I’m wrapping up a four day stint spent in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It is one of those houses that should be the setting for a story, and in fact makes a cameo appearance in one of our members’ works in progress. Doors and corridors open upon room after room, and even more rooms, with extra mattresses squirreled away under beds. There is flowered wall paper and high ceilings and closets full of family history and old books, and views of the craggy rocks, the pebbly beach, and the ocean from most windows. There are plenty of nooks and crannies in which to work, including a massive sun porch, and lots of old roll-top desks with relics of past times still nestled in their cubbies. There are even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It is, in a word, perfect.
But even without such an idyllic setting, a writing retreat can be a fantastically invigorating way to remind oneself of those aspects of writing of which it is all too easy to lose sight, especially if one is also juggling a job, children, and other responsibilities: the commitment to write, one’s reason to do so, one’s capacity for sustained focus over a period of hours. And of course, a writing retreat is an excellent way to make some tangible progress on an existing project. Herewith, 7 tips on how to make this happen.
1. Choose your company well.
It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, fellow writers or other artists who will abide by the schedule (see tip #4) with seriousness and also provide for stimulating conversation and good laughs during your breaks. The ability to be both silly and serious together is key. (Unless you are the type to favor a solitary retreat. Personally, I balk at the silence and me-ness of a retreat alone, but folks like Joyce Carol Oates would probably revel in it. Since JCO is unlikely to be reading my blog any time soon, I’ll continue with my more social-minded retreat tips.) Our writing group, The Salt & Radish Writers, has been meeting consistently every two weeks for six years. We work well together, and we play well together. We poke affectionate fun at each other’s idiosyncracies. We care about each other. And yes, that sounds all squishy and woo-woo, but it’s important.
2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.
The coast of Maine is rugged, craggy, salted. Striated rocks jut out into the water, wild rose bushes grow in a tumble along scraggly paths. The ocean is take-your-breath-away cold, the air turns crisper just as soon as one passes the state’s Welcome sign on I-95. One can, of course, retreat to any place that is away from the hubbub of one’s regular life, but being out in nature offers, literally, a breath of fresh air. The brain is oxygenated, the eyes can rest on the horizon, or on a vista of trees or flowers. The blood can pump through the body during a run or a hike on a sand or dirt path, and ideas flow more freely.
3. Articulate a goal beforehand, and share it out loud.
It’s all about accountability. For some, accountability to oneself is all it takes to sit down in the chair and just do it. For most, articulating a goal to others makes the goal more real and more necessary, and therefore more likely to be met. One writer of historical fiction, Crystal King, has been working on edits of her manuscript based on comments from an agent, diligently retyping the whole thing in order to ensure that she pays attention to every word. Another, Kelly Robertson, has been attacking a various plot points and addressing issues raised during her year-long participation in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program. A third member, Jennifer Dupee, is working on query letters to send to agents. I am enjoying a break from the nitty gritty, task-oriented activities involved in launching my first book and delving back into the first draft of my second book. We’ve all made it to, or acceptably close to, our goals.
4. Set a reasonable schedule, and then adhere to it.
You are here to work. That is the primary purpose. Therefore, you need a schedule that includes a good amount of work time. We set our start time for 9:00 or 9:30 am, allowing for a good night’s sleep and ample time for breakfast, or even for fitting in a morning run. Then 3-4 solid hours of work time, each of us settled in a different corner of the house. I loved the companionable silence, the knowledge that as I worked, three other people were chipping away at their projects as well—musing, pondering, creating. Every now and then, one of them passes me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There is a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledges the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeat the experience in the afternoon for another 3-4 hour stint.
5. Take long breaks, eat well, and get some exercise.
Perhaps these should be three separate tips, but in my mind they are intrinsically linked. In addition to the solid wake-up and breakfast time we gave ourselves, we take two hours at lunch time to make and pack a picnic together and bring it down to the rocks at the beach, then go for a stroll on the point. And after the second 3-4 hour writing stint of the afternoon, we take the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out, often discussing our work, and often also just gabbing as friends do. Our group always meets around food, so it is natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal. This year, we were lucky to be hosted for drinks by writer Mameve Medwed, in whose delightful company we shared some good storytelling.
6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.
In our giddy enthusiasm, we always over-pack in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. But it is great to have a stash of wasabi chick peas, chocolate, almonds, dried apricots and home-made fig cake in the kitchen, sometimes just as an excuse to get up and walk around and ingest a little sugar. Plus our signature snack: fresh radishes with good, unsalted butter and a dusting of fleur de sel. And the gin-and-tonics don’t hurt, either. (What? It was five o’clock somewhere.)
7. Make arrangements for your pets/children/spouses/plants, and then put them out of your mind, or at least in its far reaches.
This is your time. You may have several small children at home. You may have a new puppy or a senile cat. You may have other dependents for whom you are usually the main source of care. But chances are that if you have planned a writing retreat, or even if you are simply seriously considering one, you are willing to make arrangements to cover for their care and feeding while you are away. Do what you can to give yourself peace of mind that everyone is in good hands, and then go Do Your Thing. Those who are helping you out back home are doing it for just that reason.
(Bonus tip #8: Bring music. This might not work for everyone, but our group finds it inspiring to write to the strains of wordless classical music. When I am on my own, I favor Indian classical: Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee and L. Subramaniam among others. The rhythms and surges of the music may well come to match the patterns of your writing. Visit The Undercover Soundtrack by Roz Morris for a great blog series on writers who use music as part of their creative process.)
For additional advice and details, head over the Crystal King’s blog.