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Your First Retreat

The Flint Area Writers are going on retreat in August. One weekend, Friday through Sunday, devoted to writing, critique, and camaraderie among like-minded people. To prepare, I’ve gathered some suggestions and advice from veteran members Martha J. Allard, Melodie Bolt, and yours truly, about the DOs and DON’Ts of writing retreats.

The most important, and also least important, aspect of your retreat is finding an amicable location. This can be a tiny cabin snuggled in sleepy woods, a tent parked in a campground, or even a friend’s house – anything that takes you out of your normal space and forces you to adapt. A favorite of FAW is Gilchrist in Three Rivers, Michigan. Another location I researched recently is the Highlights Foundation Unworkshops in Pennsylvania, where $129 gets you a cabin and three meals per day. Wherever you go, make sure it’s equipped enough to keep you comfortable and inspired.

No matter how long you set aside for a writing retreat, be it a day, a weekend, a month, that span of uninterrupted time can seem daunting. It’s nothing but you, your notebook or laptop, that inevitable blank page, and hello, writer’s block! Your retreat begins well before you leave home. Use the following list the week before to prepare.

  • Reconnect with your work. Reread your manuscript, peruse your notes or outline.

  • Complete any necessary research and pack it with your writing materials.

  • Read a new (or old favorite) book about writing and get excited for what’s to come.

  • Make a plan.

  • Be realistic. If you don’t normally write 50 pages in one sitting, don’t expect to do it on retreat.

  • Decide if you’re writing for quality or quantity and stick to it. Maybe you only want to revise or write one scene, perhaps you’re looking to spew as many words as you can because you’re still figuring out what you’re writing. Maybe you’re starting something new. Whatever it is, make a concise plan for how you will spend your time and then stick to it.

Now that you’re prepared, the fun part begins.

  • When you arrive, give yourself some time to acclimate to your surroundings. Go for a walk, peruse the items left behind from others (Gilchrist has a lovely collection of journals in every cabin.) Breathe. Appreciate being in the moment, because there is nothing better than having time and space for creativity.

  • Pick out your writing spot and get comfortable. We suggest snacks, tea, or if you’re like me, a GIANT cup of coffee. Headphones for music or a fan to block out noises. Keep your notes close so you don’t have to get up to cross the room if you’re lost in the moment. Don’t be afraid to make a bit of a mess. I prefer to work in chaos.

  • Revisit your plan and remind yourself to stick to it.

  • Get to work!

  • If the words are flowing, make sure you take breaks. I once came back from retreat with a knot the size of Texas in my shoulder. Since then, I always bring my yoga mat and stretch between writing. Vary positions, put your feet up, sit on the floor, take your work outside. Remember to move!

  • If you find yourself staring at that annoying blank page, repeat the above steps. Go for a walk and take your notebook. Read a bit of something you find inspiring. (I often read 1-2 books on retreat.) Knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for a cup of sugar. (Just kidding, you should respect your neighbors!)

  • Some retreats will be more productive than others. Remind yourself of your plans and goals for your work. Being a writer means deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed.

  • If something else draws your attention, go with it. I started my current manuscript on retreat when I was supposed to be writing something else. Don’t waste your time or creativity!

  • WRITE! Fill that blank page with words. Even if you’re feeling uninspired, write one sentence. Then another. Ignore the devil on your shoulder that says it’s not good enough. Worries are for rewrites.

  • Remember to take care of yourself.

  • Sleep! Retreat isn’t just for writing, it’s also for recharging. If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re awake, write. I usually go to bed early on retreat and wake up at 4:30am. There’s something about a sunrise that’s so beautifully inspiring.

  • Stay hydrated! Tea, water, coffee, juice, whatever floats your boat. Keep that cup full and drink up. Sometimes an adult beverage or two will loosen up apprehension and help the words come. (Who am I to judge, right?)

  • Move! Go for walks, do twenty minutes of yoga, stretch your mind and your muscles.

That’s it for the list of dos. Now for the much shorter list of DON’Ts.

  • Don’t bother your fellow writers. Plan ahead of time when you’ll meet up to read aloud, commiserate, etc. Breakfast and dinner are usually good times to meet.

  • Don’t beat yourself up, but do reward yourself for meeting goals.

  • Don’t waste all your time on social media. If you MUST Facebook or Twitter, save it for break time.

  • Don’t make unrealistic goals. I said this earlier, but it bears repeating. If you aren’t a writing sprinter, don’t expect to suddenly change your habits. If you’re a slow writer, plan for a scene or two, and then make it happen.

What advice do you have for writing retreats? What’s your favorite part of getting away from it all? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks to Martha J. Allard and Melodie Bolt for the suggestions. I’ll see you on retreat!

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