Thursday, January 31, 2013

What a Writer's Retreat Is, and Why You May Need One

 [I like retreating in the Heights partially because of the architecture.]

I may be a little spoiled. Okay, I AM a little spoiled. But let me tell you a little about why, and maybe why you should be spoiled too.

This is, I think, my third writer's retreat. The first, spent house-sitting for my friend Eric in Austin, was the longest and most productive. I think I edited an entire book, watched five movies, and read three books. I also ate a lot. Oh! And I painted him a four-set of acrylic birds. All within the span of two nights and three days. I maybe showered. Maybe.

The last two have been spent at my friend Queen's house. (A great derby friend. Remember her from my Tofu post?) She and her man both work long hours and have no kids--other than some of the four-legged variety. Her house is in the Heights, one of the lovelier sections of Houston, and I have my own little guest room at what I call the Queen Mary B&B. Over the summer I spent two nights there, and I spent about 24 hours there this week.
 [A four-legged kid or two from the Queen Mary B&B.]

Now let me tell you a little about writer's retreats and why you might need to fight for your own.

What is a writer's retreat? 
I think I first heard about these from one of my favorite authors, Amanda Eyre Ward. She mentioned (in answer to questions at a reading and in a reader's guide in the back of How to Be Lost) that she wrote much of the book in hotels. She has a few kids and in hotel rooms, she could kick back, not feel like she needed to clean or feed anyone, and just focus. There is not much to do in a hotel room, after all. (Though I can get lost in cable, being as we have five channels at home.)

This resonated with me. Writing aside, and before kids even, I was always a lover of alone time and solo travel. Now that I'm writing AND have kids, this is even more of a lovely dream. The problem being, of  course, that I don't have the money for hotel rooms. Boo! So when I am in a key moment of needing some long stretches of time for writing, I have sought out free places.

Each time, I have dedicated almost all time to writing or editing what I am writing. I am completely selfish with this time--it's for me and it's for work. Other than a few breaks where I might meet friends for dinner (or play the inappropriately hilarious Cards Against Humanity), I bury myself in work. It's lovely and I usually emerge with a lot done, ready to rejoin the world.

A writer's retreat is a time of focus, of solitude. A time of amplified work.

Why do you need one? 
I'll answer this in two parts--the general "you" and the specific "you"--meaning, of course, me.

A writer's retreat gives you time where you really can be selfish. Writing and creating is really difficult because it takes a lot out of you. When you mix that with the realities of daily life--whether that be another job or kids or even the people you love--it becomes even harder sometimes to find and keep the focus. Or else you might just get mad at all the things that get between you and your work. A writer's retreat lets you be alone with your work, to really face it and immerse yourself in the process, whatever that looks like for you. In parenting language, it's like a time out. Only not for bad behavior.

For me, I use these retreats whenever I am at a point in the process where I need more than the few unbroken hours we get while the kids are at school or sleeping. My Austin trip came when I had finished the whole first draft of my novel and needed to figure out where it was going and what I was missing. I read the whole thing and wrote extensive notes on where to go. I had an epiphany of plot over Amy's Ice Cream.This week I needed to get the whole (or almost whole) rough draft of my next book (an Easter devotional) hammered out.

When I am out of the house, I don't think about laundry. Or cooking. Or even showering. I always think about eating, so of course there's that. But generally I sit down, turn off my wifi and then go crazy on my work. Without the retreat this week, I would not have basically finished my manuscript in time for my deadline (two weeks from now).

How can you get one?
I'll answer this in two parts as well, but I'm starting this time with how I personally get one.

First, my husband is amazing. Whereas some husbands might freak out and wonder why their wife keeps asking for nights away, Rob seemed to sense from the beginning of our relationship that I have a lot of independence and a lot of things that I do alone. He gets the introvert part of me. He is fully supportive and is fully free with me--this is something that works really well in our marriage. And it goes both ways--only his retreats tend to look a lot different than mine.

Second, we have amazing family as well. This week, the kids were in school for most of the time I was away. But because Rob had boot camp early in the morning I was to be gone, the kids stayed with his parents overnight. My parents offer to watch the kiddos when I need a break as well, so having two sets of grandparents means I am doubly blessed.

Third, I have great friends. Queen's house is a perfect setup for me, and she doesn't mind opening up the Queen Mary B&B (sorry, it's not a real bed and breakfast) even with like 12-hours' notice. Several other friends have offered, so not having a budget for this kind of thing doesn't hold me back.

As for you--I don't know your circumstances. I do know that sometimes it's hard to ask for this kind of thing. Not everyone is as understanding as Rob is and not everyone has family like I do, in town ready for the kids. But if there comes a time when you need a retreat (whether a writing retreat or just a mental health break), here are a few steps to get your own.

Step One- Dare to ask. I have friends who have mentioned wanting a retreat like this, but when I ask whether they have requested a "time out," the answer is often no. Most spouses really want to love and support their partners and would be happy to do this. First you have to ask.

Step Two- If needed, explain. Whether it's to write or to just have some time to recover from whatever life has thrown your way, give a reason. I think that motherhood itself is reason enough for a retreat, but throw in work or something extra and you have some extra stuff. Not everyone gets it, so write up a little point-by-point. Like: Honey, I need a little retreat. I need to work, but the kids also threw up on me twice this week and so I think that is deserving of 24-hours off. Peace out.  You know, something rational and mature like that.

Step Three- Find your retreat. So it may not be luxury. Or, if you have the dough, it might be! Plan ahead, use Expedia or coupon codes or your credit card hotel points. Ask friends or family--but make sure wherever you go would be a retreat. I know I could go to my parents' house anytime. I also know mom and I would stay up chatting and watching Top Chef. Great time--but wouldn't help me finish my book. (Mom, maybe we'll plan a mommy-daughter fun-time retreat soon?)

Step Four- Leave your guilt in the car. As I was driving to Queen's house, all of my kids' favorite songs came on. The Lumineers, Cary Rae Jepsen--you know, all the good stuff. I had to repeat this mantra: You will see your kids tomorrow. You are a good mom. You will see your kids tomorrow. There is serious guilt in motherhood sometimes. It may rival Catholic guilt, but I can't be sure because I grew up Presbyterian. If you don't have kids, maybe you'll feel the guilt about your spouse, or your dog, or maybe just the state in which you left your house. STOP. The retreat will not be a retreat if you wear guilt like a pashmina.

Step Five- Don't waste time. I really didn't blog (other than the amazing hair photo) and I tried to stay off social media unless I was taking a mental break. I set goals and worked to meet them. When I needed a break, I called a random friend (holla, Beverly Kills!) and we had a lovely breakfast-for-dinner and spiritually enlightened conversation filled with randomness and some bursting into song. Then I got right back to work. If you are lucky enough to get a retreat and it's a working retreat, work. If it's just a retreat to relax, get another pina colada and hit the pool.


I feel refreshed, relaxed, accomplished, and filled with love for my fam. I'm almost done with my manuscript and on track for finishing when I need to finish. Yes, I still need to put laundry away. But let's be honest--I avoid putting laundry away no matter what is going on in my week.

How about you--have you taken a retreat, writer's or otherwise? How did you manage it and how did it work for you?

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