The Writing Retreat: Fabulous Tool or Out-Of-Reach Fantasy?

By Chris Mandeville

We’ve all heard about exotic writing retreats where every need is provided for and all that’s required of you is to write. It sounds like a fabulous way to concentrate 100% on your story, but is it reasonable for the average writer? Come on—the time, the expense? Great tool or not, who can afford that?

You can. Really. You can.

The concept of “retreating” is to immerse yourself in an environment where you don’t have to think about anything or do anything other than write. If you can’t or don’t want to pay for a retreat created by someone else, you can create one yourself. I won’t lie—it does take effort. But the benefits are totally worth it.

Benefits of retreating:

  • undivided focus
  • reduction/elimination of distractions
  • commitment to produce
  • deadline pressure (to meet your personal goal by the end of the retreat)
  • dedicated time just for writing

The immediate benefit of a retreat is the increase in productivity while you’re there. But it can also spark benefits that carry over into your regular life. After a retreat you will likely continue to experience heightened enthusiasm for your writing, a sense of empowerment because you know you can produce, and increased motivation to continue producing.

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By creating your own retreat, you can achieve these benefits while keeping the expenses within your means.

The trick to creating your own retreat is carving out a place and time dedicated to writing, and then preparing in advance so you have the fewest possible distractions and interruptions. Often this means leaving home to avoid all the “shoulds” there: chores, obligations, distractions, and reminders of other things we “should” be doing.

But you don’t necessarily have to leave home…

One of the best things I ever did for my writing was to stage a retreat at home. Years ago when I was mired in revisions on my first novel, I felt so hopelessly stuck I considered throwing in the towel. Instead I decided the story was worth one last valiant attempt. I knew that to have any hope of finding the true core of the story and stripping away all the chaff, I needed to focus on my writing in a way that was impossible in my busy day-to-day life. Something drastic was called for. So I did something drastic. I got rid of my family.

Don’t worry—no family members were harmed in the process. I simply asked (okay, begged and bribed) my husband to take our small children to see his parents for Spring Break, which would give me ten full days of uninterrupted writing. He agreed on one condition: I had to “finish the damn book.” I promised I would, then immediately got to work prepping to make sure I could deliver on that promise.

Here’s what I did to prepare for retreating:

HOME:

I stocked up on frozen dinners, snacks, disposable plates and cups, and every other provision I thought necessary, including plenty of coffee. I washed my favorite comfy clothes. I returned emails I knew wouldn’t wait, cancelled all appointments for Spring Break week, and took care of every regular chore that could be done in advance.

WORK:

I contacted my supervisor and coworkers and told them I needed ten days of “no contact.” We identified the tasks I had to complete prior to the retreat, postponed the rest, and designated a pinch-hitter to cover emergencies while I was out. I know it can feel impossible to arrange this sort of time-out from a job (paid or otherwise), but if you really want a retreat, find a way to use comp time or vacation days to gain a period of “no contact.” Certainly you could at least swing a three-day weekend if you put your mind to it.

FAMILY & FRIENDS:

I told friends, neighbors, and family my plan for the retreat, and made them promise not to call me, stop by, or expect email replies during that time period. My mother was reluctant for me to “go silent” for so long—what if I fell and broke a leg? Would I lie there for a week before anyone knew? So we agreed to a daily check-in so she wouldn’t worry, and she promised to keep it brief so as not to pull me out of writing mode.

WRITING:

I looked over my work and got my head wrapped around exactly what I wanted to get accomplished during the retreat, then set specific daily goals that would enable me to meet my overall goal. These daily milestones help to stay on track throughout the retreat period.

When the big day arrived, I was ready. I had my house, my work, my friends, my family, my writing, and myself prepped for success. I tucked my kids and husband into the car and sent them on their way, and then I have to admit, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The quiet was astounding. I was paralyzed. For about three seconds. Then I took a giant mug of coffee to my office and got to work.

