Saturday, February 25, 2023

Writing Retreats

Recently, I went to a writing retreat.

 

In the past, I always thought I wouldn't benefit from a writing retreat. My husband is a writer, and the two of us live in a relatively spacious house with great views. Also, we don't have live-in dependents, day jobs, or many other commitments. 


For those reasons, the benefits other people say they get from a retreat—isolation from noise and the chaos of daily living, the ability to focus on one project, congenial company of folks who understand the allure of writing and creativity—are part of my regular life.

 

Three years ago, I was in a transitional space—though if you recall February of 2020, you can see how I had no idea how much the world could change, and how quickly. Still. Back then, my essay collection had been out for a few months, I’d done a few events to support it and connect with readers (so much fun!), and I was itching to get back to writing and revising. 

 

Three years ago, the project I was trying to work on was a novel—the first I’d ever finished, and the only project I’d cared enough about to tinker with through three (give or take) MAJOR cut-a-POV-character-and-change-the-antagonist rewrites, an intensive workshop, and other lesser revisions. I needed to commit to one final plot change, and I couldn’t see how to make it make sense in the world of the book.


I spent a lot of time circling the project on the dining room table, while I distracted myself with other ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY activities. (Note: They were NOT absolutely necessary.)


Meanwhile, a group of local writers planned a four-day writing retreat, held at the provincial park nearby. When I say nearby, I mean I can see it from my kitchen window while washing dishes. The event was relatively inexpensive, and they did all the planning.


I felt silly (beyond reconsidering my pronouncements about being "not the kind of person who needs a writing retreat"). An equivalent experience, if I lived in a city, would be trading apartments with someone who lived 45 minutes away. Still, I had little to lose. At worst, I’d have the chance to stare at different walls not getting anything done. So I signed up.

 

And I had an extremely productive retreat--the resulting novel, Making Up the Gods, will be published by Latitude 46 in October--as well as a great time. So much so that three years later, even with my concerns about COVID exposure, and even though my writing and life are quite different in important ways, I went back and had another great experience.

 

Here’s what made both retreats work for me.


1. Offloading meals is my love language. It's the BEST. I love just showing up for a meal and then eating it. I didn't even have to pick from a menu. We shared prep (cooking or reheating catered meals) and cleanup, but that was a minor and welcome way to contribute.


It's amazing how much mental real estate this one benefit frees up, especially since my home's approach to food is minimal (not the trendy kind, the lazy kind). There are only two of us. My husband enjoys routine and plain food. I cook one meal a day, trying to make sure it includes vegetables, and that's it. (I do enjoy baking on occasion and holiday meals, but not as part of regular life.)


And STILL. Such bliss, to have meals made.


2. I had explicit goals at both retreats. Both times, I worked on a defined project. The first time, it was to face down that plot hole and come up with ways to shore up the scaffolding that would make it work. 


The second time, my project was different, but also contained. Literally. In a basket. Between ten and fifteen years ago, I'd embarked on what I thought of as an essay collection, and I'd done a whole lot of reading, researching, and preliminary writing. I'd applied for a couple of grants, which I didn't get. That "failure," plus an unforeseen health development, took the allure from the project. Yet there in my office (and on my conscience) sat the basket of books and notebooks. 


So a did an archeological dig through my past. I needed to know if what I'd done was in any way still relevant to my current WIPs or future writing. 


(The answer was, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes. Although current and future projects may not be in the same form as I'd envisioned, the work I'd done is a solid part of my current life and writing life. That was reassuring. But even if I had decided I've moved on from this basket o' stuff, it would have been a successful retreat.) 


I sorted the works in my basket, pulling out things to recycle back home, releasing some books and magazines to others interested in them, and repacking other books and notebooks. 


3. I had boundaries around connecting with other people. I enjoy chatting with other writers, but I'm leery of replacing writing with talking about writing. Like replacing working on that novel with doing everything else that could possibly be done, the way I had been "working" at home.


Luckily, both retreats had built-in time, aside from meals, for directed and casual conversations. And before I joined them, I checked in with myself: Am I avoiding something hard? Will I be pleased with my overall progress when I leave, or should I perhaps spend this hour AT WORK and connect after dinner? 


So those are the three things that made these two writing retreats successful for me. Your mileage may--and should--vary! 


This past retreat in particular included many opportunities for writers to connect over work--through giving and receiving feedback, both group and one-on-one, which is so necessary to the writing process and often difficult to come by. I wasn't at a place to need feedback, but it was nice to see groups working through manuscript pages.


Just in general, it's been valuable to challenge my preconceived ideas about the environment in which I work. It's probably premature to use the term "post-pandemic," but as spring 2023 approaches, I have a sense that many of us--individually and in groups--are looking around and within to see how our work in the world has changed in the past three years and what the future could hold.


That in itself is work worth doing. Possibly more worthwhile than putting together this Instagram reel, though it was fun, too.