of the souls of every other writer to produce a brilliant glow.

Which reminds me, I need more heartburn medicine….

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a hippie, raised by hippies, and I love me some warm-and-fuzzy affirmations sometimes. But it can take some digging past a lot of wankery and fluff with these ultra-inspirational writing guides to get to the basics of things. Some of them are nothing but the inspirational rhetoric and reflective time, with no real substance at all. (I am still resentful, over fifteen years later, of the expensive course that I took that was supposed to be a seminar on Topics in Metaphysical Literature that ended up being several afternoons of… sitting quietly in meditation, after reading one or two poems out loud. No one needed an expensive class format for that. Yes, several of us complained about the instructor.) That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried some of the “unblock your creative voice” stuff. I’ve experimented with “daily pages,” free writing, pen voyages, dances with one’s Muse, and retreats of the soul. I just don’t always find it particularly useful with my own needs as a writer.

YMMV, though, and some of it’s worth trying out on your own. To use a New Agey adage, each of us is on our own journey.


However, 1) I am not a beginning writer and 2) I’ve been through a shit-ton of therapy, so I don’t need a transformative morning salute to my Child Within by doing a writing prompt based on a childhood memory. I don’t need to devote hours of time I could be working on a manuscript by taking a whole soul-trek through my past yet again to open and focus my third eye. As I’m fond of saying to writer friends, when it comes to our own fiction, we cook with what’s in our pantry. But over the years, I’ve found these kinds of “intensely personal writing exercises designed to unblock and heal” and start me on “a path to deeper creativity” by looking backwards only prove far more distracting than helpful to me.

It can also start to sound like GOOPy Gwyneth Paltrow at her most laughable, spouting pretentious pseudo-mystic wisdom about listening to the organic arias from rock molecules, or nourishing one’s inner aspect by adorning the rice bowl of your life with healthy toppings (and the purchase of a pricey luxury item or two).

And there is a problematic oblivion to how a lot of these guides approach practicalities of writing and time-management. Tra la la, you just have to ___ and ___, it’s as easy as that! Yes, you darling novice who has never sat down in front of a word document before, but just loves reading… you who thinks it would be “totally fun and easy” to write a romance novel/fantasy trilogy/children’s book… it’s true! You too can write a novel in three months if you really want to! These guides will say things like: “Every woman can make time to write with a work-life balance.” “Sometimes you just have to hire a sitter or take off for a week.” “It’s all about choices.” “If you want to write, you have to write.”

All tea, all shade, Miss Tati.

Well, okay, but… there’s a pile of (white male) privilege packed in there that has to be at least acknowledged. Yes, I too will advocate that ultimately only taking the time and planting one’s butt in the chair in front of the manuscript is going to get things written. But we have to be aware that while Person A can figure out how to just hire a sitter to have time to write in her re-decorated-just-for-this-reason office, Person B will have to plan and budget for six months to be able to afford the childcare sans office, and Person C might not be able to manage it at all, for a multitude of reasons. And that’s before we even get to the fact that there are chunks of the world where “writing a novel” is an activity that is not even possible.

Writing, and making time to write, in and of itself is an act of privilege… but that doesn’t make it bad or wrong, mind.

It also doesn’t make it easy or something that anyone can just do if they put their mind to it for a few months.

So yes, there is a lot of troubling, assumptive stuff in many writing guides… but, when taking them with a pinch of salt and scrutinizing them, it’s possible to extract helpful, functional, practical, realistic components, and apply them to your own needs.

I also have a deep fondness for things that have become or used to be New Age trappings: from essential oils and soundtracks of nature sounds to a global perspective and respect for diversity. I’ve been digging through my various writing guides and old prompts, and thought it might be fun, and even productive, to see how some of these exercises and perspectives function specifically as I power through to the finish of this fiction manuscript in particular.   

Also, in case it isn’t obvious by now, I might have… oh, maybe just a little tendency towards pretentious wankery of my own.


Activities: This is another retreat theme that is almost entirely about hours spent on fiction writing. I’ll use New Age Wanky Writing Day to update my journal as well. I’m a rabid journal-keeper, but, like millions of others, writing down accounts of the state of the world or personal feelings about it lately has become a landmine… if not impossible. I’ll scribble lists here and there, but have avoided personal narratives since last autumn. Still, I need to at least get more of those lists into my diary, especially as we’re gearing up for another huge change with my finishing my PhD and us moving to Boston.

