5 Ways to Make a Writing Retreat “Pay Off” | Jane Friedman

5 Ways to Make a Writing Retreat “Pay Off” | Jane Friedman

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Today’s post is by writer and book coach Amy Goldmacher.

Ah, a writing retreat. Doesn’t the idea sound amazing? The delicious word “treat” is even embedded in the concept, connoting something special or perhaps even forbidden.

If you’d love to go on a writing retreat, but in addition to the cost, you worry about when, where, and whether your investment in yourself will “pay off,” I offer you five ways to reap rewards.

1. Give yourself permission.

A writing retreat can be anything you want it to be. You can either get yourself out of your own environment or get everyone out of yours. It can be as long or as short as you want. You can do it by yourself, or you can do it with others; you can attend someone else’s retreat or create your own.

You’re the only one who can set the parameters: What do you want to do, how long can you do it, what budget is needed, what arrangements need to be made so you can be free for this time?

I took myself on what I called a “DIY writing retreat” on a cruise in November 2023. I wanted to spend a block of time with only my writing, without having to be responsible for anyone or anything else. I wanted to cross the Atlantic and see the sea out my window, traveling while working, having my meals cooked for me. I knew how much time and money I wanted to spend. I worked out the necessary arrangements with my household and my clients, and received the time and space I wanted to be able to make it happen.

2. Start with what you want to get out of it.

As responsible people, we’re always calculating time, cost, and effort to determine value. We bargain with ourselves: “If I spend a week at an AirBnB I should be able to finish this novel draft.” But that puts so much pressure on the result rather than the process. What would make a retreat feel “worth it” if its value wasn’t tied solely to concrete outcomes?

What if we imagine the end before we start: How do I want to feel at the end of my retreat?

Here’s what I came up before I went on my cruise:

  • I would like to leave the retreat feeling more clarity on themes than I feel right now
  • I would like to leave the retreat feeling accomplished, like I used my time well and enjoyed myself, even if it’s just journaling about the experience
  • I would like to leave the retreat feeling like I’ve learned something about when and how I write best and can replicate it at home
  • I would like to leave the retreat feeling like I’ve deeply explored and found some connected themes to keep writing about
  • I would like to leave the retreat with a plan for writing the next things
  • I would like to leave the retreat having generated some new raw material, even if it’s just journaling about the experience

Freewriting for just a few minutes on the question above helped me see what experience I wanted to come away with, instead of only a robust to-do list.

3. Focus on progress, not outcome.

Once I established how I wanted to feel at the end, I could create a work plan that focused on achieving a feeling that didn’t depend on attaining an outcome. 

What activities or structure will help me feel the way I want to feel?

I did have a long list of things I wanted to accomplish: revise an old project and start a new one; write a newsletter/blog post, draft two essays, work on marketing, and so on. I also optimistically packed 15 books (most of them were very short, but still, way too many to feasibly read!). Even in ideal circumstances, there was no way I would get everything I set out to do done on this retreat. If I focused solely on what I produced, I would end up disappointed. But if I started these to-dos, I could still feel like I had accomplished something valuable. Instead of trying to cross tasks off a to-do list, I envisioned the things I wanted to work on in thematic buckets, and spending time on the buckets was a progress-making method.

4. Be flexible.

Halfway through my retreat, I developed a terrible head cold with its concomitant fatigue, brain fog, and congestion. It derailed my best intentions. I could only stay awake for a couple of hours at a time. I was miserable when I was awake. I slept a lot.

How will I handle the unexpected?

You know what they say about the best laid plans. Stuff always comes up. There’s the stuff we have control over, and the stuff we don’t. I had no control over the process of getting over a cold, other than resting and drinking fluids. It impacted how much I was able to do overall, but since I was focused on making progress rather than completion, I could still spend a just few minutes at a time when I felt clear on one of my buckets, and still feel like I was making progress.

I had wanted to get into prose poetry and brought three books with me on the subject…and touched none of them. I let that bucket go, and I let myself be okay with that.

5. Notice the little things and capture the insights.

Though I’m not a journaler or a morning pages person, I made a concerted effort to capture my retreat experience as it happened. I used Lynda Barry’s daily diary method as explained by Ann Handley to log daily events, observations, and experiences, and I have a record of my trip as well as some deeper insights into my own writing habits and inspiration for the future.

What did I do, see, hear, learn, or feel today?

Some snippets from my log:

  • My “ship routine” ended up a lot like my “home routine,” meaning, I still had to wrestle with the same procrastination, resistance, and interference demons that plague me at home.
  • Having too many food options is just as overwhelming and exhausting as trying to come up with my own.
  • What might go on behind those crew-only doors?
  • What’s the story with the gorgeous, silver haired, identically dressed twin sisters and their non-identical husbands?
  • Why did that couple at the dinner table next to me not say a single word to each other the entire meal?
  • Nobody knows you’re napping when you’re alone in your room.
  • You can be as connected to the outside world as you want to be—or you can choose not to be connected.
  • It’s all “research.”
  • I sleep better without cats in the bed and when rocked by the ocean.

I enjoyed my retreat. It was special. It was rewarding in the emotional ways I had hoped for, and I came away from it with some tangible work products as well.

Note from Jane: If the idea of going on a writing retreat on a cruise ship appeals to you, there is an upcoming opportunity to do so from April 28 to May 5—with Amy, Jane Friedman, Allison K Williams, and Dinty W. Moore. You can spend 8 days and 7 nights with 25 fellow writers and publishing industry professionals in literary luxury, crossing the Atlantic on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. There will be daily panels, talks, workshops, classes, and group meals with participants and instructors. You’ll also have free time to explore the ship, take part in activities, write, or nap as you like. More info here and here.

Amy Goldmacher

Amy Goldmacher is a writer and a book coach. An excerpt from her mostly micro memoir in the form of a glossary won the 2022 AWP Kurt Brown Prize in creative Nonfiction. Learn more at her website.

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