Áine Greaney

Irish Author

Leading Creative Writing Workshops and Writing Stuff for 20+ years.

North Shore of Boston via Ireland

Filtering by Category: writer with a day job

Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art

My messy table at writers retreat

My messy table at writers retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails.  So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here.  I am my best self here.  I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60 - 100 pages in one long weekend (O.k., so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is .. ahem .. spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat 's assistant director was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. and, well ... um .. Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to ... well ... retreat.   

Based on 15 years' experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5. Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6. This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

Writers! Write to your own body rhythm

When my late mother met my then-boyfriend, she shared some maternal advice. "She's a pure devil in the mornings," she said, nodding toward me (I thought all devils were impure, but ... anyway).  Then, my mother proceeded to describe those childhood breakfasts when I sat at the table, bleary-eyed and speechless. Sometimes, I nodded back to sleep over my bowl of porridge.

I've never been a morning person.  I doubt I ever will. But that boyfriend married me anyway (we celebrate 25 years of mornings next week).

Over the years, I've gotten better at obeying that damn alarm clock, but it still takes my brain an hour or more to fully wake up. For those morning meetings at work, I have to stoke myself with extra, extra-strength coffee (there's a *strict* no-porridge policy in the boardroom) just to be marginally coherent.

And those vacation bed and breakfasts places? Yuck. Chattery, all-guest breakfasts around the frilly dining-room table are my idea of hell.

This past spring, I really needed to increase my weekly writing output. So I began setting my morning alarm clock for an hour earlier. Also, determined to bypass the downstairs kitchen distractions (cat, husband, newspaper, brown-bag lunch prep), I bought myself a small red Thermos.

At night, I fill my Thermos with coffee, then set it next to my laptop on a small desk in an attic room in our house. As well as providing that instant morning eye opener, this nightly Thermos ritual creates the anticipation of morning writing.  

Once that alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, climb the attic stairs, turn on the laptop and unscrew my Thermos cap--all while still half asleep. 

Four or six-hundred words later, I'm still not really awake. But I'm done with that day's writing. I'm ready to get ready for my day job.

I adore this morning solitude.  It makes my whole day go better. And, even more than extending my daily writing quota, this sleep-writing shtick has had an unexpected payout:  With my left-brain still on dimmer switch,  I have neither the urge nor the acuity to read back through what I've written to nitpick and change things.

Now, it's late summer and I have an entire 70-plus pages of my book. Oh, yes, on weekend afternoons and on my days off, I've read through and nitpicked--and nitpicked.  But there would be little or nothing to edit if it weren't for those early-morning, unfettered drafts. When it's a challenge just to keep your eyes open, you just keep writing.

This article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Peak Time for Everything," cites a growing body of research that suggests that, according to our individual body clocks, we have our own optimal times for certain tasks. And that these rhythms, not our actual schedules, should dictate when we do them.

My only question: I knew this before. Didn't I? So why, oh why didn't I capitalize on it? 

Have you found an unprecedented but perfect match between your daily schedule and your writing needs? Share in the comments below. 

Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that's located only about a half-hour from my office. It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks--one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, "You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that."

The elder monk smiled and said, "Why don't you pray what you can, not what you can't."

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that "I can't" do, or haven't done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, "emotional self-flagellation," a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this "emotional self-flagellation" is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as "real" writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo's writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I've been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can't get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journal
journal

Can I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday's paragraph so that I have at least "visited" my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what's left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I'm driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done--or at least, I'm staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I'm on much better terms with myself--and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

Tax Preparation for Writers: Tips and Zen and Pain

If you haven't prepared your tax return yet, check out this great article on tax returns for artists, complete with an expense checklist for writers. This CPA's site and ebook have all the info you need (note: this is not my own accountant). I'm a lifelong math phobe. So tax season sends me trudging into the dining room for what I've come to think of as my annual tax Gethsemane.

I have my bag of receipts and canceled checks.  I have a clenched jaw, a tremble in both hands. I have a mountain of regrets for (1) My terrible childhood math teacher and (2) My conviction that numbers are really just a bunch of 9th-century hieroglyphics masquerading as 21st-century digits and invented to give us night sweats.

I've created my own homemade tax-prep technique.  Using my accountant's categories, I write said categories on a bunch of sticky notes and place the sticky notes in a double row along the dining table. Next, I unfold and assign each collected receipt to its appropriate stick-note category. Then, I total the receipt amounts and write that total on each sticky note. And finally, I write that amount on the appropriate line on the tax form.

numberblocks
numberblocks

Look, I know that it's second-grade math.  I know I'll never get into CPA school. But it's the only way that works for me.

Believe it or not, this tax-prep stuff has a saving grace. For a busy woman who often can't remember what she did last week, tax-prep season is a rear-view glimpse into the past year.

And it was a good year, full of blessings and surprises. On a freezing night in March, on the nights of my Gethsemane, I need to be reminded of that.

