Sunday, August 1, 2010

Writing Retreats--What Happens When You Are Alone with Your Creativity

I was alone with my writing this week.  So were fourteen other writers (see us in the photo at left).  We retreated to a beautiful restored farm on an island in the middle of Lake Superior, to dive deeply into our books.  Each of us was hoping to surface with new understandings.  Maybe new maps.     

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.  We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Necessary Boredom
Part of the luxury of a writing retreat is being able to slow down.  Madeline Island is
very slow.  Remote and beautiful, it's lined with lagoons, inlets, and beaches.  A cute lakeside village sits on one end of the island, full of arty shops.  Your senses get filled with summertime blue skies, lake breezes, sailboats, and grassy meadows of wildflowers.  The pressures of normal life slip away and "necessary boredom" filters in.

Writer Dorothy Allison coined this phrase.  It's the inner stillness that promotes creativity, that lets us wander inside and come up with original thoughts.  I find that writing retreats offer a chance to perceive whatever has been swimming underwater.  It begins to surface, to be looked at.  Inner lives finally inform the writing. 

Unfortunately not all retreats provide this.  Personally, I've been disappointed in my experiences.  I've attended many, some weekend-long, some three day, some week-long.  At one very well-known summer program, I signed up three years in a row with three different instructors; the results ranged from great to barely lukewarm.  How do you know ahead of time if the retreat is all about impressing a teacher or your fellow writers, more than finding out about your own work?  Will you get enough stillness and enough new skills?  Enough comraderie and enough writing time?  I remember one retreat that featured so much partying I was too tired and toxic to see beyond a bottle of aspirin.  The fun I supposedly had doesn't come to memory; I can only recall the regret I felt when my writing didn't budge.

I learned that certain atmospheres make retreats work, let me look at my writing from a new perspective.

Your Motivation--The First Question
So once you have the necessary boredom, it becomes more than just accumulating new writing skills.  There's a point when you have to ask those big questions.  What's driving you to write this book, really?   If you didn't have to write it, would you?  What keeps you facing the blank page?

I asked this first question on the fourth day of our retreat on Madeline Island.  The group was relaxed, many breakthroughs had occurred, and I felt they were ready to look deeply at the intersection of their lives and their book projects.  The answers were very interesting.  Several writers said they were writing their books to help others.  They had a strong message to share.  This is great--and it's also not enough, in the long run.  Although humanitarian reasons can propel us forward for a time, eventually the writer needs to put herself in the picture.

I encouraged them to ask themselves:  What are the personal benefits to me?  If no one else were to read this book, would I still write it?

Others had strong emotions about their stories, especially if the stories involved trauma or loss.  The grief and outrage ferment in the heart and you have to write or you'll explode.  Such a strong need will also carry a writer for months, even years, but even the strongest emotions fade with time and the book must still sustain itself.

So it comes down to three motivations.  If all three are in place, or at least considered, the book has a good chance of being finished.  They are:  (1) a motivation that serves you, the writer; (2) an awareness of serving a reader; and often (3) a greater good, a community, a larger audience that the story will touch.

Your Primary Obstacle--The Second Question
We first looked at the reasons we do write.  Then we looked at the reasons we don't write.

When the book doesn't get written, the reasons are as individual as the writer.  Maybe you don't have enough time.  Maybe you have too much fear, and it keeps biting you when you sit down to write. My job as an instructor was to reacquaint this group with both time and courage.

First, I wanted them to remember what it was like to waste time in sheer exploration. It may sound counter-intuitive, but each day on Madeline Island we practiced time management from a perspective of creativity.  I didn't call it time management, of course--who wants to do time management on a vacation?  We just worked on reverse goal-setting, playing with storyboards (one of the best exploration tools I know), and adjusting our goals via daily check-ins on what got written and what didn't.  All this was all about working with that elusive thing called time and trying to see what it really meant for us as creative writers

Second, I wanted the writers to practice courage.  Bit by bit, each person got more relaxed and felt more at ease with the group and our daily schedule.  As a creative group gets to know each other, they can share more intimately, be foolish in front of each other.  So we gradually read more of our raw writing, scenes just created that day, and this let everyone practice being fearless.  As voices were heard and respected, these voices got stronger.   

When Magic Happens
For me, the most magic came in a very unexpected way.  I was nervous setting out--and I prepared two months for this retreat because each writer in the group had sent me ahead of time their very individual goals for the week.  Not only were they working a variety of genres, some were just beginning to write, getting their feet wet with the idea of a book, while others brought full first drafts or revised manuscripts.

