For years I regarded writing retreats as an extravagance. The idea of going on one sounded like a dream, but I could never quite justify the expense. After all, I work from home in a quiet, comfortable office. My schedule allows me to split my time between freelance and fiction projects. And I have few distractions, aside from my team of racing pigeons—though the few minutes a day it takes to fill their water tank and food dish and exercise them hardly count as a distraction. So, why pay good money to go on a writing retreat when I have nothing to retreat from?
Then I heard about Wild author Cheryl Strayed checking into a local hotel to write, and I realized that my view had been too narrow. A writing retreat doesn’t have to involve air travel, exotic destinations, or a hefty price tag. It can be anything you want it to be. Anything you need it to be.
For me, exploring new places is highly inspirational and a catalyst for story ideas. Since I travel periodically for my freelance work, I decided to use a business trip to New Orleans as a chance to create a do-it-yourself (DIY) writing retreat. To make sure I was balancing my client’s needs with my writing time, I booked flights that allowed me to arrive earlier than my colleagues and depart later (which happily equated to cheaper airfare). This gave me pockets of free time on the front and back ends of my trip to hole up in my hotel room for undisturbed writing sprints. It also allowed me to do a few of the fabulously touristy things a Big Easy first-timer might do—wander around the French Quarter, listen to jazz musicians in Jackson Square, and eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde.
My DIY writing retreat served its purpose in terms of word count, but more importantly, it reshaped my view of the experience. A writing retreat, I discovered, doesn’t have to be about what you’re retreating from but rather what you’re retreating to. Though my home office is a productive environment, going to a new place helped me shift out of autopilot and re-engage my brain. At home, the days tend to blur together until I’m puzzling over my daily routines. Did I take my vitamins today or was that yesterday? When was the last time I left the house? Being in a new place helps me slow down and notice details. The melancholy sound of a distant saxophone. The ritualistic hosing down of Bourbon Street each morning. The way you have to hold your breath when eating a beignet lest it tempt the confectioner’s sugar to shower down upon your only pair of black pants.
Whether you need to finish your work in progress (WIP), research a new idea, break through writer’s block, or recharge your creative spirit, a DIY writing retreat might help you find the inspiration, motivation, time, and focus to achieve your goal. Here are five tips to help you plan one:
- Define what a “writing retreat” means to you.
The term “writing retreat” means different things to different people. There’s no right—or wrong—way to plan one. When I asked the Writer Unboxed Facebook community to tell me about their DIY writing retreats, the responses were as varied as recipes for a New Orleans gumbo. For Bjorn Larssen, who lives in the middle of Amsterdam, a writing retreat means solitude in the countryside. For Al Budde, who lives in the country, it means people watching in DuPont Circle in the heart of Washington, D.C. For Barbara Morrison, it’s a weekend camp getaway with fifteen writers. For Nora Bailey, it’s a night alone at a local B&B.
Before you begin planning a writing retreat, take some time to explore what the concept means to you. Close your eyes and picture yourself on a writing retreat. What images come to mind? Are you in an urban environment or a rural setting? Are you there alone or with other people? What’s the climate like? What activities are you doing when you’re not writing? What’s outside your window?
As the vision begins to take shape, make sure the destination you’ve identified is an environment that energizes and inspires you. If you thrive in cool weather, you might want to steer clear of Florida in July. If you’re an introvert whose creative energy is taxed by other people, a bustling coffee shop probably won’t provide the solitude you need to do your best work. Be mindful of the conditions that foster (or inhibit) your creativity and productivity when selecting the ideal location.
- Plan your travel.
While the question of whether to drive or fly may come down to finances, both offer great benefits. Personally, I love a long road trip. It’s the perfect opportunity for silent reflection, brainstorming, listening to my favorite writing podcasts, and getting in a creative mindset. Depending on where you live, driving just an hour or two can unlock a whole new world. With that said, flying doesn’t have to be out of the question for the budget conscious. If you’re flexible in terms of destination, you can allow flight prices to dictate the location. Sites like SkyScanner allow you to search for cheap flights to anywhere.
Once you’ve decided where you want to go and how you’ll get there, you’ll need to figure out where to stay. While hotels are generally easy to find and offer numerous amenities and conveniences, they are not the only option. Thanks to sites like AirBnB, HomeAway, and GlampingHub, writers have greater access to less traditional lodging options, such as cabins, campsites, condos, cottages, houseboats, huts, recreation vehicles, tree houses, yurts, and more.
