I went to my first writer’s conference in 2017, five years after I published Her Beautiful Monster. I met some truly remarkable and talented writers, many of whom I still keep on touch with via email or the random but incredibly lovely meet-up in Manhattan.

The next year, I attended The Writer’s Hotel in New York City. There I met some of the greatest minds of my generation, spent a whirlwind five days in New York City and commuted every day, and really built some confidence and for the first time, authentically networked. I learned so much.

The following year, I attended the Frank McCourt Summer School of Creative Writing in New York City, which promptly spurred my dream of earning my MA in Ireland. I was enchanted with the Irish culture and the writing life, my dream of being a successful published writer was invigorated, and for a fleeting couple of months, everything seemed p o s s i b l e.

Then 2020 happened. And here we are.

Writing conferences quickly became an important and integral part of my writing life. And it’s not the same attending them virtually; it’s all about the connection and the communication – and I’m talking all-encompassing communication that includes body language and atmosphere and all five of our senses. But with no real end to the restrictions concerning the pandemic in sight, what’s a writing girl to do? How am I supposed to get my writing conference fix?

With a Do-It-Yourself Writing Retreat.

While a retreat does not offer the same networking opportunities as a conference, it offers the same if not more opportunities to be productive, which are just as important. After all, you can’t pitch to a publisher or an agent if you have nothing to pitch. And it’s a l w a y s good for the soul to unplug and get away, especially for the creative soul.

My following suggestions are being adapted from an article written by Kristen Pope for The Write Life, which you can read here.

  1. Get the timing right!

    Pope writes, “Respect the time you set aside for your DIY retreat just as you would if you were traveling to a formal, organized retreat.” To aid this endeavor, she strongly suggests picking a time when life is moving slower, when you aren’t bombarded with personal and/or professional responsibilities and obligations. For me, this would be March – there’s no major holidays (other than St. Patrick’s Day, which is one of my favorites), there’s no days off from work, and so there’s no family gatherings or social events I need to plan around. However, let it be known I’d like my retreat to be a long weekend; if that’s not in the cards for you, no problem! Pope also recommends spending “an afternoon at a coffee shop or bring your notebook to the local park to have a quick mini retreat.” Because let’s face it: “If you don’t carve the time out of your life for a DIY retreat, you won’t find it.” That’s true for ALL writing, not just writing retreats – and I know I’ve harped on this idea many, many times before.
  2. Select a location!

    Pope writes, “Make sure you’ll be comfortable and undisturbed and will have easy access to food, exercise, and anything else you need to get the most out of your time.” A couple of years ago, I purchased this book. It breaks down recommended places to stay by region. So if I’m thinking long weekend, I’m looking in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. From there, inns and bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels are listed with complete contact information and pricing information. It makes selecting a location SUPER EASY! For starters, I might stick with my home state of New Jersey to limit travel time and maximize retreat time, and to save money. Also, being close to home means that if I forgot something, I can dash back quick and work out any kinds more readily than if I were out of state. Looking back on my notes, I chose The Breakers in Spring Lake and wrote down the first weekend in May as a tentative date. I’ll have to do some updated research and see if this venue makes sense in March.
  3. Set a goal!

    Pope writes, “Whatever you’d like to do, decide ahead of time and focus on it.” For me, I’m hoping to be done revising Moody Blue, so I’d likely be sending it out to publishers AND working on my new manuscript (tentatively titled Lightning Strikes) simultaneously. To this end of staying focused and goal-oriented, Pope recommends, “Consider writing your goal on a whiteboard or large piece of paper and having it nearby so you can remind yourself about why you’re doing in this retreat” and “…be sure to gather all your materials. Bring your laptop and charger, a favorite Moleskin and pens. Consider an adult coloring book or yoga mat or another favorite item to fire up your creativity.”

