Time, space, community, and the sensory research benefits of travel: these are the four primary benefits of a writing retreat, and attending one can make a huge difference for your writing. If you’re stalled on a work in progress, if you need to workshop something and see if it’s working, if you want to start something new but constantly get interrupted, spending a weekend away from your regular, daily life can work wonders.
I’m fascinated by studying the creative process of female authors in particular. Women are told to “have it all,” to “lean in,” and to strive twice as hard for about half the benefits. I think female authors often feel pressure to cast their writing to the side and not give it the time and attention it needs. I think, too, there are things preventing not only publication of more female authors or more critical acclaim, but obligations preventing the work itself.
“A woman,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 1 Woolf spoke of both a literal and allegorical space during a time when poetic license, publishing, access to funding and education were easier for men of all classes to obtain but were usually only possible for women with some family money permitting the undertaking of “leisure class” avocations. Writing can mean a lot of things to lots of people—an artistic undertaking, a career (or second career one hopes will become the primary one), a small business, or a hobby. Creative writers of fiction, poetry, and essays often describe writing as a need akin to an addiction, yet they also just as frequently discuss roadblocks to it—creative blocks, lack of time, lack of access to spheres for learning to better their craft, lack of publishing opportunities, lack of reliable technology…the list could go on. True, writing can be as simple and inexpensive an act as finding a pencil and piece of paper and requires only so much education as fundamental literacy, but still, to write professionally, to write often and well and unfettered from concern of “I ought to be doing something more concretely useful to my family,” you do need more. A secondhand laptop. A basic word processor program. A training ground. And, above all, permission.
Permission to write comes first from within. A writer has to allow that writing is as important a thing to creative health, mental health, career health as attending job training, seeing a therapist, sending the kids to school, or taking a yoga class. Human beings without some physical, mental, or creative outlet outside of their primary obligations lack some level of motivation to continue doing those primary obligations. For some, family and friends can fill this void, but even still, we need our arts, crafts, books, yarn, running shoes, hiking boots…something. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or, in the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper 2:
“Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls they want to have fun”
When we are thus hidden “away from the rest of the world” by failing to express ourselves, we subtly acknowledge that writing is a less serious pursuit than the rest of our lives. We delegitimize it, even prioritizing it less than other pursuits, perhaps because it is so often solitary. Think of anything you do to unwind after your day—how many of those activities can be done socially? Communally? Or at least can be done with other people in the room? Writing, for many, requires an intensity of focus conducive to shut doors and noise-canceling headphones. This sort of focus certainly also “hides [us] away,” but I would argue that eschewing this sort of artistic hiding ultimately hides us more—we then have no voice on the stage, no realized works, not even a trunk of manuscripts left unpublished. Which sort of hiding is more tragic? And which is merely necessary for the creative process?
A huge segment of my friends and acquaintances are writers. Many are published. Many teach writing. Many wish they could write more and have more time for their craft. Many miss the forced deadlines of writing programs or National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or have fallen out of the habit of writing every day. I hear a lot of sorrow in the voices of people talking about lack of uninterrupted stretches of several hours, voicing the reality that some folks’ concentration styles requires a great burst of word volume to start a project. One friend and former classmate reported she occasionally checks herself into a hotel for the weekend just to get writing done, away from the distractions of her regular life. Still others participate in bootcamps—writers tapping away in a room together for hours at a time. I’ve done a few of those over the course of a day, weekend, and some as long as a week. These are all great and have their unique benefits. But of all these special approaches to writing, what I’ve come to see as a truly viable option that affords the time, space, and novelty of sensory input needed for productivity as well as the chance to network and commune collegially with other writers is a retreat weekend.
There’s something inherently different about a retreat weekend that can’t be replicated by other means. A solitary hotel stay is great for focus, but it lacks the novelty of sensory stimulation and it certainly lacks community and networking. The bootcamps I’ve done with colleagues are also great, but often we’re just holed up in an empty classroom during the 9-to-5 for a week. This model is great for focus and certainly doesn’t lack for community and networking, but it has even less novelty of sensory stimulation than a well-appointed hotel or bed and breakfast—you are literally in the most familiar of environments and go back home to your normal routine in the evenings. In some cases, the door of a windowless room is routinely locked during writing sprints, giving you literally nothing but your laptop and bare walls to inspire you. A retreat weekend is something very different, something that aligns the sensory, community, and focus, and allows for a great deal of flexibility and freedom of process.
