Friday, April 29, 2011

How Are You Spending Your Summer? The Value of Writer's Retreats

Like many creative artists who have jobs and families that demand attention, I sometimes dream of everything being quiet.  Of finally having time and privacy to get deep into my writing--without phone calls or texts or emails; with nobody to think about but my characters and the words they give me for the page.

Especially as we're coming out of a long hard winter here in New England, with the weariness that brings, I find myself dreaming of
a retreat.

A student from my weekend workshop in New Hampshire sent me a link in January that may have started this dreaming.  Julia Shipley runs a writer's retreat center on her farm in Vermont.  Photographs and description sound idyllic.  I spent some hours when her email arrived, imagining myself in the little cottage with its beautiful front porch, smelling meadow grasses and admiring green hills around me, writing as much as I wanted.

A colleague recently came back from an extended residency at the Vermont Studio Centers, renewed and enthusiastic about all she'd accomplished while on retreat.  I felt that familiar envy, viewing the circus of my life with its gifts and challenges of work, childcare, and other beloved responsibilities.

Was it time for me to plan a retreat?   

Creative Adventures for Writers
Retreats are creative adventures, and if the muse smiles, I get one each summer.  I find them as necessary as vitamins and pure water.  Retreats open doors for me.  I can get enough space to study my writing process--how I write--as well as think about whether my current book is going in the direction I want.  I can produce pages, revamp my storyboard, revise and buff chapters.  I can make my writing my sole priority.

What unheard-of luxury!

And while I love both the idea and practice of creative retreats, while I make a point to schedule one every summer, retreats terrify me.  It's just me and that blank page, after all, without any excuses.

So over the years of retreating, I've learned ways to balance the excitement and the terror, so that I get the most of my time away.  I've learned how to know what I need from a retreat.  I've begun to approach retreating with guidelines for myself.

It's paid off.  Retreats have given me more energy in my creative life the rest of the year, new depths accessed in my writing, several published books I'm quite happy with.

Facing the Blank Page:  What Writing Retreats Offer
Writing retreats give you a welcome break.  If you are able to do the impossible of negotiating time away from your responsibilities, a writing retreat can give you permission to be response-able only to the creative flame within you.

This freedom is priceless, especially in our overly stimulated world.  You may take along your iPhone but you can choose to disengage and remember yourself.  Nobody is making you check email.  Everything around you is asking you to go deeper.  Which is where the writing comes from anyway, right?  From yourself.

I use a family cabin in the Adirondacks for my retreats most summers.  August finds me spending a few days or a week up there in the woods by a lake, and two of my novels (one published, one in progress) are based there.  I go off to retreat with great enthusiasm and come home much renewed.  So retreats work.  I just have to work them, to offset the challenges of being alone with my work.

Since I also lead writing retreats each July, on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, I can witness this process in others.  The group comes in full of enthusiasm, and often a bit exhausted.  It can be hard to separate from regular life, even if that life is slowly sapping your creative energy.  Some writers come with a list of goals and others come with just their questions.  Slowly, over the course of the week, they learn from me and from each other.  Last summer, I saw such deepening of their work, such growth in awareness of what it takes to write a book, I was newly convinced at the value of retreats.   

I've mentioned this wonderful book before:  The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Loudon.  Loudon believes in the value of retreats, but she also clearly acknowledged their scariness.  They cause a creative person to face herself or himself.

Facing the Terror of Yourself
But the reality is, many of us can't disengage.  It's way too scary.  While facing the blank page for a week or a weekend with absolutely no distractions sounds glorious, it's not that easy to actually do it. 

Over the years of retreating, I've learned it's important to have someone to call, see, talk with when the retreat experience gets edgier than I want.  Either I plan my retreat with others who want more than a social gathering, or I set up check-ins during the retreat with supportive others.  It makes the retreat process much easier.  You can still go deep, but when you fall, someone is there to pick you up.

The first summer I did a solo writing retreat, I didn't know this. After day three, I was regularly calling home to cry and shake.  My writing was taking me places I didn't know how to navigate, and being alone in a remote cabin made me feel slightly insane with the process.  I couldn't move between the inner and outer reality with any ease.  Now I plan retreats when I know friends will be in the neighboring camps.  In the evenings or midday if the writing gets tough, I can go out and find them, be with other human beings, and reorient to my regular life.  I'm still on retreat but I'm able to find balance again.

Solo Writer's Retreat, Guided Writer's Retreat, or Writer's Conference?
When I first got the nudge to retreat, I signed up for a week-long writer's conference, thinking it would let me really dive into my writing.  But I learned fast that diving deep was not easy among hundreds of people workshopping their manuscripts, skill building, socializing and networking.

Over the years, I learned that writer's conferences are great places to network with other writers and meet famous folks (who hopefully will remember you when you send them a request for a blurb or your manuscript).  They are most often places to learn new skills and find out how your writing stands up in critique and workshopping (round-robin peer review).  Some writers do accomplish writing during a writer's conference.  At one writer's conference I attended, my writing did get fired up and I spent hours on a short story, actually skipping many of the conference sessions.  I came home very satisfied--and with the realization that I had missed much of the conference by choice.  I realized I had really needed a retreat just then, not a conference.

So, conferences are intensely useful whenever you're aware of needing new writing skills or when you are ready to market a new manuscript.  Retreats don't offer skill building, unless they are guided retreats with classroom time built in.

Guided retreats are my favorite because they combine limited classroom instruction with one-to-one work with an instructor and plenty of solo writing time.  They also give you support--especially if the retreat group is limited to fewer than 20 writers.  If this sounds like a good option for you, be sure to check carefully into the retreat venue.  How is the lodging--will it offer you enough privacy if you need writing time?  Are there communal gathering areas where you can go to relax and share your process if things get edgy?  Is there a way for you to share your work-in-process and maybe get encouragement or feedback, but just enough to keep you moving forward?

It takes some work to find a writer's retreat or writer's conference that is perfect for your writing, just where it is now.  How can you locate the best option for you, if you are longing to get away with your creativity this summer?

Scan the top writing magazines, such as Writer's Digest, Poets & Writers, and AWP Chronicle.  Writers Digest and AWP both feature their own excellent writer's conferences in January and February, but they also list conferences elsewhere.  If you click on Poets & Writers (above) you'll see their online and very comprehensive directory of writing retreats and residencies.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Spend 20 minutes on paper, asking yourself and your writing what would best suit you right now, if you were to get away for a week or weekend this summer.  Where is your book project in its journey?  Do you need skills, feedback, or networking just now?

2.  Check out some of the retreat options and conference listings below, to see what might work best for you.

3.  Find a copy of The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Loudon to read about the different kinds of retreats you can structure for yourself.

A Few Summer Retreats and Conferences to Consider:  I've heard good things about many of them, or I've attended or taught at them myself. Click on the name to be directed to their website.  Please post your favorites (click on Comment, below)--I'd love to add your suggestions to this list I'm compiling!

Iowa Summer Writer's Conference
New England Retreat Centers (click on Vermont to see Julia Shipley's retreat)
Vermont Studios (residency for established writers--you must apply)
International Women's Writers Guild annual conference  at Yale University
Madeline Island School of the Arts (week-long retreats in all the arts, including writing)
The Loft Literary Center (week-long conferences on different writing topics)