Writing Retreats

I’m a lucky, lucky girl. I’m in a phenomenal writing group — I’ll talk about writing groups some other time — and just last week we finished up our annual writing retreat. It was a fantastic experience and I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year to do it again.

Writing retreat, you say? What do you mean?

At the retreat; the surly artist at work.  Photo courtesy of Paul Berger.
In this case, I mean that thirteen or so of us — most of the group’s members plus friends who wanted to join in — took over a house in an isolated area, brought food and other necessities, and holed up there for 5 days to do nothing but write. Actually it was two houses, on a farm down near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and our isolation was reinforced by a) the lack of reliable internet, b) shaky cellphone signals, and c) the slightly surreal sense of alienation that came of being a diverse, progressive bunch of New York artists in a very white, Civil-War-obsessed rural town. (People were perfectly friendly, but we did draw stares at the grocery store.) And in truth we did more than just write. There were media nights: Battlestar Galactica, of course, and the Director’s Cut of “Dark City”, and I finally made it all the way through Primer (and then became obsessed with figuring out its Gordian plot). We made communal dinners on a couple of nights; folks liked my Toned-Down Gumbo For Lightweight Northerners. We even had a special guest: a prominent SF magazine editor lived nearby and was friends with some of us, so he dropped by to say hello. And there were cows. (It was a working farm.) Really! They mooed and everything.

But in between all this, there were long stretches of quiet hours in which groups of us would sit at tables or on couches or on the floor or wherever, and do nothing but write. Plot-grokking sessions in which some of us would share our storybuilding problems with the others, and get suggestions for improvement. There was good-natured teasing when one or another of us failed to meet a daily goal, and lots of quiet long walks (or cow-gazing sessions) to generate ideas. I met my own goal for the retreat, which was to finish the outline of my latest novel and get a healthy start on it — though I’m going to have to rework a good chunk of the outline, and I actually got two healthy starts, because I wrote 7000 words of one beginning, decided I didn’t like it, and scrapped the whole thing to start over. (Had 3000 words on that by the time we left, so still good progress.) All in all, I came away from the retreat satisfied and renewed. And tired, but that was OK. It was a good kind of tired.

I think retreats are essential to any writer. There’s just something about the routine of everyday life that interferes with creativity, or so I’ve found over the years. It’s dangerously easy to get into a rut, or to let non-writerly responsibilities assume sole priority in one’s life. Mind you, those responsibilities should have primacy most of the time, because ignoring them means rent doesn’t get paid, bosses aren’t happy, significant others get annoyed, etc.

But by the same token, ignoring the writerly self is a form of irresponsibility too, for those of us who’ve chosen to call ourselves writers. How can it be my calling/identity if it’s something I relegate to the handful of free hours in my week that aren’t already occupied by something else? So it’s important to carve out time for it. This goes for any long-term effort, I think; periodically we need to pause, reflect, and refresh. Most of us have no problem doing this in the workplace — teambuilding events, strategic planning retreats, etc. But sometimes writers forget that writing is work too. Just because we don’t get paid a regular wage, or do it between 9 and 5, doesn’t make it any less demanding.

So if you’re a writer, and you’re with a group that wants to put on its own retreat, here are some tips:

  • It helps to have someone coordinating the event who is responsible and detail-oriented. (For us, that was the lovely Alaya Dawn Johnson, who did an excellent job.)
  • No pressure. My writing group does this retreat every year, but this year was the first time that I actually attended. Last year I was broke and also didn’t feel comfortable the taking time off work. Nobody made me feel like a bad group member for not attending, though; it was OK. (Though after I heard how much fun they had, I was horribly jealous!)
  • You don’t have to go far, but isolation is important. It’s tough to really immerse in “creative mode” if you go home every night to sleep in your own bed, or if your boss calls you all day about work stuff. Get out of easy driving range of home. Tell people your phone will be off during certain times — or tell them to treat it as off, and call only in emergencies. Establish boundaries and defend them.
  • If you want to keep costs down, look at vacation homes rather than commercial retreats, and go during the off-season, so that you’re in a better position to negotiate the rate. (There’s a reason AF does its retreat in February. Though this can occasionally cause weather-related problems. We made it back just before the storm hit.)
  • Again re costs, bring a biggish group, if you can. Ours was large enough that it only cost us $150 per person.
  • If people in your group are culinarily-inclined, have them cook rather than going out to eat, and stick to easy one-dish meals. Not only does this cut costs, but the communal meal is bonding time.
  • This should go without saying, but carpool.
  • You’re there to work, yes. But remember that having fun helps the creative process! Plan in a few “fun” activities, for a nice balance.
  • It can be tough accommodating different writers’ work styles. Some people like music while they work; some need absolute quiet, etc. We were aided in this by having two spacious houses, one bigger than the other — so the more populated one became the “loud house” while the other stayed the “quiet house”. People moved back and forth between them and found private spots within them, according to their needs. (I mostly stayed at the “quiet house”.) Being willing to compromise helps… as does having a pair of good noise-reducing earphones/plugs!
  • Don’t stress over wordcount. The goal of a retreat is to stimulate your creativity first and productivity second. I went on a mini-retreat in upstate New York last fall and got very little done. I got kind of annoyed about it, because I felt like I was wasting my money and time. But one day I went for a long walk along a rural road, and ran into a delightful older gentleman who babbled at me in Spanish and walked with me for awhile, explaining how his family had come to the country from Nicaragua 40 years before. (I think; my Spanish is pretty rusty.) At some point in the future, that man’s going to end up in one of my stories; I can feel it. Hasn’t happened yet, but I still consider meeting him to be a positive result of that retreat.

…Man, I can’t wait for next year. =)


4 Responses to “Writing Retreats”

  1. 1 Justin
    March 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    So if there was one thing you could take away from the retreat and bring back into your daily schedule, what would it be?

  2. March 12, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    For me, it would be sitting at the kitchen table and looking up in between writing spats to see dozens of acres of harvested corn and soy fields. It was inspiring, especially since I was writing a story about a small town gone to seed.

  3. March 13, 2009 at 5:26 pm


    Cows. Definitely.

    But failing pasture space in Brooklyn, I wish I could bring back the group writing aspect. I’ve always written better in company than I do alone, so it was nice to get up every morning and find (because I’m a late riser) that everybody else in the house is up and quietly at work. That encourages me to get to work. And I stay at work longer because they’re still working.

    I can get that to a small degree by going to a coffee shop, but no one there cares if I work, so there’s no peer pressure to help. Writing days with fellow writers works better, but most people aren’t full-time writers and can’t do this during weekdays. =( So I soldier on, alone. ::strikes melodramatic pose::

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