Writing Tools & Tips

Alone and Not Alone: How to Create Your Own Group Writing Retreat

This blog post was sparked by Molly Templeton’s call for submissions in response to the New York Times’ How-To issue.

Greetings from the last day of our writing retreat in beautiful Easton, New Hampshire.

We are satisfied. We are reflective. We saw moose. We are sad to go, happy to have come. We are four of us (Liz, Karen, Nancy, and Susan) who all pitch in below to share our experiences and suggestions so that you, too, might create for yourselves the kind of group writing retreat that leaves you feeling fine.

Those of us lucky enough to have saved up money and/or been awarded fellowship support to spend time at a writers’ residency program know and treasure that immense gift of time and space away from regular life to devote to writing.

Nancy: What has mattered most to me about having this writing retreat and making it work is breaking with my usual daily routine and developing, right away, a new one that’s devoted to a single task of writing fiction.

If it’s possible for you to carve out a chunk of time away from work, child care, relationship care, etc., and if you are admitted to (and funded for) such a program, it can be a great boon to your writing life, in material, but also psychological, and possibly even spiritual ways. The time alone to work is great – but also, for many, the presence and companionship of other writers and artists doing their work is also invigorating and inspiring.

In 2010, I fell in with four writers at just such a program, and as it wound down, it occurred to us that we might be able to create a retreat space for ourselves, outside the context of existing residency programs. We enjoyed one another’s company; our work habits, goals, and experiences seemed compatible; and we found great value in the residency experience. But we also thought we would prefer to do it for two weeks rather than a month, and supposed we could do it for not-too-much-moolah, if we did our research. So why not figure out how to do it, ourselves, the following summer?

Karen: It’s all about space and time. You need to be sure that there’s enough of both.

This summer we held our second successful self-made retreat, and our current plan is to do the next one in the summer of 2014. The tips that follow are from all of us, minus one who couldn’t make it this summer (and who was sorely missed). They are based on our experiences and offered with the understanding that there are many different ways to do what we’ve done.

Find your people. You may already have done this. The more you are, the more expensive and challenging it can be to find the right accommodations.

Karen: You know who you are—a group of friends who easily share both work and play. You’ve enjoyed spending time together talking about your writing and about your lives. You like to read and you talk about books and movies and music and politics and families etc etc together. You learn from each other. You live too far apart to see each other on a regular basis but when you can manage to get together there’s a feeling of rightness– like a family reunion without all the crap . . . . You have similar goals: to find more time for writing, to do things that matter with your lives.

Susan: Best to stay away from drama-queens, who tend to create drama at the retreat OR make everyone live through whatever drama is going on back home in their lives. These people may be exciting and fun in small doses, but that much self-absorption can get in the way of all progress in a long retreat in a remote location. You don’t have to be best friends with your retreat-mates, just be sure to go with people that you genuinely like, you respect what they do artistically, and with whom you have a comfortable level of compatibility. Often real and lasting friendship grows alongside the work, when the work is given the main attention. You can help each other stay focused, commiserate on work stalled out or problematic, and have some workshopping if wanted.

Commit to the dates. This is a commitment to yourself to your fellow writers, to your writing.

Make a commitment at least a year ahead of time. Start saving money and arranging for your absence. Put down a deposit. Make arrangements at work. Count down. In order for this to really work, you can’t be wishy-washy about it.

Depending on where you want to go, dates can impact things like “peak season” rates, so keep that in mind. Maybe January is your retreat time. For us, it’s two very specific weeks in the summer – the only time all of us could make it. Since all of us making it was a priority, those are our dates. End of story.

Susan: You have to give yourself the time, make it a genuine priority, sharpie it into the calendar . . . . You have to be willing to resist the world’s demands, at least for a while. Some years a retreat of more than a few long weekends or a week may not be possible, so be realistic about that. But when you can, go for it and hold on for dear life.

Figure out your priorities (besides writing), requirements, and limitations.

Where would you like to go? Where can you afford to go? What’s the per-week maximum folks are able to spend on accommodations? There are great sites like vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner), or you can just Google “vacation home rentals in _____________”) and you’ll get lots of hits.

Karen: (The money spent is) a valuable investment in your creative life and your sanity. A writing retreat feels like both a vacation—a time when you are able to turn off other obligations—and an intensive work session—a time when you can actually go deeper and further than you can during the rest of the year.