If you’re planning to stay local for a day retreat, check out the lobbies of nearby hotels (especially newer hotels, which are often designed to accommodate work and relaxation); public libraries as well as those at nearby colleges and universities, which are usually open to the public (double check with the institution first); bookstores; cafes; and places of worship, which sometimes have quiet spaces available.
Depending on your climate, consider bringing a folding chair to an outdoor spot, like a park, lake, or beach. One of my favorite day retreats is a simple journey to my local river, where I look for a shady spot with a view of the historic covered bridge. Don’t forget to check with friends and family members to see if they have unused space they can loan you for a few hours (or days). Fellow WUer Jay Hicks used a house/pet-sitting gig to secure some undisturbed writing time. Bjorn Larssen periodically stays in a friend’s guest house.
When you open your mind to the possibilities, you’ll find there are writing retreat options for every budget.
- Curate the guest list.
At this point, you probably have a clear vision of your writing retreat and can say with certainty if it will be a solo adventure or group activity. Though I prefer solo writing retreats, I’ve attended group retreats and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. Being surrounded by other writers gives you access to new ideas and different perspectives, which can be helpful when staring down a plot hole. Plus, they usually offer more engaging dinner conversation than eating alone (depending, of course, on how vocal your characters tend to be). And they can help keep you accountable, making sure you don’t oversleep or procrastinate your day away.
When planning a group retreat, consider whether you want it to be private (invitation only) or open to the public. Our fellow WUers do it both ways. Peg Rousar-Thompson organizes private retreats for members of her creative writing group, while Barbara Morrison offers an annual weekend retreat for up to 15 writers of all skill levels, using Facebook, Twitter, her email list, and word of mouth to generate interest.
Solo travel has its merits too. No one there to distract you. No fumbling through small talk while waiting for the coffee machine to finish percolating. No worrying about schedules or anyone else’s needs. It’s a totally self-directed experience and can be highly productive, if you have the discipline to stay on task.
- Set your intentions.
Before you hit the road, take some time to set your intentions. What are you hoping to get out of this experience? It may be a measurable goal—finish my manuscript, revise the first three chapters, write 20,000 words. Or it may be more abstract—brainstorm ideas for my next project, rekindle my passion for my WIP. Whatever it is, write it down and display it somewhere visible during your retreat to help you stay focused.
Peg Rousar-Thompson and her creative writing group set their intentions by establishing a theme for each retreat and coming prepared with a printed schedule of planned writing sessions, which they tape to the door for all to follow. Barbara Morrison’s camp retreats are unstructured, allowing writers to tailor the experience to their needs. Participants convene for evening activities, like a critique session, open mic night, or campfire fun.
Some groups set ground rules to enhance productivity—no sleeping until noon, no TV, no loud music. Others assign housekeeping tasks, like making coffee or tea, cleaning dishes, preparing meals, and tending the fire.
Whether you’re planning a writing retreat for one or many, intention setting can help you stay on track and get the most out of your experience.
- Pack for success.
Don’t leave for your writing retreat empty-handed. Come armed with resources and supplies that will help you maximize your time away. In addition to the things you use every day—your laptop or journal—bring things you never use. Things you wish you had time to use. This may be craft books, writing exercises and prompts, markers, paint, magazines, glue, a yoga mat, guided meditations, a musical instrument … the possibilities are endless.
Peg Rousar-Thompson shared that her group always brings a hands-on project to work on in their spare time. These have included collages, storyboarding, and decorating binders to hold their handouts and work. At a group retreat I attended, we cut pictures out of old magazines and used them to create a diorama of our main character’s bedroom, which helped me understand him at a deeper level.
Engaging your creativity in different ways other than writing can help you gain a fresh perspective, allowing new ideas to break through and transform your work. So, before you zip your suitcase shut, scour your bookshelves, closets, and craft bins for rut-busting tools you can use to inspire innovation.
Writing retreats don’t have to be an extravagance you only daydream about; there are countless ways to plan the perfect experience to fit your needs and budget. And once you do, I hope you’ll find that its value far outweighs the cost.
Have you ever planned a DIY writing retreat? If so, where did you go? Who (if anyone) did you bring? And what were your “ingredients” for success?