Treat and Treat Again (Writing Retreats for the Busy Author)
::blowing dust off the blog::
The Old Retreat Model
Once upon a time, I wrote an article about writers’ retreats, summarizing different types of retreats for different types of writers. The full article is now available for free on my website. I summarized my ideal retreat at the end:
My ideal retreat is an intimate gathering of no more than six friends. We get together three or four times a year, for a three-day weekend at each gathering. We stay in the home of one author, often doubling up in guest rooms. We focus on solitary writing – I typically set an aggressive-for-me goal of drafting 25,000-35,000 new words. While we take occasional evening breaks for gossip (er, “industry evaluation”) and we talk a lot while eating our meals, our primary purpose is to create new words.
At our retreats, the host provides three meals a day. Breakfast is typically cereal or bagels, and lunch is make-your-own sandwiches. Dinners are usually easy-to-prepare casseroles, ordered-in pizza, or similar low-effort foods. The host is also responsible for setting the table and doing the dishes, although attendees tend to help out. Each attendee brings a favorite sweet snack, savory snack, and beverage. (Confession time: We each typically bring multiple “favorites”; there’s a lot of eating that goes on at our retreats. We also drink prodigious amounts of caffeine!) Sometimes, we go out to dinner on our last night together.
During the retreat, we usually work together in one room (a basement rec room, or a living room). Writers who are “on a roll” sometimes skip meals to finish their work. Some of us awaken quite early; others stay up until nearly dawn, then don’t rise until after lunch.
That group retreat has been modified a bit over the years. We now get together only two or three times in a year; it’s too difficult to coordinate the schedules of five busy authors. We tend to a lot more “make-your-own” dinners — make your own pizza or baked potato or pasta, to accommodate a wide range of dietary limitations. Perhaps most importantly, breaks for conversation have grown substantially — some authors spend a couple of hours over lunch and all the time after dinner chatting.
Alas, I failed to update my goals as we updated our retreat format. I approached each three-day weekend (starting mid-afternoon on Friday, ending mid-afternoon on Sunday) with the same aggressive goal of drafting 30,000 or more words. With reduced writing time, though, due to increased socializing time, I inevitably felt frayed and flustered. My retreats started to feel like a failure.
The New Retreat Model
At the same time, I engaged in another type of retreat. I got together with one other author to rent a cabin in a state park about two hours from my house. The cabin has a full kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms. There’s a picnic table outside, and a lake a few feet from the front door (pictured above). There’s electricity and a weak cell signal but no television or Internet.
These retreats last for six days — arriving after four p.m. on the first day and leaving by ten a.m. on the last day. My fellow author and I have very different schedules. I wake up at seven in the morning and eat a quick breakfast, then settle down to write. I take a break for lunch around noon, then return to writing. My fellow author wakes up around one or two. We sometimes (but not always) take a walk around the lake around four, and we eat dinner together (usually a casserole prepared at home) around six. We both write after dinner. I go to bed around eleven or midnight, and my fellow author stays up working until around three. Lather, rinse, repeat.
These new retreats allow me to produce my maximum word output — 40,000 words at the last one, the complete outlining and drafting of a new Harmony Springs novella. (I’ve tried spending the time editing–most notably a 120,000 word suite of short stories–but I feel that the time is more valuable as writing time because editing comes easier to me and I can fit it into my regular schedule without a great deal of trouble.) My fellow author and I talk at meals and during walks, but we mostly work side by side in relative silence. While I can research some things on my phone, I leave heavy-duty Internet searches for my return, placing blanks in my manuscript to be completed later. Six days is a long time for this introvert to spend in uninterrupted contact with another person, but our shifted schedules gives both of us quiet, alone time in the cabin.
A Future Retreat Model?
I’m contemplating changing things up a bit in the coming year. I’ve promised myself that when I go to the next multi-author retreat, I’ll have a limited word goal, and I’ll relax and enjoy the socializing more than I’ve allowed myself to do in the past. I may also cut back on the word goal for the cabin retreat. I love, love, love the feeling of accomplishment when I look at all I completed (and that concentrated writing time allows me to keep a hectic multi-book schedule), but I find myself missing the chance to take a “photo safari” around the lake, or regretting a shortened conversation over dinner. I don’t like the feeling that I’m always watching a clock, keeping myself on track.
How About You?
If you’re a writer, do you do retreats? What model do you follow?
If you’re not a writer, do you juggle your job and your socializing in single settings (like holiday parties, or corporate retreats)? How do you balancing achieving goals with being a team player? Do you even perceive those two states to be in opposition to each other?