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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
– alarm clock
– comfortable walking shoes
– credit cards
– cash (not too much) or travelers’ checks
– ear plugs
– 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.
- 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?!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!