Writing Retreats: How to Make the Most of One

Yield to Whim, Djerassi
Frank Foreman, 1983

Today’s guest post is by author and editor Melanie Bishop (@melbishopwriter). Be sure to also read her post on The Value of Writing Retreats.

One of the ways that retreats help us to write is by greatly reducing our usual distractions. Away from home, spouse, family, friends, pets, jobs, laundry, stacks of work and unopened mail, we experience the freshness of arriving somewhere new. This new place has no expectations of us, no clutter, no history. We’ve brought along only what we need and this separation from all our other stuff is liberating, making the working landscape feel unfettered. We imagine ourselves more productive in this new space.

At first, some of us tend to be overly ambitious, thinking we will just work day and night, bringing home hundreds of new pages. Given how difficult it can be to carve out time away from our jobs and lives, to make a retreat happen, we can feel overly pressured to get productive immediately. And we feel guilty if we’re not making every minute count.

Whoa, I would say. Slow down.

  1. No one can shift gears so quickly.
  2. Finding the right pace is key, and it’s not a frenzied one.
  3. We miss out on much of the wonder of a retreat if we don’t allow ourselves to get to know this new place.

I’ve done writing retreats as short as two days and as long a month, and what I’ve found is this: about a third of the overall time should be free of any expectation of productivity. Or I could distill that down to: a third of the time should be FREE. Period. Productivity is certainly one goal of a retreat. But there are other desired outcomes, such as returning home rested, relaxed, and energized by the time away. The goal is not to return home as though you’ve just pulled a week of all-nighters in a row.

The more generalized retreats I lead in Carmel are called Write & Play in Carmel-by-the-Sea for a reason. I tell clients, on arrival, that we place equal emphasis on “play.” Playing in this new place enlivens the senses and gives us new sensory triggers and contexts. Without even thinking about it, these new sensory experiences are applied to our writing selves and woven into our stories.

But the other reason I emphasize “play” is that when we’ve slept well, eaten well, relaxed and played well, we are much more likely to feel ready to work, and the work is likely to be of higher quality, and achieved with greater efficiency. In this scenario, we don’t feel the work is robbing us of time we’d rather be doing something else. On a retreat, it’s possible to do all the things we want to do.

One helpful activity, early on, is to write down your intentions. I recommend doing this on paper with a pen, not on the computer. I give clients a small notebook and pen and suggest that they use the notebook and pen for exercises, plans, lists and goals. People have a different relationship with pen and paper than they have with the keyboard and the laptop screen. I do all my first drafts handwritten in a certain kind of notebook with a certain kind of pen; I can compose more easily away from advanced technology. I ask people to try this and see if it changes something for them. Many clients report feeling freed up with pen in hand.

So, in your notebook, brainstorm a list of how you’d like to spend your time. Include everything that comes to mind. Here’s an example. (Obviously not all retreats happen near an ocean, and some retreat settings are intentionally remote, without access to cafes or stores. My examples come from Carmel-based retreats.)

  • indulge in naps
  • read in clawfoot tub
  • see the ocean every day
  • exercise daily
  • stay off the internet
  • write for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours after dinner
  • check out two galleries
  • browse the bookstore and other shops
  • call loved ones

Next, consider the fact that there are 24 hours in each day. Maybe in retreat mode, you are sleeping nine hours a night. That leaves 15 waking hours. Allot a certain amount of time to each activity, and see just how abundant 15 hours can be. Let’s say you will spend one hour napping and two hours reading. That leaves 12 waking hours. Four of those you intend to be writing, and three of those you will allow for consumption of breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are still five whole hours to spend as you wish—maybe two hours down at the ocean, an hour exercising, an hour to talk on the phone, and an hour at a shop or gallery. Or maybe with that last hour, you decide to let yourself check email. Or not. There are more hours than you think in a day if you stay off the internet; and, if you go online in the morning, many hours will be eaten up before you even realize the day’s half gone. Some people decide to unplug for the whole of their retreat.

Once you’ve figured out how many hours for each activity, then go ahead and create an itinerary. Don’t worry. Nothing’s set in stone. Example:

  • 11 pm to 8 am: Sleep
  • 8 to 9 am: Breakfast
  • 9 to 11 am: Write
  • 11 to 12 pm: Exercise
  • 12 to 3 pm: Take a picnic lunch to the ocean
  • 3 to 4 pm: Nap
  • 4 to 5 pm:  Read
  • 5 to 7 pm: Write
  • 7 to 8 pm: Out to dinner
  • 8 to 9 pm: Shops or galleries
  • 9 to 10 pm: Phone calls
  • 10 to 11 pm: Read in clawfoot tub
  • 11 pm: To bed

Take into consideration your own preferences and biorhythms. If you work better in the morning, schedule your writing time then. If you are someone who stays up till 4 am and sleeps till noon, then maybe your best writing time is in the wee hours, when everyone else is asleep. I happen to work best early in the morning, with my first cup of coffee; if I can watch the sun come up, all the better. Use what you know about yourself and your work habits and be kind when plotting your daily schedule. You want it to feel good.

Once that’s done, know that you can alter it as needed whenever you want. Know that if you want, you can toss the whole schedule thing out the window. But having made an itinerary, thoughtfully, you’ve set your intentions for what you want to do and you prove to yourself that it’s indeed doable. One client was fairly amazed when she wrote down all the waking hours in her every day, realizing that on most days, she loses huge amounts of time to being online. Seeing the hours plotted out on a sheet of paper made the potential of those previously lost hours real to her, something she wanted to reclaim.

And finally, recognize that opportunities may come up or you may be struck by an idea, or you will meet someone or be invited to go somewhere. Allow for the possibility of the unplanned thing.

When I was on a month-long residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program last spring, a favorite among all the art installations on their property was an old Yield sign, that an artist had changed to read “Yield to Whim.” This was posted on the long, winding entrance to the 580 acres of Djerassi, and it was posted like any other traffic sign, as if to say “Take this as seriously as you would a red light or a stop sign.” YIELD to WHIM. I took it seriously, and I referred back to it many times that month. If during a time I had planned to be writing, I had a sudden urge to walk in the forest, or to bake brownies, or to stay up late with other residents, drinking hot chocolate and telling stories, I would tell myself, Yield to Whim. Whim’s okay. Whim is good.

So if all this sounds contradictory, well it is. Make an itinerary, and then allow yourself some flexibility in following it. Have goals, but don’t be overly strict about them. Get work done, but also get outside. Play. Run. Walk. Laugh. Being intentional and aware of how you spend your time is important. As is finding your own blend of discipline and whimsy for a productive, restorative retreat.

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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