Don’t forget to factor in travel & food. Then you can talk about other stuff like sleeping and working arrangements, required/desired amenities, etc.  We’ve found that creating a private Facebook group for our communications has been very helpful both in terms of sharing planning and travel info, and for keeping in touch and posting/sharing things privately. Here’s what we’ve found we need:

–each writer should have her own private sleep/work space

–for the four/five of us, we prefer at least two full bathrooms to share

–well-stocked kitchen (we save money and keep focused at the retreat by cooking for ourselves/each other with one or two meals out)

–reliable coffee maker and lots of strong coffee (that this is its own item, separate from “well-stocked kitchen” should give you a sense of how important it is to our group)

–a communal area for sharing work, sharing meals, bottles of wine, etc.

–a porch or deck

–internet access

–at least one of us with a car

I have brought my printer the last two years for us to share, but we could do without it. I mention it because it might be something you can’t do without.

Internet access? Really? Isn’t it just a time-suck?

We’ve found that internet access has allowed some of us to “escape” more easily, and this is a good thing. So it’s on our list of must-haves. But maybe one of the things you and your group will prioritize is an escape from the internet. You decide.

Karen: While I love that I can go online in order to Google, blog, email etc at any hour of day or night (and we even use this means to communicate from room to room during our retreat!), I’ve also done a retreat where I did not have wireless in my little cabin but had to go to a main house where there was a shared computer with limited bandwidth for email and browsing. This allowed for a different kind of concentration in my writing– since it took away one major source of distraction.

Nancy: Early on especially I shunned Facebook until late in the day, looked at my email (for which I set up a vacation message) but not answered any of it, used the computer only to Google to find out how long it would take a character to travel from Rutland, Vermont, to a particular quarry in the Berkshires or the size and servings of a large Kroger sheet cake. Essential research.

How much planning? How much improvisation?

To my mind, as much advance planning as possible (about writing, about cooking, about what to bring) means more brain-space at the retreat itself focusing on important writing-related decisions. Lots of smart planning, in my experience, can create a space where improvisation is actually more possible. That doesn’t mean plans can’t change, but for example, bringing a couple of recipes you know you’ll make, and picking two nights when you know you’ll make them, and making one or two smart grocery shopping trips over two weeks, means you are DONE thinking about your meal duties, such as they are.

Both of the places we’ve been have provided linens, towels, paper products — at the least, I’d want to not have to deal with bringing my own linens, but maybe that’s just me. The main thing is to know in advance whether you’ll need to bring a towel or laundry detergent or salt or whatever, so you can plan accordingly.

Nancy: I imagine that it would be easy at the start of a retreat to want to be helpful and contribute to the household by volunteering to make first meals, go grocery shopping etc. Yet this is also the time when establishing writing as the central focus and alone time for that writing–shutting one’s self away at one’s desk–is so important. Our decision then to bring with us bags and coolers with first-days’ meals and basic provisions was really key plus the idea that we would make pizza for the first night (an idea that was reprised for the second night too). That meant no field trips required until we were well into the first week when taking an hour to drive into town provided a good-head clearing break from the writing rather than a chore that deferred starting the writing.

Karen: You need to strike a sane balance between over-planning and leaving everything to chance and the last minute. In a group of five there are likely to be at least a couple of compulsive list makers and ex-Girl Scouts who can help with the preparedness piece.

What’s it like? What do you do all day? Do you get work done? Do you have fun? Are you allowed to talk to each other? Who makes dinner?

I found it very helpful to come to the retreat with some set minimums – I was going to write at least 750 words every day, and read at least one volume of poetry every day. I had many other plans as well – poems to edit and revise, two book-length manuscripts to overhaul, ideas for new poems – but I found it grounding to have that set minimum, which I invariably took care of in the morning. Then I’d get to manuscript shuffling and poem writing in the afternoons; sometimes in the evening after dinner. Though more often, we’d play cards after dinner for a bit.

Regarding dinner: if you’ve got five people for two weeks, and everyone commits to organizing/preparing one dinner a week, you’re pretty much done. Bread, cheese, hummus, eggs, trail mix, and leftovers (fill in your own blanks here, of course), and you’re set for the week. I like to bake bread a couple of times, so I make sure there’s flour and yeast at hand.  If someone really hates cooking or doesn’t cook, they can be the boss of waste management, or do dishes, or make the grocery store run. It can all be worked out if you take some time to talk about these things ahead of time.

Susan: Hey, this time is about writing, not impressing your friends with an all-day recipe. Having said that, it is a good and joyful thing to be with people who love food and know how to fix some good stuff without sacrificing their writing time. AND who’ll take turns cleaning up cheerfully. Some people may need a schedule for that, but often it seems to work out naturally.

