I spent last weekend in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It was 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 was 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 were 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 were even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It was, 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.)
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, wanted to change the point of view in her existing chapters and pound out at least one more chapter. Someone else wanted to revise an entire section of her novel. Another wanted to get herself to within spitting distance of querying agents. I wanted to plough through a writing block and write a new chapter as well as develop a new character. We 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 would pass me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There would be a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledged the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeated 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 took 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 took the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out. Our group always meets around food, so it was natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal.
6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.
In our giddy enthusiasm, we over-packed in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. We’ll know better for next time. But it was 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. And the gin-and-tonics didn’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 found 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, including how we came across the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks and other wonders, head over the Crystal King’s blog.