Rise early. Work late. Strike oil. — J. Paul Getty
Before you invest in a commercial writing retreat, test your mental discipline and your toleration for silent solitude. Time at an exotic location doesn’t guarantee writing success. I offer practical, tested suggestions for creating a place and time for your writing at home.
Creating a Private Writing Retreat
Every writer’s dream may be saying to her local writing group, “I’ll be working on my novel at a retreat, so I’ll miss the next two meetings.”
For most writers, a retreat is a mirage; we read the ads, shaking our heads at cost, and imagine applying for a grant. Most writers have seen their fantasies of finding the perfect retreat evaporate.
Yet we can visualize a perfect place to avoid the daily demands that gobble writing time. Whether our fantasy setting is near warm beaches or aloof mountains, we’re sure such a hideout would empower us to really write that novel. Say the word “retreat” and we see ourselves, monk-like, bent in ascetic devotion over satisfying work.
Take heart; we live in the Synthetic Age. Experts tell us the artificial can be as reliable as genuine articles, and few of us can tell a real diamond from faux, or solid wood from veneer anyway. If you can’t afford a retreat, you can make one.
A Retreat Won’t Make You a Writer
Face facts; moving your physical body to an “official” retreat won’t make you a writer. I once studied the Shaolin Kung Fu five-animal system, concentrating on the form known as “White Crane.” My instructor worked with me on several aspects of this martial art, developing my breath control and balance, speed and timing. Gradually, I developed strength and flexibility while learning fighting stances based on the symmetry and stability of a crane’s movements. Eventually, I understood how to use my hands and arms as weapons, learned the backfist and claw hand, and how to deliver the blade kick to an attacker’s knee. Throughout my training, my instructor emphasized that physical abilities alone would not enable me to master the form; meditation and focus are key aspects of the martial arts. In the end, I was not willing to devote three or more hours a day to practicing Karate in order to master its nuances on the chance I would use my skill to repel an attacker.
My experiences in writing have been similar; the physical facets of a retreat must be coupled with mental discipline and tenacity if you want to be a writer. The important aspects are the mental discipline and tenacity.
Physical Features of a Retreat
A commercial retreat provides the writing customer with varied opportunities, often including an ideal work space in a beautiful location; meals cooked by someone else; uninterrupted work time, and freedom from household chores. How can you duplicate these features at home?
Each writer would understand and arrange these requirements differently, but many writers could create a retreat at home, eliminating travel expense and the hassle of packing.
At home, I can’t hide from my real self, whereas when I travel I assume other roles, depending on the purpose of the trip. At home, I have rooms filled with writing resources and tools; I’m surrounded by comfortable clothes and furniture. Traveling to a retreat forces me to choose what I will need, and I might forget something vital.
Work space is a high priority for a writer who takes the job seriously; dozens of sources discuss the importance of assigning exclusive space to writing. Even a closet or the corner of a room can be a beginning, and help a writer to achieve the mental attitude I’ll discuss later. If you don’t already have a writing office, consider stealing another room temporarily for an at-home retreat. Survey how you might temporarily transform a porch or spare bedroom, stocking it for a brief writing session. You may like it so well you won’t give it back to the rest of the family.
Examine your home, inside and out, for nooks that might become secret retreat spots even in a busy day: the attic is particularly tempting, especially if access is via a folding ladder you can pull up after you. Shut yourself into a spare bedroom at the back of the house. One writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard; she’s out of sight from the sidewalk six feet away, and unable to hear telephones or raps at the door. Her lack of electricity is outweighed by the privacy. Draw the mental curtains and you’ll feel as if you’re a motel guest, free to set your own schedule.
How can you duplicate the retreat luxury of eating meals you do not cook? Analyze your own nature and the possibilities in your location. Mealtimes at home can furnish dangerous opportunity for detours from your purpose, but you need not starve in a garret. Perhaps you’ll prepare for a “retreat week” by cooking meals in a frenzy and stocking the freezer. Or hire a friend or family member to fix and deliver meals every day. (Beware the rampant curiosity about your trade; your cook might, ask, “So, what are you working on? Can I see it? I brought my novel for you to look at.”)