Food: The obvious approach to this would be hardcore raw vegan/organic stuff grown in my own garden. But I’ll admit that while I’m mindful and interrogate sources and try to make educated purchases, I am not cut out to be any sort of vegetarian. (Foie gras is actually more ethical, on the whole, than the average poultry farm if you take time to research.) But for a New Age theme, I’ll make an effort to eschew the junk stuff and eat healthy things. I have several recipes I’ve been wanting to try out, so this will be the time for tofu and broccoli salad with peanut butter dressing, the homemade tomato-basil soup, and the veg & feta herb dip for afternoon munchies, incorporating as many herbs from my garden. Tea instead of coffee. And oh yes, more “spa water.”

Additional details: It is the ritualistic element of many of these books that appeals most to me. Or, as one book puts it, a writing retreat is “where I go when I remove myself from the ordinary and move into the extraordinary” because “the concept of a writing retreat is contained within the word intention.” (The Writer’s Retreat, Judy Reeves) I find the act of setting aside space and time for writing beneficial, a way of treating my writing as something valuable. When I was younger, these rituals of intention at the beginning of a writing day were akin to prayer, very spiritual; I was deeply committed to the ideas of faith and projecting positive thoughts and the laws of attraction and all that stuff back in the day. But now, while I no longer find faith-based approaches helpful or healthy for me, the acts of visualization or meditation can still be useful with writing.

The whole “stating an intention” approach, with deep breathing and visualization, is just a different way of saying “goal oriented focus,” after all. Articulating that at the start of a writing spree makes a difference. Instead of going in all higgledy-piggledy, there’s a sense of sharp determination combined with joy.

This is what I’m writing today.

This is what I will accomplish.

I end up feeling refreshed and fulfilled with my writing, not depressed and hopeless. Sometimes I’m even really proud of the work I’ve done in a day.

And sending it out there into the world….

Especially, it feels wonderful, celebrating the worlds and characters I’ve created. Being present in their world. Connecting with them…  and with the implied reader(s) who might encounter them in the future.

Inspiration for Hal from A Scandalous Reputation.
Inspiration for Margaret from A Scandalous Reputation.

When I write, environment is important, and a lot of these writing guides have some sort of approach to “creating mindful space.” Even if I’m not doing a Pretentious and Wanky New Age Writing Day, I work and write better when I am in settings that I find more aesthetically pleasing. If it’s not a brick-and-ivy college campus or my nest-of-an-office or a cozy coffeehouse, then that can mean just taking time to light a candle or cut some things from my garden to stick in a vase on a desk or table. So for this, I’ll make extra-sure my office, or wherever I’m writing, is a functional “mindful” space, neaten up the piles of books and things more than once a day, open windows for fresh air, that sort of thing.

Planning for this retreat prompted me to go through my stash of essential oils, too. Between the lack of a decent bathtub at our flat here, and the lack of money, I haven’t been indulging in the scented steams and baths and soaks I used to do on a much more regular basis for many years. I miss it. So I cleaned out my box of oils, pitched the ones that were way too old (some bottles with the last bits in there were over twenty years old, I discovered!), and got a few fresh ones. I have several regular blends I use (see below) for writing, whether it’s improving concentration or getting into an introspective mood. I also splurged on broom flower oil (genet), which was the fragrance of one of my favorite candles, years ago, that I used to burn in my dorm room during late-night writing binges… and so of course got discontinued.  

Oils for writing:

Concentration Blend

  • Lemon (20 drops)
  • Basil (6 drops)
  • Rosemary (2 drops)


Wilderness Blend

  • Juniper (15 drops)
  • Pine (8 drops)
  • Rosemary (8 drops)


Moolight Blend

  • Lemongrass (10 drops)
  • Pine balsam (10 drops)
  • Ginger (5 drops)
  • Star anise (3 drops)


Alertness Blend

  • Grapefruit (10 drops)
  • Lime (10 drops)
  • Black pepper (5 drops)
  • Peppermint (5 drops)


Romance and Passion Blend

  • Sandalwood (10)
  • Rose (6)
  • Sage (4)
  • Nutmeg (3 drops)
  • Patchouli (2 drops)
  • Cinnamon bark (2 drops)
  • Ginger (2 drops)


Ivy League prepster

What I didn’t already get from Study Like Rory Gilmore, this theme should cover.

I’m not a preppy. I find most preppy things gross, problematic, and laughable. But what I DO love is the whole historical trajectory of Ivy League college culture… and how bits of it became mainstream, taken away from the well-bred WASPy folks and turned into something else. Just evoking preppiness raises questions about access, authenticity, national identity.