Last spring, I attended the Bourbon Ridge Writing Retreat hosted by Raw Dog Screaming Press in the Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio (some great photos are posted on RDSP’s web site). I got to see old friends, made new friends, and managed in the course of just a few days to not only make great progress on a novella but got much-needed editing work done on several projects, outlined a new YA series that had been up to that point just a flicker of an idea, and taught myself to use Scrivener—a beast of a tutorial that otherwise would eat up several evenings for over a week if done piecemeal. I read bits of other writers’ work, got to observe some of their creative processes, participated in a group reading, went hiking under crystal blue skies in the crisp, early spring air, and joined in the formation of so many ridiculous inside jokes about the limited fire starting skills of the group and a still-lingering debate about bad (or very good) supermarket beer. I’ve since read some of these fellow writers’ work and found a new community I know I could still turn to for discussion, idea inspiration, and professional contacts. From that weekend alone, I learned a new poetic form, I talked other writers out of plot knots in their own work, and the sensory experience provided setting inspiration that I’ll always be able to draw on for future projects.
It may be cliché to need a cabin in the woods to set one’s head to creative thinking, but nature, exercise, and travel can indeed shake perspective just enough to get the juices flowing. I’ve written before about the benefits of endorphins and creativity and how yoga and meditation are integral to my writing process. Hiking is seen by many as a form of walking meditation, and walking itself has enough cardiovascular benefit to encourage endorphin production. In fact, a new study recently discussed how leptin—not just endorphins—can also contribute to the sensation known as a “runner’s high.” Whatever the chemical mechanism in the body, exercise produces great results for the creative person: greater focus, a feeling of euphoria and well-being that may energize and inspire, and the benefit of sensory input during an outdoor walk, run, or hike. Observing nature (or any new setting, really) with all five senses is key to drawing on that material later—every smell of a flower, ever flick of a squirrel’s tail, every cool breeze across your cheek can be mined for the same moment in a story, book, or poem.
Travel itself is research. Even mundane moments of travel, like the Samuel Beckett-esque wait I endured picking up a rental car after a bumpy flight. As I stood in a winding, too-long line full of other weary travelers, I noticed the streaky fingerprints on the half-empty vending machine, the snatches of overheard cell phone conversations, and the grim conditions of the rental car office’s walls. The faces of the employees were haggard, unsmiling, and spoke of long hours and likely a stream of less patient customers than I. All of that input is now fair use in my writing. During the same trip, I made a simple observation of the jauntily-painted door of a brownstone I drove past. I snapped a cell phone photo of it and wrote an entire horror story about what might dwell behind that flashy rectangle of wood and brass. Travel expressly to somewhere beautiful is even more a wellspring of writing research. In high school, I spent a week at a beach house in Oak Island, North Carolina, and now over twenty years later I still write about that house, that stretch of sand, the play of the full moon on the ocean and the strange effects of seaside humidity that melted lipstick in the tube and frizzed my hair into a coppery cotton ball. If called upon to write a scene of someone lying in a hammock regarding the ocean, it would be that hammock and that ocean.
At the Bourbon Ridge retreat, I filed away moments on my drive from my urban Dayton neighborhood to the retreat site, off gravel-lined roads that wound and dove around much hillier terrain than exists in the western half of the state. I blasted Taylor Swift and gloried in sunshine and freedom. I filed away into that sensory research place the cabin’s leather couches (perfect for napping or long conversations), the feel of smooth-polished wood floors (slippery under our socked feet), the play of firelight across laughing faces, the slip of muddy terrain, sun through leaves, and the call of birds in the trees. I filed away coffee sipped on the front porch on chilly mornings and sunshine on bare shoulders in late afternoon. And I filed away the heady rush of returning safely home to a comforting and unhealthy dinner of cheeseburgers and the good night’s sleep of the exhausted. So in addition to all the friends, laughter, and intensely focused productivity, there are wellsprings of travel material I can call upon when I need it.
Because, too, cementing a place into your writing allows the memory to linger longer. I used an old apartment of mine as the basis for Sam Brody’s pad in The Red Eye, and I know doing so caused me to remember that apartment more vividly than other places I lived but didn’t similarly immortalize. Since getting serious about my fiction writing, I’ve tended to observe places with a keener eye, to listen to conversations with a more attentive ear, and to always keep one part of my brain in a sort of continuously-recording mode for this Method approach to writing. Look, smell, listen, and then write and remember.
