Inside the Writing Retreat: Part Three
Contributor

In the first part of this series, I talked about how I determined which retreats and residencies might fit with my own needs as a writer; in the second part, I covered some tips and suggestions on the application process, and how to prepare if you’re awarded a residency or accepted to a retreat. In this post, I’d like to share my own experiences at such places: what happens when you’re there?

Reading about residencies and retreats, I thought they sounded like an exciting prospect, but i’ll admit to a certain level of doubt as well: suppose i got accepted to one…what if I couldn’t fill up my days? A week or more of wide-open time to write? No obligations to fit the writing time around, no demands upon my attention, no family and friends, no internet? This would be the moment of truth—or rather, a series of potentially endless moments. What if I just…sat around? What if I wasn’t able to write anything? What if i just lost my mind and couldn’t handle it? What if I learned that I wasn’t cut out for this Writer business??? (Are you laughing? Because it's okay if you are, but legit, I thought all of these things.)

Thankfully, I handled it. In fact, after the first day of the first retreat, I was sold on the productivity and creative value of such things, and knew that I wanted to make the rare-but-regular writing retreat a part of my ongoing creative practice. So onward!

It’s probably pretty clear from the photographs I’ve used to illustrate the two prior posts in this series, as well as this one, where my residencies/retreats have been.


The Porches

In 2013, I spent six days at The Porches, a writing retreat in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains, working on the expansion of my master’s thesis into a longer manuscript.

The Porches is a historic 1854 three-story home which has been restored by Trudy and Billy Hale. There’s no formal application to fill out—writers who wish to go there contact Trudy Hale directly with an overview of their project and desired dates. You pay a flat fee depending on the duration of your desired stay and are responsible for your own transportation and meals, though you have access to a large, lovely kitchen for preparing food and there are restaurants in the nearest town, perhaps fifteen minutes away.

The Porches has mandatory quiet hours until 4pm each day—no music, no talking, etc. I stayed in a beautifully furnished bedroom full of antiques, and shared a bathroom with one other resident on my floor. While I was there, I didn’t actually meet either of the other two writers in residence; we were all highly-focused hermits, I guess, which was fine. I was there to write, not make new friends.

At the Porches, I typically awoke with the birds at around 6am (I didn’t set an alarm, just let myself wake up whenever) and wrote until noon. After lunch, sometimes I went back to writing if I was in a good zone with it, but sometimes I read one of the books i’d brought with me or a book from the shelf in my room. Sometimes I explored the grounds or took my book and a cup of tea out onto one of the eponymous porches. In the evenings, residents could theoretically gather in the parlor to watch television, play the piano or board games, but I only heard one person go down there and watch TV one night of my stay.

With at least five hours a day devoted to writing, I realized the prolific potential of such a place. While I was there, I added 8000 words to the length of the manuscript, restructured the whole thing, read five books (three for research, two for pleasure), and also wrote the first-drafts of a couple short stories. For comparison, I typically consider it a good day if I manage 500 words in the morning before work if i’m drafting, so my productivity was amazing.


Wildacres

This year, I had the fantastic good fortune to be the recipient of a one-week writing residency at Wildacres, a non-profit arts incubator on the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. Wildacres hosts three residents per week, from April through October, and residents may be be writers but also could be painters, composers, sculptors, etc.

When I was there in May, the other two residents were fellow writer Rosie Molinary and sculptor Cynthia Lee. Cynthia had access to a huge, beautifully-fitted-out ceramics/pottery studio up on the main grounds, where there’s also a lapidary studio, an auditorium, a library, several classroom spaces, a dining hall, and lodging for folks participating in their regular programming of summer classes and workshops.

Each of us in residence had our own private cabin with a kitchen and restroom, though we were welcome to eat our meals up at the dining hall. We had only to provide transportation to and from Wildacres, and groceries for any meals we wanted to prepare ourselves—otherwise, there was no cost.

Here, i fell into the same routine as at The Porches—awakening with the birds around 6am, writing until noon, then writing more or doing research/reading until dinner. Once I drove down to the Mineral Museum just up the Blue Ridge Parkway (ironically, I’d just written a museum of that type into the draft I was working on so it served as convenient research for veracity), and on our last afternoon, Rosie and I went into nearby Little Switzerland for a delicious lunch and wandering through an art gallery.

In my application, I’d mentioned my second novel, a book for which i’d written a first draft and for which I’d have rewrite notes from my agent by the time a potential residency came around. That was my proposed project. And when I got offered the residency and the week arrived, I did in fact have those revision notes which I could have spent the time addressing. However, in the interim, i’d begun a new project, a novel which was spooling out with exciting momentum: new characters, new challenges, a creative burst. I decided instead to use my Wildacres residency to continue where that work was heading, rather than changing gears and interrupting the forward motion of the new piece. I admitted as much to the Wildacres staff and they were enthusiastic and congratulatory about the direction-change.

Wildacres has a long and fascinating history behind it, with artists' residencies being a part of their offerings since 1999. In my cabin, the Owl’s Nest, a set of four journals were filled with entries from past residents—thoughts on their experience, advice to future cabin-dwellers, musings about their process. I read through these every night and spied the names of colleagues, acquaintances, and authors whose work I admire. I learned about operas which had been composed in that cabin, plays written and theatre seasons planned, poetry collections and memoirs written, and lithographs hand-printed on the deck. I enjoyed having the opportunity to add my own entry, and to imagine some day sending them a copy of the novel I worked on there, finally finished and edited and published, for inclusion on the library’s Works of Resident Writers shelf.


I honestly don’t know if I could sustain the kind of output I managed at both of these retreats, if the circumstances of isolation and focus became a new normal. I think for me, it has to be a departure from my routine, a short oasis from the rest of my life in which i put writing above all else. I do know that in both cases, I came back with an incredible new enthusiasm for my writing and an altered perspective on focus and productivity.

In both of these experiences, I found the locations and structure (or lack thereof) to be incredibly vital, inspiring, and invaluable, particularly the act of writing in a place which had nurtured and supported so many other creations. My gratitude toward the folks who operate them is boundless; the perspective-shift went deeper than just a view of the mountains out the window by a desk. If you’ve been wondering whether or not a writing retreat would or could be accessible, valuable, meaningful…based on my own experience and the sentiments expressed in dozens of writers’ entries in the Owl’s Nest journals, you won’t regret it. It’ll transform your work, your practice, your art.

Go for it.

[Image is of a path leading to the dining hall at WIldacres retreat in western NC.]

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