As I write this, I’m in a house on the tip of Cape Ann in the dead of winter, in a place where I don’t know a soul. I couldn’t be happier. I’m on a writing retreat.
Whether you’re a working mother like me, a new college graduate, a middle-aged stock broker, or a retired widow, a writing retreat could be just what you need to start that novel, finish your chapbook of poetry, or revise the short story you’ve been meaning to send out.
It isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. When my friends ask what I did while I was away for the weekend, I shrug and say, “I just wrote,” and they’re mystified. They can’t fathom why I’d have to leave home to do that, when I have an office and a computer in my own house. They also don’t have any idea that, when I say, “I just wrote,” I mean I wrote eight hours a day. Yesterday I wrote over 7,000 words on my new novel.
I can’t be that focused at home. I bet you can’t, either.
So how do you manage a writing retreat, especially if time and money are scarce? And how do you make the most of it?
1. Be aware of the difference between a writing conference, which offers classes and workshops, and a writing retreat. While a writing conference like the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, can be wonderful if you’re at a point in your career when you want to pitch your book idea to agents or take craft classes, you will get very little writing done. As in, probably 0 words. And, while it’s wonderful to be in an environment where words matter, writing conferences can be extremely costly unless you land a scholarship or grant.
2. There are as many different writing retreats as there are writers. To find one, do a Google search or check out the back pages of Poets & Writers magazine. For instance, at the top of the heap you’ll find revered retreats like Yaddo. Located on 400 acres in Saratoga Springs, New York, Yaddo offers residencies to artists from around the world. This place attracts the very best—John Cheever and Saul Bellow both wrote here—and Yaddo artists have won 67 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, and 61 National Book Awards, among others. The upside of Yaddo and other well-established retreats is that they provide food as well as lodging and you’ll mingle with some fine writers. The down side is that you have to stay a minimum of two weeks, which can be tough for a lot of working writers with families. On the opposite side of the spectrum are places that operate more like writer communes. These retreats offer you a room with a desk, shared bathrooms, a communal kitchen, and flexibility on price and length of stay. One of my favorites on this list is Wellspring House in the Berkshires, a clean and comfortable house in a gorgeous setting.
3. You can make your own writing retreat. The upside of “official” writing retreats like Yaddo or Wellspring House is that you’ll meet other writers. I’m still friends with several people I’ve meet on writing retreats through the years. However, the downside is that sometimes you’ll have to share meals, or at least the bathroom and kitchen space, with people you’d really rather avoid. I was in one retreat, for instance, with a trio of feminist poets who couldn’t believe I’d waste my time on commercial fiction. If you really want to make the most of your writing time, the best thing to do is find a vacation house that isn’t being used, either one owned by a friend, a friend of your parents, or an off-season rental advertised on places like Homeaway and VRBO. There are lots of people who are happy just to have you use their houses for the price of the cleaner’s fee. Another solution is to book a cheap hotel room with a mini fridge. All you really need is a desk and a power outlet. Again, it pays to look off season; I’ve gotten incredible deals at hotels on Cape Cod in the winter, for instance, when I tell them I’m working on a book and just need a quiet room.
4. If you can only manage a weekend, that’s okay. You can get a lot done in two or three days, trust me. And the focus you have in a quiet place will let you work out thorny issues like plot pacing, a conclusion, point of view, or any other sticking point that has kept you from progressing, so you can keep chipping away at it when you get back home.
5. Take another writer with you. The ideal, I’ve discovered, is to rent a place with another writer. This makes your stay more affordable, because you’re splitting the cost, and it also will keep you both in your chairs. There’s a certain study hall element that kicks in. Besides, it’s fun to read your pages aloud to each other at night and have your own mini-workshop. Just make sure you’ve rented a place with separate bedrooms and don’t take a friend who’s too chatty. Or, if she is, make sure it’s a friend you can be honest with and say, “Put a sock in it until 8 pm. Then we’ll talk.”
6. When you go on your retreat, let yourself take breaks. Yes, you will feel guilty if you sleep late or take a nap or a walk. But refueling is part of writing, too, and you’ll be amazed at how much more productive you are if you’re rested and clear your head now and then with some exercise.
7. Do it four times a year. We pay taxes quarterly, and we need to visit the muse at least that often.
Now go get some writing done!