On the other hand, since I grew up in poor in the 80s, I have a fetishy longing, even now, for a well-tailored shirt or a cashmere cardigan, as if possessing it proves something, even when I know it doesn’t. Blazers are one of my favorite garments. I love pearls, polka dots, and ballet flats, Breton striped shirts, navy, and even a bit of pink. I will wear the hell out of that pleated skirt.

Preppy also lends itself beautifully to camp-tastic send-ups. It takes itself so fucking seriously, and, accordingly, just BEGS to be poked at. Whether it’s positioned against the decadence of the New Woman, the Jazz Age, and the nouveau riche in everything from Henry James to Gatsby, or swathed in post-War pastel and pearls and petticoats in contrast to them dirty beatniks and hippies, there’s an almost Pee-Wee’s Playhouse absurdity lurking right under the surface of  preppiness.

I can see her Lady Bird Johnson from here.

But even more, when I was growing up, amongst certain kin, the idea of being a “preppy” became a veiled put-down of me.

I come from a family that (apologies for the class-laden terms, but these are their own words) proudly claims to be “white trash” and “rednecks” and are as loud and obnoxious as possible. Just by nature of the fact that I was a reserved bookworm who preferred a quiet corner meant that my very existence was in conflict with, and even an overt insult to, some family members. (Hell, just by saying this, there is already a chunk of the population who will mistakenly assume that this means I am “no fun,” “uptight,” and “judgmental.” Wrong, but good try. I’ve never put down people who enjoy what they enjoy. The fact that I, personally, do not enjoy ___ does not make it a personal insult to you, and if you think it does, get the fuck over yourself. Why, yes, I do still have a bit of latent anger lurking around.) So, anyway, as a girl, because I wanted to go to college, and I studied and read a lot, and didn’t wear flannel shirts and cut-off jeans or listen to country music and heavy metal, I was told I was “a snob.” Like those fancy, snotty preppies at those useless, stupid schools for spoiled kids who couldn’t hack things in the REAL world.

Much later on, when I finally DID manage to do things like go to college, live back East, and spend time immersed in Ivy League/East Coast university environments, I inwardly embraced their derisive “preppy” insult as my own act of rebellion. Because yeah, in some circles, getting an education, enjoying going to art museums, having academic ambitions, not getting drunk, working hard at things, or even just the physical act of reading a book in public is considered a personal attack on others.

When I finally saw Matilda several decades later, I jaw-dropped that Mr. Wormwood uttered multiple things that I heard from my own stepfather, almost word-for-word.

So now, years later, I relish the things I enjoy without guilt… yes, even the ones that are pretentious as fuck. Because it’s possible for the same person to love a grilled peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwich, snowfall in a small New England town, nerdy message t-shirts, wine pairings, all-night taco stands, and tweed. James Joyce and Jackie Collins coexist happily in my world.


“Suck it, bitches,” free verse style.


But what this preppy thing is primarily about is that I just really, really, really love college, and everything to do with college. And with getting ready to move back to Boston, I’m feeling the whole Ivy League thing right now. I’ll be doing research at archives at several Ivy League and Seven Sisters campuses. I’m even toying with the possibility of teaching jobs at preparatory schools in the near future.

Activities: This is some heavy-duty studying, since, after all, Ivy League prepsters will have Ivy League workloads, so I’ll tackle mine with some helpful tips.

I have lectures and podcasts on appropriately pretentious subjects, of course, and a bunch of Higher Education newsletter reading to catch up on. I have a list of scholars to contact for a variety of reasons, which can be defined as “networking.” And I need to plan out potential article submissions to several different journals, which will involve poring over my pretentious PhD thesis and isolating elements that can be developed into stand-alone work. Why, if I have time, I could even brush up on my bare-minimum French phrases in preparation for my next Paris jaunt!

Even my fiction writing can be done with a preppy twist, since I need to do a bunch of hyper-organized notes and outlines on the project I’ll be finishing after I finish A Scandalous Reputation, as well as making lists of potential publishers/agents for the next round of submissions.

Food: I’ve done a preppy-themed menu once as a joke for an 80s party, and, as mentioned earlier, it lends itself perfectly to over-the-top campiness. Interestingly enough, many of the things that, a few decades ago, were signifiers of unbearable snobbery—sushi, cheese plates, spinach dip, quiche, even nouvelle cuisine itself— have now become commonplace. C’est la vie. I have several recipes for hors d’oeuvres that fit perfectly with the preppy aesthetic, would probably have been served at some sorority party at one point, can be pre-prepared, and will make lovely, light meals, along with lots of healthy, fresh salads and soups:

  • beef tenderloin bites with blue cheese
  • asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, with goat’s cheese
  • blanched green beans with lemon aioli
  • bacon wrapped water chestnuts and figs

There will be cheese, because cheese is one of the best things in the world, and I will put that cheese on one of my cheese boards and serve it with appropriate cheese knives, because CHEESE.