I lived an entire lifetime during that Spring Break. I found the core of my story. I found the deep hidden truth of my protagonist. I found the soft, gooey inside of my antagonist. I discovered plot twists and turns I didn’t realize my subconscious had planted. I experienced more “aha” moments than in the three years prior. At the end of ten days, I finished my revisions a few minutes before my family walked back in the door, and it was the best story I’d ever written. And it was all due to the pure uninterrupted focus I’d been able to achieve by “retreating” in my own home.

Since my original Spring Break retreat, I’ve sent my family away several more times with the same rewarding results. Retreating works so well for me, I now make time to do it at least once a year in one form or another.

If retreating sounds like exactly what you need to meet a deadline, break through a block, or rediscover the magic in your story, you can custom-create a personal retreat that doesn’t break the bank.

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Do-it-yourself retreat options:

  • If you have a job outside the home, consider writing at work after-hours, especially if that job is in an office, or the jobsite has an office space or conference room. Many workplaces have all the necessities if not the comforts of home. If the jobsite is closed all weekend or over a holiday break, even better!

  • Go camping or get a hotel room. I like to tag along with my husband when he goes on a business trip—I have full days of writing time in a beautiful hotel, with breaks for meals someone else prepares.

  • House-sit for a friend or for hire. You’ll have all the comforts of home, but none of your own “shoulds.” You may have to do a few chores for your out-of-town host, like watering the plants or feeding the fish, but the laundry, filing, and bills aren’t yours, you don’t need to scrub the tub, and you’ve come armed with your own food so you don’t need to shop. The only thing you should be doing is writing.

  • Arrange to send your family on a trip without you, like I did over Spring Break. But if you choose this stay-at-home option, you absolutely must be disciplined about eliminating/ignoring the “shoulds” that surround you at home.

If you’re not the DIY type, there are lots of writing retreats available for a fee. The options and prices vary greatly, so hopefully you can find one that fits your parameters. I’ve tried a few and found they’re great when I’m seeking the inspiration and motivation of being with other writers in a writing-centered environment. So I encourage you to figure out what you want from a retreat, and find or create one that meets your needs and suits your budget.

Whether you do it in a group or alone, at home or abroad, a retreat can work wonders for your mindset and your writing. With a little effort you don’t have to go broke doing it, so take advantage of this fabulous tool and and give your writing the focus it deserves.

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Photo credit: Jared Hagan

Tools for Writers

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Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com

6 comments

  • Pingback: The Writing Retreat: Fabulous Tool or Out-Of-Reach Fantasy? | Mary Blowers, Author

  • Good advice, thank you. I’ve certainly considered a retreat at home, but hadn’t got to the point of thinking about frozen meals and disposable plates and cutlery. I can, however, see myself finding housework suddenly attractive if I were to stay at home for that long. A long weekend is definitely achievable.

    • April, the siren song of housework has tempted many a writer away from writing! It’s definitely an issue to address if you retreat-at-home, and even more important if home is the place where you write on a regular basis. My best advice is to remind yourself (write it on your hand or a sticky note attached to your computer) that you SHOULD be writing. That’s your only should! When your attention is broken because you’ve noticed or thought of a chore, jot it down on a note for later and then put it out of your mind. Then if you get to a point where you feel stuck in your story, take 5-10 minutes out from writing to do one chore on the list BUT IMPORTANTLY be thinking about solutions to your story’s sticking point while you do the chore. If you’re afraid time will get away from you, set a timer for ten minutes. If you don’t complete the chore during that time, that’s okay. Go back to writing anyway–after all, you SHOULD be writing, not doing chores! If you try a retreat at home, please let us know how it goes. Good luck!

      • That’s a very good suggestion, especially the timer. I try to think about plots and characters when I do housework anyway, as it’s far more entertaining than trying to work out why something is filthy less than a week after the last time I cleaned it.

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