I recently returned from an incredible writers’ retreat — a few wonderful days in the wilderness — and came home with a fully edited copy of my work-in-progress. The book had been staring me in the face for months, yet I was making little progress week to week. But away from my usual distractions, even with the shiny new distraction of conversation with other women’s fiction writers about the writing and publishing issues we all share, I was able to focus on making progress on the manuscript in a way I hadn’t for ages and ages. I left home with a draft I had lost touch with and came home with a draft I feel great about. Phew.
(But I didn’t ignore my fellow retreaters, I promise. I did indulge in quite a few of those conversations about professional matters, as well as sillier things, and also managed to squeeze in at least one nap.)
Many writers argue the importance of routine, but I find that sometimes an escape from our routine is the only way to make progress. This is what writers’ retreats are for. Writers’ workshops focus on the sharing and critique of work, and writers’ conferences are great ways to make friends and/or connections, but retreats help you get away from it all.
So which kind of retreat is for you?
The big, official kind? There are highly organized, yearly writers’ retreats out there. (Maybe those of you who’ve attended some could speak up in the comments.) They’re like writers’ colonies with much more limited durations, with certain times of day specifically marked out for solitary work and other times set for socializing and literary group activities. You have to pay to attend, but you definitely get the chance to interact with other writers, and you get some time to be alone with the page as well, to focus completely on what you’re doing.
The more informal kind? Maybe you belong to a local critique group that wants to organize their own retreat, or an online writers’ group that wants to gather in person for a change of pace. Maybe you luck out and get invited by another writer who wants to gather a group of people who all write in the same genre. Maybe you decide to reunite with writers you know from a workshop or writing program you’ve attended. Whatever the method of organizing, make sure the expectations are clear — where are you staying? Who pays for what? — and that while you don’t have to share exactly the same goals for the weekend (network? chat? relax? produce 10,000 words?) that your goals at least overlap.
The kind where it’s just you and the page? Depending on what kind of creative rut you’re in, the best option for you may be a retreat of one. Some writers take a weekend at a hotel near their hometown and hunker down with the manuscript. Some travel farther, to a strange city, so they’re completely isolated. Some take the opposite approach and stay home, but empty the house of other distractions and responsibilities — spouse, kids, pets, etc. This way you don’t get the interaction value of gathering with other writers, but you may make more progress if you’ve got nothing to do but work.
Only you know what’s best for you, but I really do love the option of retreating with other writers. Maybe you make visible progress on your writing and maybe you don’t, but taking a break from your usual routine is a great way to shake up your thinking. You might get a new idea, make a connection with another writer who agrees to trade pages for critique, or just get away long enough to feel like you’ve got the energy to write again. Sometimes getting away gives you the focus you need when you get back.
(Image via flickr’s subarcticmike)