I could augment Preppy Foods with store-bought things, including mini-quiches, cheese straws, crudite, and bottles of Evian or that aforementioned spa water. If I feel like splurging, I’ll pick up some caviar, and serve it on halves of small new potatoes, with a splorge of creme fraiche. Or try to track down some Haagen Dazs ice cream. (No wine spritzers, Perrier, or gin and tonics, though, Tibby. I can’t stand ‘em.)

I got some good contemporary recipes from The Preppy Hostess, too. And if ever there was a dish that was destined to be embraced by preppies, avocado toast is it.

Additional details: A lot of preppy-themed study stuff looks just like Studyblr, only with Lilly Pulitzer planners, LL Bean totes, monogrammed everything, and a whole lot of “pink and orange with navy and white accents. AND BOWS.” Thus, I’m sure I can manage to feel prepster-ish enough with my own non-monogrammed supplies. As long as I keep it all neatly organized in one of my totes, totes. (You knew I’d do that. When it comes to humor, I always go for the low-hanging fruit.)

Along with all the studying/writing, I can get my lazy butt out for afternoon walks, because sporty physical activity is important to preppy lifestyle. I can turn the errand running for printer ink into a breezy shopping expedition for office supplies, and dash around City Centre with my takeaway coffee and tote bag. I can go work in the main university library, under a green-shaded lamp, and after, go get two perfect pink macarons with a cup of perfect tea.

I write better supervision reports with tea. FACT.

Most of my themes involve music, but, interestingly enough, the subject of “preppy music” does not yield definitive results. In my youth, the sorority girls with popped collars and argyle sweater-vests listened to much of the same mainstream popular music as anyone. It wasn’t like there was a secret “preppy band” or “preppy sound.” It seems to be more that if you are a preppy, your music is preppy music. I guess at parties, vocal standards or classical music (of the strictly classical period, no Baroque or Romantic) were the thing.

However, I have a playlist of super-white-bread 1950s sorority girl music, heavy on the Doris Day, Perry Como, Johnnie Ray, Rosemary Clooney… music that just sounds pastel. That will work if needed.


Turn of the century college girl spread

I’ve been doing variations of this theme for years already, and it’s a favorite. It covers both my critical and fiction work, so immersing in the life of a pre-Great War co-ed is both fun and useful.


Coinciding with the first wave of feminism, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, several women’s colleges, now known as as the Seven Sisters colleges, were established in the Northeastern US. Other universities at the time went co-ed. So during the “golden age” of women’s colleges, around 1880-1910, college life, and the “college boy & college girl” image became a pop culture phenomenon.

The timing was perfect for the American girls’ college novel.

College girl fiction disappeared in the 1930s with the popularity of Nancy Drew, which changed the way series fiction was produced. Plus, post-Freud, it was impossible to ignore homoeroticism and lesbian subtext in the genre. But it’s a fun and fascinating genre, and a fun and fascinating subculture of female domestic space.


Link: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Art


In these novels, food and community combine to form a specific college experience for the girls. I have reams of material, from tea rooms to Mountain Day picnics. But one of the most popular pastimes was for girls to host secret feasts, or “spreads,” in their dorm rooms, before or after lights-out.

Do not google “college girl spread.” Just don’t.

Tea kettles and chafing dishes were necessary accessories for any college girl’s dorm room, but often, hostesses had to improvise, using hat pins for forks or teacups instead of soup plates. The point of a college girl “spread” was to make do with the easily stored and -prepared. These small group gatherings to study, plan, or play were often impromptu, and frequently made festive with skits, “stunts,” games, and costumes. And in fiction, if not real life, NEVER (at least not for the “nice” college girls) did a spread involve intense cramming for exams, gossip, talking about boys, ragtime/jazz/“jungle music” (all of which was terribly “low” and“vulgar”), mean-spirited tricks/hazing, or true rule-breaking.

Girls kept stashes of non-perishables in their dorm rooms, and college roomies made it a point to keep on hand specific groceries for impromptu occasions. Families also sent care packages with home-baked goods, such as unfrosted loaf cakes that would travel well and improve in flavor after a week or more.

However, what the girls usually prepared was some variation of fudge.

Do not google “college girl spread” AND “fudge.” Just don’t.