If there were a certain place and group of people and the time needed to dive deep into a piece of your writing, if it would also provide novelty for the senses, and if it allowed you a break from your regular routine, wouldn’t you take it? Again, we go back to Woolf’s conundrum, that in some ways we’re talking about a privileged system, unavailable to all, and we must acknowledge that life and circumstances and responsibilities may not always allow a formal writing retreat. I’m excited about the Broadkill Resort as something different, though, for two reasons. First, it’s a fixed location, not just a one-and-done event, so being able to hold retreat weekends and have rentals of the property at different times of the year that might work better for some people’s schedules is key to accessibility. Secondly, they’re organizing a scholarship fund to make it possible for writers to attend for free. As their fundraising mission statement says, “a place free of distractions, designed for thought and inspiration, is the perfect thing to jumpstart a creative project,” and Broadkill’s scholarship “is a conscious investment in dreams and people.” That’s beautiful—that’s saying to the world that making art matters, that writing is indeed vital, and that its unfettered production should be available to anyone who wants to try.
Chris Baty, the creator of National Novel Writing Month, stated in his 2004 book No Plot? No Problem! that a 50,000 word novel can be written (at the draft stage, not the polished-and-edited stage) in about 40 hours. A three-day weekend spent with limited distractions, beautiful scenery, and nurturing, creative people might garner about 20 hours of active work time—or half a novel. Thus, what Broadkill is basically doing is not just a scholarship for a communal vacation; it’s patronage. It’s giving a writer the funds to sit down and get the words out—and getting the words out amongst beaches, wildlife refuges, historic villages, boardwalks, and all the scenic amenities of an eastern seaside town.
If diving in and attending an event at Broadkill seems like too much in your hectic life but you still want to start to carve out time and space for writing, I do think removing a few simple roadblocks can help:
– A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about how a $40 piece of hardware increased my writing productivity, and this idea holds true. Figure out what technological issues you’re experiencing and brainstorm ways around them. If you need a computer, look into second-hand machines or tablets. With Google docs and access to free wifi at a library or café, your investment here could be very minimal—far less than you assume. And if learning new technology is daunting, libraries can again be a good resource for free training.
– You’d be surprised what you can get done in just five to thirty minutes a day. I wrote my short story “The Storytellers” on my phone’s notepad in five-minute increments when walking to meetings. As a flash piece, it’s short, and those five-minute increments built up over a few weeks; the final version was eventually published in the October 2013 edition of Flash Fiction World (since republished in my collection Grinning Cracks). If you’re in your car a lot, you could consider dictating story ideas with either your phone or a voice recorder. If you commute via public transportation, this is a perfect time to get some writing in, even if it’s longhand. A lot of The Curiosity Killers was written in twenty minute bursts at the end of my lunch hour, and I used to scribble ideas for the first early drafts of The Red Eye on scrap paper next to my cash register when I worked a retail job. If you have enough down time to play Candy Crush while waiting in line at the grocery store, you have enough down time to get a few lines of a story written. I’ve been working on the outline for The Girl with Mechanical Wings almost exclusively longhand at a coffeehouse down the street from my house for a max of about a half an hour each time.
– Let go of your internal editor during the first draft. Don’t even call it a first draft—call it Draft Zero. Let the words flow and worry about editing them later.
– I’m a big believer in the Pomodoro Technique if you have a longer stretch of time to spend but need frequent breaks. Do your work in spurts of twenty-five minutes with five minute breaks, and you’ll be surprised at your productivity.
The luxury of the uninterrupted stretches of time is obvious and compelling, and I’m excited to support Broadkill Resort and see what’s in store there for 2016. We’re less than a week into this new year, too, so consider adding a greater dedication to your writing to your list of resolutions. If it hasn’t worked in the past to write in short chunks of time, consider a retreat. If you stare with pressure and terror at a blank page when you know you have hours to spend on a piece, start off small and build up. Whatever your process has been, try something new. Who knows? You just might have a book by the end of the year—or even sooner.
1 From A Room of One’s Own, 1929.
2 “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was originally written in 1979 by Robert Hazard, but Lauper changed the lyrics on her 1983 album She’s So Unusual, changing it into a female POV and making the feminist message more overt.