“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”Thoreau
The greatest gift for any writer is time and space to write, and sometimes you have to give this gift to yourself.
If you’re struggling to find undistracted time to finish your memoir, or even get a fair whack of the word count down on the first draft, you will benefit from a self-directed writing retreat. And since it’s the beginning of the year, when we’re all making our new year goals and plans, why not calendar in a few days or a week to bring your writing dream closer to reality?
Short or long, fancy or inexpensive, a writing retreat can be as extravagant or as simple as you like.
The key is that you are giving yourself the gift of a chunk of time to work, uninterrupted, to make progress and think deeply (and lightly, but always on some level) about your story. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to spend thousands of dollars to get some time to work on your book. The key is to carve out the space and time – and commit to it.
I don’t think I couldn’t have written the first draft of A Letter From Paris so quickly (I had 110 000 words down in less than two months) if I hadn’t turned my city apartment into a self-styled cabin in the woods. I shut the blinds, didn’t answer the phone, and spent days on end without talking to a soul. It was such a contrast of gruelling internal work, and sheer luxury, to have the time to focus on such a huge project as a book.
When you’re working on a memoir, even when you’re not writing, your mind is processing your story, your life, the patterns and webs that interweave in your history and personal experience. You need large chunks of uninterrupted time to do it justice. And it’s not necessary all time that you’ll spend writing – it’s the time on either side of your writing time that’s even more important. It’s also often when you make the biggest breakthroughs with the story. I know I did.
If you live with children, or a partner, or care for someone, or work from home or share a space, or work full-time, or have daily interruptions in other ways, you would benefit from creating your own writing retreat.
The main thing is that it gives you a focused break from the trivial distractions keeping you from deep diving into the big picture of your personal story.
1: What to take on a writing retreat
Writing a memoir is deep and profound and exhausting (if you’re doing it right!). Make sure whether you choose to book a fancy hotel, or just take your cat (like I once did) to an abandoned country house for a few days, keep your creative self happy by taking whatever makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. Animals are wonderful, because they offer company yet they’re non-verbal (ie. They won’t rip you out of the story!) and it’s said that they always exist in the theta state, so they relax you, too.
Pack blankets, ingredients to make soup for dinner, inspirational poetry, magazines that might help you wind down, and / or music that helps you disconnect from a writing session at the end of the day. Perhaps you want to take some music that helps you get into the groove to write (I’ve always worked better with soft non-lyrical background music, but you might prefer silence).
I also find podcasts with other writers about the creative process can be comforting in the evening, after a long writing session. Download them before you leave (while you still have wi-fi!) and listen to one each night as you cook your dinner – it’s almost like you’re catching up with mentors and peers to cheer you on.
A couple I had on high rotation while I cooked my nightly soup during A Letter From Paris were Magic Lessons and The Beautiful Writer’s Podcast.
One other essential: pack walking shoes or sneakers. Walking around in nature is another thing to do on either side of your writing stints that will often lead to breakthroughs.
2: Have a set writing outcome for your retreat
What will success look like for you? The first chapters of your new book written, or a complete re-draft?
Be realistic about how long you’ll need (hint: you’ll need more than a couple of days for 10 000 words) and remind yourself that you’re giving yourself something very valuable with this time.
Last year, I was asked to write a long-form essay for a literary magazine as part of the pre-publication promotion for A Letter From Paris. I was living in a tiny flat with my partner, and fielding loads of unexpected interruptions every day as we came closer to book launch day, plus my study also doubled as our kitchen / living space. I wanted to do a good job and my home environment was not at all conducive to a really quality piece of work. So I booked a hotel room across town for two nights just to get that 2500 word essay done. It was so necessary to have morning to evening to think about nothing but the essay, and then the night to leave what I’d written but work on it subconsciously a little more. Although I probably only spent 3-4 hours actually writing both of those days, it was the time on either side that I could think about certain lines, re-frame things and go back to the story that was really valuable. Writers are always thinking about the story, even when they’re not.
Why you need a writing retreat
Having time to focus and ‘stretch out’ your brain into the story, uninterrupted by tedious concerns and petty daily details, is a real luxury and will improve your writing.
The real goal of a writing retreat is that you can live in the world of your story and nothing else, which will help you make huge breakthroughs in your writing.
We all do our best creative work when we’re relaxed, well-fed, well-slept and happy. And, like it or not, good writing takes plenty of solo time.
Give yourself the gift of a writing retreat – self-catered or otherwise. Get yourself into the zone via binaural beats or hot baths and music. And pack plenty of chocolate, coffee, and ingredients to make a big batch of soup if your accommodation has a kitchen. There’s something very soothing about stirring the soup as you chew on your latest plot conundrum.
Writing retreats don’t need to be complicated to be effective
- Offer to housesit for friends in the country (or in the city, if you’re used to the country)
- Book an air BnB for a few days near a beach – walking on sand in between writing sessions is really grounding and therapeutic
- If you live in a country area, you might benefit from a creative retreat in the city. You could write in a library during the day and go to the cinema / gallery at night. The key is that you want it to re-fill the tanks when you’re emptying them out on the page all day.
- Clear out the shed and make that your little cabin in the woods – even if it’s just for six hours every Saturday. Keep your creature comforts on your desk: chocolate, music, a favourite memoir for inspiration.
- Book a hotel for a couple of nights (try wotif, last minute or expedia for a great deal). Pack a travel candle and a favourite blanket or mug just to make it feel a bit more cosy.
- Take social media off your phone, or better yet, go somewhere sans wi-fi!
Have you done a self-styled (or organized) writing retreat? Did you love it? What do you wish you’d done differently (if anything)? I’d love to know about your self-styled writing retreats!