I just returned yesterday from a week-long writing retreat with some wonderful fellow writers on the Oregon coast. No speakers, no program, just lots of time to write and a chance to read our stuff to some great supportive critics. Oh yes, and the beach. Very important ingredient—walks on the beach.
I’ve been doing this every spring/early summer for five years now, and I’ve come to regard it as indispensable to my writing life. Lots of people talk up writers’ conferences, where you can meet other writers, listen to sage advice from the more successful ones, schmooze with agents and editors, etc. And I like conferences too. They’re useful, they’re informative, they’re energizing, you make lots of great new friends and contacts, and I’ve heard they even lead to agent contracts and book deals for some people—though not yet for me.
But a conference is no substitute for a retreat. A retreat is an escape from all obligations and distractions (especially if your location is internet-free, as ours was). It leaves you alone with that most fickle of friends, your imagination. If you’ve been out of touch for a while, you may have to woo it back, like the Little Prince did with the fox. But once you’ve got it, it’s like a honeymoon: nothing in the world you have to do except be together and see what germinates. Sometimes a honeymoon leads to a baby. Sometimes a retreat leads to a new book (or at least a good start on one).
That’s what happened for me this year. For the last eight or nine months, I’d been sweating over the planning stages of a novel that just didn’t seem to want to come together. I was almost dreading the retreat, because I feared it still wouldn’t come together and my sweet week would be wasted. But a week or two before I was to leave, a different—completely different—idea that had sprung up a couple of years ago came back and tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “Remember me? What about me?”
So I went on retreat and listened to this different idea. It had plenty to say—about 21,000 words’ worth in the course of the week. I hardly had to do anything except move my fingers on the keyboard. Of course, this is first draft material, and we all know what Anne Lamott had to say about that. (In case you don’t, it involves the “s” word.) So it’s possible that a lot of those words won’t survive the editing process. But still—21,000 words is a darn good start.
And not only do I have the solid beginning of a middle-grade fantasy novel under my belt (yeah, like I said, completely different from anything I’ve written before), but I also feel like a writer again, instead of an editorial/familial/volunteer drudge with no time or energy to think a creative thought. I have the momentum I need to keep writing and eventually finish something. I also have the encouragement of my wonderful writer friends to get back in the ring and keep submitting The Vestibule of Heaven, my commercial literary novel that’s been gathering rejections since last fall. Without that retreat, I would have none of these things.
So if you’re a writer, or a creative person of any stripe, be sure to give yourself the occasional gift of some time away from the daily grind to pursue your art. It doesn’t have to be a whole week, and it doesn’t have to be terribly far from home (though I recommend a distance of at least 50–100 miles or so, so that you have a little transition time and so that you can’t be expected to run back for any reason). It doesn’t have to be with other writers, although sharing a space can be economical as well as mutually encouraging. All you need is a comfortable, quiet place and enough time to get your brain out of everyday life and into that magic world where anything can happen.
No matter how guilty you feel at leaving your family, DO NOT yield to any entreaties to take them along. A retreat and a family vacation are two VERY different things. Your family will get along without you, probably better than any of you expect, and you will have much more to give them when you return, refreshed from drinking at that eternal well. (Note: Some people do fine bringing their also-creative spouses. I haven’t tried it myself.)
What about you? What have retreats done for you?