Monday, February 1, 2010

Retreating from the World

Recently, my writing group, the Saskatchewan Romance Writers, held a Book-in-a-Week event. All participating members set goals and then kept in touch with each other through our private blog, cheering successes and commiserating when we fell down. It’s a fabulous way to get the writing year off with a bang.

This year I was able to take the week off work and have my own little retreat at home. I spent a lot of time in my writing cave, and seldom left the house, emerging only for exercise classes and to walk the dog. I’d warned my family I wasn’t cooking or cleaning during this time. For the most part I stayed away from the TV. As a result, I reached my goal of 20,000 words on my newest project, a novella I call “Flawless”.

It’s not often that a writer can retreat from the world and devote so much time solely to writing. Members of SRW hold a writing retreat once a year at St. Peter’s Abbey that is a lifeline for many of us. But taking time off from work and responsibility, or actually going away on retreat are rare and precious occurrences. What can you do if you’re not in the position to go on an extended retreat?

In the February 2010 edition of Writer’s Digest Kathryn Haueisen Cashen talks about her secret weapon, the mini-retreat. Even though your life may be hectic and your monetary resources slim, you can still fit a writing retreat into your life. She gives some pointers in how to get started:

1. Rethink your definition of a retreat. I’ve always thought of a retreat as several days o f uninterrupted writing, far, far away from home. But as I found it can be at home, as long as you have pre-warned everyone, including yourself, that this time will be exclusively devoted to writing. However, I know from experience that when I’m writing at home it’s easy to be distracted by the television, or by household duties. Maybe the answer is an afternoon or evening retreat at a local coffee shop, where for the price of a cup of Joe, you can write without the distractions of home. Ms. Haueisen Cashen says that when her children were in preschool, she wrote for a few uninterrupted hours at a time in an empty classroom at her church. Retreats don’t have to be extended, or expensive. They simply have to provide focused writing time.

2. Commit to yourself. Tell yourself you need and deserve to have a writing retreat. And mean it. Train your family to respect this time. Maybe you’ll start out with 20 minutes locked in the bathroom or at the parking lot of your local WalMart parked in the car. Eventually the habit of these short retreats will be established for both you and your family.

3. Create a portable writing kit. Ms. Haueisen Cashen recommends gathering materials that will make any space feel like your own personal retreat. Such materials may include inspirational or instructional books like a thesaurus or dictionary, a favorite picture, an MP3 player with your favorite music to write by, pens and paper and a laptop. Keep them all together in a bag or backpack so you can pick up at a moment’s notice and go.

4. Set a goal for each retreat. For my recent home retreat my goal was to write 20,000 words. If I were preparing a mini retreat for an afternoon I might set my goal as researching a topic for one of my manuscripts, editing a chapter, researching agents or markets. Always go into a retreat with clear idea of what you want to accomplish. And then do it.

5. Where should I go? Ms. Haueisen Cashen says that coffee shops are among her favorite places to write, but I think I would find the hustle and bustle and the conversations around me distracting. She offers this list of low-cost or no cost places to write:
- Libraries
- Community parks and playgrounds with picnic tables
- The homes of friends and relatives who are away
- Unused rooms at community centers and places of worship
- Hotel lobbies
- Hospital chapels
- Quiet rooms at YMCSs or other health clubs
- Local bookstores with designated reading areas.

6. Expanding my horizons. Once you see how well short term retreats work for you, you may want to create slightly longer term retreats. For example, a couple of years ago my writing group here in Winnipeg held a weekend retreat at a local convent. I googled “writing retreats” and found a plethora of information. Here is a Canadian example and an American one for women authors (although the last retreat site mentioned is in Nova Scotia)

Other examples of low-cost weekend or overnight retreats that Ms. Haueisen Cashen cites are:
- A hotel room
- A cabin at a park
- A rented RV with electrical hookups in a quiet park

Carving out time to write is essential for writers, and as important to our productivity and well-being as proper sleep and a healthy diet. I know longer writing retreats work well for me and I’m going to make a conscious effort to create more short-term retreats this year to help me reach all my writing goals.

Have you participated in writing retreat? Do you like to escape for a couple of hours with your laptop? Have you found the experience productive?


Helena said...

I am a real fan of retreats, and I am fortunate to have participated in a number of them. The group retreats, whether in person or by reporting progress on a daily basis as we did in BIAW, work well for me. I think it has something to do with knowing that everyone is working with the same purpose.

However, I would also like to give the shorter blocks of time a trial run, because you have identified the key elements -- you must label the time for what you want it to be, and have a goal for what you want to accomplish. I think it might work better than fretting about trying to fit writing in with all the distractions you identified. The need to get away from all that, even if it's to a different part of the house, seems to be essential for me. I'm glad BIAW turned out so well for you.

Thanks for all the added info that you have provided, Jana. I will take time to explore the links later. (Notice the time of this post!) Monday is a travel day for me and I still have some getting ready to do first thing in the morning, so must send myself off to bed now.

Karyn Good said...

I'm a creature of habit and lucky enough to have a home office. It's my favorite place to write and no one usually bothers me there.

I did try to take my laptop to a coffee shop once but it wasn't a very successful venture. I was way to distracted by the hustle and bustle going on around me. I think if I was going to book a mini retreat away from home I'd pick the library. To write surrounded by books on all sides would be a good thing. Hum, maybe I should try it a couple of evenings a week seeing as I have one about two minutes away from my house.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Yes, I love retreats too. But I'd really only done the longer retreats, usually at Muenster. I've never even considered a short, mini-retreat until I read this article. But I can definitely see the benefits. It is very easy to be distracted at home. I also never always considered having a goal for each retreat, but I can also see that is a good idea as well. If you're not sure what you're going to work on at your retreat, you may waste time figuring it out once you get there. Or you may forget to bring materials you need to work on your project.

Have a safe travel day. Take care.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I'm pretty sure I wouldn't do well at a coffee shop either, unless it was a very quiet coffee shop. I can't even listen to music when I write, so I'm sure I'd be very distracted. I think the library sounds like a great place. It's usually quiet, and there are places to sit or tables to work at. It would be a nice spot to spend a couple of hours when things are hectic at home.


Janet said...

You already know how much I love the writing retreats - never thought to try a mini-one (or two, or three, or four). I'll have to give it some thought - there are a ton of cafes around here that encourage laptops and artists and writers. And, of course, the local library where, like Karyn, I'm sure I'd get more work done (love to people watch).

And I like the goal setting. Great topic, Jana. Thanks for giving us great reasons to plan our own mini/personal retreat dedicated to writing :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I'm sure there are all kinds of wonderful spots near you where you can look out on the ocean. Sigh A view like that could be very inspirational.

One of the best retreats I've ever had, aside from St. Peter's Abbey, was when I tagged along with my husband to Ottawa when he had to go there on a business trip. While he was at work all day, I stayed in the room and wrote. The hotel he always stays at has a wonderful complimentary breakfast included with the room, so someone cooked for me, made my bed and vacuumed the floors, and when my DH was finished work we went out for dinner. Now that's my idea of a retreat!