Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mary: Writing Retreats

I’m walking a winter’s beach in Gloucester, MA, the temperature in the single digits, the wind blowing sharp and cold against my face. I’m dressed in layers so I can walk the beach back and forth for as long as it takes. I wrap a scarf around my head, dig my hands in my pockets, and take my first strides. My assignment? To consider the total restructuring of my novel.

I’m in heaven! Who cares about the cold, the skies graying with an impending storm? I have all the time in the world, a warm room to go back to, two writer friends to commiserate with right down the hall, and nothing else to do but think, dream, read, and write. I’m on retreat.

Imagine extricating yourself from your daily life of job, house, kids, chores, partner, errands, etc.—and taking yourself to a special place for the sole purpose of writing. Whether for a long weekend, a week, or an entire month; at a deserted beach motel in winter, a friend’s lake house in summer, or an urban B&B in the fall; with or without writer friends—the retreat experience is both magical and productive.

Because not all writers respond to retreats in the same way, I’ve asked four of my retreat mates, Jacqueline Davies, Jennifer Jacobson, Sarah Lamstein, and Carol Peacock, to help me answer some questions about creating a successful writing retreat.

1. How many people should go?
There is no ideal number! For me, retreats work best with no more than four people. In larger groups, I find there’s too much temptation to spend precious writing time in captivating conversations with other writers. Being around more than four people provides way too much distraction. But that’s just me!

Jennifer Jacobson likes retreats of all sizes. “With a larger group,” Jennifer says, “the dynamics keep changing. Lots of interesting and unexpected connections are made based on interest and where each of us is in our process. We come together as a large group each night, but during the day (when not deeply immersed in our own work) we might break into pairs or small groups.” In these smaller, spontaneous group meetings, Jennifer might pitch an idea for a new picture book, brainstorm a better ending for a YA novel, or enter a discussion about alternating points of view. Whether the retreat is “big or small,” Jennifer always finds it inspires “an amazing spirit of generosity” among writers.

While I love the companionship and support of a small group retreat, I also treasure writing time alone on a solo retreat. I’m lucky because my family has a house in the remote woods of Maine, a place I can get away to for a few days when I really need to concentrate on a project. And just a couple of weeks ago, I got a lot of writing done while I was house- and cat-sitting for a friend. I know writers who often go away by themselves, even if it’s just to a local B&B in the next town, to write in solitude.

2. How long should the retreat last?
Most of the retreats I’ve been on last between 3 and 7 days. For me, 5 days with other writers is perfect, and 3 days are too few—you don’t really get enough time to settle into your work. But 3 days are better than nothing! I’ve also taken myself to my public library for a 5-hour mini-retreat when I have a specific task to achieve. There’s something about taking yourself away from your regular writing place and daily life to focus on your work.

Jacqueline Davies loves the luxury of a solo month-long retreat when she’s able to pack her kids off to summer camp and rent a little apartment on the coast of Maine. “Away from daily life, and all the concerns both large and small that crowd my daily life, I am able to unpack my brain—empty it out—and think of nothing but my novel. A typical workday on retreat begins in bed. I wake up—but not fully—and allow myself to slowly sift through my half-awake thoughts. What did I dream about? How does it relate to my work-in-progress? What did I go to sleep thinking about? Have any new ideas about my novel mushroomed in the night?”

“On shorter retreats,” Jackie says, “it can be hard for me to allow myself this dream-work time. I tend to feel that I need to get up and "get to it." Get words down on the page. Make progress. Rack up pages. Push to the end. But on longer retreats, I can relax, knowing that there's time for both. And in truth, my best writing grows out of those dreaming sessions, when I'm still half asleep, and I can access the murky workings of my subconscious brain.”

I’ve never gone on a month-long, solo writing retreat. It strikes me as a very brave thing to do. But I’m intrigued by the experiences of Jackie and other writers who’ve done it. Someday, I’m going to give it a try. A hilltop in Tuscany sounds perfect.

3. Pin Down the Dates!
You’ve identified who’s going on retreat. Now the emails start to fly as your group tries to find what dates work for everyone. Once you find the dates, commit to them. Even if your son gets the lead in the high school musical. Even if your day job decides to schedule an important meeting. Even if you forgot it was your mother’s birthday. Once your retreat group agrees on the dates, unless there’s some dire emergency, you’ve made an important commitment. This commitment becomes the foundation of your writing success while on retreat and reverberates into your writing life long after the retreat is over.