    Andrea Browns offers a more thorough packing list:
    – a good dictionary or thesaurus (can you believe I don’t own either one?!)
    – your notebook computer or pocket PC (I just bought myself a luxurious new laptop – yay!)
    – a printer and plenty of paper (I have a HP Tango wireless, portable printer that I swear by)
    – scratch pads, notebooks, pens, pencils
    – art supplies
    – camera and film (this list is dated, but still … GET OFF THE PHONE!)
    – flashlight
    – alarm clock
    – umbrella
    – comfortable walking shoes
    – credit cards
    – cash (not too much) or travelers’ checks
    – ear plugs
    – medicines
    – sunglasses
    – your favorite snack foods
    – swim suit (for off hours)
    – a good novel (again, for off hours)
    Brown also suggests making a checklist of everything you need to deal with before leaving (to minimize anxiety and maximize creativity) and to pack one bag for work-related items and a separate bag for clothes and personal items.
  4. Plan a schedule and stick to it!

    Pope writes, “Allocate time for brainstorming and creativity exercises along with dedicated time to work on your goal projects.” This will limit time spent sitting and overthinking, which enables the inner editor we all have to convince us that everything we write is shit. My last post was about mental health and creativity, and how important sleep is in that equation. Eating is just as important, too. Pope writes, “Be sure to schedule breaks into your day for meals and chances to recharge. Your brain won’t work as well when your stomach’s empty.” And who doesn’t love trying new restaurants?!
  5. Avoid distraction!

    TURN OFF THE PHONE! DON’T CONNECT TO WIFI! Haven’t we all seen “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix?! Pope writes, “Turn off the Wi-Fi. Turn off your phone. The world won’t end if you take a few hours off.” She recommends only checking messages from family members and to communicate with loved ones that you’ll be on the retreat for a specific purpose: to get some writing done! Pope also makes an important distinction: “Don’t fall into an internet black hole while you’re writing. If you need to look something up for your draft, make a note and look it up later. It’s too easy to look up one little thing and then see an email and check the weather and before you know it, you’ve spent an hour online,” WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT GOOGLE AND FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM AND TIKTOK AND SNAPCHAT WANT! I’ve been making a concerted effort to limit my screen time anyway, so this makes perfect sense to me.
  6. After the retreat, take time to review (and schedule your next retreat)!

    Pope recommends asking important questions: “Were you able to accomplish your goals? If no, why not? Were you distracted? Did you not have enough time? Did you have a comfortable space? Were you procrastinating?” And stresses: “Then get your next retreat right onto your calendar.” I believe that creativity and writing talent are tools that if not used, are inevitably lost. Keep writing, keep reading, and keep planning out time in creative spaces to help you do so!

Pope’s article is a great companion to this article by Alicia de los Reyes. In her article, de los Reyes offers five excellent reasons to treat yourself to a DIY Writer Retreat:

  1. You want time to write

    I don’t want time to write; I N E E D time to write. I remember reading once that it was impossible to write a novel while being a full-time teacher. Obviously, this isn’t true (Stephen King was a full-time teacher AND working at a laundry mat when he wrote Carrie, but his prolific productivity is NOT normal), but I will say it is incredibly difficult. After a day spent reading and writing and dealing with the fascinating but exhausting intricacies of other people, the LAST thing I want to do is sit down and write. I’d much rather drink, put my feet up, and put my brain to sleep by watching TV. NONE of those activities are conducive to being creative and productive, so a retreat is a good way to avoid those bad habits. I’m considering making a March retreat my reward for finishing the editing of Moody Blue.
  2. You need structure

    De los Reyes writes, “If you schedule your writing retreat ahead of time, down to the hour, you won’t have time to think about what you “should” be doing. You’ll be doing it.” She’s right, and I’ve talked about the importance of schedules time and time again, so I won’t bore you and repeat myself.
  3. You don’t know what to write

    I don’t usually have this problem – thankfully! – but a change of scenery is always good to prompting the muse.

  4. You’ve always wanted to feel like a real writer

    I SWEAR I am more productive when I feel, or have convinced myself, that I’m a real writer. I know there’s plenty of articles about impostor syndrome and combatting it, and that there are plenty of articles that proclaim to be a writer, all you have to do is write. But the reality of it is that it’s never really that simple, especially when you’re dealing with insecurity and unprecedented times. So any little bit of theater we can perform ourselves to help ourselves believe we’re the real deal is more than okay by me.

