Going on a retreat is a fantastic way to turn yourself into a super productive writing machine. Alas, it’s not always practical or affordable to take yourself off to an organised retreat in a beautiful location.
A self-guided writing retreat is the cheap alternative as I re-discovered last Christmas. My partner and I had planned a mini-road trip to visit good friends and to explore the Whitsunday Coastline, just six hours south of home. We’d talked about it for months. But the voice of reason kept nagging. I had a heap of work to do and wasting a chunk of free time, sitting in the car, camping in the hot sun, suddenly looked like a really bad idea. Never mind that the whole world was on holidays.
A friend’s invitation to house-sit her secluded rainforest property turned into a precious opportunity to hunker down and do some serious writing. At the last minute and with a heavy heart, we cancelled our plans, packed a few essentials and shifted 10 kms up the road. It was the best Christmas gift I could have given myself.
Here’s what I learned about doing a self-guided writing retreat:
1. Leave home, become incognito.
Technically you could do a self-guided writing retreat at home. But staring at those untended garden beds and all the other chores that keep dropping to the bottom of your to-do-list can be a productivity killer.
A change of location can be essential to the effectiveness of a retreat. A new working environment, even if it’s just a simple motel room, will challenge your creativity and provide new inspiration.
If you don’t have friends offering up their houses for free, don’t despair. You can always find an inexpensive place on Airbnb. If you are flexible with dates, take advantage of off season rates and book into a hotel room or a cabin in the woods. I once borrowed a friend’s camper van, checked into a nice campground where nobody knew me and stayed put for a week to finish a project. I didn’t talk to a soul for a few days. It was pure bliss.
Sheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, is a self-confessed binge writer. One of her tricks to get a lot of words onto the page is to check into a hotel room and simply stay in the creative flow without talking or going out for several days at a stretch.
2. Eat take-out, stay in your pjs all day and snack on carrots
To really bond with your inner writer and to get the flow happening, avoid any distractions. Cooking is time consuming, and so is doing the washing up. If take-out isn’t appealing, you could always bring some pre-cooked frozen meals or survive on a diet of salad and sandwiches. I find that once I’ve surrendered to the writing flow, eating is no longer a priority. Though I do love my snacks and I always pack carrots, apples and nuts to avoid reaching for the chocolate bar.
When I am in the creative flow, I don’t bother getting out of my pajamas all day (well, yoga shorts and singlet). I do some of my best writing lying on the bed (only works if I’m not sleepy). So make sure you bring comfy clothes, leave the make-up at home and don’t bother looking in the mirror. You’ve got work to do!
3. To bring a friend or not to bring a friend?
Good question. It can be nice to do a self-guided writing retreat with a writing buddy. You can read each other’s work after dinner and make each other accountable for your writing goals. But choose your friend wisely. If she’s a chatty friend, chances are that by day two your friendship will be over. If she’s a good friend, you’ll be able to tell her to put a cork in it until dinner time.
When my partner and I turned our Christmas break into a self-guided writing retreat, we made a rule to only talk to each other at certain times of the day. I spent hours in silence in front of my computer and took myself on lonely contemplative walks. We’d share dinner, but we gave ourselves permission to have lunch and breakfast at times that fitted in with our individual creative work flow.
4. Set a daily word count
A big chunk of unstructured writing time is a precious luxury, but if you don’t set some rules, you can easily waste it.
Set a realistic daily word count. You know best what you are capable off. Take your average daily word limit and triple it.
The whole point of a writing retreat is to tap into the writing flow. If you are working on a first draft and you usually manage to write 1000 words a day, make it 3000 words and really squeeze that time to get your writing voice on paper.
Some writers manage 7000, even 10,000 words a day during a retreat. Sure, most of that will end up in the trash, but as it’s a great exercise in learning how to write fast and giving yourself permission to write that shitty first draft.
5. Bring a specific project
A retreat is a great opportunity to start that new book that has been percolating in your head for a while. Just go for it, and get the bones down. Or use your self-guided writing retreat to polish a certain number of chapters, finish that short story you were meaning to send off for publication.
While a retreat is always an invitation to explore new territory, play with new voices and writing styles, it’s also important to have a clear goal. Set yourself a realistic target and write away. It works, trust me.
6. Don’t sit all day, go for walks
It’s important to balance your productive writing time with contemplative breaks. It is not just your body that will be thankful. We all know that the best ideas come when we are not sitting at the desk.
Many a famous writer was also a prolific walker. Charles Dickens needed his extended daily walk so much he had his friends worried. The German poet Goethe not only walked a lot, but he also wrote about the importance of the Spaziergang. For Wordsworth the act of walking was ‘indivisible’ from the act of creating poetry. The list of great writers who were great walkers is very long.
So, pack some walking shoes and set a daily walking time, then get back into your pjs and continue writing. It works a treat!
7. Do a digital detox
To unplug from your devices shouldn’t be optional when you go on a retreat. I don’t bother to check the news when I am in the writing flow. Who cares what’s going on in the world when you are creating your own world on the page.
If you have to check in with family, do it minimally. Let everybody know in advance that you will be on retreat, so that they don’t send a search party out.
To work in off-line silence is balm to the writer’s soul. You know that already. I just needed to remind you.