Serious Writers Permit Themselves to Go on Writers’ Retreats

Filed in The Writing Life by on December 2, 2014 • views: 2060

writing retreatI was slumped against the passenger side door of our old Dodge station wagon.

Its claim to fame was that it resembled the Ghostbusters’ prized vehicle, minus the sirens and lights. My younger brother was extremely proud of that.

My mom, on the other hand, wasn’t so thrilled. Like it’s famous twin, the car wasn’t the most reliable. We were stranded at a gas station in Gary Indiana—Mom, me (I was a teenager at the time), my two younger brothers, two foster brothers, and three foster sisters.

We were about halfway to our destination—upper state New York, where my grandma lived—in the middle of the night, with no choice but to wait until morning and pray the mechanics would know enough to be able to fix a broken U-joint so we could make it the rest of the way…and that the dark-looking characters in the neighborhood we’d landed in wouldn’t decide to take advantage of a stranded family miles away from home.

This story comes to mind when I think of my earliest sense of adventure—a sense that we writers (and other creatives) need to cultivate. The same day-in-day-out routine can be good in some ways, as we can really settle into a regular schedule and get some serious writing done, but too much of that and the creative well goes dry.

This is one of the reasons I writers to go on writing retreats as often as they can, if they’re serious about improving their craft.

I’ve heard from some readers that such things seem way out of reach, too “indulgent.”

“I would feel guilty,” one person said. “To just go off like that? I mean, it’s a holiday, really.”

To which I say, “And what’s wrong with that?”

It’s Critical to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

“Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world,” ABC News reports. “More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese. And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.”

Yet all that work isn’t getting us ahead. A recent study from the U.S. Travel Association found that though Americans often leave their vacation days on the table, the extra hours at the office don’t pay off. In fact, workers who left 11 to 15 days unused during the year were 6.5 percent less likely to receive a raise or a bonus than those who used all their vacation days.

Even if you’re not working full time, in addition to pursuing your writing and creative goals, you likely have other things in your life that take up a lot of your concentration. A writing retreat allows you to put all your attention on your craft.

It’s only for a few days, but it’s a focused attention that can take you to new places in your imagination. The new locale is also likely to wake up some dormant areas of your brain that have been sleeping away during your “normal” life.

“Routines can run on idle,” writes Eric Ravenscraft in Lifehacker, “but changing our habits force your brain to pay attention and learn what you’re doing more carefully.”

“If you’re trying to get inspired,” writes Ali Luke in PicktheBrain,  “whether for a creative project, or simply towards life change—a routine can actively work against you. Your mind is comfortable with the small bit of world that you see each day, and you never challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone.”

A retreat, particularly if it includes a workshop, can definitely stretch us—gold for creativity. You may be required to show your writing to others, or at least to create something while you’re there, which can give you that added pressure to really produce.

“Comfort kills productivity,” writes Alan Henry for Lifehacker, “because without the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we tend to…do the minimum required to get by. We lose the drive and ambition to do more and learn new things. Pushing your personal boundaries can help you hit your stride sooner, get more done, and find smarter ways to work.”

I Can’t Afford A Writing Retreat

When people tell me they can’t afford a writer’s retreat, I understand. We never had much money growing up. That’s why we were driving an old $300 station wagon that broke down just about every trip.

It’s why we ate canned beanie weanies and spaghetti and slept in the car instead of a hotel. It’s why we made the five-day trip in 48 hours, and arrived at my grandmother’s sweaty and exhausted and longing to burn what we were wearing.

But those trips make up some of my fondest memories of childhood. When I got old enough to drive, I remember the muted colors of dawn as I commanded the wheel, my favorite tunes playing on my Walkman, precious souls asleep around me.

It was at those times that my imagination took flight, and I would picture what it might be like to live along the flatlands of Nebraska, or among the farm fields of Iowa, or along the shores of Lake Erie. It never occurred to me then that I might be a writer, but I don’t doubt that it was experiences like those that planted the seeds.

Of course, the most important thing about those trips is they allowed us to spend time with our grandmother—an investment I think most people would think was well worth the sacrifice. But to make a similar investment for writing—can we truly be so “selfish?”

It Would Be Too Selfish to Go on a Writing Retreat

In general, it’s easier for a mother to do something she thinks will benefit the kids than to leave them behind and go on a trip solely for her writing’s sake.

If this is what’s holding you back, please consider: by failing to invest in something that matters to you, what are you teaching your children?

We all know we inspire more by example than by instruction. What are you teaching when you take a week to focus on something that’s important to you? I would argue such an action is a clear message to your children that it’s okay to do the same—to invest in something that has no guarantee of an immediate payout. It’s okay to pinch pennies and save and do something extraordinary.

My mom made another annual trip every year to see my grandmother, in the winter, around grandma’s birthday time. The rest of us didn’t go on those trips. We stayed home with Dad. I don’t remember ever once resenting my mother’s absence.

I had some of my fondest memories with my father at those times—including when he took us to the theater to see Snow White, a rare treat, and when he served us cream corn on bread—an equally rare torment (that we still love to laugh about). I remember preparing for Mom’s return and the eagerness we felt to see her again. She always had presents for us, some of which remain my most prized possessions. On the whole, the entire experience was a great one.