For example, here's a receipt from a dinner out with three other working women writers. Oh, yeah, now I remember that night. We yapped and chatted and chewed the writers' fat until the waiters started dimming the lights.

Oh, and here's a canceled check for a payment to someone named Daniel. Daniel? Daniel ... Webster? Boone?  Oh, Daniel. Yes, how could I forget that hipster who sold me the used desk and matching file drawers for my home office, my little writing haven?

Speaking of checks, here's one from my favorite writers retreat. Days writing in my room. Evenings sharing dinner and chat with one of my oldest friends. Seriously, does life get any better than that?

Oooh! Here's a fully intact MTA parking receipt from ... when? Christ, with all their tax-fare hikes, you'd think that the Massachusetts Transit Authority, the MTA, could print their ticket dates clearer? Just this once, MTA, couldn't you and your buddy Charlie be the men who actually do (tax) return?

Wait. It's coming back to me. The receipt is from that fall afternoon, a Sunday when I took the train into Boston to read and present at America's first public library.

And then ... (cue the creepy music) ... it's time for my annual attack of tax  paranoia.  Instead of this tabletop, karst landscape of sticky notes and receipts, I see every crack, every cockroach that skitters across the floor of my prison cell--as in, tax-evaders' prison cell.

Gulp!  And listen, why should I trust an accountant? Isn't she also in the hieroglyphics club? They probably all have their own secret social media page, all communicating and chortling away in that mad language that .... Yo, writer. Yo. Zen. Zen. Now.

Let's just log onto the IRS website to check and double-check these official allowances and write-offs.

"See the page on ..." "Read the addendum on ..." "Read our set and subset and footnotes of hieroglyphics for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

And then, here's the flash point of sin or redemption for every writer during every tax season:  "Was this trip for business or pleasure?"

Phew. I've got the rest of my receipts. I've got my mileage amounts. So no final phone calls from the prison pay phone for me.

Okey dokey, what have we got here?  Oh look!  It's from my teaching stint at the Ocean Park Writers Conference in Maine. Hot summer days. Maine ocean breezes. Front-porch conversations with my students.

And it was all, all business (heh!).

Writers dish on balancing writing with work and family

I'm delighted to announce that Alizah Salario, a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, NY, is the winner of my signed book, Writer with a Day Job. All of the names were entered for a random drawing. Check out Alizah's work at her website.

Below are Alizah's tips on writing and you can read all of the tips in the last blog post.

Tips from Alizah Salario:

1) Don’t confuse your job with your career: Because the type of writing that pay the bills and the type of writing that creatively fulfills and sustains me are two separate things, it’s easy to feel like I’m not a “real” writer if I’m not earning money doing what I love. I often remind myself there is no shame in doing something for money in order to do what you love.

2) Find an ally: Even supportive friends have a difficult time understanding the unique rhythms of a writer’s life. Find a fellow writer – through a writing group, a friend, or simply write to someone you admire – who can relate and help you stay on track when it feels hopeless.

3) Create your own criteria: So much of what is considered “successful” on the web is determined by the number of comments, likes, or tweets. Remember that some of the best writing out there gets the least attention, and there are countless talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. Make your own markers of achievement that don’t have to do with responses from others – otherwise you’ll constantly be looking for external approval.

Thank you to all who shared their writing processes and tips. I know I learned a lot.

Writers, Join this book giveaway by sharing your tips

This week I was lucky enough to be featured at The Writer's Place, a spiffy blog by writer Nancy Christie. Then, today, the interview gets included in Help for Writers.

I enjoyed the entire Writers Place interview, but I was especially charmed by Nancy's last question in which she asks for my "top three takeaways" (or tips) for balancing creativity with work (based on my book, Writer with a Day Job).

Here are my top 3 tips for balancing writing and life:

1.  Define your own path to writing and writing success. Comparing ourselves with other writers is counterproductive—even deadly.

2.  If you’re a beginner writer, create an overview of your month’s typical schedule and commitments. Circle the items that can either be outsourced or dropped altogether. Only keep those commitments that are truly, honestly as or more important in your life than writing. Even if you don’t use your freed-up time for actual writing, use it for writing-conducive activities such as reading, yoga or just sitting and staring into space.

3.  Learn how to say, “no.” When we do, people are not as miffed or disappointed as we assume that they will be. We fall into these “I should” and “I must” habits because —duh!— we’re not clear with others about what we need in order to nurture our talents as writers.

So you've got my three tips. Now, what are yours? Insert below in the Comments section and join my book giveaway. 

If we get 15 responses (each with your hot tips), I will enter all names in a random drawing for a signed copy of my book, WRITER with a DAY JOB. I will mail the book to the winner, so make sure to include a website or blog where I can reach you. Sorry, U.S. addresses only, please.

We need a minimum of 15 responses ... so ... pick and post your best tips... and spread the word  ... 

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney
Contact