6 Tips To Get the Best From Your Writers Retreat

I'm on deadline for part of a book and a brand new essay and oh, yes, I need to catch up on some emails. So I did what always works: I packed up my notebooks, laptop, books, pens and sweat pants and booked myself a room at my favorite retreat for artists and writers. This is Day 3 and the last night of my short residency. 

I've been here before. And before. Fifteen years ago, shortly after it was opened, I was one of the retreat's first residents, and now I'm a frequent flyer. I've come here in winter, spring, summer and fall. I've come when I've been under deadline, under stress, under duress and, once, after a family bereavement, in that underwater silence that is grief and loss. 

I've done my best work here. I am my best self here. I am equal parts productive and contemplative and have often banged out 60-100 pages in one long weekend (okay, so on those mega-output stints, the personal hygiene is ...ahem...spotty). 

Tonight, I just had one of those great writer-retreat conversations.  

Downstairs, at our lamplit dinner table, the retreat manager was marveling over how resident writers just seem to naturally and automatically respect each other's space--much more so than, say, passengers in an airport or guests in a hotel.  

"Do you think there's some secret or art to this?" She asked. "To being on writers retreat?" 

"Yes,"  I said. "Yes. Yes. And, well...um...Yes." 

"You're sure about that?" she teased. 

I laughed. 

There is an art. It isn't enough to just book a flight or plug the retreat address into your GPS and "head west, young writer."  Whether you're booked for a week or a weekend or a month, you will need to be ready and prepared to...well ...retreat.   

Based on fifteen years of experience (I also write about this in my book, "Writer with a Day Job") here are my personal tips:  

6 Tips For Getting The Most Out of Your Writers Retreat

1. Go alone or with writer friends? This depends on the friends and what you're working on.  If you're collaborating on a project, then a few days away together works perfectly. But when you go on writer's retreat with a friend or friends, make sure to establish work time and socializing time and to stick to your mutual agreement. If you do go in a small group, respect the other residents (outside of your group). Unless you've reserved every single room, it's not your group's exclusive space. 

2. Writing materials: Pack what you will need (laptop, charger, thumb drive, printed manuscript with hand-edits, audio interviews, books, research notes). But leave yourself open to new possibilities, new sides of yourself. Bring a few paper notebooks and pens. Once you settle into this slower, complete-immersion space and pace, you may want to mix it up and try new writing tools and approaches.

3. Food: Unless the place includes a meal plan, pack some easy-cook or easily defrosted or ready-to-eat meals. Yes, it's fun to join in communal writer dinners. But you're really here to work, not perfect new recipes or waste time driving around looking for local restaurants. A must have: One ready-to-eat meal for that arrival day or night when you'll probably be travel weary and just getting unpacked and used to the vibe. 

4. Be open to new experiences, new people, a new way of being and writing: Especially if this is your first retreat, and especially if you're used to writing on the fly or snagging time in between parental or other family duties, the solitude may take some adjustment time. Be ready for that. Allow yourself at least one day to settle in. Resist the urge to call home and check in. Ditto for social media and email. And if you must check in at home, assign yourself one check-in time each day.  

5Set a goal and have a plan: Yes, I know I said you have to leave yourself open and go with the flow.  But with all this unfettered, unpunctuated time stretching ahead, make sure you don't just waste these precious hours or days. Set yourself some goals. Have a loose plan for what you will accomplish by retreat's end.  

6This is not like a professional conference: If you work a second, non-writing day job (and which of us doesn't?), expect a retreat to be very different from a professional conference.  For one thing, it's unstructured, non-instructional time, without breakout sessions or round tables or focus groups.  And for another, it's all about respecting your own and your fellow writers' space and solitude and silence. Although you may have fascinating or fun chats, the primary focus is on working, not NETworking. 

Are you extra or less productive when you write away from home or go on writers retreats? If extra productive, share you personal tips. If less productive, what does work for you?

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Comment by Aine Greaney on June 29, 2016 at 9:14am

Thank you, Joan C. You're welcome.

Comment by Katherine Flannery Dering on June 28, 2016 at 6:40am

I've done a couple of retreats, and I will second a couple of the suggestions.  Always bring food you like and that agrees with you.  There's nothing worse than being up late in your wonderful room, writing away, and wishing you had some rice cakes with peanut butter or whatever it i that you fancy.  

And the goal setting is also good.  But leave some time for the unexpected, as well.  Sometimes the spirit just moves you.

Comment by Aine Greaney on June 22, 2016 at 4:59am

Good advice, Kala.  I find that it's also tough to find a residency that will fit for someone who works a day job or whose family commitments preclude the month-long stint. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your wisdom. 

Comment by Kala Pierson on June 21, 2016 at 9:25pm

I've seen many artists apply to one residency, get discouraged when they don't get accepted, and lose the motivation to apply to others.  Remember it may take many tries, and a non-acceptance means only that you weren't the right fit for that res at that time within that particular pool of applicants. (This came to mind when I saw the comment about Hedgebrook, which is exceptionally competitive at this point – about a 2% acceptance rate.)

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on May 6, 2014 at 5:51pm
I've been lucky enough to be awarded 5 writing fellowships of at least a month. At first, I was kicking myself for sleeping practically non-stop, feeling as if I were squandering the time away. Then, I realized, sleep was my body's, psyche's, mind's way of switching off my logistic brain and moving into my creative realm. Now, I relish my sleep-ins and naps!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!
Comment by Aine Greaney on May 4, 2014 at 1:46pm

Thank you Zetta Brown. Even to see six other writers at dinner is an accomplishment. It does  have to be a healthy blend of both socializing and work, I find--or at least, maintain basic politeness in both areas. Best of luck with all your writing. 

Comment by Aine Greaney on May 4, 2014 at 1:44pm

Good for you, Karen Szzklany Gault. Hope Hedgebrook is wonderful for you. Best of luck.

Comment by Zetta Brown on May 4, 2014 at 4:32am

You really nailed it when you said "the primary focus is on working, not NETworking." I think it's important to know the difference or be prepared for disappointment. Some people go on a "retreat" but expect it to be a big social gathering where other writers can commiserate when, actually, they are there to work.

I banged out nearly 100 pages of a first draft while on a 2 week retreat. I was there with 6 other writers and we only saw each other at dinner. It was great!

Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on May 2, 2014 at 7:10am

Thank you for these tips, Aine. I have my eye on Hedgebrook as a first try. :0)

Comment by Aine Greaney on May 1, 2014 at 5:53pm

Thank you, Patricia, for stopping by. I actually have a little back-garden room, but the house and other distractions still call when I'm at home. 


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