4. Where should you go on retreat?
I’ve been on retreats at my house in Maine. Then there was that off-season motel on a beach in Gloucester. One time, our retreat group worked out a deal, taking over an entire B&B. I’ve heard of writers’ retreats in rented houses, condos, and in summer camps when camp wasn’t in session. The possibilities are endless and fun to research. (But don’t let tooo much research take you away from your writing—“hilltop retreat in Tuscany?” Hmmm…)

5. Getting Ready
As the retreat dates approach, I find myself getting more and more excited to see my friends, get to work, and focus. I start mentally preparing myself for the project I plan to work on. I journal about my intentions—i.e. strengthen the novel’s middle section, get started on something new, draft the next reader in my series, etc. I start piling up books to read and share, resources for my novel, journals. I also bring a knitting project. All this preparation gets me pumped up so I’m ready to ‘hit the paper writing’ once the retreat starts.

As retreat time gets closer for Sarah Lamstein, she says she’s often “still embroiled in other things and only thinking about the retreat in a very small corner of my mind - thinking what earlier versions of the piece will I bring, what books to aid in my composing an accurate historical setting, what books that I admire in a similar genre to stimulate me. And all the time while I'm involved in other things and thinking about the retreat in only a very small corner of my mind, I'm feeling: delicious! It'll be delicious!! So there's an almost certainty of joy in the retreat - the joy of solitude and focus and shaping.”

Carol Peacock, spends “inordinate amounts of time getting ready for a retreat. I’m always worried I will forget something, which is not quite so odd when we remember that my very first group retreat, I DID forget all my clothes! Still it seems to require almost a whole day to get ready. During that time, I’m also organizing the "to do" lists for my family, which in the end, they never follow.”

Along with her computer, printer, power cord, extra ink, paper, and portable table, Carol Peacock also makes sure to pack lots of office products: colored post-its, multi-colored little tabs, highlighter markers, tape, scissors, index cards, stickers. Carol’s revisions are always very glamorous! Here’s a picture of her work area in that Gloucester motel.

Food! Another thing to plan in advance is what foods everyone will bring. If you’re renting or staying at someone’s house, you can coordinate meals. What’s worked best in my experience is for each person to take responsibility for our own breakfast and lunch foods and one dinner meal. Once, when we stayed in a B&B, we got take-out at dinner and all sat around the living room. No one has ever gone hungry (or thirsty!) during retreat!

6. On retreat.
Finally, all the planning is behind you and you arrive with all your stuff. You’re full of hope—and hope’s twin sister, anxiety. Will you write? You’ve inconvenienced every one back home with your absence. You’re using up precious vacation time. And what about the expense? What if you just sit around eating chocolates and staring out the window all day? Or, knitting?

Jackie Davies says, “Settling in is a necessary part of going on retreat. It might take you an hour; it might take you three days. Either way, it's got to be done. One of the fastest ways I've found to settle in to a new retreat space is to unpack my suitcase and then take a nap.”

Greeting and catching up with your retreat mates, unpacking, making yourself at home in your new workspace, napping, going for a walk, journaling—whatever it takes, make sure to take time for this important step. Settle yourself in, calm your brain, open your heart, tune into your creative channels and then….

Get to work! You’ve come on retreat to write, so get to it. Review the editorial letter, read over your latest draft, decorate your manuscript with “office products,” have a cup of tea, doodle in the margins, write in your journal about how haaaard it is—all this is part of the process, but eventually you have to get writing. Soon you’ll be in the groove, I promise! It also helps to know that right next door to you, your retreat mates are writing away. Peer pressure works. Writing energy fills the house.

Sarah Lamstein says, “There's nothing like it when you get in the ‘zone’- the sense that you're getting a firmer grip on your character, that you can write scenes with abandon, and that you can be ruthless about cutting what doesn't belong, no matter its adorableness. This is a time of luxuriance, a time of time when you're just working - not doing anything else - working as soon as you get up in the morning and until you go to bed at night. You use time in this way because you know it's limited and why not get everything out of it?”

