What to do on a Writing Retreat

“Everyone attack!”

“Retreat!”

“Attack!”

“Retreat!”

“What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!”

-Stay Alive, Hamilton


I’ve always wanted to open a blog post with lyrics from the musical Hamilton and now I’ve done it! And the lyrics are even semi-related to this month’s post!


Without deep-diving for hours into one of my favorite musical narratives, the general context of this quote comes from one of the battles of the Revolutionary War, when a chicken-livered general orders his men to retreat despite higher orders from George Washington.


The point I’m trying to make here is that when we look at the word “retreat,” it generally means taking a giant step backwards.


When we think of relaxation retreats, this definition makes sense! It’s good to take a step back from life every now and then, to re-center and withdraw for a while.


But what does this mean for writers, who often see retreats as a narrow opportunity to be as productive as possible in their craft? How can we make the most of a getaway designed to take a step backward?


I’ve been battling this issue for a long time now.


Every time I get ready to pack my things and take up residence in a space filled with other writers over a long weekend, I swell with the renewed hope that I will somehow ascend to a higher level of “writer.” You know the kind. I imagine myself as the writer who sits at their desk at 5am, a thousand words already written on their bedside notepad while they were sleeping. They sip their coffee and solve the one plot issue that unlocks everything. They leave the retreat with six editor offers on their manuscript.


Unsurprisingly, I never ascend to this level. Heck, I’ve never even ascended to the three thousand words a day level, even while I watch fellow retreat-goers achieve such word count goals.


Instead, I’m usually the one staring and biting my lip at the screen.


I’m on a retreat, I think to myself. I’m supposed to be… different.


Different how? Another voice pipes up (I have a million of them). And then I realize that I have absolutely no idea what the retreat version of me is supposed to look like.


Sound familiar? If not, I heartily congratulate you on your ability to rock the heck out of retreats. I may curse you from time to time during my daily writing ruminations, but overall I’m happy for you man, really!


If this retreat mini crisis does sound familiar (welcome, brethren) then this post is for you. Or, if as we’ve established in a previous post, you too have a case of schadenfreude and like to read about the suffering of others, you are also welcome to stick around.


I just got back from a writing retreat held in the mountains, though I’ve been thinking about the topic of writing retreats for months now. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the power of a retreat—and what it is, and what it can do—since last summer.


Usually, when someone invites me to a retreat I have at least one project to work on. Until last summer, I also preferred to be drafting said project, so I could use my word count as a daily assessment of how “well” I was doing on the retreat. After all, retreats take time and money. I hate to think of wasting those resources by not completing a ridiculously inordinate amount of work in the time that I’m away.


I had signed up for this summer retreat several months earlier, and at that time I was balancing three projects. I had a WIP with some steam. I was in edits for one project. And I was beginning another. I felt pretty good about having something on my desk come June.


And yet.


As the countdown grew closer and closer, I watched various projects float to other dimensions. My WIP ran out of steam. I had begun drafting another WIP, but it too had pooped out. The project in edits was out of my hands.


I was biting my nails, hoping to get notes on the manuscript I had drafted a month or so prior. I refreshed my inbox every few minutes the week of the retreat. But the notes did not arrive. Suddenly I was placing my laptop and notebook in my backpack, knowing I was about to forego phone service and internet connection for four days with absolutely nothing in front of me to work on.


It’s fine, I tried to tell myself. Sure, this was specifically a solitary retreat, where the members were assigned to their own cabins instead of communal working spaces. Sure, everyone else had projects and I did not. But I was on a retreat! I’d go hiking in the mountains! I’d explore the wild terrain.


I pulled into the dirt parking lot and stepped out of my car. It was one hundred degrees, and the retreat grounds ended up being the flattest section of desert mesa I had ever been to. You could see everywhere for miles and miles. There was nowhere to explore. No trees to climb in or rivers to visit. I turned to my adobe cabin and sighed.


I would have to work on something. But what?


It was at this time that my philosophy on retreats changed drastically. I realized that in asking myself to sit down and pump out words, I was in a sense hiding behind a to-do list. Showing up at that summer retreat with no to-do list in sight forced me to take a giant step back. I knew that if I was going to emerge from the long weekend with any measure of success, I would need to retreat and ask myself what I wanted to work on without any deadlines or ongoing projects in front of me.


The first task I had before me was to explore just why I had shown up without any projects. I knew the two books I had under contract constantly went back and forth between me and my editor. There was always a good chance I wouldn’t have either under my thumb. So why had I depended on them to come through at the last second?


There was also the peskier question of the two WIPs I had started and abandoned. Why had I run out of steam on both? What was the story I really wanted to be working on, one that would make me giddy with excitement rather than stew with dread?


The desert was endless outside my cabin window as I pulled out my notebook and began journaling to myself. The first few pages were filled with handwritten wallowing. Why hadn’t I brought more books to read for fun? Why hadn’t I given myself an out?


But eventually the wallowing turned into thinking. I stepped back into myself and realized that both WIPs had slowly morphed over the months into products I wanted to sell rather than stories I wanted to share. I had been eager to smack them off my desk and make them someone else’s problem. But hadn’t I learned from my debut series that my work was going to be batted back to me constantly? That I would need to read it over and over, looking for different things each time, and falling in love with the narrative again and again all the while?


Finally, the thinking and reflection shifted into action. I turned from journaling to notetaking. I filled up pages with “Magical Cookies” (thank you Susan Dennard!) about a story I was growing more and more eager to write with each second. I made character profiles and riddles and codes I imagined hidden throughout the setting. I would outline funny pranks or exchanges. On my last day of the retreat, I wrote Chapter One. It was only three hundred words, but it felt like enough.


Ever since that experience on the top of the flat desert mesa, I look at retreats differently now. Because I work from home, I’m always challenging myself to get through a certain number of chapters per day. But on retreats, I don’t set numeric goals anymore. As I left for the mountains two weeks ago, I had one goal in mind:


Focus.


Focus on the inner dialogue going on in my head.


Focus on the project in front of me, the one that needs my attention, my care.


Instead of racing forward with word counts, I now look at retreats specifically as a way to step back and check in with myself as I write.


Not everyone will see retreats this way, of course. And that’s perfectly fine! So many writers and illustrators I meet see retreats as a way to step back from the rest of life’s obligations, and to go go go with that book or story that’s calling to them. I’m extremely privileged to be writing books for children as my day job. When I was a full-time teacher, I well-understood the need of getting away from one job to be able to do another.


But in our own ways, we all have to see writing retreats as some mode of stepping back. Stepping back brings distance between ourselves and our work, or our work and the chaos of everyday life. And we need that distance. For clarity. For understanding. For taking the breath we seem to be accidentally holding all the time.


If you ever find yourself attending a retreat with writer buds, or getting away for the day or weekend to write on your own, I hope you won’t fear the notion of going backwards. I hope that with all your wonderful goals and projects in mind, you also set time aside for yourself, to remind yourself why you’re working on all this. To remind yourself why you love it.


Attacking pages and meeting high word counts is such a commendable goal, but truly retreating is fine too. And it doesn’t mean you’re a chicken-livered general like Lee.


In fact, in the world of writing and narrative exploration, a retreat into the self is often one of the bravest acts we can do.

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Illustrated and designed by Danika Corrall