Friday, September 28, 2018

Residencies and Retreats--How They Help You Start and Finish Your Book

As summer winds down, at least in this part of the U.S., I'm starting a new book.  Although I’m sad to say goodbye to the warm weather, our annual hibernation here in New England always brings me more time for writing and a chance to retreat.  

I love to retreat, either at home or for a planned get-away.  It's hard to imagine such dedicated time, but retreats can happen in small increments, and with planning, you can gift yourself with one during the next months.

I book retreats with my laptop each week.  I have a certain coffee shop where I go for three or four hours after work.  It's all arranged with my family, and I make sure to bring along earbuds, charger, my book notes, and computer, as well as a plan for what I want to work with.  In fall, when the garden isn't eating up so much of my attention, the coffee shop gig becomes a regular part of my week.  Sometimes, these planned retreats are the only way I fit my writing in!

I also enjoy longer retreats.  After the new year, I'll be teaching week-long writing retreats in Tucson (January) and Santa Fe (March).  Writers in need of a break from the cold and snow can "hibernate" in the sunshine and warmth of the beautiful southwest and get a pile of writing done, plus feedback from me.  At the end of each retreat, I schedule time for myself to write, and it's utter bliss--and often hard to return home afterwards.     

Residencies are another kind of retreat available to writers who mostly need time, space, and quiet to get pages generated or revisions done.  Cheryl Suchors is releasing her new memoir, 48 Peaks, this month, and she credits a lot of her writing momentum to a writing residency that came her way via a grant from the Vermont Studio Center in 2011.  She says it changed her writing life.

“At VSC I was able to focus on my book every day, pretty much all day,” Cheryl told me. “I’d been starting and stopping, writing a few days a week if I was lucky, taking all school holidays when my daughter was home, including summers, off and often winding up writing steadily only a few weeks in a whole year.” Cheryl took thirteen years to write her memoir, which BookBub called one of the “10 Life-Changing Memoirs To pick Up This Fall,” comparing it to Wild. The memoir is about Cheryl’s goal of hiking all 48 peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, while enduring the death of a close friend and her own cancer diagnosis. She details how hiking became a form of therapy, through her decade-long adventure.
Because of the gift of the residency, Cheryl says, “The final several years of my book project were totally different: during most of that time, I was working diligently on the book and waking up in the morning with ideas and a sense of flow. I highly recommend getting away, if you can, to writers who struggle, as I did, to have a consistent writing practice.”

Many changes happened to 48 Peaks during the residency.  “When I arrived, my manuscript was 1100 double-spaced pages long! I viewed my time at VSC as taking that huge block of writing marble and carving from it a book, one book from the various directions the manuscript contained. I didn’t finish my book sculpture, of course, but I found the one figure within all that marble.”
Cheryl shares a good tip about residencies: go in the off-season when it’s less competitive to get in. She went to the Northern Kingdom of Vermont in February, a wonderful time  to hunker down and focus on her book. (Though she  did go cross country skiing for breaks.)
"Another great thing about VSC is that it’s available not only to writers," Cheryl says, "but to visual artists. We got to tour their studios! They typically create much faster than writers, which was inspiring. And seeing their work filled up the creative well for me.”

Not only the carving process but the actual focus and genre of her book changed dramatically before and after the immersion of her residency time. Cheryl started out to write a “how-to” book for beginning hikers. But her writers’ group kept saying they were interested in things like why her mother’s death led to her pursuing the dream of becoming a writer. “I never expected to write a memoir,” Cheryl told me. “I started and quit three different takes on the book before I finally acknowledged that what I needed to write was a memoir.” After working with her writers group and taking classes, she finally knew the book was finished because “1) I couldn’t stand reading it again, and 2) reading it made me feel proud.”


As her book releases this month to eager readers, she credits her residency time as a pivotal decision in the journey.  This week, let the dream of actual time away, just to write, be a possibility for you over the next six months.  Do a little research online at this link from The Write Life blog.  You can do it!

And be sure to read more about Cheryl’s adventure writing her memoir, 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, in this article she recently published in Writer's Digest magazine.  Her memoir is available on Amazon as well as Indiebound.