Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding Time for Yourself: The Value of Writing Retreats

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
Each summer I teach two week-long writing retreats on an island in Lake Superior.  They are sponsored by Madeline Island School of the Arts, and we live on campus in cottages and gather each day in a sunny classroom to orient, plan, and learn--then go off to write alone.  I find the coming together, the daily check-ins, balanced with the solo writing time, is the key to making a retreat work.   

Also, the location is ideal.  Remote and beautiful, Madeline Island is lined with lagoons, inlets, and beaches.  A cute lakeside village sits on one end of the island, full of arty shops.  A writer's 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.

What is necessary boredom, and why is it so important for writing?   

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. 

But inner lives can be scary to face alone!  The balance, again, of community and coaching are what makes it possible.

The Dangers of Writing Retreats
I've been on many writing retreats.  Sometimes my take-away is less than stellar.  At several, it became all about impressing the teacher and fellow writers, more than finding out about our own work.  (I left that one early.)   

The big questions:
1.  Does the retreat offer enough stillness and writing time?
2.  If you get stuck, is there a way to learn some new skills or get coaching to keep you going?   
3.  Is there just enough comraderie but not too much to interfere with 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.

Looking at Your Own Motivation--The First Question
Good retreats provide (1) necessary boredom, (2) coaching and new skills when you get stuck, and (3) just enough community to feel support but not social overwhelm.

Retreats also force you to ask those big questions about your writing, hopefully bringing you to a new perspective:   

What's driving you to write this book, really?    
If you didn't have to write it, would you?   
What will keep you facing the blank page?
What are the personal benefits to me?  If no one else were to read this book, would I still write it?
  Your Primary Obstacle--The Second Question
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.  

During the retreats on Madeline Island, writers inevitably get stuck.  My job is to coach them through the stuck place and reacquaint them with their reasons for writing--as well as the courage I know they have.

Creativity and Courage
I urge 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 practice time management from a perspective of creativity.  With some structure and plenty of writing time, writers begin to see that elusive thing called time and what it really meant for them as creative writers.

As each writer got more relaxed and felt more at ease with the group and our daily schedule, as we got to know each other as a creative group, we began share more intimately, be foolish in front of each other.  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.   

I am always amazed at how the week grows organically, how it becomes custom-made for each person.   

Some writers choose to spend the whole week exploring ideas, branching out of their known worlds into the unknown.  They write short pieces that may eventually become chapters.   

Others craved a good map, a serious direction for all the material they'd accumulated.  I coached them through storyboards and image boards.  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 is always hard to say goodbye on Friday.  We become quite a family by the end of the week--which is how a good retreat should be.  Knowing each others' true stories is often the best door to really knowing a person. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're curious about retreats, check out my Madeline Island summer writing retreat, for book writers at all stages.  Click here. 

And get a taste of the big questions by setting aside some time to dialogue on paper with your book idea.  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?

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