On the Writing Retreat Effect
By Christine Carron
I’ve been on the writing adventure for over a decade, and it kind of blows my mind that last week was officially my first ever personal writing retreat. I have attended conferences and classes and workshops galore, but never before have I gone away with the main purpose of me simply doing my own writing. I am not sure why it took me so long, but now that I have done it? I highly recommend retreating as a strategic way to get a big hunk o’ writerly work done.
I went with the intention of mapping out a new novel I am working on and doing so using the process John Truby outlines in The Anatomy of Story. Working with Truby’s method is a different process than I have used in the past, and way different than my mind normally works. I hoped having a concentrated time to focus without the distractions of everyday life would help me wrap my head around the method and that the method would help me ground my story.
Check and check.
Serious progress. Serious uplift. Which, I would say, is the retreat effect. It lifts you out of your day-to-day responsibilities and gives you the grace of focus to get a significant piece of work done. Writerly lift off!
That is what happened for me last week, most definitely. I have a clear handle on the story. I have a clear handle on Truby’s method. I am delighted by both.
It also got me thinking about the factors that make a writerly retreat successful. Here is what I know helped me:
Tip #1: Location, location, location
I was lucky enough to get to retreat at The Highlights Foundation. A beautiful property in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania offering workshops and retreats for children’s book authors and illustrators.
I love Highlights because of the energy of the place. From the cabins to the lodge, from the poetry rock garden to the art cabin, from the walks in the woods, to the chats around the outdoor fireplace, to the Barn where community meals are served with love and care.
I also love Highlights because it is in driving distance for me. A practical plus. Because of its mission and focus on children’s literature, diversity, and education. An inspirational plus. And, of course, because of all the wonderful staff. A kindness and connection plus.
The key to location is deciding what will best serve your writerly retreat wants and needs. Perhaps you really want to hole up some place where it is just you. Perhaps you want other writers around. Research is key. Perhaps you want a rustic vibe. Perhaps you want a city vibe. Or an inn vibe. Google is your friend. Your writerly peeps are even better friends. Ask around. Then spend time reflecting: what kind of retreat setting might be your perfect setting?
Once you know where you want to go and have your dates booked, then before you leave . . .
Tip #2: Clear the decks
As much as possible you want to avoid having any of your regular life commitments creeping into your retreat time. For me, that meant I wanted to get all my Goodjelly work done before I left. I didn’t quite make that goal but was close. So I spent my first night at Highlights finishing up Goodjelly work and then my brain was free and clear for retreating.
Tip #3: Set an intention
My plan for my retreat was to get the exercises done for chapters two through eight of The Anatomy of Story. That meant I wanted to complete sets of questions around Premise, The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure, Character, Moral Argument, Story World, Symbol Web, and Plot. Phew! It was a lot to accomplish, but I was hopeful because I actually know the story fairly well.
I wrote the story originally in 2013, but for a variety of reasons, in that incarnation it did not sell. So I decided to change the protagonist from a sixteen-year-old boy to a seventeen-year-old girl and revamp the plot to address some of the earlier objections (i.e., rejections) I received when it went out on submission back then. Bottom line, I know the story world and have had this story percolating in my head for a long time.
So I went bold and bodacious with my retreat intention. Not only would I get all the Truby story groundwork done—i.e., everything I listed above up to Plot, which is also the work that I felt would be most beneficial to my growth as a writer—I would also have the new plot designed, scene by scene, in one-sentence bullet points: this happens, then this happens, then this happens, etc.
So, yes, definitely ambitious. But exciting and motivating, too! What will your retreat intention be?
Tip #4: Minimize in-retreat distractions
The first morning of my retreat, I was working with Truby’s exercises for Premise and The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure. And I was getting nowhere. It was a lot of head work, and I was allowing my head to be distracted by my computer—social media, email, news, etc. So at lunch I brought my cell phone and my laptop with me and handed it to one of my writerly peeps who was retreating at the same time I was. “Do not give this back to me until after dinner. And maybe not even then.”
I returned to my room in the lodge and got busy. I eventually moved into the community area of the lodge so that I could plaster post-it notes all over tables. Free of distractions, I was finally in full retreat mode, and exercise by exercise, post-it note by post-it-note, I re-envisioned the story from a more grounded, cohesive, and holistic perspective.