Planning a retreat? I want to hear all about it! Let’s compare notes!

On sleep and mental health and creativity.

So, let me begin by offering you a poem I wrote in honor of this month:

His eyes are like October skies
Changeful and abrupt
Gray and full like rainclouds ready to erupt
Gray and cloudy and hard to see
But then suddenly
Bright and burning
Luminescent in their yearning
Glorious, blazes in orange and red
Cooling like embers in a dying fire bed
It hurts to stare into such a glare
But his eyes are like October skies
And I can’t look away

Poem, “October Skies,” 10/05/2020

When I walked into the building the other morning, dangerously close to being late, the speakers were playing a tinny-sounding version of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, a song less than a tenth of the current student body knows, which begs the question: WHY. Why that song? I can’t see the school engaging in some dark comedy during this pandemic. It’s just weird.

I only got two hours of sleep the night before, so that day was going to be weird anyway. I haven’t been sleeping well at all lately. I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Mayo Clinic tells me I have insomnia and that this could be the result of my depression, which unfortunately means that over-the-counter sleep aids are ineffective. “Mid-sleep awakenings often occur during periods of stress. Over-the-counter sleep aids rarely offer significant or sustained help for this problem.” So what is a girl to do?

Naturally, I took to Google and put in the search engine “how to fall asleep faster and stay asleep.” Perusing the results, I stumbled across this website. It elaborated upon the idea for a bedtime routine for adults. “Studies have shown that insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders. Stress from a busy workday and active personal life can cause sleep anxiety. Creating a bedtime routine puts your body in a relaxed state. By the time you’re finished, your body should feel relaxed and ready for lights out.” The article gives you 11 suggestions for a bedtime routine, which I will break down for you and offer my own perspective as I tried starting my bedtime routine last night.

  1. Set an alarm to signal preparing for bed.
    • I chose 7 PM. I figured I’d be asleep by 8 PM, so I’d get a full eight hours before 4 AM, when I get up to walk (hopefully run).
  2. Eat light and healthy before bed.
    • I actually didn’t eat anything before bed. I had dinner around 6 PM and was satisfied. However, the next time I’m at the grocery store, I plan on buying yogurt and ingredients for oatmeal. Both options double nicely for breakfast, and with the colder weather coming, a hot bowl of oatmeal might really help me feel relaxed and comfortable.
  3. Create a pre-bedtime playlist.
    • Lucky for me, I always listen to music when I sleep. This started after I watched “The Exorcist” and was convinced that if I didn’t have music playing, I would hear demonic spirits calling out to me. It’s pretty expansive (over 100 songs) and I’m proud of it. It includes songs like “Foolish Games” by Jewel, “exile [feat. Bon Iver]” by Taylor Swift, “WALLS” by Kings of Leon, “Could Never Be Heaven” by Brand New, and “Safe With Me” by Soap&Skin.
  4. Lower the lights and thermostat to hibernate.
    • Easily done and highly recommended; I always sleep with a fan on and curling up under a fluffy blanket is truly one of the best feelings in the world.
  5. Wash off stress in the shower or bath.
    • My whole life, all I’ve wanted is a soaking tub. Sometimes, I think about renting a hotel room for the night just so I can lay in hot bubbles and breathe. I don’t have a soaking tub in my home, but I thought I’d give it the old college try. I bought Dr. Teal’s Melatonin Sleep Soak and stayed in the tub for 20 minutes. It was relaxing, but I was missing the bubbles. So today, after school, I bought Dr. Teal’s Soothing&Sleep Foaming Bath. It’s not the recommended pairing, but it was all I could find at Walgreen’s. I ordered the foaming bath with melatonin and it should be delivered Thursday. I’m really looking forward to it. I also mde sure this was the last step in my bedtime routine because the article suggests taking a sleep aid while in the bath, and melatonin (my sleep aid of choice) should be taken 20 minutes before bed.
  6. Turn off electronics 30-45 minutes before bed.
    • OMG, this was so hard! I was unsuccessful but will be better tonight. I really believe this will make a huge difference.
  7. Reduce anxiety with a to-do list.
  8. Jot down your thoughts in a journal.
    • I combined suggestions 7 and 8, and have been doing this before bed for as long as I can remember. It definitely helps me to get it all out of my head and heart and onto paper, and I’m excited to see how helpful it becomes when combined with the other suggestions.
  9. Relax your muscles with a quick foam rolling or yoga session.
    • I didn’t try this suggestion as I was pressed for time. And it didn’t make sense to stress myself out about getting to every single suggestion when the whole point of the exercise was to reduce stress. Maybe I can implement this in the future.
  10. Drink something warm.
    • I drank a cup of Sleepytime Tea. I really, really need healthy, natural sleep.
  11. Use aromatherapy / essential oils.
    • I had a lavender wax melting beside me and I think it was effective. I had trouble staying asleep and I didn’t fall asleep as quickly as I would have liked, but I was also still answering text messages.