A typical day: Make a plan with your retreat mates about when you’re going to meet together as a group. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just dinner? Afternoon tea? A morning walk? One group I retreat with makes plans to meet for dinner and then spend the evenings sharing and critiquing work, discussing books, brainstorming marketing ideas, etc.

But during the day, all or some of us will frequently “bump into each other” during meals or on walks. Caution: be careful not to bump into each other too often or else the work won’t get done! My retreat buddies and I don’t get to see much of each other during the year so it’s hard not to spend time socializing. Still, we all share a deep commitment to our writing and realize that during retreat, the writing comes first.

Closure: As the retreat sadly comes to an end, make sure to schedule a solid block of time for closure. This step can easily get lost with all the packing and cleaning up that needs to get done. It’s so valuable to sit down as a group, or by yourself if you’re alone, to evaluate the retreat, congratulate yourself for what you’ve done, and, most importantly, pull out those calendars to set dates for the next retreats. I have retreat dates set on my calendar two or three years into the future! You may also want to state and record your group’s writing goals for what you want to accomplish between now and the next retreat. This way, the retreat’s energy keeps on going until you meet again.

Okay, back to that wide expanse of beach in Gloucester, the snowflakes now filling the air and pinging against my cheeks. I’ve walked one mile to one end of the beach and I’m all warmed up. During this walk, I’ve played around with starting my novel later in the story, then earlier in the story. I moved the crisis point up, then pushed it back. I pause now to stand on a rock and stare out to sea. Nah, I decide. The structure’s fine. But I could strengthen that subplot. And maybe get rid of an unnecessary character and go deeper into my main character. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I turn around and head to my cozy motel room. I can’t wait to get back and write!

Do you go on writing retreats? What is your experience? Do editors and agents ever go on retreats?


  1. Mary, I am lime green with jealousy. It's the season of I-need-to-get-away meets this-needed-to-be-done-yesterday and I would love the luxury of setting aside days to spend writing with like-minded companions. You’ve inspired me to get out my calendar & address book and start planning a writing retreat of my own! Thanks for sharing

  2. What a fun post! I'm dying to go on a writing retreat, but must wait until my kids are older. My youngest is only 9 months and needs the mama.

    But a bunch of my friends are going on a retreat to an Irish Castle in a week or so! I've never heard of something more awesome than that. I can't wait to hear about their experiences!

  3. I was just trying to get one going with some sothern breezers - thanks for the "excuse" ;)

  4. What a great post and great, brilliant group of writers.

    I've gone to retreats where there's been one editor and a bunch of writers at a great Maine campground. It's always a bit like old home week.
    I've also gone to a retreat where people just write, write, write and there are no agents or editors. This is really fun and lots of naughty stuff tends to happen at night.

    Okay. Not REALLY naughty. We are children's book writers, but hey... That Dr. Seuss can be twisted into some pretty funny stuff.

  5. I am also a believer in retreats. Once a year, I meet with my fellow writers--Kimberly Willis Holt, Lola Schaefer, Jeanette Ingold, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich for four or five days at our family ranch in central Texas.

    We've been doing it long enough now that we have a routine. These outings fill us up, not only with food and wine, but with each other, with the solace of writership, with the whole world of story.

    Such a nice blog here, Mary. I recommend retreats, and you've illustrated their value in a lovely way.

  6. I've longed to do the one-month solo retreat for years now. I went to Red Wing, MN, with a group last year and it was terrific. I had more fun than did work, however. It would seem that nothing has changed since high school in that regard. There are always the good, focused people, and then the people like me. ("If you're looking for a good time, meet me in the kitchen in half an hour.") It was pretty hilarious the way, one-by-one, people would drift down to the kitchen and join in the conversation. I'll try harder to concentrate on our next retreat as a group, but a month by myself would be Heaven. I have no reservations about the idea at all, other than leaving my husband for that long. He'll insist I take the dog and cats with me.

  7. Thanks for sharing! The rgz divas frequently retreat to write. And we have to promise to confine rgz work to the car!

  8. Of course, can I plug myself? I run a writer's retreat that combines the food, group (larger 8-10 writers) and agents/editors/authors for writers. Held in Breckenridge, CO twice a year. www.writingawayretreats.com

    But what does it for me personally? The get away, the no responsibility of actual life hindering my spirit or muse, regardless of where you go, you need to feel you can truly escape this aspect so you can feel free to write, write, write.

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