HOW TO PLAN YOUR OWN WRITING RETREAT (based on the awesome one I just had)
I have just returned from an epic writing retreat. Maybe it was epic because it was my first one, ever. Or maybe it was epic because of what happened at the end of it. Suspend the next eight minutes with me as I take you on my writing retreat and you might get some tips to create your own writing retreat that will have you on a spiritual high like I was at the end of mine.
The punch line is this: I FINISHED MY NOVEL! “Now, wait,” you say, “didn’t you already finish it?” Yes and no. Yes, I finished the bulk of it but I was clear there were holes I needed to fill AND I received feedback that suggested the beginning needed work.
I wrote 100 pages over the course of my 72-hour writing retreat. I filled all the holes and revised the beginning and rocked the end.
1. Prepare your literary landscape
What do you want to see while you’re working? I wanted to see my big W diagram that charts the major plot points and events in my novel. I made that chart years ago in a class I took from Mary Carroll Moore. It has served me very well…and…in the midst of writing my novel things changed. My characters would surprise me and suddenly they were not sticking to the W and that was okay.
I surrounded myself with my favorite authors. I loaded up books I had on the shelf and went by the library, too, and was sure to gather the authors that move me. I wanted inspiration—I wasn’t planning on reading them…it was a writing retreat, after all. But, because a literary agent in New York responded to my query and first 100 pages with positivity and feedback about the beginning of my story, I wanted good beginnings around me.
I read the first two or three pages of about 5 different books to get a feel for the kind of rhythm and detail I needed to inject into my own work.
2. Buy your favorite foods
I stopped by The Wedge Coop and Whole Foods to get all my favorite foods. I don’t know about you, but I am much happier eating healthy, delicious, simple foods. That kind of reward at the end of a 6-hour writing session is so needed. I bought a few treats, too, like carob covered almonds and raisins (neither of which my family considers a treat), but moving on.
Here’s what I brought:
Purely Elizabeth granola
dried sweet potatoes and beet chips
organic, uncured ham
premium ginger brew
lime rice chips
raspberry fig cookies
La Croix sparkling water
3. Thank the people in your life
Truly do this. My husband gifted me this writing retreat as a Christmas present. I could not thank him enough. His gift to me meant I could focus on my creative pursuits.
I am clear it also meant he would have a full weekend with the kids. I knew my daughter would be called upon to be more helpful than she already is with her little brother. I knew my freelance clients would need to wait a day to hear from me.
Thank your peeps for making your retreat possible.
Here Darren took a picture of me just before I left and with all my gratitude:
4. Get to work
I arrived at Glengarda Cottage at Villa Maria Abbey in southern Minnesota at around 5:45pm on Friday. The grounds were truly lovely. It was relatively quiet there as the retreat using the facilities that weekend was wrapping up Saturday night.
My little cabin was more like a house. It was situated across the street from the main property. The backyard went straight down to a beautiful stream and on the other side of the stream was Frontenac State Park land. The bench at the bend in the stream is where I would spend most of my days.
But that first night I set up my work zone on this huge awesome table:
By 6:00pm I was writing. I wrote for four hours and at 10:00pm I let sleep take me (but not before being a little worried that I was alone in a cabin in the woods. Not the best setting for solo women as evidenced by every scary movie ever made).
Saturday morning the sun woke me at 6:30 and I bolted out of bed excited to get back to work. This is when you know what you’re doing is worth it…when you want to wake up for it. Just so you know…I have a tweenager and a threenager and sometimes their lives dictate my sleep (as they should, to an extent). I was curious, though, about what I would do on this retreat…would I sleep in until 10:00 and then stay up all hours of the night? Turns out, no. Each morning I was up by 6:00 or 6:30—my brain growling with hunger for the page.
I ate breakfast at the bench by the stream and decided I’d make this my work desk. I just couldn’t resist. The beauty of the birdsongs, the stream flowing past…it was perfect.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote. A cute little muskrat played in the stream going up and down the water to his little play areas. A woodduck couple floated by at one point. A Canada Goose family with five little yellow goslings floated by. A mallard duck couple spent a lot of time poking around the rushes near where I sat. There was a giant turtle with his head poked out of the water where she gently floated past. A big, fat, frog scrambled to the shore one evening. A beautiful little bat swooped around me one night picking off flies from the top of the stream.
Here’s breakfast the next morning…looking unusually like the previous day’s breakfast (food, clothes).
I learned from the Villa Maria caretaker that there are 133 different species of birds in that area and that the Audubon Society comes to this very spot where I was working to count and record birds with a crew of birders. Check them out!
Essentially Saturday and Sunday were the same: I wrote outside at my bench for 12 hours straight. Every once in awhile I had to bring my computer in to charge up so I’d spend some time around my literary landscape but being out in nature by that stream was just the landscape I needed to push me through the work.
I also ate delicious lunches:
And looked into the sun for too many of the selfies I sent my husband:
(Side note: I literally ate, slept and wrote. In other words, I did not shower. I rarely changed my clothes. No makeup. I just focused in because why not?)
I tapped into the full moon energy and by Sunday evening I felt I had filled in all the holes. I was at 425 pages and felt like a Superhero.
And then I went back to page 1 and started reading.
I wanted to sweep through my novel and make sure the timelines matched up, that it was a yellow scarf, not a yellow towel and that this happened before that, and then just double check everything. It took me until Monday morning to work through it from page 1 to page 425 and at 9:44 (yes, that was the exact time on the clock) I finished.
And then I sobbed.
I just cried and cried. I cried for my characters with whom I’d grown so close. I cried for what ended up happening to each one—the beautiful things, the tragic things. I cried because I had worked so hard for days at the side of the stream, yes, but also for the years since I started this novel.
This is me after I finished smiling at my stream that I grew to love (I know…same hoodie and note the greasy hair…what can I say?):
I celebrated with a walk on the Villa Maria property:
First on a ridge overlooking some wetlands:
Then up onto the State Park land where I ran several miles through the beautiful landscape. I never saw another person on my 2-hour hike and run. It was the single best way for me to honor the work I’d done:
I came upon a beautiful cairn where I added my rock to the altar:
I saw the energy of a new plant pushing through a dead leaf and I knew this was my novel’s story manifest on the floor of the forest:
I came to a Sisters’ Cemetery which was bright and sunny and lonely. I walked by every grave and read every name and birth date and death date:
Then I came to a gigantic labyrinth. I couldn’t even get the whole thing in one shot:
Though I have walked in a few labyrinths, I had never dedicated it as a prayer and meditation practice which is the point of a labyrinth. A labyrinth is an archetype found in all religious traditions. It isn’t a maze where there are dead ends and false passages. Instead the labyrinth has a single path leading to the center.
When people walk a labyrinth they use it is a tool to guide healing or deepen self-knowledge or empower creativity and action. In other words, it was the perfect place for me to practice my gratitude for my experience and my novel and my people and my characters.
I walked slowly 15 minutes into the center and then 15 minutes out. I was energized and had time to receive the insights from that walk.
I was on holy ground:
I returned to the cabin and had a final lunch:
Then I took a shower (yay!) and said goodbye to my stream (and put on a clean shirt):
Then I packed up and returned to the stream at a bench down the bend from where I wrote all weekend.
The water sounded different as it whispered around the rushes and the fallen branch. I sat and I got a new perspective on my little stream…and started notes for my next book.
I am beyond elated. I am filled up and overflowing with power and thanksgiving.
You can have this, too. You can bring your energy and light to any creative project.
I learned these three ways of being allowed me to have the best possible writing retreat and might just be the three things you could use, too, to reach the summit:
intention. tenacity. gratitude.