I’ve never been on a writers retreat. As a creative person, I’ve tried countless tactics to get ideas out of my head and into the world. Looking at what has worked and not worked recalls the refrain some circles use to close out an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: Keep coming back, it works if you work it.  I’ve been back enough times to accept the writer’s lot in life. I’m dogged by the empty page. Writers must always return bravely to that unsaved Word document, that insistent blinking cursor.

One reliable tactic for me is trying new forms of expression. Six years ago I started creating 3-D assemblage out of found materials, which I combined with text. Finding and arranging discarded objects felt similar to writing. The jumbled chaos of each, a pile of trash or drawerful of consonants and vowels, can be assembled to say or do anything.

This drive, to combine things, to create new meaning, is how I accidently assembled my own writing retreat following a series of unfortunate events. A breakdown in early 2021 triggered the suppressed memories of sexual abuse and isolation I endured as a child. Much later in 2021, I finally began weekly mental health therapy using eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) with a licensed therapist to address this and related traumas.

At roughly the same time I fell apart, my friend and art mentor Cathy Allen was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. In November of 2021, we met for the first time in two years at her home in Wonder Valley, minutes from the North entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. She showed me around the 10 acres of interactive assemblage art she started back in 2017 named Sunvale Village: a community for the small. It is a humorous look at human behavior observed through the trash left behind in the desert. It consists of nearly sixty small structures built beneath creosote bushes. Each assemblage has a “small” resident constructed of broken toys. Each small has a similar story: rejection of the larger world, leading to a sense of loss, followed by a new life and purpose (and name), bestowed by their benign benefactor, Cathy Allen.

We walked the worn paths, slowly. We laughed and cried over the scars we’d acquired since our last visit. I noticed Cathy’s slow gait and the disrepair of the installation. I saw that I was going to lose another important relationship in my life. I could not save her, but I could save her work. At this moment in my life, I desperately needed to save something.

Impulsively, I asked to become her apprentice. That offer, and her acceptance, surprised us both. I found a weekly routine to support my evolution as a writer and artist, while Cathy extended her creative legacy by envisioning a life for Sunvale Village beyond her own.

I fashioned a patchwork of places across my week to holistically create a refuge on my path to renewal. A protective cocoon to recycle the old and encourage new growth. The EMDR, Sunvale Village, the desert drives, my outdoor labs, my long walks – like a decorator crab I assembled a weekly routine to support my creative output.

For ten months I made the 192-mile round trip, arriving in Sunvale Village at sunrise. Typical days were filled with scavenging found materials from desert dump sites, repairing damage to the installation due to the harsh natural conditions of the Mojave Desert, and developing new story lines, context, and characters for Sunvale Village’s Facebook Page.

On Mondays I spent the day in Sunvale Village caring for Cathy’s legacy; being useful to objects and finding value in discarded things. On Wednesdays I logged into my computer to give myself over to the dancing lights of EMDR to recontextualize what happened to me. Like the desert trash I found and repurposed, these things were illegally buried, long forgotten, and in need of recycling.

My retreat continues. I had three months of training under Cathy, then seven months to fly solo into challenging creative situations. When Sunvale Village was closed in September of 2022, I left the desert with an empty mind and a full trunk. I drove the long way home to Riverside with two new draft manuscripts, a disheveled and dusty journal, several partially completed sculptures of found objects, and one new persona. By every metric that matters, it’s been a worthy retreat and a welcome return.

link to originally published column