Get away and go for it
Writing can be done anywhere, but getting away from the everyday can be rejuvenating. Whether you head off on your own or as part of a group, a writing retreat is you dedicating time to your craft. It’s you recognising that you’re a writer.
Like writing groups, there are many different types of retreats. Last year a friend and I attended a one-day retreat with ‘Words in Deep Blue’ author Cath Crowley and Alison Arnold, who edited Graeme Simsion’s ‘The Rosie Project’. I believe this was the first retreat they’d run, and they’ve since started offering more as Word House.
This retreat came at a time when I’d been shattered by a big knockback. We focused on ‘disruption’ – not the stuff-that’s-keeping-you-from-writing disruption, but the importance of taking time away from writing to do other activities – walking, mosaics, knitting – anything that forces the brain to engage in a different way.
We did ‘blackout poetry’ – also known as redacted poetry – where we took pages of old books and blacked out all but random words. Once I got over the initial shock of destroying books, it was surprisingly relaxing and my writing brain started putting together what it was seeing in new ways. In a sure sign that my study’s due for a clean, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find the blackout poems I did on the day, but if you search ‘blackout poems’ or ‘redacted poems’ you’ll find some awesome examples.
But the retreat’s biggest benefit was to reconnect with writing – to spend a day immersed in stories and creation, to share characters, plot holes and twists and endings with others who know what it’s like when nailing a minute, bothersome detail is like winning the grand final.
Another retreat: Six months ago a couple of mates came to my place for the day to write. We went to the pub for lunch. We had bad chicken parmigiana. We chatted about where we were up to, what was blocking us. One started writing a piece that’s progressed to a novel. One was working on her Pitch Wars entry, and inspired me to enter my manuscript. Spoiler: one of us went through to the agent round and has subsequently been picked up by a big US agent. Her manuscript is awesome!
Another friend flew interstate for a one-day workshop, stretching it into a long weekend. While there, she stumbled across a random historic object – then ditched her manuscript and wrote 20,000 words on a new one.
There’s something about being in the same room as other writers that I find energising. Bouncing ideas around, talking through trouble spots, discovering that kids/pets/work/life gets in the way – there’s something about face-to-face contact that pushes me through the claustrophobic isolation of working on my own. It reinforces the writing community’s invisible scaffold that holds us all up and together. Like the ghost hug meme: it’s there even if you can’t see it.
When catching up for a chat over a coffee is enough to send you back to the keyboard with renewed enthusiasm, imagine the boost from an actual writing getaway.
Retreats are whatever you want them to be: a group of strangers in a room together, a group of mates sharing a house for a few days, or a weekend alone in a different environment. They can be writing together in a room writing apart and coming together for meals, or just doing whatever. You could all chip in to hire an editor for a session, or not. Lash out on caviar, or eat Vegemite toast. Retreats are a disruption; they force you into a new writing headspace. They are a refuge from cats and kids, from the distraction of chores and everyday minutia – and the internet. Sometimes a few hours camped out at the coffee shop or in a park is enough. A retreat can be the reset button when your writing routine starts to produce routine writing.
After a couple of months writing queries, articles and grant applications I’m about due for another retreat. My in-laws are going away, and I might head there for a few days. Better check that with them first. I’ll run it past a few mates to see if they’re interested. And if it doesn’t happen, there’s always the coffee shop.