Preparing for a Writing Retreat

I’m so excited.  I’m going on a writing retreat!

This weekend, my writers group is convening at a nearby conference centre for a weekend of writing and eating and talking about writing and eating some more, and maybe a little bit of dozing or walking, and then some more writing.

We normally do this once a year, but this year, we enjoyed ourselves so much we thought we’d do it again at the end of the year.  So here I am, thinking about a weekend spent solely with my friends and the Work.

Over years of doing this, I’ve found I need to do a few things to prepare myself so that I get the most out of the time:

Plan:

I usually like to sit down with my writers notebook or my journal, and think about two things:

  • where I am, and
  • where I want to be.

This year I am thinking about the goals or intentions I have set myself for this website, for my publications, and for moving my writing on to the next level.  Its one of the few truly extended, uninterrupted periods I get to just write, so I like to choose a project that I can get my teeth into, but also one that really needs to be tackled.   Something pressing.

This year, I am toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I want to crank out a novel as fast as possible.  So I have decided to lay the groundwork on this new idea, and throw myself into it, immerse myself in it as much as I can.  In previous years, I have redrafted novels or short stories, polished specific sections of a novel, worked specifically on character, or redrawn a dodgey plot.

My goal this year is especially fuelled with the knowledge that I need to be writing something original, something other than fanfiction.  Nothing wrong with fanfiction.  Its given me marvellous confidence in my work, and I love writing it.  I just think I need push myself, to do something new.

Manage expectations: 

I’m not going to finish an entire novel in a weekend.  I may even get no further than writing 500 words.  And I am okay with that.

When I first started going on retreats, I had HUGE expectations of myself and what I could achieve.  I thought I could crank out 20,000 words in two days, a third of a novel.  I thought I could create publisher-ready prose.  The truth is that even on retreat, there is only a limited amount of time, and making really good prose takes time.  A lot of time.  I have only learnt this with experience.

There have been several retreats where I have slept badly on the first night, or felt ill, and as a result have really been unable to do anything much at all apart from eat, sleep, talk with my fellow writers, and be.  Sometimes that is what a retreat is for.  I have gained from those experiences.  These days I am ready to allow my retreat to be whatever it needs to be, and to trust that whatever happens is part of the process.

So I make plans, but I don’t get too attached to them.

Be present:

Being aware of my physical wellbeing is very important on retreat, and not simply because I suffer from chronic illness.  I need to be present in my body, so I do yoga and meditate, go for walks, stand in the shower and feel the water on my skin, and take naps.  (One friend uses the annual retreat to undulge in long, hot, scented baths because she doesn’t have a tub at home!)  This might all seem time away from writing, but it is crucial.  Self care is part of retreating.  Doing these things allows me time to think about the writing, to form scenes and sentences in my head.  But it also allows me to come to the laptop refreshed afterwards.  So it is an investment in my writing, as well as my body.

Packing: 

As a result, packing right is really important.  I always make sure I take warm, snuggly clothes, my yoga mat and yoga clothes, a hot water bottle, walking boots and, on occasion, even a teddy bear for cuddling purposes.  And because I have weird dietary issues, I make sure I take an extra supply of good, healthy foods and my favourite herbal teas too.  The centre staff are really great in catering for my diet, but there are those in-between-meals moments, when what you really need to fuel the Muse is your own favourite brand of chocolate!

Be absent: 

I get very anxious when I am away from home.  I need to be grounded in my safe environment in order for my imagination to work properly.  It helps that we have been going on retreat to the same place for years, and also that it really isn’t very far from my own home, so I feel like I am on home turf.  Other people find their imagination is stimulated by unfamiliar territory.  Mine just shuts down so that my emotional system can cope with the panic attacks.

To counter this, I take music and listen to it doggedly in order to transport me to safe psychic territory.  I put on my headphones, close my eyes and fly away.  And then I can write.

It is a major diffence to how I normally write, which is in silence.  So part of my preparation ritual is to gather music around me.  I make playlists for different characters, delve into iTunes and my CD collection,  choose music that evokes particular memories or landscapes for me, or none at all.

Allow it: 

Going on retreat is supposed to be calming, an activity to feed your soul.  Its supposed to be downtime from your usual life.  As a result it is easy to get really wound up about how good it is going to be, and then find yourself disappointed.  To feel like you just aren’t calm enough, or getting enough done, or maybe even that you are wasting time that should be spent looking after the kids, doing the washing or writing that sales report.  This harks back to managing expectations.  But it also has a deeper meaning.

you are allowed to have time to yourself

You aren’t being selfish.  Leave all your SHOULDS and OUGHTS at home.  You deserve to have this time spent solely with yourself, doing something you love.  I continue to struggle with this.  I tend to make retreat a time which is about productivity rather than identity – about being myself and giving myself what I need.  When you accept retreat as a gift to yourself, managing expectations becomes easier.  And that precious dimension of writing that no one seems to talk about – moodling – becomes possible.  Have a weekend’s moodle.  Because you are worth it.

I heartily recommend going on a retreat if you can manage it.  Maybe for a day, or even overnight.  Maybe just for an afternoon.  If you are looking for ideas and guidance, I also recommend Judy Reeves’ wonderful ‘A Writers Retreat Kit:  A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression’, which I ordered recently from Amazon in preparation for this weekend.

Now I had better get back to my packing!

Happy writing (and moodling)

EF

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