What The Velvet Prison Taught Me About Making Space to Create

Back when I worked at The Really Big Company, my boss sent me to the corporate training center nicknamed “The Velvet Prison.” Imagine a US river winding through a forest — on its bank, a sprawling world class facility where an executive chef serves excellent cuisine and an attentive staff addresses every student, not just the company’s executives, by name. Business luminaries teach engaging topics. There are snacks everywhere. It’s a great experience.

A generous artist has offered her vacation cabin to me and another writer next week, and, well, I will have a forest, but no river, no executive chef.  The home is charming and there will be no staff.

Unless I count myself.

On the night before my first class at The Velvet Prison, I signed my room’s guestbook, mumbled to myself, Wow, that’s kind of weird, when I read a former boss’ name in his familiar handwriting. My procrastination complete I opened my comb-bound textbook, expecting their take on Marketing Leadership but found these questions instead.

What do you want to get from this experience?

What will get in the way of getting what you want?

What can you do to mitigate them?

The Velvet Prison knew our worst instincts. We’d take furtive glances when our Blackberries vibrated during class, we’d take and make calls during breaks.  After finishing our group homework, we’d be seen at the bar for a round or two, but then we’d rush back to our rooms at night to read the hundred or so emails from the day, then we’d do our individual class homework too. Many pulled all-nighters in The Velvet Prison. We tried to be everywhere and everything to everyone, and as much as we missed our loved ones, we feared dropping the ball on something back in the office even more.

This the split I feel when I write, especially at retreats and workshops. And until my visit to The Velvet Prison, I faced my worst instincts on my own. Poorly. I’d tell myself, I have something else, everything else that I “need” to be doing right now. I’d write and work during the retreat that was meant only for writing. Then, after I returned to work, I’d wish I spent that time on my writing. This cycle is utterly anti-productive. The right pencil or notebook, the insight of an amazing workshop leader, the great idea — none of this became useful until I created a space within myself to work.  Learning to give myself over to my writing is a journey. I’m getting better at it.  These questions help.

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