Going On Writers Retreat: It's An Art
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.
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?