I’ve gone on the Naked Wordshop’s annual retreats for 5 or 6 years now--since the inaugural retreat--and it’s one of my favorite events all year. We’ve largely ironed out the logistical issues we stumbled over the first year or two, and now it’s just unadulterated quiet writing pleasure with around 7 or 10 other writers. I’ve also taken a solo retreat and recently took a weekend retreat with a long-distance friend and a new friend.
Out of this "vast" experience, I’ve obviously become the expert on all things writer-retreat-y. Rather, I have Opinions! on what works, and I’d like to help first-timers skip the learning curve. Everyone’s process is different, of course, but I find that with a little planning you can accommodate a lot of different styles and keep everyone happy.
Do I expect you to read this post straight through just because it’s here? No, but I do hope that next time you’re planning a retreat, you’ll come back and use it as a reference. Happy writing!
- Consider finding a place without WiFi. Yes, research is an important part of most processes. But the internet itself can be really distracting. Do you have the will power to not check your email or social media sites? I don’t. But that’s exactly the kind of daily time-suck you’re trying to remove yourself from by going on a retreat. And even research-related efforts can lead to an infinite click hole that you won’t emerge from until dinner. Try writing around details you’re not sure of (e.g., “Sally was born in [YEAR], near the end of the War Between the States.”). You can always address the details when you get back home.
- Both outdoor and indoor common space with electric outlets, lights, and a variety of seating options.
- Space to hide out in case you need some true alone time.
- Climate control so you can be comfortable and sleep well whatever the weather.
- Fire place or a fire pit, especially if it’s fall or winter. Just really comforting at the end of the day.
- Decently comfortable beds for a good night’s sleep. Coffee can help you kick-start, but you’ll want to be up early to make the most of the day. During our Naked Wordshop retreats, we share rooms (with separate beds), and that works fine too.
- A full kitchen with a refrigerator, coffee maker, stove, microwave, and sink.
- Proximity to quiet activities, preferably ones that can be done solo or in groups and are not scheduled (like light hikes).
- Good people. Everyone there should be as serious as you are about squeezing everything you can out of this blessed time, or at least be respectful enough to leave you to it. I like to write in a group a quiet writers, because it keeps me on task, and the occasional conversations that spring up are usually enlightening, spawning from a detail that one of you encounters.
- Food. A good quantity of mostly healthy stuff that’s relatively easy to prepare. Healthy because you don’t want to fall into a sugar or trans fat coma when you’re trying to stimulate your writing brain. And easy so you don’t distract yourself with prepping food instead of writing. This is not the time to try out your new soufflé recipe, even if you never have time otherwise.
- Coffee (and probably tea). This gets a category all to itself because it’s that important. My personal daily allowance of caffeine flies out the window on retreats. Coffee gives a soft physical punch to your brain, but it also is psychologically comforting. Having a warm, delicious cup nearby just makes me feel like a writer. Oh, and not everyone likes flavored coffee, even hazelnut. Really. I find that black coffee with a supply of milk and sugar can satisfy the most people.
- A bit of alcohol. After a long day of writing, we all emerge a little giddy and starry eyed. I love to relax round the coffee table or fire with a beer or glass of wine and listen to everyone chatter.
- Writing supplies that support your process. Maybe that’s post-its and a foam board, a journal and a fistful of multicolored pens, research books, or just your computer with spreadsheets and blank documents. But be prepared to go back to a plotting process, as you may uncover problems as you’re writing.
- Books, as many as you can. Like coffee, having a large assortment of books scattered around helps me feel writerly (and don’t underestimate the psychological value of feeling writerly). You can also more easily reference details in books than you can online. They can also lead to a sort-of click hole phenomenon, but at least they’re finite. Try to make all the books you bring—even ones you just want to read before going to sleep—related to your writing in some way. Much easier to stay on task when you minimize your options.
- Medicines for headaches, migraines, arthritis, IBS, whatever your occasional (or chronic) ailment. Terrible to waste a whole writing day laid low by a migraine or otherwise not feeling well.
- Comfortable clothes. If you’re not comfortable with your fellow retreaters seeing you how you’d dress on a weekend at home, then you’re not comfortable with you fellow retreaters. Or yourself. And you need to be comfortable.
Do not bring:
- Non-writing-related mental work. Don’t bring a work or school assignment. Don’t bring any work that has a completion deadline imposed by someone else. You’ll feel obligated to do that first, and then you’ll be too distracted or burned out to focus on your writing. Or it will be closer to dinnertime than lunch. Plan ahead so you don’t have anything like that hanging over you while you’re at the retreat.
- Give yourself a goal to shoot for, but don’t hold yourself to it. Stay flexible. For example, what if you set a goal for 7,000 words for the weekend, but then you uncover structural problems with the plot outline. In cleaning things up, you end the weekend 2,000 shorter than when you started. Is the weekend a failure because you missed your goal? Of course not! But that original goal may have been the thing that kept you buckled in throughout the retreat.
- You can’t always count on a “good writing day,” even when you’ve eliminated the normal distractions of daily life. So be prepared to spend some time doing activities that could help jump start your creativity or improve your concentration. Even if you spend the whole retreat just doing these things, you shouldn’t feel like it was a waste of time. For me, that’s things like yoga, meditation, and solo walks. Maybe it’s different for you—just think about it in advance and bring your yoga mat/whittling knife/knitting needles or whatever you’ll need.
Above all, a writing retreat, like the rest of life, can succeed or fail based on your attitude. Whatever happens, enjoy your time. This is YOUR retreat, so do what you need to do to make it work for you. Enjoy yourself!