One of the goals in my 2018 Personal Plan is to schedule one weekend writing retreat per quarter, away from home, dedicated to working on my memoir manuscript. It’s already June and I’m happy to report that I’m on schedule, having taken two of these weekend retreats so far this year: one in February by myself and one in April with two writer friends.
This plan emerged at the end of last year. It had been some time since I was able to maintain my daily writing habit due to my work schedule, my stress levels, and my overall health (another thing on my 2018 Personal Plan is to prioritize self-care this year). So instead of feeling stressed out and guilty from the pressure I put on myself to write every day, I’m planning dedicated and concentrated writing time with these weekend retreats. This strategy frees up mental and emotional space when I know the time is planned and reserved.
And, I’m getting a lot of questions about these weekend retreats, the what, the where, the how. The two retreats I’ve taken so far have been so successful for me that I think I’m going to work them into my creative life indefinitely, and I can’t recommend them enough for anyone who wants to kick their creative practice up a notch. So today I’m giving away all my secrets.
Side note: Although I’m talking here specifically about my experience with writing retreats, these strategies can be applied to taking a weekend retreat for any type of creative project or effort.
Getting away doesn’t have to be far away (or expensive).
First things first. You might hear “get away for a weekend” and immediately think you have to drive for six hours or book a flight. But let me bust those assumptions right now. Both of my weekends “away” have been an easy drive, one a mere 20 minutes and the other 2 hours.
On my first retreat, I stayed in a tiny little studio loft above a horse stable that I found on Airbnb for $45 per night. For the second, two friends and I went to one friend’s parents’ cabin at Lake Tahoe. Both times I packed and brought my own food, preparing every meal, which means I also wasn’t spending money on eating out.
Yes, it would be nice to visit a new city or stay at a bit nicer place, and I hope to on a future retreat. But to keep multiple trips in a year accessible, realistic, and reasonably affordable, there’s nothing quite as efficient as staying close to home.
Checklist for Getting Away
Here are your next steps for making plans to get away on your creative retreat:
- Look at your calendar and block a weekend in the next 4 weeks for your retreat.
- Find a place to stay. Book a hotel room or an Airbnb. Ask someone you know if you can use their house while they are away.
- Organize your material so that it’s ready for you when you land at your weekend retreat. Make sure all your files are on your laptop, or print out the chapters you need to work on if you prefer analog. Get a new notebook and pens.
Bottom line: It’s relatively easy to get away from home and it doesn’t have to include expensive travel to far away places. You can experience all the benefits of productive creative time in any place, near or far, that doesn’t have all the distractions of home. You know, like bills, laundry, spouse, kids, dishes, or any other task or project you find to busy yourself so as to avoid your creative work.
Going alone vs. going with friends: the pros and cons.
I went on my first writing retreat alone for three nights, and I went alone intentionally. It meant that I could go whenever and wherever I wanted, without coordinating with anyone else’s preferences or availability. I needed to just go and do the work and experience the time for myself to figure out what works for me.
It was great during the day. I had quiet time to write, think, read, take a walk, all on my own schedule, and I was incredibly productive. My challenge came in the evenings. After working all day, I was ready for some company. I wanted someone to tell about my day and talk about how things were going. I wanted to go out for a glass of wine to unwind and celebrate my accomplishment. Instead it was just me and my book or the episodes of Grace & Frankie that I had downloaded on my iPad so that I still had something to watch since there was no wifi (more on that in a sec).
On the second retreat with friends and I had almost the opposite problem. The evenings were just what I had missed from my solo retreat. We brought great food and wine to share; we poured wine into coffee mugs for our walks down to the lake; we made dinner together every night; we sat around and talked about our work and creative projects over wine and (goat) cheese and (gluten-free) crackers. It was the perfect way to end a long day of creative work.
