Posts Tagged ‘writing retreat’

Writing Retreat Sun Porch
Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

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.

Ice-O-Mat
Ice-O-Mat

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.

The Salt + Radish Writers

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.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME
Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

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.)

Writing Nook
Writing Nook

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.

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Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Next week I head to a writing retreat with my writing group. The repetition of the word “writing” is intentional. Writing writing writing. I’m going to write! Hurrah! On the rugged coast of Maine, in a rambling house with nooks and alcoves galore, filled with history and books. The three days beckon to me like one of those pools of astonishingly turquoise water in the midst of dark blue ocean, an atoll where suddenly the filaments of brown sea grass reaching up to entangle you are gone, and the rough, fish-filled coral reef parts, and there is nothing but light, undulating sand beneath clear water. Ahhh.

But there’s still some swimming to do, against the current, to get there. Here’s why, in a verbatim transcript of emails between me, my Next Doors counterpart Kathy, and my husband J, during a two hour span a few days ago. I swear I’m not making this up.

June 2, 2014 at 11:05 am. Email from me to Kathy. Subject: weekend of June 20

Hey, I don’t want to forget to do some planning for when I’m at my writing retreat. No need to read this now, just want to figure it out at some point.

I will leave during the daytime on Thursday the 19th. Will need to figure out how to get K to (and from) piano. (I’d have her miss it but she’s part of a recital that Saturday so could use the lesson.) Will need S pick-up.

Friday, J can do drop off, but there will be pick-up needed. Can K hang with you guys until J is home? Or I can arrange a playdate for her. (There’s no more French class.)

I’m happy to see if Julie or a local teen can help out for any of this. Just let me know what’s feasible on your end, and I’ll fill in any gaps.

S has a birthday party on Saturday morning when J and K are at karate, but Jessie’s babysitter will take her and Jessie. There’s a Chhandika dance recital so he’ll take both girls there on Sunday morning.

I’ll be back mid- to late-afternoon on Sunday. You know, if I decide to come back.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:09 am. Response from Kathy to me:

Heh?  I can’t even process this.  It’s Monday!

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:10 am. From me to husband J. Subject: writing retreat.

Just want to make sure these dates are in your brain somewhere. I’ll be at writing retreat, leaving Thursday the 19th daytime. I’ll figure out coverage, as always, but could you drop off S on Friday the 20th morning? Please put in your calendar. Now. Thank you.

(Yes, I know this is our anniversary. We need to find an alternate day to go out. How about Saturday the 28th?

K is to be part of a piano recital on Saturday the 21st, but I don’t yet know what time.

Sunday the 22nd there’s an open house/recital thingy at dance.

I know, complicated weekend for me to be away.

 

June 2, 2014 at 11:11 am. From me to Kathy:

I TOLD you there was no need to read this now!

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm. From husband J to me: 

What is the dance recital timing?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm. From me to J: 

Hmm, I don’t know yet. Need to find out. Also that of piano recital.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:19 pm. From J to me:

OK, I have multiple conflicts the morning of 7/28:  Karate and a seminar I’m attending in Boston.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:26 pm. From Kathy to me: 

Okay, now that I’ve had some coffee…

Th 6/19: There’s a soccer potluck from 5:30 to 7:00.  Would be happy to take both your kids to this with us.  What time is piano again?  L and I could take K to piano, then pick up little ones and head to potluck.

Fr 6/20: Can pick up all four kids, though if Kung Fu is back on (which is questionable), I will have to take K with us before getting little ones.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm. From me to J:

Huh? Do you mean 6/28? June 28 is when you seem to be at a conference, according to calendar. I can take K to karate. Could we still do dinner that evening? Or does your conference include evening?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm. From me to Kathy:

Mmmm…. coffeeeee

Th 6/19: Piano is 3:30 to 4:00. Yipes, four kids at potluck? Will M [Mr. Next Doors] be with you?

Fr 6/20: why don’t I just arrange a playdate for K. That will simplify something at least. Adding this to my list.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm. From Kathy to me. Subject: Confirming Julie…

…to watch little ones on 6/30 and 7/1 from 9:00 to 3:00?  What about nap time?  Should we just have her stay until 1:30?  Don’t want to push E’s nap later.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:38. From me to J:

Ok, I found out the piano recital timings. It will be 1:15 to 2:30 on Saturday 6/21. You can pick up S from her friend’s b’day party at 1:00 and head over. (She will have eaten, and will be taken to party by Jessie’s babysitter.) The teacher will put K toward the beginning so that if S gets antsy and needs nap, you’ll be able to leave. The whole thing should end at 2:30, in case she can stick it out for the “awards.”

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:44. From me to Kathy:

Wait, that’s a whole nuther set of plans! We can say 9:00 to 1:30, that’s fine. She can put E down before she leaves, and I can put S down and take the monitor until you get home.

I’ve asked my Julie about 7/2, she’s checking with her employers and will get back to me.

Logistics overload.

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm. From Kathy to me:

Ha!  I guess I shouldn’t tell you that M will be away for 5 days in July?

 

June 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm. From me to Kathy:

July?? July doesn’t exist.

