>Dolphins, Poetry, and Beach Culture: Reflections on a Month of Writing at the Beach

>To the ancient Greeks, spotting dolphins riding in a ship’s wake was considered a good omen. I didn’t know that until this morning (thank you, wiki) but maybe I knew it intuitively, because I wake each morning searching for dolphins and continue to watch for them throughout the day—especially at dusk, when they typically seem to travel in this area. Will it inspire my writing if I see them? Now I wish I had made observations about how much writing I got done on the days that I did see dolphins during my writing retreat. But seriously, I think I just love to watch them at play. I’ve been here (writing on the beach in Seagrove, Florida) since October 27 (minus the weekend I went to Oxford for the Creative Nonfiction Conference) and I’ve only seen dolphins twice during this stay. One morning a few of them came fairly close to shore, danced along in pairs (I think there were only 4-6 of them) and left those of us standing on the shore pleading with our eyes for them to stay and entertain us longer. But one afternoon a large school of them showed up. The surf was stronger that day, and the dolphins were like teenage boys showing off with their tricks, riding the surf (yes!) and then breaching high into the water, so that their entire bodies were visible. I had only seen whales do this (in Alaska) and their performance took my breath away. There were only a few people on the beach that day, and we looked at each other when the dolphins left, exchanging satisfied looks, acknowledging that we had seen something spectacular. (P.S. I didn’t take that picture of the dolphin breaching–I wasn’t that close!)

There are only four days left in my month-long writing retreat, but I know I’ll be too busy to write this post on Tuesday, as I’m packing for my departure, so this is my reflection on the time I’ve spent here.

The writing has gone well. I really didn’t know what to expect, other than having uninterrupted time with the book, which is a huge blessing. Sometimes I haven’t dressed or washed my hair for three days at a time, coming out of the condo only for a walk on the beach, and returning with sand and a sticky saltwater film on my skin and in my hair. It’s been freeing not to have to be “presentable” on a daily basis. And not to have to leave the flow of the novel for the routines of “normal life.” Oh, sure, I’ve been to the grocery store about three times, and there have been a few times when “life interrupted” me with the need for a phone call or email unrelated to the writing. But for the most part, I’ve been living with Mare, Emily, and Neema, and the minor characters who have joined the cast of my story since I arrived here. They even go with me on walks—telling me what’s going to happen next, or arguing for a different ending (twice) or reminding me that I need to go back and write more scenes into various chapters. I welcome them on those walks, and barely take time to rinse the sand off my feet before hurrying back to my computer to carry out their wishes. I’ve avoided counting words, for the most part—even though my writing retreat has coincided, quite coincidentally, with NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers are participating in this, and many of them post their progress on Facebook every day. Their goal? To write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I have no idea how many of these are ever published, or how well-written they are, but that kind of goal just doesn’t motivate me, and I wrote about why in my blog post of November 2. But one day I did get curious and counted up my “progress.” I was just over 20,000 words with only a week left to write. I think I’m close to 25,000 words now. But more importantly, I’ve got my head wrapped around this project and will be ready to move forward with it when I return home after Thanksgiving, where I might only write for 2-3 hours a day, and maybe only 3-4 days a week, depending upon how much I chose to enter back into my life with friends, Christmas preparations, and other activities. I don’t think I could have organized the structure of the novel as well at home. I’ve had outlines and papers spread out all over the living room of the condo, with pictures and story boards taped to the backs of chairs and sticky notes lining the edge of the desk, so every time I walk into the room, I’m surrounded by the story. And yes, my panoramic views of the beach over my computer (through windows to the west) and to my side (through sliding glass doors to the south) are breath-taking, and I will miss them greatly, but maybe I’ll take those memories home with me.

Another thing that has both informed my writing and taken some time from it this past week is my new project, which is now running simultaneously with the novel: 100 days of memorizing poetry. I started on Monday, and I’ve memorized five poems so far. I’m also writing short (750-word) reflections about the experience each day, especially about how it is affecting my prose. (Yes, there’s a possible nonfiction book in the making.) Today’s poem? “To Get the Final Lilt of Songs” by Walt Whitman.

Friends (on Facebook and through emails, and one friend who calls frequently) have asked if I’ve gotten lonely. Oddly enough, I haven’t. I do miss my husband and friends back in Memphis, and I miss my church, but I don’t equate missing these people with being lonely. I’m sure that Facebook is part of why I haven’t been lonely, but I’ve also tried to embed myself into the local culture a bit. During November there aren’t so many tourists here, so when I go anywhere—the grocery store, the gas station, to a bar or restaurant—people seem to welcome me with a relaxed friendliness. Yesterday at Publix, a man who works there (in produce? Maybe a manager?) asked me where I got my leather and pearl necklace. I said, “Wendy Mignot.” He nodded and said he bought his wife one of her pieces, and then we proceeded to talk about the local art scene. At my favorite wine and sushi bar (Crush) in Seaside, I’ve gotten to know the manager and two of the bartenders fairly well. One night I met a DJ who was working there and told him about my daughter’s wedding on the beach in May and got his card. And the one night when I met a friend (who lives in Sandestin) for dinner, several people walked in that she knew, and when she introduced me, I felt like a local, and I wanted to live here.

The communities along 30-A are like little villages. I saw it on Halloween night when I went into Seaside and watched the families and their children dressed in costume, the little ones trick-or-treating at the doors of all the little shops, and music and dancing on the lawn in the center of the square. The middle-school aged teenagers were gathered in groups—also in costume—while the younger children hung out with their parents, who eventually sat on the green with groups of friends, enjoying the music and a beer or glass of wine together. Earlier that day (or maybe the day before?) there had been a Halloweener contest—people brought their daschunds (and other dogs) dressed in costumes. It was like going back in time. Or maybe it’s like this in small towns and communities all over the place, but I’ve never lived anywhere other than Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis.

A couple of days ago I went into a shop in Seagrove that sells nice interior design items in the front and has an architectural office in the back. I met the couple (both architects) and recognized them from the daschund contest, which their 8-year-old had entered. We talked about the economy and how it was affecting architecture (I told them my daughter got her Masters in architecture in May) about the 30-A community and why they love it so much. I bought a hand-crafted home design item as a Christmas gift for a friend. They made recommendations for vendors we might want to look into for my daughter’s wedding, which will be right across the street from their shop, next May. I left feeling like they were friends, or could be.

And so I have only 4 days left to write here. Well, mostly 3, as I’m going to spend my last day here doing laundry, getting a manicure and pedicure (the salt water has destroyed my nails) and packing for my drive on Wednesday. And of course, walking on the beach and maybe stopping by Crush for one more glass of wine and one more crunchy shrimp roll. We’ll see. It’s going to be very hard to leave here, but I know I’ll be back. Several people have tried to sell me a condo or house on the beach. I’ve told each of them yes, that I will buy a beach house from them one day. When I win the lottery. Wait—I don’t buy lottery tickets. But a girl’s gotta have a dream.

I’ll close with my favorite two sunset photos from my stay here. One was taken on Seagrove Beach, right off the balcony of my second-floor condo, with a storm coming in.

The other was at Seaside, through the sea oats. Each sunset is a poem. Each one is unique. I don’t think I could ever get used to the beauty that each one brings.

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