Consider stocking the freezer with microwave meals, or going out to breakfast and buying a prepared meal to eat at your desk at noon. Cache healthy munchies to cut down on cooking and dish-washing, and keep you from stuffing yourself with fats that will clog your brain and pad your bottom.
Plan for house-cleaning before you “arrive” at your retreat. One harried middle-aged writer I know schedules errands and meetings for the day her cleaning woman comes; she escapes the woman’s chatty curiosity. When she comes home, the house is tidy enough so she can go directly to her desk, as if she were on retreat.
Or you might train other members of the household to do necessary jobs while you are “gone.” At the same time, make other arrangements as you would for any absence from home: pay bills, think about pet care, and water the plants. Spend a week or two noticing all the business that keeps you from writing, and arranging for it to be completed, or suspended, for the duration of your retreat. You might even choose to “arrive” ceremoniously, walking up the front steps and entering the house as if you are a visitor.
Looking at Locale
Exotic locations lure us toward commercial retreats, but many of us, with work schedules requiring us to leave and get home in the dark, are strangers to our own neighborhoods anyway. As you plan your reproduction retreat, walk around your home with the eyes of an outsider. Identify flowers and trees; watch birds and squirrels; find a perfect pocket rock. Romp on swings and jungle gyms in a park, or play follow-the-leader with children.
A writer I know, who supports his family on his earnings, declares a dog essential for writers; his hound provides a constant excuse for walks while talking to himself. Strolling streets and alleys alone at midnight can be suspicious or dangerous behavior in some communities, unless you’re following a dog.
Carry a notebook everywhere. When a short, relaxing stroll clears up some problem that’s perplexed me for days, I’ve sometimes been forced to scribble on grocery lists and traffic tickets. Once I note a thought, I can examine it as I chase squirrels with the dog, or pursue any other casual activity. If I were washing dishes or putting a load of laundry in the washer, I’d want to finish first, and might lose the idea.
What’s Time Worth?
Before you reject any choice as too costly, consider how much work time is worth to you; check the figures on how much you’ll make if you finish and sell an article or a play. If you have a full-time job, consider how your hard-earned income can buy a writing break.
Writing in a retreat is, literally, buying uninterrupted time to concentrate on writing; time is not a gift but something we must take from another activity. We envision a retreat as a sanctuary from the daily buzz. Our homes should be havens where we make the rules. Unfortunately, many of us have turned our lodgings into snares that keep us busy without writing.
Anyone who writes at home knows that pausing to eat lunch can lead to scouring the kitchen sink and doing the breakfast dishes; you might as well set the garbage bag outside as a reminder to put it in the alley before tomorrow. Since the steps are snow-covered, you sweep them; brushing your teeth, you decide to scrub the toilet, and you’re hanging fresh towels when the phone summons you at the convenience of a persistent siding salesman. Before you know it, three hours have evaporated, and you’ve lost the idea you were stalking when you left your desk.
Creating a retreat at home requires you to remodel your mental machinery for the discipline necessary to establish a writing schedule. Even a committed writer who wins an expense-paid stay in the best retreat on earth can’t work twenty-four hours a day. If you spend more time not writing than writing, you’ve established patterns deflecting you from serious work no matter where you are. Correcting these glitches, readying yourself mentally for the benefits of a retreat, is more important than having paper and a pen, or buying the latest personal computer or electronic pocket calendar. Mental groundwork consists of a combination of self-discipline and determination; these may be a writer’s most vital resources, and they can’t be bought, or taught.
White Crane Karate requires not only physical training, but the ability to picture oneself as a crane. A novice is encouraged to see her arms become slender wings of bone and sinew, her fingertips spread like feathers to gather and shape air. Willowy, powerful legs lift a body sculpted for flight. Students are reminded that each movement must be poised and graceful; have you ever seen a crane stumble?
I can’t assess the precise importance of either mental vision or physical training in mastery of Karate; I can’t say that fifty percent of being a successful writer is disciplining oneself to write regularly. But when my writing is not going well, when I hear only howling car horns and screaming brakes, I picture a crane like those in old Japanese woodcuts, beak and supple neck lifted elegantly against dark clouds. Exercising, I meditate on the same vision.