The days, however, were not as smooth for me mainly for the reasons that I said the solo-retreat were so great: With two other people, I did not have the freedom to plan my day and time according to my own schedule without worrying about others. Several times I was trying to write while my friends were doing something else, or vice versa, and tight quarters don’t make it very conducive to not disrupt others if you are not also participating in quiet writing time.
I haven’t quite found the happy medium that works for me on these creative retreats, though it’s somewhere between going solo and sharing a small space with friends. It might be going with just one other person, or it might be finding a space where there can be dedicated working space away from other activity space. Or it might be something altogether different that I haven’t thought of or experienced yet.
Checklist for Going Alone vs. Going With Friends
Here are your next steps for determining if you want to go alone or go with friends:
- Reflect on what you know about yourself: Are you a pretty social person or more of a loner? Use this information to decide what will work better for you, at least for your first retreat.
- If you decide to go alone, proceed! If you decide to go with friends, reach out to one or two people to ask if they are interested in going with you and available for the dates you have set.
- Revise your search for a location to include a place that will accommodate 2 or more people.
Bottom line: You won’t know your preferences, going solo or going with others, until you try different things and figure out what works for you and your creative process. Even with a less than ideal set up, both of my retreats have still been wildly successful and productive.
Goal setting is non-negotiable.
I know a lot of creatives who are anti-goals and anti-structure. They don’t like setting parameters around their work, feeling like it enforces unnecessary pressure to follow a structure and chase an achievement. Goals are arbitrary, anyway, aren’t they? And isn’t your work contrived if it’s based on achieving some arbitrary goal?
Trust me, I hear you. We want to let our creative ideas flow freely, without constraints. They come to us when they come to us. We want to write when the mood strikes, not on some rigid schedule.
I get it, and I still contend that creativity requires structure (more on structure, specifically, in a sec), because without a goal, how do you know whether you’ve been productive or not? There has to be some way to measure your progress.
I’m not saying your goal for your retreat needs to be as audaciously ambitious as, say, writing an entire novel in the course of one weekend. But I am saying that it should be more than simply taking the retreat. Otherwise, what is the purpose? What do you hope to accomplish while on this retreat? Maybe it is simply to spend a certain amount of time with the material, say 8 hours over two days. Then at the end of the retreat, you can assess your progress based on the number of hours you spent with your material—it is measurable.
For me, it was word count. I knew going into the weekend that I could reasonably write 1,000 words per hour, and I had worked out a schedule to allow for 10 hours of writing time over the course of 2.5 days, so my goal was to write 10,000 words.
Checklist for Goal-setting
Here are your next steps for setting the goals for your retreat:
- Answer the question: Why do you want to take a creative retreat?
- Answer the question: What do you hope to accomplish on the retreat?
- Determine a measurement that you can use at the end of the retreat to determine how successful it is for you. (Bonus: This data will also likely inform what aspects of the retreat did or didn’t work for you.)
Bottom line: Without a goal, you’re in danger of taking a weekend mini-vacation that does not accomplish the purpose of making progress with your creative work. So if you feel the internal resistance rising up at the very mention of a goal, run straight into it and embrace it (more on resistance and embracing constraints in a sec). With a specific and measurable goal defined, you will be much more productive and your work will benefit as a result.
Great! You’re on your retreat, now what?
With both of the retreats that I’ve taken so far, getting there was the easy part. The planning is enjoyable for me (I know, I’m a nerd like that). I geek out over looking at the calendar, picking dates, searching for places to stay, organizing my supplies (i.e. packing)—you know, all the fun stuff.
Once I was there, actually on the retreat, the challenges came up. Left to my own devices, I probably would sleep in, eat junk food, and read or binge watch Supergirl all day long. But there are several things I learned from these first two retreats that ensured I stayed the course and followed through on what I came to do. Here are my top 4 tips for making your retreat as successful as possible:
1. Push through resistance.
On my first retreat, resistance reared its ugly head right away. I forgot things. I got all emotional when Jeremy dropped me off. I was nervous about returning to material I haven’t spent time with for a while. All sorts of shit came up.