For me, the writerly retreat effect kicked into high gear as soon as I got rid of distractions. Later, I would reclaim my laptop and phone, but that first massive boundary I set made all the difference.
If you find yourself distracted on your retreat, especially at the beginning, then take all necessary actions to minimize or, ideally, kibosh the distractions. It is in that distraction-free space that the writing retreat effect will start to take hold.
Tip #5: Adjust and keep going
It became clear on the last full day of the retreat, that I was not going to get all the way through Truby’s Plot exercises. My brain was tired for one. Two, I was simply running out of time. And though a part of me wanted to pull an all-nighter and get it done, another part of me didn’t want to be exhausted driving home the next day.
But the moment, I was like, “Okay, you’re obviously not going to get Plot done,” a sly little voice came in a said, “Well just relax then, you can finish up Story World and Symbol Web at home, too.” Sneaky, sneaky.
I sat there a moment, tempted to pack it in for the day (and for the retreat!), but that would have been a little too much pulling back. I could relax the whole evening after dinner. I ignored sneaky voice and forged on. I am so happy I did. I got all the way through Symbol Web!
There are some massive holes in those later exercises, and I will have to revisit them, but now my brain is percolating on them at a deeper level. Plus, you know that feeling when you think you can’t do something, but you decide I’m going for it anyway, and then you do it, and then— SHAZAM!—you land in the high of getting the thing done? That’s where I was when I knocked out those exercises after almost not. It felt great.
You may have to adjust your plan once you get rolling. That is to be expected. The goal is not to achieve a perfect plan for your retreat. The goal is to achieve the the retreat effect for your writing. You have got this!
Tip #6: Retreat with peeps (Optional)
On this retreat, I was with some of my writerly peeps, who were on their own personal writing retreats. We would meet each day and give each other feedback on what each of us was working on. We all had very different intentions for our time, and we all found it useful to have those touch points.
An additional bonus to retreating where I did was that I also met new writerly peeps. Writing can be solitary work, so to be able to connect with other like-minded writers is a special gift of retreating in a writing center like Highlights.
Tip #7: Soften reentry
It can be jarring to go from retreat mode back to real life mode. If possible, plan a day or a half day to get yourself re-situated. Some of the writers left early so they had a few hours to get organized and switched back into regular life and responsibility mode. I picked up my sweet pup right away as I missed her so, but I also planned a post-retreat day for us with no major commitments. Just an exercise class, some walks, and cozying up on the couch with a library book.
It felt good to get as much work done as I did on my retreat. It also felt good to honor that effort with some brain rest once I was home.
Tip #8: Harness the momentum
On the Monday that this post goes live, I will be taking time to plan out next steps and make commitments to myself so that I keep the momentum going. Those Plot exercises will of course be on deck, as will the remainder of the Truby chapters: Scene Weave and Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue.
For those, I know I will need to slow down a little to integrate those aspects of Truby’s approach, as again, it is a different way of thinking for me. But slowing down doesn’t phase me. I love Story. I love learning about Story. And of course, I am super excited about this particular story that I am recreating from the ground up. A story which got major lift-off last week grace of my writing retreat.
Don’t skip this last step, which can be easy to do when you get caught up in the busyness of your life. When you retreat, you make an investment of your time, your money, and your energy so that you, too, will experience the writerly retreat lift-off effect. Why waste it?
Take time post-retreat to do a little strategic planning and committing. When you do, it will help you keep the retreat vibes rolling and your writerly magic flowing. Sweet!
Happy writing. Happy retreating.
- - - - -
A special thanks to The Highlight Foundation for a wonderful and supportive writing retreat experience. You all rock!
The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week
- Post-in-Action Prompt: Research personal writing retreat locales like The Highlights Foundation. Find one that sparks your interest. A longing inside. And then set an intention on how and when you will get there.
- Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your main character spends a week in a cabin in the woods. Would your character be in their element, or way (way) out of it? Have fun with the location either way.
- Journaling Prompt: What would a few days or a few weeks of solitude mean for you and your writing? Is a retreat a writing strategy that interests you? If so, what are the barriers/challenges/hurdles that you will have to address to make one happen? (For example, writing retreats cost money. If that is a barrier at this time, you might explore stipend and scholarship options. Highlights, for example has an array of scholarship opportunities.)
- Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps and discuss personal writing retreats. Do they have favorite locations? Are they planning any? Have they experienced the writerly retreat effect?