We shouldn’t fear going away for a while, parting from our families for a brief time, or investing in ourselves. These actions send positive messages to those we love, giving them permission to do the same.

The Most Rewarding Risk

A retreat can also send a powerful signal to the brain that says, “This is important.”

If you’ve been neglecting your writing lately, a retreat can really help you get back on track. If you have a project that’s been languishing, it can help you breathe new life into it. If you’ve questioned whether you really are a writer at all, making the investment in a retreat can help you build that writer’s identity.

“I was beyond nervous about doing something so big and indulgent for myself that I almost talked myself out of it a hundred times,” writes Erica Hedrick about the Laura Munson Haven Writing Retreats. “I am not a ‘real writer,’ so who am I to deserve a writing retreat? I should be saving money, how can I justify spending money on a hobby?…Now, having just unpacked my bags, I cannot believe I almost let these doubts keep me from doing what feels like the best, most rewarding risk I have ever taken.”

Laura herself notes, “When we give ourselves permission, we can find profound freedom in our creativity.”

So why is it so hard to give ourselves that permission?

Our lives are so precious, and so short. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that we just “can’t” do something out of the ordinary—especially something so “indulgent” as a writer’s retreat. There are bills to pay. Family members to take care of. Jobs to tend to. Chores to be completed.

I think the problem is that we think about it too much. Ask the heart what it wants and it probably leaps at the idea of a writing retreat. It’s the head that tries to convince us that something like that is just too selfish, indulgent, difficult to afford, blah blah blah.

The next day, in Indiana, while our station wagon was being repaired, Mom led the pack of us up the road to get breakfast at a strip mall café. There, we told stories of how the breakdown had happened, how some of us were rudely awakened from our slumber by a pounding on our heads, which was the loosened part slamming against the undercarriage of the vehicle.

Others had been awake at the time, observing the whizz-whizz of traffic on the major interstate when the awful noise started and Mom had to get us off the road.

By the time we’d finished eating, we’d all told our version of the events, and had started to tease one another about our various reactions. I remember nothing but laughter and good-natured jostling, and we walked with light feet back to the gas station, to find the car had been fixed and we could get on our way.

We all still enjoy telling stories about that trip. At the end of the day, through careful budgeting, my parents managed the finances. We traveled, we learned, we LIVED.

My writing has taken me to places I never would have gone without it—conferences, retreats, research trips, workshops. I’ve never regretted a dime spent on any of them. Quite the opposite. I’ve grown as a writer—and a person—because of them, and isn’t that what’s most important in life?

Have you invested in a writer’s retreat this year? Please share your thoughts.

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Comments (10)

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  1. Kathy Scott says:

    I never have considered myself a good writer, only that I loved to write. After finishing my first draft of a YA novel, I am realizing that I would love to expand and find other writers who can give me feedback about my projects and how to write better. I do attend a critique group comprised of four brilliant writers. I feel as if I’m the amateur of the bunch, but the thought of expanding my creativity through a writer’s retreat gives me hope. Thanks for your great insight into how we need to push our personal boundaries and find inspiration and insight into how to become a good writer.

    • Colleen says:

      Hey, Kathy, hope you schedule that writer’s retreat for 2017! I know you’d love it and it would take your writing to the next level!

  2. As a child, I also remember the road trips—before the birth of the interstate freeway system that now spans the nation. I’m that old. I was born five years after the first freeway was built.

    Before the first freeway in the US that opened in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, once known as the Pasadena Freeway, there was route 66 and lots of stops. The Pasadena Freeway was a little over 8 miles long, and it is still there now linked to the 101 and 110.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh yes, my folks used to talk about route 66 all the time, and then there was the old song about it…was that Nat King Cole? Great memories, huh? Thanks for sharing, Lloyd. :O)

  3. Alonna Shaw says:

    Great post, Colleen! I love on-the-road stories. My entire adult life kind of feels like it’s been on the go from one place to the next. A sense of place in a story needs to be absorbed by the writer and squeezed out for the reader to get their feet wet a bit (in my way of writing which stems from Method Acting techniques–living it).
    I’d love to participate more in writer’s conferences, retreats, etc.
    Spending time with Grandma was a valuable investment. Spending time with ourselves is a valuable investment.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Alonna! I’ve heard established writers recommend the method acting technique for getting into characters’ minds and bodies. I imagine you as an actress have that down pat! Here’s wishing you many more writing conferences and retreats. :O)

  4. Anita Stout says:

    There is a lot of great advice in here. I’d love to do a retreat – maybe soon. It would be a good way to stretch my introverted muscles. Great post Colleen!

  5. Chere Hagopian says:

    I agree, I have never felt like I have wasted a moment or a dime on writing-related activities. I really do need to consider a retreat. That would be amazing! It’s just hard to get away from work.

    • Colleen says:

      It never gets easier, that’s for sure. Always a rush to get everything ready to go, but I’ve gotten to where I just plan it and let the chips fall where they may. It always works out!