Karen: There’s a lovely choreography to the quiet comings and goings of the group throughout the day, into the kitchen, out to the deck, back to the desk, knowing we’re all working. Variations like a load of laundry or a trip to the grocery store or a late afternoon dip in the swimming hole can be easily accommodated and invitations issued via a FB message to the group.

Nancy: Get up, pour coffee, and while drinking a first cup and eating breakfast read from a short story collection I’ve brought or pull up and look through a story I’ve brought to revise or the latest writing I’ve done. Then start writing. For the first days I also brought two stories I knew I wanted to substantially revise, plus vague ideas about a new one to start. I spent most of the first week working on the stories to be revised, sending the first one out by that Friday, after a workshop with my sister retreaters. That revision work helped me establish the most basic ingredient for the retreat: ass in chair. The first days I stayed in my bedroom, at the small desk there, for most of the day, coming out for more coffee or an easy lunch I could take back to my desk with me. From 8 to 4 I wrote, sometimes taking my computer out to a little cabin nearby so I could read aloud my drafts without being overheard by anyone but birds and chipmunks, maybe a bear. Then after 4, I could do what I wanted: pick berries, respond to a few emails, call home, take a head-clearing swim or walk. The head-clearing swims and walks were especially grand because they often brought to me one insight or idea more so sometime between 4 and 7 I would sit back down, do just a little more work.
After the first several days I could also loosen up. I could move out of the bedroom and sit on the couch, with a wide airy view of the mountains and sister retreaters coming and going from the kitchen and living room. I could work there without feeling any sense of interruption because by that point I was fully pulled into the world of the story–by now, a new story–I was drafting. For the new story, I set the basic bar of 1,000 more words added to the length of the draft by day’s end. The result is that within six or so days I had a new 5,000-word short story (having added those 1,000 words in length by the end of each day but also spending the first part of the next day revising, editing, and extracting more than a few of those words). So where I am now on Day 13 of this retreat: one story revised and submitted, another story revised and with a little more tinkering today ready to submit, a full story draft I’ll be seeking feedback for and will likely take away from the retreat with me, to continue to think about and see what it may need before I decide where to send it.

Making it work

We have all gotten substantial work done during both last year’s retreat and this year’s. There’s something about the combination of solitude and togetherness that gets and keeps me going. The fellowship of writers – of writer-friends who know so well what I’m doing and going through – keeps me going, keeps me writing. Although I wouldn’t say we’re in competition, I would say that the presence of these sympathetic, talented, and hardworking others, combined with the absence of Those Usual Distractions (aka my life) motivates me to do the best work I can.

Karen: A writing retreat is not a writing workshop. It is not a meeting with the Great Visiting Writer Guru. It is not a series of Craft Talks. It’s a retreat. Not only from the job and the errands and the family dynamics and the daily worries and the porch roof that needs fixing and the job and the junk mail and the world . . . . but also from performance anxiety and productivity measures. You look forward to it because this time is yours to use as you see fit: reading, meditating, walking, staring at a bug on the wall, scribbling in your notebooks, revising the same poem twenty zillion times, trying new kinds of writing, preparing manuscripts, taking manuscripts apart, sending stuff out, setting your poems to music, researching obscure details, writing, not writing, changing your mind. And sharing– yes, that, too– but only as much as you want or are ready for when and how YOU decide. The group provides company without breathing down your neck. You are both alone and not alone. What could be better?

4 thoughts on “Alone and Not Alone: How to Create Your Own Group Writing Retreat”

  1. I would like to note that this can be a very positive experience for the non-writer partners left behind too. You get time to do your own projects, let the house get dirty (or be satisfied that when you clean it, it will be just like that when you get home from work, if you’re the tidy one, which I’m not), catch up with friends on your nights alone (or revel in the delicious lack of self-consciousness and freedom from feeling attentive to/aware of others), and enjoy a happy, fulfilled partner when she comes home. And it’s nice to miss each other a little, too. If your family is structured in such a way that your money is shared in one big family fund, this should be seen as an investment not only for the writer, but for the relationship. Supporting your partner’s retreat is one way you can patronize the arts.

  2. This is fantastic advice. . . . I’ve escaped alone a couple of times, renting a cabin by myself, and while it was a very productive time it was a little lonely come nighttime! I like the idea of decompressing at the end of the day with other writers. Another great aspect of designing your own retreat is that you save the time you’d have to spend writing applications and crossing your fingers–just as long as while you’re saving time you’re also saving money since it’ll be on your own dime. My favorite bits were the recommendation to have a “reliable coffee maker with lots of strong coffee” as well as internet access so you can research “the size and servings of a Kroger sheet cake.” I agree absolutely! Thanks!

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