For years I’ve dreamed of going on one of those perfect, luxurious writing retreats where one can wake early in the morning, take a reflective walk through the woods, write in the meditative peace of a well-furnished cabin, and then dine in the evening with inspiring artists. Day after day, facing down the challenges of my novel, refining its shape like a sculptor, my thoughts deepening to the point where the lines between the real world and my fictional world blur.
I’ve applied to a few writing residencies over the years, and, in fact, I wrote an article about different residencies: everything from a cabin in the Denali wilderness to a retreat in Jack Kerouac’s house to prestigious fellowships at places like Yaddo. Beyond the difficulty of getting accepted for one of these residencies, I realized I didn’t have the time to go to them. Most are for a month, and my life as a working parent just doesn’t allow for that.
Then I came up with the idea of a “mini writing retreat”—to go someplace for just a few days and do some extreme writing, inject my novel with 10-12 hours of writing each day to propel it forward a month in time, in essence.
I just completed such a mini retreat last weekend, and I marvel that I haven’t been doing this at least once or twice a year. I wouldn’t say it was exactly fun, but it was gangbusters productive. In fact, I powered through a second draft of my novel.
Here’s what I found made it a successful writing retreat.
- I went to a town (Petaluma) an hour away. Too close, and it wouldn’t have felt like a retreat, and I would have been distracted by home matters. Too far, and I would have wasted precious time getting there.
- I found a nice-enough but not too-expensive hotel (the Metro Hotel) which had a room I was comfortable writing in, and a downstairs café with self-serve coffee (I started writing at 4 a.m., so sitting in the café with coffee was crucial). I’d thought about just getting a cheap hotel, but I feared becoming a version of Barton Fink, depressed by a dank room, distracted by hotel noises.
- The hotel was just a few blocks from downtown, so good restaurants and coffee shops were nearby (I tend to be a roaming writer, so it’s important to have other places to go to write).
- There was a movie theater downtown. When writing 12 hours a day, it’s important to take a break.
- There was also a brewpub nearby where I could have a beer at the end of the day to celebrate the day’s work (see the importance of taking a break in no. 4).
- The town was nice, but not full of diversions, so I wasn’t tempted to be a tourist.
- I had a goal driving me—I wanted to reach the end of my novel revision, no matter what. If I wouldn’t have set this goal, I probably would have settled for writing eight hours a day, or less. I easily could have made it a reading retreat, or a dawdling retreat.
- I made sure I was well equipped in all matters, whether it was books I needed for research, Moleskine notebooks, or my favorite writing foods (or a cigar for non-caffeinated stimulation).
- I was well rested to start. Extreme writing takes the kind of energy and endurance a challenging sporting activity does. I knew I couldn’t muscle my way through 12 hours of writing a day if I started at a deficit.
- I got buy-in from my significant other. It’s important to get support from your partner, and maybe even your friends and family. You want a clear head, not a guilty or distracted head.
My life probably only allows a couple such writing retreats each year, but it was nice to move a creative project forward not in dribs and drabs, but with speed and force and resolution. I’m going to consciously plan these retreats every year, and hopefully jumpstart several more creative projects.