The greatest gift for any writer is time and space to write, and in order to finish your book, 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, I recommend creating your own writing retreat.
What is a writing retreat?
A writing retreat is simply a chunk of time and space you are giving yourself, fashioned to deliver the best results in terms of your writing. Since we’re living in a pandemic right now, the closer-to-home you can do this (or even – at home!), the better.
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. I’ve taken expensive writing retreats in foreign countries and I’ve locked the door and turned off the phone and done 5 days on my own at home – and do you know what? I got much more done at home.
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, time – and commit to it.
“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
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 – and hey, I live in the inner-city of Melbourne. 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 will need to set extra strong boundaries in order to create an at-home writing retreat. Get meals delivered, have a room with a door you can close, turn off the wi-fi if possible, get up early (or stay-up late) etc etc. I think Cheryl Strayed booked a motel for the final stretch she needed to finish WILD when it was due to the publishers – as she shared on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast a few years back.
The main thing is that your writing retreat gives you a focused break from the trivial distractions of life that keep you from deep diving into the big picture of your personal story. Try not to go anywhere too stimulating!
As writers, our ‘food’ is internal story, and when you’re constantly getting trivial and unnecessary stories from the local environment, you need to work to shut it off so you can dive deep.
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 both your writing and your creative practise.
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. Can you turn the garden shed into your own cabin in the woods? Even better.
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).
If you’re currently working through 90 Day Memoir, why not take one of the story prompt guidebooks for a stage of the Hero’s Journey you’re not overly familiar with?. I like a book of quotes or poetry to dip in and out of, sometime i use it like an oracle to help me answer a philosophical question I might be chewing over, or pondering.
I 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.
Walking shoes and warm, comfortable clothes
You won’t be walking for fitness, you’ll be walking for creativity. I don’t know what it is about walking in nature, particularly, that ALWAYS sees me running back to the page that i was stuck on, having had a breakthrough.
I recommend 2 walks a day during your writing retreat!
“None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.”
2: Set a goal for your writing retreat
What will the end result look like for you? The first chapters of your new book written, or a complete re-draft of your non-fiction? Or will it simply be to write two pages in your journal each day and give your brain (and heart, and body) a break from striving? perhaps you’re taking this retreat to regenerate your creative self, so you don’t want to be too specific with word counts – that’s fine, too!
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. More than anything, I find space and time away from distractions gives precious perspective on my work, and you can’t rush that.
One of my writing retreats
In 2018, 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 being around someone 24/7 is not at all conducive to a really quality piece of work – for me. 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. Bonus: the hotel was also near the beach, so I walked on the shore each night for a lovely wind-down ritual.
Writing retreats don’t need to be complicated to be effective: Some extra tips – if pandemic and travel permits
- Offer to housesit for friends in the country (or in the city, if you’re used to the country) – sometimes you just need a break from the norm!
- 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, a quote, a card….
- Get creative – if you can’t leave the house, renovate a tiny space and make that your Virginia Woolf “room of one’s own”. Have an agreement with your family that they are not to disturb you when you’re in that space! Hang signs on the door, do whatever it takes!
- 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 apps and alerts off your phone, or better yet, go somewhere sans wi-fi!
- Make soup for the week or order home-cooked meals so you can just have short meal breaks, not be consumed by hours of prep every night.
- Make yourself a writing playlist! I love non-lyrical soundtracks to write to, such as Betty Blue, Out of Africa, Downtown Abbey and The Double Life of Veronique. I also made this writing playlist on spotify you can use, too.
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