Every time I open one of the writers' magazines I regularly read, I see ads or articles about writing retreats and residencies. Ten days in a rustic cabin in Denali National Park. Up to twelve weeks in "the secluded hills overlooking the Temecula Valley in southern California." Two months on a 450-acre estate in New Hampshire, with private room, studio space and meals provided. Two to four weeks at Steepletop, the former estate of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York.
I imagine myself in one of these settings, free of all responsibilities, with nothing to do but write, take walks, think and write some more. What a blissful and productive existence! Then I think: Wait a minute. I live in the woods, in relatively secluded setting. Why can't I have my own writing retreat right here?
Well, for one thing, "right here" is home, and home is where bills appear in the mailbox, demanding to be paid; where laundry piles up; where groceries must be bought and meals cooked; where the telephone rings and the UPS guy knocks on the door; where household projects, hobbies and other interesting activities beckon; where I have a mate who gives me plenty of time and space to pursue my interests, but still deserves my attention.
Still . . . what if I could take a break from at least some of those things for a whole week? How much time could I free up for writing? I decide to give it a try.
I take a look at my calendar, find a rare week in November with no appointments or meetings, print "WRITING RETREAT" across five days and make a plan. I'll do-ahead as much as I can—laundry, grocery shopping, bill-paying—and I'll figure out quick-to-prepare meals. I can even write and lay out that week's blog installment in advance and schedule it to post automatically on the appropriate day.
I set a few goals (or at least intentions): revise and send off a chapbook-length piece I want to submit to a writing contest, finish a read-through and light revision of my memoir manuscript before starting a new round of queries, make headway (any at all) on my novel-in-progress, which has been moving slowly. Notice I don't impose any word-count goals on myself. I realize that works for some writers, and I certainly know how to crank out the pages when I need to, but I want to work more deliberately and thoughtfully during my retreat.
Then some decisions to make. Besides writing, what will I do—and not do—during retreat week? Keeping up my yoga practice and exercise routines seems essential—I don't want to turn into a slug—and not only my daily regimens, but also Monday morning group practice with the Woodland Yoga Women and Friday afternoon's hike with the Wander Women, which will give me doses of social activity as well. (None of this is such a departure from what writers do at "real" retreats, some of which have hiking and yoga built in.)
TV-watching won't be an issue—we don't have it—but I'll allow for one or two Netflix movie breaks. As for email and social media, I'll try to answer only essential emails and ignore Facebook and Twitter as much as possible. Ditto online news stories, which have been snagging my attention lately.
So far, so good. The next decision takes some thought, though. Some years ago, I read a book about preparing for and taking a week-long mini-sabbatical. It stressed the importance of letting all the important people in your life know that you're taking time out to focus on something that matters to you. I get the rationale: announcing your plans not only serves notice, it also strengthens your resolve by making you accountable.
I get it in theory, but in practice I find that advertising my intentions doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. Sometimes it seems that broadcasting my unavailability makes people all the more determined to interrupt me ("I know you're busy, but . . . ") and me all the more irritable when they do. So I don't talk much about my DIY retreat beforehand. I mention it in passing to Ray and a couple of friends but don't elaborate.
The designated week arrives. How does the retreat work out? Here's a day-by-day account.
DAY ONE (Monday)
I start the day with a short yoga workout, then read an article in a writing magazine about boosting creativity. Inspired, I head off to group yoga practice and post-yoga breakfast. As I'm leaving the restaurant after breakfast, my friend Brenda tells me about an upcoming photo exhibit and contest and urges me to enter a couple of prints. She'll even mat them for me. The catch: she needs them by Wednesday. Already a snag in my plans! I want to enter the contest, but I'll need to spend some time going through photo files on my computer and printing out my choices, and I've sworn off photo-related activities for this week. I'll figure out a way to fit it in without derailing my retreat. Count me in, I tell her.
After yoga and breakfast, I revise my chapbook entry and print it out to proofread later. Ray comes home from errands; I sit with him while he eats lunch, then get back to work, now on the novel. Around 3:30, I take a break for a walk and a free-weights workout. Then back to work proofreading the chapbook entry until dinner (planned-overs from yesterday—just heat and eat).
After dinner, instead of more writing as I'd envisioned, I go through photos on my computer, pick out some favorites, print them and email Brenda to arrange a time to drop them off.
Verdict: Off to a good start, making progress and managing to fit in a few other activities without getting off track.
DAY TWO (Tuesday)
Morning yoga, then over breakfast, I read articles in a couple of writing magazines. At my desk by 9 a.m., I spend most of the morning working on the novel, revising previous sections and writing the beginning of a new chapter. One phone call interrupts my train of thought, but only briefly. Just before lunch I make proofreading fixes in the chapbook entry and send it off to the writing contest.
At lunch, Ray—who, in his own burst of energy, has made progress on a home improvement project that's been languishing for. . . I won't say how long—reminds me that the next step is to stain and finish a piece of trim. This is my job. I could easily do it this afternoon, but I postpone it until the weekend.
