You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.
You’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.
I promise to do all I can to make your retreat a success. This means I’ll give you all the motivation you can handle, but no massage. If you want wine, you’ll have to bring it along.
How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?
Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, whether you come to Windbreak House, or go to one of those places with the luxury amenities. I’ll follow this with ideas for creating your own retreat at home, and using your writing time more effectively.
First: Ask Yourself This
Will I go to the retreat alone or with someone else?
I conduct retreats according to my assessment of how you can achieve your goals. Several weeks before you arrive, you will send me an electronic attachment containing the material you intend to work on. I will read it several times, and write comments and questions about your intent in the manuscript. Then I’ll print copies for each of us. We’ll discuss what I’ve written and your responses to it. You’ll have an opportunity to revise, and perhaps to give me new work on which to comment. During your retreat, your work will be my first priority; we can meet as many times a day as you choose, and I’ll read and discuss with you anything you write. If you want that kind of attention, you may choose to be the only retreat guest in residence.
Do you want company? Group retreats can be beneficial; having two or three thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement. Before you ask people you know, however, ask yourself if you’ll work well together, or visit more than you write. Also, each additional person reduces the time I have to spend with you.
If you don’t ask writing friends, you could tell me that you’d like to share your retreat with another writer of the same gender. We can’t promise, but we’d let you know if someone who seems compatible applies for the same dates, and put you in touch if you choose. The kindly critical eye of a stranger can provide valuable new insight.
If you plan to share your retreat with others, remember to consider them in each of the following steps as you get ready for your getaway. For example, we can supply e-mail addresses (if you choose, and don’t already know one another), so you can arrange to cooperate on cooking, purchasing ingredients and preparing some meals, and you might learn about each other’s retreat goals.
Second: Set goals
Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Unless you choose a longer time to stay, your retreat will be two whole days and two half days. We’ll make plans the afternoon you arrive, then spend two full days consulting about and revising the work you bring with you. On the fourth day we’ll discuss how you can create and maintain a writing schedule at home. Twenty years’ experience has taught me that while this may not seem long enough, most people aren’t prepared for deep concentration on their writing for a longer period. During longer retreats your energy and attention may begin to dissipate.
Decide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can ask me to make changes in our schedule if necessary.
I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you send it to me. Choose a reasonable size, not a 400-page novel but several problem chapters. The writing does not have to be finished. If you make notes in the text about your questions about the writing, you’ll help me to understand how I can best help you. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? The retreat house has a strong library covering many facets of writing, but we may not have the volume you like best.
When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t bring every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes; organize those at home during down time. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.
Third: What to Take Along
Once you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow? Some writers have brought comforting stuffed animals to help them relax—but no live ones, please.
Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on our chilly floors, layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. We have one-size-may-fit-you boots if the weather is rainy, and extra jackets and walking sticks in the closets. Moreover, I have a vast array of coats and umbrellas I will cheerfully loan you if needed.
What writing materials do you need? Include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. I will put your writing on a flash drive so I can use my printer to produce copies for both of us, but if you want to print your own copies, bring a printer, ink cartridges, paper, cords. Bring your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, favorite books. Windbreak House has extra supplies of pens and pencils along with the usual office supplies like paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape. Again, if you forgot an essential item, I may be able to supply it.
What about food? If cooking relaxes you, consider bringing ingredients for several special meals. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. The Windbreak House kitchen is equipped with dishes (including wine glasses!), silverware, pots and pans, cooking utensils, a propane stove/oven, a microwave, a fridge with a freezer compartment, a coffee maker, an electric coffee grinder, dish soap and linens.
During a retreat of the usual length, you will eat nine meals, including supper the first day, and lunch on your way home the fourth day. Here’s a diagram you can use to plan your shopping.
Breakfast Day 2 / Breakfast Day 3 / Breakfast Day 4
Then plot Lunch Day 2, Lunch Day 3, and Lunch Day 4 (on your way home) followed by Supper Day 1, Supper Day 2, and Supper Day 3. Three breakfasts, three lunches and three suppers.
Don’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so bring plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, bring what you need. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”
Windbreak House water is safe (tested yearly) but hard, with a high iron content that creates a flavor some folks don’t like. We provide bottled water, but you might want to bring your favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated in our arid climate can help you sleep and work more efficiently.
Four: What You Leave Behind
Of course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, and I don’t expect you to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach; feel free to tell them retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.
Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Tell responsible adults that if a real emergency arises, to call the County Sheriff (we provide the number in the retreat packet we mail you) to contact me.
Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. One or two writers have been so exhausted by preparations that they slept most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that my job is to help you write the best that you are able on your chosen project; I will not knowingly do anything to harm you or your writing.
Before you settle into the retreat house, I’ll guide you on an orientation walk inside and out, so you are comfortable with the house and its surroundings. We’ll have dinner together (I bring my own), while discussing your goals and plans for the retreat.
Then you will be alone, or with your chosen companions, on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you have favorite bath salts? (Our bathrooms allow for both showers and baths.) Chocolate? Wine? A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Bring along anything legal that will help you relax into your stay here. Take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.
Five: You Are Here
Here’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.
When you arrive, I will already have spent hours reading and re-reading your submitted writing and composing comments. I’ve learned the hard way that if I give you these comments the first night, you might stay up late reading and revising instead of relaxing. Therefore, the next morning, I will bring you a printed version of these comments and leave you alone to read and absorb them. Then we’ll meet to discuss my comments and your responses, and how they will affect what you are writing.
Together, we’ll decide the next step. You may revise this first piece and return it to me for more comments. Or you may bring more writing for my comments. At each phase, I’ll consult with you about what you want to do next. I’ll provide handouts referring to any problems I see in your writing, and perhaps suggest additional reading to help you proceed.
When we talk, I suggest that you take notes to help you recall oral comments I may make; conversations always bring more insights than I have had in my solitary reading of your work. If you disagree with my ideas, say so; discussion may lead to improvements I haven’t considered. Even if you think I’m wrong, take note of what I say about your work; at some future time, you may decide I made good points. If you quietly ignore my suggestions as you revise, I won’t object; we will continue to work together. Tastes differ, and my experience in writing and publishing does not make me, or any other person who comments on your work, infallible.
While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”
Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished
The day your retreat ends, we will discuss how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband or wife, the house or garden.
Before you leave the retreat, we will consider how you can establish a writing place and time at home. I’ll suggest ways to stay focused, and to begin your new program before you, or those voices of guilt, can talk you out of it. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.
Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
Stay tuned for blogs on how to create your own retreat at home, the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.