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Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

Train on Wiesener Viadukt, Switzerland. Photo by David Gubler (www.bahnbilder.ch) via Wikimedia Commons

(Rather conveniently, as you’ll see below, this was the Photo of the Day on Wikimedia Commons today.)

I’ve been away (on the exquisite shores of Curaçao, in the Dutch Antilles), but in the few days since my return, a few good nuggets have caught my attention:

India and film/photography

First and foremost, this gorgeously shot and completely fascinating film on the Aghori sadhus (holy men) of Varanasi, India. Very timely, as yesterday was the Maha Shivaratri festival celebrating Lord Shiva. Three young men–photographers and filmmakers–spent weeks on the banks of the Ganges among these holy men whose closeness to death, skulls and human ashes makes them both controversial and revered. Put life on hold and do watch this, then also check out these accompanying photos. Thanks to Farhana Huq for calling my attention to these.

Books and photographs

On the subject of photographs, here is another set, with very different subjects. This is what a librarian looks like. Any surprises?

The business of books

I found these statistics, on newspaper book reviews, reviewers and gender, thought provoking. Are female book reviewers likely to skew their reviewing toward women authors? What do you expect?

And while we’re talking of book reviews:
Do we really need negative book reviews? What is the value of criticism that is “unable or unwilling to criticize?” Should one go by the old adage, if you have nothing nice to say…? (via Randy Susan Meyers)

Writing

The world of writers was abuzz last week with Amtrak’s announcement that it is putting together a program of free or low-cost rides for writers wanting to use them as a writing retreat. As both a writer and an infrastructure planner (in a previous life), I was immediately deluged by vivid memories of train rides throughout my life, slicing through European countryside nibbling on butter cookies (edges and corners first) with my parents and brother, stopping in the middle of the night for the passport control in the Alps between France and Switzerland, piling onto the French TGV with classmates and mounds of duffel bags for an eighth grade school trip to the Mediterranean coast, peeing into the hole in the bathroom of the first class car of a train cutting through the dusty middle of India and watching the clankety tracks whizz by underneath, spilling apple juice all over my copy of Watership Down at the age of 11 as a train leaned into a curve, climbing up into the hills north of Tokyo among the cherry blossoms and mineral-green waterfalls in the Shikansen with my three year old’s head, heavy with sleep, cutting off the circulation in my thigh.

Needless to say, trains conjure up memories, descriptions, feelings of excitement, new ideas. What better location to sit and write? I’ll be following Amtrak’s program with much interest.

India and infrastructure

Google Maps has announced the availability of Street View and See Inside in India. There’s a slight creepiness to the fact that one can clearly see the people who happened to be at those spots when the pictures were taken, but at least a reasonable effort has been made to blur their faces. From a research standpoint, this ability to view specific locations is very useful. One can get an accurate sense, for example, of how far one can see from the rooftop of the Jaisalmer fort (click on the little yellow figure on the bottom right for the dots to appear that represent areas you can explore). Or how the shadows lengthen across a certain courtyard at sunset.

And now I want to get on a train and leave frigid Massachusetts and its dirt-encrusted snow for Rajasthan.

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Writing Retreat Sun Porch

Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

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.

Ice-O-Mat

Ice-O-Mat

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.)

Fabulous Writing Group Partners

Fabulous Writing Group Partners, photo by Crystal King

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.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME

Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

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.)

Writing Nook

Writing Nook

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.

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Writer on beach.

Writer on beach. Photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

One bottle of Greylock gin
Limes & tonic
What If? (Book of writing prompts by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays)
Beach/running shoes
Manuscript in progress
Sunscreen
Kindle
iPod dock
Tea & coffee
Chocolate

With the exception of the manuscript in progress, this could be a good gift list. But that’s not actually what this is. Instead, it is the start of the packing list for a writing retreat I am planning with three other women–writing partners with whom, over five years of regular meetings, I have forged strong friendships. The prospect of this weekend is making me giddy with excitement. One member has access to a house by the beach in Maine. We have planned several solid chunks of writing time, small excursions on the coast, good meals out, and time to review our work together. I dream of taking a notebook down to the beach, of sketching out the next few scenes of my new book. But, as must be the case, this excitement is countered by the grinding of wheels in my brain which must immediately roll into action to plan the logistics of coverage in my absence: school and preschool drop off and pickup, management of Little One while Big One is at martial arts with her father, teaching coverage for my dance students, etc. I–and those around me–will make it happen, I know we will, and so I let my excitement carry me forward. But it is a constant juggle.

People keep asking me what I’d like for my upcoming birthday, which some view as a significant one for reasons that seem to be rather arbitrary, and the answer is this: time. That’s all I want. And I’m willing to wager that time is all any writer really wants. I don’t need more stuff cluttering my life. But please, take my fabulous children and allow me a day of writing, a day of reading, a day of letting my mind go free, of planning only according to what I want and not around what others want or need or expect.

This, I think, will resonate with any parent, especially primary care-giving parent, trying to carve out time for a creative pursuit. If you know one, the most wonderful thing you can do for him or her is to offer your services to help free up some time. It will cost you very little–assuming their children are not tyrants–and will earn you some serious gratitude and good karma.

 

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