First, analyze your obligations; what prevents you from spending time each day writing that great American novel? Having a full-time job is no excuse; William Carlos Williams, the influential 20th Century poet, wrote poetry, plays, essays and fiction while sustaining a lifelong medical practice. By cutting your options for writing time, a job may focus you intensely on the hours available, and provide funds to ease creation of a home office or retreat.
Begin by charting your time for a week to discover how you really spend each day. Allot a single page for each day, with categories of activity listed along one side: work, exercise, child care, driving, sleeping. On an adjoining side, record the hours, beginning at midnight. Don’t cheat; log anything you do for more than a quarter hour by shading in a box. Keep the chart with you all the time you’re awake, and record what you’ve done at least every couple of hours, before you forget. Keep track of your time for seven days, a total of 168 hours. At the end of the week, add up the hours you’ve devoted to each action.
Yes, charting one week takes time. But if you’re honest, you’ll learn enough about your own habits in one week to change the priorities of your life, if you want to.
Study the results. Question yourself about what they mean.
Analyze Work Habits
Do you concentrate on finishing a single task, or leap from one chore to another? If you never quite complete anything, you increase your own frustration. How many of the duties on your chart do you want to do? How many are truly unavoidable? Does your family help? Do friends encourage you with positive attitudes about your desire to write? A writer can sabotage her own goals if she hasn’t cultivated discipline.
Using what you have learned from reviewing the chart, build a schedule reflecting your priorities. Remember, writing is a job, so as soon as you get serious, you’ll start trying to sneak out of it. But being serious about writing will help you believe in its importance, which in turn will help legitimize it in the eyes of friends and family members. Planning is part of a program to improve your self-discipline.
Building a Work Schedule
- Schedule unavoidable jobs first, along with necessities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.
- Plan errands. Itemize household tasks like cleaning, doing laundry, fixing meals; delegate jobs among those who share your home. Consolidate errands, saving time by doing several in one part of town. Avoid leaping up in the middle of a poem to buy a can of corn for supper; a few “quick trips” can destroy a timetable.
- Establish specific times for relaxing pleasure. Since you know time is limited, make choices that will help your goal; substitute a walk for a TV program if exercise clears your head.
- After chronicling other parts of your average week, schedule writing periods as carefully as you would devise time for another paying job. Don’t plan to begin eight hours of writing at nine Friday night. Can you use a quiet office an hour before work each morning?
Keep time charts in your writing journal so you can repeat the process later, to see progress or make changes. Even one hour a week of writing time will improve your skills. Gradually, you may increase the writing time wrested from other obligations. Try a “retreat day,” before you’re ready for a week. Thinking of yourself as a writer helps reinforce the discipline and determination you need.
Consider the Telephone
If you’re trying to think of a word that rhymes with “paramour,” will you answer the phone? Most days, we allow that insistent jangle to snatch us out of intimate moments, but a telephone is only a tool; we can choose how it serves us. Determine your priorities. Consider turning it off while you work. Get an answering machine; turn the ringing sound low, or off, or move the phone far from your work area, so you can honestly say you didn’t hear it.
Tell chatty friends you’ve got “a deadline,” or you’re “on retreat;” instead of explaining, let their assumptions answer their questions. A deadline implies that someone is paying you, and a retreat might have artistic or religious significance, lending both terms a dignity most people are reluctant to invade. Better yet, leave a message on the answering machine designed, after all, to explain for you. After you finish work, listen to messages and return calls; with luck, you’ll get someone else’s answering machine, saving still more time.
At a retreat where I spent several weeks, the only phone in the house was tucked into a cramped alcove off the kitchen. Sometimes a staff member would be close enough to answer it, and place a message on the kitchen table to wait until the next time I came down. No one ever knocked on a closed studio door unless the house was on fire. Writers and artists in residence were discouraged from talking or using the stereo or television in the retreat’s communal rooms during the day.
Uninterrupted silence is a major attraction at many retreats, since our lives are so noisy, but it’s not ideal for every writer. I loved the particularly rural silence at a retreat house in a mountain valley a half-mile from a tiny village. Occasionally, a logging truck whined up the dirt road, or a resident horse whinnied, but even if all the residents of the hamlet shouted at once, I couldn’t have heard them through the thick adobe walls. Conversely, a writer who came from New York City discovered she could not adapt to the quiet; she drove twenty-five miles to the nearest café each morning to write amid the babble of conversation. Each day, she wasted gas and money because she did not know she was uncomfortable with too much tranquility.