What's a hapless instructor to do?

I decided to trust in each person's own creativity, not just with their books but with their schedules.  Each writer would be accountable for her or his agenda during the retreat.  I would provide plenty of stimulation, structure, and skill-building.  But each person would set individual goals for each day's writing and work their plans.

I set up three categories of possible assignments:  structure exercises (such as working on a storyboard), product exercises (such as writing scenes, producing pages), and process exercises (exploration, self-inquiry, and idea generating exercises).  I also encouraged "planned break outs" to help us all play--do something unexpected and fun, on purpose, and it keeps the writing time from feeling too limiting.

The check-ins felt especially important.  We checked in as a group at each class session, talking about the previous day's goals and adjusting forward in our schedules as we learned more about what our books needed.

I was so amazed at how the week grew organically.  How it became custom-made for each person.  Some spent the whole week just exploring ideas, writing short pieces that would eventually become chapters.  Others needed to get a good map, so they created storyboards and worked on them over two or three days with my input.  We all created a brainstorming list of topics to write about so there was plenty of material.  On certain days, I asked them to just write, not work on anything linear, to give the right brain enough play time.  We made collages of our books, of our characters.  One afternoon, I sent everyone to the beach to write the "container" of their books.

It was hard to say goodbye on Friday.  We were quite a family by the end of the week.  We knew each others' true stories, the best door to really knowing a person.  Many of us will be back next summer, same time, same place, for more.   

This Week's Writing Exercise
If you'd like to use the writing exercise we tried on Madeline Island, it focuses on the two questions above.  First, get some time alone with your creativity.  If you can't find an island to retreat to, take an hour out of your busy day and shed your normal life to find that inner stillness of necessary boredom.

Then ask yourself the two questions below, letting yourself write whatever comes and responding as honestly as you can.  What do the answers tell you about your own book-writing process?

1.  Why am I really writing this book?
2.  What's the primary obstacle I face, in writing this book?


  1. What a challenge. A. Taking the time to find the necessary boredom (I didn't call it that, but I've found it before on religious retreats), and B. Answering the questions. I wish I'd been on that retreat. Thanks for sharing. I'll try to do the exercise.

  2. It was really fun--and really stretched everyone. Wish you could've been there, Jan!

  3. I want to do a retreat like this, I love when the "magic" happens while writing. Sounds like a wonderful experience!

  4. Sounds like this was a great experience. I would like to attend someday. Mary, thank you for a great weekend class at the Loft. I learned a great deal, and have approached my reading and writing in a new light. The tools for developing 3 acts and story boarding are invaluable. Thank you also for your comments on my writing. I am very grateful, as I now have a much clearer vision of the book I want to write. Thank you again.

  5. It would be great to have you join us sometime, Char.

  6. Ron, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I'm glad the workshop was useful. It was a good group, and I enjoyed it very much. Looking forward to hearing how your book evolves!

  7. Mary, I am a landscape photographer, and also teach workshops. In fact, I'll be teaching on Madeline Island next week. I very much enjoyed your writing on both the workshop experience and also revising a book. There is so much in common between writing and photography, and the necessary ingredients to make them successful. Your two questions: Why am I writing/photographing this? What are the primary obstacles? are so important, yet many people skip past them. In photography, they tend to zero in on the subject, much the same way a writer may concentrate on a main idea, but not support it. The revision process in photography, for the most part, must take place during the relatively short time of making an image. But I encourage photographers to walk away from the tripod for a few minutes, then come back and see it fresh. Try to see it as someone else seeing a finished print on the wall. Is everything needed to tell your story included and arranged in the strongest possible way? Is there anything that can be removed that will not detract from the story? Complexity can be good, if every part remaining plays a role, but clutter is just laziness. Good photography, just like good writing, has the personality of the creator embedded in its rhythms and balance. A good work is unmistakably ours.

  8. Thank you for posting, Craig! I hope your workshop goes beautifully and your lucky students will see everything fresh.

  9. Mary, you are truly a master teacher... just your blog and posts reach beyond just writing and into the deeper aspects of true creativity!

  10. Thank you, Julie. That's wonderful to hear!

  11. Great post, Mary. We are gathering in Santa Rosa Beach next month for a new writing retreat, Write by the Water ( This gave me even more ideas on how to plan the days ( or not plan!).


  12. Thanks, Gwen! All the best with your retreat--Santa Rosa is beautiful!