“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” — Arundhati Roy
My first “real” writing retreat was at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island.
A colleague had invited me, telling me how much she accomplished. The application was simple, and soon we were on the ferry.
Those five days were heaven for a stressed-out academic.
No teaching, no student demands, no irritating colleagues, no deans telling you what to do, almost no email, and plenty of delicious food, rest, writing, wonderful company, and walking along the sea.
Peace and quiet.
Though I’ve since tried to convince many scholars to do the same, I’ve only seen a few actually take their own writing retreats.
Why would you not take a writing retreat?!
Before you answer time-money-stress-too much-kids-caretaking-spouse-parents-friends-anxiety etcetera, etcetera, let me stop you right there. There is no reason you cannot go on a free retreat next weekend.
Though the short-term gains of writing retreats are priceless, such as explosive productivity (of all kinds, not just words written), and a chance to recharge, the long-term benefit is why you should take writing retreats as frequently as possible.
I only recently realized I never considered myself a “writer” before I started going on writing retreats. Sure, I had published an academic book and many articles, but that was all…what? Scholarship? Publishing? Not real writing?
Here was the change: once you start telling others you’re going on a “writing retreat,” it’s hard to deny you’re a writer. Because that’s what you do on a writing retreat. You write by yourself or with other writers.
What’s more, you establish almost magical possibilities for your writing life. You experiment with using Pomodoros, reverse outlines, and writing sprints. You try writing early. You try writing late. You draft in the morning and edit in the afternoon. You try different foods to see if they make your head clear. You go for a walk to see if sparks ideas. You take a nap, have an epiphany, and write all afternoon and into the evening.
These experiments inspire you when you return home. Now you’re a writer who’s been on a writing retreat! And you have an urge to recapture the magic you experienced.
I first started lighting candles during my morning writing retreat time. I had heard a famous writer did it, so I tried it. It felt luxurious — my upbringing made me feel that wasting candles was wasting money — so it felt doubly rebellious (silly, I know, especially since I was on retreat). I was not only spending that candle money on myself but even more shockingly, on my writing.
When I returned home, I continued the ritual. I light candles every morning when I write my 500–1000 words of fiction. Then I blow them out (let’s not get carried away!). It’s one small way I tie myself to the feeling of being on a writing retreat.
Hot beverages (at strategic intervals), regular breaks, stretching and walks all became part of my writing routines. I tried out these important parts of writing while on retreat. The important point is I felt I had the time to experiment. I doubt I would have tried as many things had I stayed home.
As an empath and a highly sensitive person, I never realized the importance of a non-distracting writing environment. And I don’t mean not having dogs barking or children pulling on your sleeve. I mean visual distractions.
Psychologist William Steele makes classroom recommendations for highly sensitive children. I not only experimented with these on retreat, but I also incorporated them in my daily writing space:
Declutter, declutter, declutter
Conduct a “visual noise” scan of room. Look for bright colors, busy walls, busy carpets, more clutter that you missed.
Consider every item on the wall: why is it there, who uses it, and how?
Change harsh lighting to natural lighting options where possible.
Do a noise audit. What are the “background” noises or brain alarm-triggering noises and can they be eliminated or at least minimized?
If you’re not a sensitive person, then you may find bright, colourful patterns stimulating and helpful! The point is to audit your space — something easy to do when you have a new space all together because of the retreat.
Writing as a Refuge
Perhaps most importantly, writing retreats reinforced writing as a refuge, particularly as an academic. Now, in my daily life, that’s what writing is for me. A place to go, to get lost, and not contemplate the rest of my day. I know my next writing retreat isn’t too far away — today, I’m happy with my little writing retreat process at home.
“My time at Hedgebrook [writer’s retreat] was a time of healing and reflection. I was in the company of the best poets and I felt like a fraud. I must be the token nobody; I thought. I lived in fear of being found out. It took all of the six weeks I spent at Hedgebrook to recover my self esteem. Here the extraordinary writers treated me as equal and the care and kindness of everyone helped me find my own worth.” — Mary Tang, Writer at Hedgebrook
When’s your next writing retreat?
Rose Ernst is an academic editor and writing consultant. Former tenured professor and chair of political science. Happy fiction author. Find her at roseernst.net. Sign up for her email list here. Watch a short video on what to pack for your retreat here!