If you’ve read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, you know what I’m talking about and you know that resistance means you’re supposed to do the very thing you’re resisting. (If you haven’t read The War of Art: Do it now. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.) So I pushed through. I did the thing I was resisting. I wrote 10,000 words and it felt damn good.
2. Embrace constraints.
On both of my retreats, neither place I stayed had wifi. At first, I was super annoyed by this. What if I needed to look something up online while I was writing? What if I wanted to wind down at the end of the day with a movie? What if I wanted to play music from Pandora while I worked?
Ugh. SO annoying!
But, you know what? I totally managed. I made notes for myself to look up info later. I downloaded movies to watch offline. And I had playlists on my phone that I could also listen to offline. I survived a weekend without wifi!
Not only did I survive, but I stayed focused without the distraction of the World Wide Web. As in: I didn’t binge watch Supergirl.
3. Be flexible.
Real talk: I’m not very good at being flexible or going with the flow. I like structure (obviously). And I can be pretty rigid, especially when it comes to the way I want things to be or the way I expect them to be.
But. I’m aware of this struggle and I’m working on it. So much so that I’ve worked it into my mantras as “I am flexible.” Or, “I choose flexibility,” when I’m not feeling particularly go-with-the-flowy. I’m pretty sure it’s working because on my first writing retreat, a few things did not go according to plan and I did not combust.
I had planned to do yoga in the mornings, but I forgot my yoga mat and yoga clothes. Undeterred, I made to with blanket and towel on the floor. It wasn’t ideal, and I was sliding all over the floor, but I still got in 30 minutes of movement and the practice helped me stay positive instead of getting pissy/annoyed/grumpy, ruining my whole day.
The other thing that didn’t go according to plan was the super-tiny mini-fridge didn’t fit all the food I brought with me. I was expecting a mini-fridge the size of what you might find in a hotel room. Nope. It was about half that size. So I had to keep some food in my cooler. Which meant I had soggy berries and spinach for my morning smoothies. But, again, I made do and didn’t let this throw me off track.
I’m the first to admit that it’s not easy, but remaining flexible really does help you to not get derailed when things are not what you expect or feel like you need them to be.
4. Make a schedule.
Now I know we just talked about being flexible, and you still can be—even with a schedule.
Here’s the thing: A schedule will help provide structure for the day so that you don’t wake up thinking, “Oh I have all day I can sit down and write anytime I want.” And then you sleep in, or eat junk food, and read or binge watch Supergirl all day. But if you make a schedule, then you have pre-determined what you are going to do during the day, and when you’re going to do it. Here’s the schedule I set for myself:
- 8:00 yoga
- 9:00 breakfast smoothie
- 9:30 write
- 11:30 walk
- 12:30 lunch
- 1:00 walk
- 3:00 read
- 5:00 walk
- 6:00 read
- 7:00 dinner
- 7:30 movie/read
- 9:00 bed
Did I follow it to a T? No. Think of it as a guide or an outline to follow that sets parameters around reaching your goal. A schedule will help you stay on track and, once you have it, you can maintain flexibility to easily rearrange to read less here, walk shorter here, or spend more time outside for lunch.
Give your creative practice extra special attention.
Planning a creative retreat sounded out of reach and overwhelming to me at first. I didn’t know how I’d find the time or the money to pull it off. But as soon as I committed to the idea and started planning, I found ways to make it more manageable and I’m so glad I did.
The recipe for your perfect retreat is a combination of everything I’ve covered in this post: preparation for your time away, finding the right space (or, more importantly, making whatever place you have the right place), establishing obtainable goals, creating a schedule and maintaining flexibility to achieve them, and perhaps the toughest of all: giving yourself permission to get away and write.
If you’d like to work personal retreats into your creative practice, sign up for my email list below to get my free 30-Day Personal Plan Workbook. It’s a great tool you can use to start planning your creative goals and what you’d like to accomplish on retreat.