In your facsimile retreat, silence enough to work may be relatively easy to find, with a little practice and firmness. If street noises are distracting, shut windows; in hot weather, set up a fan. Wear foam earplugs. Be determined and you will find a way.
Lock the door, and put up a sign. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on a chain across the road to her house when she is painting or thinking:
I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.
A sculptor in New Mexico hangs a warning on her gate:
Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.
Clearly, you must be determined, and sometimes ruthless to other people in order to use time as you choose. My parents trained me to be unfailingly polite; I struggled for years to be cordial and still prevent other people from wasting my writing time in meaningless talk. Finally, I realized that even discourtesy is not always enough to preserve the simple human necessity of time alone. A retreat constructs an automatic barrier to protect your time. But if you learn to protect it yourself– if writing is that important to you– you’ll gain more than two weeks of peaceful work in a chaotic year. You need not be rude, simply firm. “Sorry, I can’t do that” usually works.
Once you’ve solved some of the problems, declare “writing days” or “retreat days.” If you stop writing to do household chores, make your penalty harsh enough– cleaning the garage?– to remind you not to do that again.
A real retreat furnishes special effects, but you can duplicate some of these at home. My perfect retreat was surrounded by wooded hillsides where I often walked with my dog and the house hound. One day, I noticed a tangle of wild grape vines and selected three brilliant red stems to display in the empty green bottle I’d found on my last walk. My former country home and my new city home are both surrounded by wildflowers I’ve planted, but I seldom stop writing to pick nosegays. Arranging the grape vines beside a whitened jaw bone on the broad window ledge before my desk did not break my concentration on a knotty problem in the essay I was writing, but the bouquet brightened other hours at my computer. These days, remembering the joy of arranging that window sill scene, I’m more likely to take a refreshing walk among my flowers without losing concentration on the day’s writing job.
We can make such energizing rites part of any ordinary day, simulating the atmosphere of retreat. Light a candle; breathe deeply while gazing into its modest glow. Lock the bathroom door and take a hot bath with the blueberry-scented crystals Aunt Emma sent you last Christmas. Swaddled in a quilt on the couch, read a book, being careful to wrap the quilt so tightly around your ankles you can’t possibly get up to answer the door or telephone. Choose a signal to tell yourself it’s time to switch to thinking about writing. Perhaps you can grind coffee beans for the perfect cup of coffee to take to your office. Formalizing such a ritual will signal your mind to shift from daily drudgery to the calm necessary to writing. Opening your mind, you may discover the editing your subconscious has done while you were occupied elsewhere. Discipline yourself to go to your work area the instant you realize you are avoiding the labor of writing.
A writing refuge, no matter where it is, won’t necessarily cause brilliant sequences of words to gush onto your paper. But if a writer learns self-discipline, a home retreat available anytime can be more useful than a two-week excursion to an exotic isle that breaks your budget.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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This essay was originally published in Bloomsbury Review in 1995 with the title Strike Oil: Create Your Own Writing Retreat
Read my Writing Retreat series on this blog for posts on how to have a successful retreat at Windbreak House, how to create a writing retreat at home, the retreat attitude, alternative writing retreats, using the time monitor, setting goals for writing, organizing your writing life, harsh advice to beginning writers, autobiographical writing, and truth in nonfiction.
The signs quoted in my essay appeared in from Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. (NY: Ballantine, 1992), also a good source for building self-confidence. Don’t be intimidated by the book’s massive size; a deft reader can skim the repetitions and catch relevant highlights.
The Writer On Her Work, Vol. 1 and 2, ed. by Janet Sternburg. Novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers talk about finding time, work methods, and other issues of importance to any writer.
Google “writing retreat” and you’ll get thousands of choices in seconds, but be wary. A listing is not a recommendation, and not all writing retreats are entirely dedicated to improving your writing; some are dedicated to making money.
http://www.writing/shawguides.com lists writing retreats and workshops all over the world, categorizing them by genre, month, state, and other methods of focus.
http://www.writersretreat.com lists worldwide retreats with resident writers.
http://www.monasteries.net Source for Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States, and similar resources. www.goodnightandgodbless.com has similar listings.
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