Letters from girls writing to parents and friends tell of stealing butter, milk and sugar from dining room tables in order to facilitate fudge-making at a nighttime spread. And the girls had to hurry to finish the traditional chafing dish fudge in time for ten o’clock lights-out, managing this task deftly despite the seemingly disastrous combination of kimono sleeves and spirit lamps!  

Activities: Despite the fact that the girls in many of these century-old college novels don’t seem to study much, I certainly will. A hundred years ago, they would have called me a “dig” or a “grind,” and the “all-around girl” at my college would have likely staged some sort of intervention out of concern, rousing me from my books and, like, probably making me play basketball or something.

Anyway, while I won’t be cramming Latin or writing theme papers, I can work on those aforementioned articles and presentations. I can also write fiction that is set in this era, too. And since friends are invited, this theme is perfect for our academic gabs over tea about upcoming conferences, and plans for a special-edition journal several of us are editing.

Food: Well, here’s what it’s really all about, huh?

I mentioned the fudge, and don’t think for a second I don’t have an antique chafing dish of my own just for occasions like this. Another popular chafing dish dorm room treat was Welsh rarebit, and I have the ingredients for that as well (minus the beer. College girls in America didn’t usually have access to beer. My, how things changed). Companies began to capitalize on the possibilities of the college girl consumer, and specially designed chafing dishes, alcohol lamps, kettles, tea sets and -tables, and cookbooks were produced for the college girl.


Link: Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing-Dish Dainties (1913)

Link: One Hundred  and One Chafing Dish Recipes (1904)


My regular go-to dishes for these themed gatherings are:

  • Welsh Rarebit (sometimes called Welsh Rabbit)
  • Plowed field (fudge with marshmallows)
  • Hot chocolate made w/condensed milk and water
  • Olives
  • Pickles
  • Crackers
  • Tea with lemon and sugar


If I’m feeling super fancy, I’ll make creamed chicken on toast, or cinnamon toast under the broiler.

But it doesn’t have to be even remotely fancy, of course.

Many of the packaged treats college girls stocked in their dorm pantries for late night snacks can still be found in some form in any modern market. In 1898, the National Biscuit Company, later Nabisco, formed as a consolidation between several baked goods companies (including Sunshine Biscuits), and offered a variety of packaged treats, such ginger snaps, vanilla wafers, shortbread and soda crackers. While the formulas have changed, items like Triscuits, Animal Crackers, Lorna Doones, graham crackers, saltines, Mallomars, Cracker Jack, Moon Pies and Fig Newtons were all well-known grocery items in the early 1900s. Wrapped unsweetened squares of Baker’s chocolate was used for both hot chocolate and the ubiquitous chafing dish fudge, as was Henri Nestlé’s cocoa powder and condensed milks. It isn’t difficult to put together a hundred-year-old themed “spread” with contemporary foodstuffs from your local supermarket.

collegenovel3 copy

And obviously, such an effect can easily be created with modern-day snacks and things; after all, the “midnight spreads” of old are not far removed from today’s bags of potato chips, microwave popcorn, or pizza delivery.

Additional details: “All things college” was recognizable American branding during this era, and I have tons of contemporary songs, and quite a few college-specific tunes, too: multiple college rousers and fight songs (You know Cole Porter wrote Yale’s, right?) plus things like the “Varsity Drag,” the “Prep Step,” and the “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” fraternity song.


Because of my critical work and my fiction, I have quite a stash of illustrations by popular artists who depicted the college girl for thousands of magazine covers and printed posters. The most recognizable was Charles Dana Gibson, and the Gibson Girl was synonymous with the ideal “College Girl.” Many of my themed binders, Pinterest boards, collages, and yes, indeed, avatar pictures here feature illustrators like Gibson, Harrison Fisher, Howard Chandler Christy, Neysa McMein, and some early James Montgomery Flagg.


As far as entertaining practicalities, turn-of-the-century college girls incorporated Japanese and Turkish elements in their dorm rooms: kimonos, fringed shawls, cushions, painted screens, silk wall hangings, tea sets and china, Oriental rugs, even pieces of engraved furniture. The ideal environment to evoke a girls’ college dorm room from a hundred years ago would include a cozy corner with a rocking chair, Morris chair, and/or seating like a low Turkish-style daybed or divan, with lots of cushions, for guest seating. I have pillows and cushions to fling around the floor. The tea table is most important, though, and my chafing dish, kettle, and vintage mismatched tea cups (typical of a college-adjacent tea room) are at the ready.


So when I say “Tea, darlings?” you know I mean it!

(Don’t think I don’t have an era-appropriate kimono and assorted loungewear, either.)

Well, then. Tea, darlings?

Happy writing and studying!




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