But why am I writing about this on a blog dedicated to creative writing? Because a troubled mind is not as productive. It’s a romantic notion, the stereotype of the starving, mentally unstable artist but in reality, it’s horrible. I went to therapy for a solid year about a year ago and at one point, my therapist asked to see me twice a week, worried I might do something to hurt myself. In honor of World Mental Health Day, I thought it’d be beneficial to share my mental health story and to freely admit I’m a work-in-progress. I’m employing healthier coping mechanisms, but everyday is a choice. I work every day at being in control of my emotions. It’s not easy and I slip. I eat my feelings, avoid my friends and loved ones, let my house become a filthy mess, stop taking care of myself, and stop writing. That’s inexcusable. For me, being healthy and being creative are synonymous.

On believing dreams will “come true//impossible not to do.”

I started my vision board:

I remember the instructions said to fill the board with what matters most, and for me, that’s love. I want to be loved. This may be a side effect of listening to Sam Smith’s “To Die For” on repeat, of scrolling through countless sickeningly sweet photos of couples picking various kinds of fall vegetation, and of the weather turning cooler. Truth be told, to be loved in a unique and singular way is the one wish I’ve wished for the hardest and the longest. The older I get, the harder it is to handle being lonely, so I started my vision board with a Google image search for “intimacy,” “romance,” “happy family,” and “full heart.” That’s definitely what matters most.

The second group of images will revolve around Ireland and the University of Limerick … because they agreed to defer my place until next year! I don’t have to reapply next month! I could realize my dream of earning my MA in Creative Writing in Limerick, Ireland! I have to be determined, tenacious, and willing to put in the work:

  • I want to rent my house out starting in February/March, so I’ll have nearly six months before I leave to experience that process and work out any kinks that pop up.
  • I need to figure out my finances. I already filled out a FAFSA and applied to two scholarships today. I’m looking at grants, and will continue to hunt down scholarships. I will also save money.

I figure that if love and marriage isn’t in the cards, then I should pursue other passions, like writing and furthering my education and career. That is going to be my third group of images: writing and being a writer. I’m halfway through the final revision of Moody Blue; I’m just waiting for my beta reader to catch up 😉 I feel confident and talented and optimistic.

I want to look as good as I feel, so my fourth group of images will be all about being a Bohemian Babe: being fit and healthy while bravely expressing a Transcendental, eclectic, bohemian style. I’ve already started buying fundamental pieces for my wardrobe and as luck would have it, it’s a minimalist approach to fashion, which will make packing for Ireland much easier.

Taking my dreams off the board, I have to start moving and exercising and really thinking about what I shovel into my mouth. I can pin a million different pretty pictures of beautiful, slender, graceful, and elegant women to my board, but it doesn’t matter if I refuse to do the work.

So really, 2021 will be full of optimism, definitely, but it was also be filled with holding myself accountable.

I know these last few posts have been repetitive, and I apologize. Next week, I’ll have new material – I promise.