The Value of Writing Retreats

Today’s guest post is by writer, editor, and teacher Melanie Bishop (@melbishopwriter). She is hosting a memoir writing retreat in Carmel-by-the-Sea this January.

On a foggy morning in September of 1994, a staff member at Hedgebrook drove me and my stuff to the ferry. I was leaving Whidbey Island, leaving my little haven—Waterfall Cottage—after a glorious three-week stay. I hate crying publicly, but I was sobbing there in her jeep.

“Am I the only one who cries?” I asked.

The road we drove was lined with thorny vines, their blackberries fat, purple and wet, like an offering.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “Everyone cries on their last day.”

She went on to say that most women have never experienced such unconditional nurturing, so of course it’s emotionally wrenching to say goodbye to that.

What exactly was I saying goodbye to? The all-female environment? The great new friends I’d made? The dinners prepared by a chef—salmon from the market and corn plucked moments before dinner from their garden? The way they wouldn’t even let residents help with the dishes?

It was all of it:  the chopped, perfectly-sized logs for the wood stoves in each cottage; the bath house’s windowed room with the huge clawfoot tub and floating candles; the carefully placed benches and vista points—Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier in the distance; the fact that my cottage had once housed Tillie Olsen. I was sleeping in her same bed, writing at the same desk, reading in the same comfy chair, graced by her coming before me in this space. I’d been offered all this as a gift.

The first full day, all I could do was sit in awe of my exquisite surroundings. The Quaker carpentry, using pegs instead of nails; the numerous places in the cottage that invite one to sit and ponder, read, rest; the plates and bowls made by a local potter; the stained-glass window by a local glass artist; and the woven blanket by a local weaver. I thought that first day that some mistake had been made—that I’d been invited due to a clerical error. Surely I hadn’t earned the privilege of writing where Tillie Olsen once wrote. Surely they would knock on my door at some point and say so sorry, we thought you were someone else. But the only knock on the door was the cook, like some Little Red Riding Hood coming through the woods, delivering lunch in a basket.

The first week, it seemed all I did was sleep. Again, I asked one of the staff if this was abnormal, this napping all day, after a nine-hour night of sleep in the cozy loft bed. “Some women sleep the whole time,” she said. “For some writers, that’s what’s most needed—rest. And that’s okay.” I’d come after several years of full-time college teaching. I did need rest. Another resident was the mother of 4-year-old twins, and this was her first respite from being a mom. She was also sleeping a lot. But neither she nor I wanted to blow this insanely valuable gift of time. I wanted to leave the three-week residency with a stack of pages, thick and crinkled with my own handwriting.

By the second week, I got busy. I got over being alternately awestruck and exhausted and I put pen to paper. I read books. I wrote long, hand-written letters. I made fires in my wood stove. I went on long walks. I got drunk with goodness on ripe, roadside blackberries, my fingers and tongue stained a deep purple-black. I still took one nap every day. (There were spaces in the cottage that begged you to do so.) I left with 75 new pages.

The takeaway here is the word “nurture.” As women, we fall into the role of nurturer easily and naturally. Even those of us who aren’t moms, will find other arenas where the nurturing skills are exercised. For me it was teaching—a profession involving non-stop caring and giving. What my first residency experience taught me was the power of allowing myself to be on the receiving end of such nurturing. When your every need is anticipated and met; when everywhere you look, someone has had the forethought to create environments so aesthetically pleasing as to be artistically inspiring; when they ask you prior to arriving to name your comfort foods, so that when you inevitably have a difficult day, they can make this food for you, it exceeds your understanding of the verb to nurture. We’re wired to believe we don’t deserve such generosity, even though we’ve regularly dished it up for others.

Why must writers schedule time for residencies and retreats?

In doing so, we honor an annual appointment with writer self-care. We put nurturing on the calendar or it may never happen. Other stuff will always get in the way. Whether we design our own self-funded writing retreat, or we apply, compete and are awarded a stay at a residency, whether it’s two days or three weeks, we commit to nurturing our writer-selves. We deserve this.

I worried that having Hedgebrook as my first residency experience, I might have set myself up for later disappointment. No place would ever measure up to the nurturing I received there. But I’ve since been to Hambidge, Ucross, Playa at Summer Lake (twice), Djerassi, and back to Hedgebrook again. While Hedgebrook sets the bar beautifully high, every residency exceeds my expectations—they just do it in different ways. Every residency is a gift—a place to live in a beautiful location, meals, a balance of solitude and companionship, and perhaps most importantly, their underlying belief in you as an artist. The residency says: You are worth this.

Of course, I don’t get around to applying every year and many times my applications have been rejected. (I’ve yet to be accepted at either Yaddo or MacDowell.) On those years, it’s up to me to plan my own writing getaway. I’ve taken up residence in the empty homes of friends and writing acquaintances; rented low-cost studios, for $30/night, at Arcosanti; shared the costs of a VRBO rental with a close writer friend, so we could collaborate on a screenplay; and bartered with a client for repeated stays at Boulders Writing Retreat, her family’s home in the Redwoods.

Whether the retreat is in the form of an awarded residency, a friend’s generosity, or a place I pay for, I can rely on a productivity I never experience at home. I’ve finished screenplays, started novels, finished novellas, come up with journals full of notes for future projects, busted out 99 pages of a draft in a single week, unraveled messes that at home, were mystifying. It’s the single focus afforded by retreats that makes them so productive, and the change of scenery, the new ways this place stimulates your senses. It’s the “room of one’s own” Virginia Woolf espoused; the time to rest, think, walk, ponder and just be; and the faith that, as writers, we deserve this. Hedgebrook planted this idea of faith in my head, in 1994. I’ve believed it ever since.

To learn more

Note from Jane: Melanie’s upcoming memoir retreat in Carmel-by-the-Sea is available in solo or group options, starting this January. Find out more.

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