Inward bound

writing-retreat

Silk’s Post #130 — Ready … set … retreat!

When the 5writers began discussing a writers’ retreat, the idea had just a slight whiff of desperation to it. At least it did to me.

The fact was that, for a variety of reasons – some no doubt avoidable, and others clearly inescapable – all five of us were struggling at times to maintain our writing practice.

In the “old days” (pre-2012) we’d produce 30 first-draft pages each month for submission, critique 120 pages of our colleagues’ manuscripts, and spend a few lively hours together every few weeks to discuss our writing progress, successes and problems. It was damn hard work, but it kept the words flowing and the enthusiasm level high.

It wasn’t perfect, and there were times when one (or more) of us would leave our critique session discouraged or confused. For me, though, it was just the discipline I needed and it was during this time that my commitment to being a writer – a real writer, a good writer – became carved in stone.

Then came our grand 5writers experiment in 2012-13: writing 5 novels in 5 months, followed by a critique extravaganza at a week-long retreat high in the mountains at Whistler. Another amazing learning experience. Although some of us fell short of the original goal, it was still exhilarating, and it gave birth to this blog.

Since then – let’s be honest – it’s been a bit more hit-and-miss. Life has thrown all manner of challenges and opportunities in our paths. House moves. New relationships. Business ventures. Health issues. Travel. Volunteer commitments.

Some of us have taken courses and forged ahead (kudos to Karalee), or taken off on great spurts of productivity (congratulations to Joe). But if you’re one of the loyal readers who’s still following this blog, you know that the thing we’ve been writing about most is how hard it is to get back to the “writing life” and make consistent progress.

And that doesn’t even touch the looming challenge of actually getting published – another whole learning curve in itself.

So back to step one: writers gotta write. We need to chip the rust off those brain machines and … Just. Sit. Down. And. Write. Somewhere away from all the distractions competing for our time and attention. Get the momentum going again. Get inspired. Get obsessed and stay obsessed, as one of my favourite writers John Irving would put it.

And so, we retreat this week to Paula’s idyllic Northwest home on the Sunshine Coast waterfront to pound out some wordage.

But how to prepare for this intensive experience? This inward-bound journey into our writers’ hearts and minds, in search of story? So I indulged my research geek side today and looked for “writer’s retreat” advice online.

I didn’t expect the deluge.

Why, oh why, am I surprised that we’re not alone in the quest for retreat? Oh, I know writers have been stealing off to focus on their writing – retreating temporarily from the inconvenient traffic jam of life – for years and years. It always sounded so exotic: the vagabond artiste, sojourning in some Tuscan villa, or mountain chalet, or hut on a palm-studded beach, writing Something Important in between long, soul-searching walks.

I just had no idea that writing retreats had already become such an industry.

Like the ubiquitous writers’ conferences, writers’ workshops, and writers’ courses, there is now a plethora of writers’ retreat opportunities to suit every travel whim, budget, and lifestyle preference. Some sound more like vacations than working retreats, but many include writers’ services such as coaching, critiquing and workshops.

The Write Life website lists “20 Incredible Writing Retreats” to attend in 2015, including an all-inclusive resort in Baja, Mexico; an eco-lodge on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast; an island outside Savannah, GA where such writing luminaries as Annie Dillard and Alice Walker have scribbled; a Colorado Rocky Mountain fiction writers’ getaway; a writing and mindfulness retreat on Maui with Cheryl Strayed; a nature-oriented retreat with workshops on the coast of New South Wales, Australia; a retreat for women writers in Florence, Italy; a proprioceptive writing retreat (huh?) at a traditional Irish B&B; an intensive learning experience at a private Texas ranch …

It goes on and on. Tuscany, Greece, Spain, the French Alps. Writing retreats combined with spiritual discovery. Writing and yoga in a Danish castle. Screenwriting in Spoleto, Italy. Weaving words among Peruvian tapestry weavers with a side-trip to Machu Picchu.

Closer to home, the Pacific Northwest is lousy with writers’ retreats, many of them combined with yoga, cleansing, meditation, nature, healing arts, self-discovery and god knows what other super-duper healthy holistic practices. Check out Retreats Online for a listing of artistic retreats so wholesome you’ll feel better about yourself just perusing them.

There’s even a website for those who want to set-up and promote their own writers’ retreat business – kind of like a literary airbnb network. The Writers’ Retreat Network tells all, for a membership fee of course, and includes a handy “Step-by-Step Guide to Set Up and Operate a Writers’ Retreat”.

Among all these packaged travel-and-writing experiences, I did come across a useful article in the Books section of Huff Post, where Holly Robinson tells us “Why You Need a Writing Retreat and How to Make the Most of It.” She offers good advice on types of retreats, differentiates retreats from conferences and workshops, and gave me fresh enthusiasm for our own upcoming retreat with these observations (loosely quoted from her post):

You can make your own writing retreat on the cheap

All you really need is a desk and a power outlet, she says, and it pays to look for a place off-season (if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to know Paula!). She says lots of people are happy to have you use their houses for the price of a cleaner’s fee (presumably while they’re off somewhere warmer), and she’s also found incredible deals at summer resort hotels in winter.

It’s more fun with two or more writers

This assumes a pretty high level of compatibility, of course, but splitting costs makes it more affordable to rent a place short-term, and meals are less work and more fun when shared. She also enjoys reading pages aloud to each other at night and having mini-workshops or social time to unwind.

When you go on your retreat, let yourself take breaks

Don’t be guilty about taking some time to chill, she warns. She reminds us that refuelling is part of writing, too, and she’s amazed how much more productive she is when she’s rested and clears her head now and then with some exercise.

If you can only get away for a weekend, that’s okay too

According to Holly, you can get a lot done in two or three days. She says to use the opportunity to focus on thorny issues like plot pacing, a conclusion, point of view, or any other sticking point that has kept you from progressing, so you can keep working on it after you get home again.

Do it four times a year

Okay, this was a “whoa!” for me. Four times a year? But Holly’s argument is that “we need to visit the muse” at least quarterly. Maybe she’s right. I can’t wait to see how our first Writers’ Retreat goes. (See? I’m already thinking of it as the first in a series.) If I find myself writing 7,000 words in a day (as Holly claims she did on a writing retreat to Cape Ann last November), I’ll be all over that quarterly schedule.

“I can’t be that focused at home,” she writes. “I bet you can’t either.”

She sure got that one right, so I’m paying attention. Wish us luck!

You can follow Holly Robinson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/hollyrob1