I spend most of the afternoon and evening reading through memoir chapters, checking for places to strengthen the theme I'm emphasizing in my queries to agents and publishers. Time outs to answer a few emails, read two or three news stories, take a mid-afternoon walk and throw together a quick seafood pasta dinner.
Verdict: A focused and productive day. I doubt I could have done better if I'd been cloistered in one of those snooty estates or holed up in a rustic cabin.
DAY THREE (Wednesday)
Once again, yoga, breakfast and a little reading—today an article in Poets & Writers magazine about how speech-writing can make you a better fiction writer (bottom line: details).
Again at my desk by 9 a.m., I quickly glance at email and check to see that the week's blog post went up and the email to subscribers went out as scheduled. I take a few minutes to promote the blog post on Facebook and Twitter and scan #wwwblogs, where women bloggers—me included—post links to their blogs on Wednesdays.
Now it's 9:30. Eager to get to work, I open the novel file. Ray, having just hung up from a phone call, pops in to fill me in on family news and Christmas plans. He reminds me again about the piece of trim that's waiting to be stained and finished. When he runs out of conversation and goes off to the garage, I re-open the novel file. Just then the phone rings. Brenda is matting photos and is ready for mine.
Ray and I bundle up, drive into town, drop off the pictures, chat with Brenda. On the way home I remember that two books are being held for me at the library. We swing by, but it's 10:45 and the library won't open until 11. Ray remembers we're out of bananas and suggests going to the grocery store down the road while we wait for the library to open. We get the bananas. Still too early to pick up the books. We take a drive farther down the road to see what's new. Nothing is, but now we can get the books.
By the time we get home, it's 11:30. Now I'm feeling derailed—and frustrated. In an attempt to salvage the morning, I work on another memoir chapter until I hear Ray rattling around in the kitchen and know it's time for lunch.
With everything out of the way after lunch, I settle in for several concentrated hours of work on the novel. The writing is flowing, the characters and scenes coming alive in my mind and on the page. I could keep going until dinner time (last night's leftovers—another heat-and-eat). Except—my neck and shoulders are getting stiff. I need to move. And I'm hungry. Snack, treadmill, cool down, dinner.
After dinner, I'm brain-weary and body-weary. I forego writing and writing-related reading and instead read something entertaining.
Verdict: A more scattered day, but even so I got quite a bit of writing done.
DAY FOUR (Thursday)
This is not just any Thursday, it's Thanksgiving. That's right, I've scheduled my writing retreat for Thanksgiving week. Crazy? Not really, considering that we weren't entertaining or going to relatives' this year—we're saving all of that for the weeks around Christmas.
Even before I planned the retreat, Ray had suggested ordering our whole Thanksgiving dinner from Meijer, the mega-grocery 20 miles away. Food purists, I'm sure, will be aghast at this, and I'll admit I resisted the idea at first, knowing my home-cooked versions would be so much more healthful. But the thought of all those hours spent writing instead of cooking finally won me over.
So instead of chopping, baking and roasting on Thanksgiving morning, we drive down to pick up the pre-cooked meal and stick it in the fridge for later. Then I settle in to write. Again, the work flows. I'm there in the setting with the characters, whose personalities are becoming better-defined. I'm working on my laptop in the living room, the radio playing in the background, keeping company with Ray, who's lounging on the loveseat and reading Bruce Springsteen's autobiography.
By late afternoon, I'm stiff and restless and need to move. I pop the turkey in the oven to re-heat, organize dishes, set the table and put my laptop away. The rest of the day is our quiet holiday celebration: dinner, wine, a Netflix movie. The only writing I do this evening is in the gratitude journal in which we make entries every Thanksgiving.
Verdict: This worked out so well, I may never cook on Thanksgiving again. Not only did I get my writing done, I also felt like I was on a retreat: pure relaxation.
DAY FIVE (Friday)
Yoga, breakfast, reading (an article in Poets & Writers on crafting endings in fiction). Then I spend the rest of the morning—a good three hours--finishing reading through and tweaking my memoir manuscript. At mid-day I break for lunch with Ray. It's a drizzly day, and I consider staying home and writing more instead of hiking with the Wander Women. But I feel the need to get out and get physical, and I'm ready for more social contact, so I take to the woods.
Verdict: Like a good book, this week had a satisfying ending.
In some ways, retreat week was not so different from any other week in the writing life. Many writers put in this much time—and a lot more—week in and week out. I certainly did when I wrote for a living. Yet something did feel special and retreat-y about this week. I gave myself a time-out, granted myself permission to ignore things that normally distract me from writing, and committed to squeezing writing into as many spaces in my days as possible.
At the end of the week, I felt satisfied that I'd met my goals, modest as they were. Even more than fulfilling objectives, I'd discovered I can have a productive retreat without leaving home and husband. Now I know I can choose another week and repeat the process without turning my life and usual routines upside down.
Can you? Maybe it's not writing you want to focus on, but some other passion or project that gets pushed aside by daily demands. How can you carve out a little more time to pursue it? If you create your own DIY retreat, let me know how it goes.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.