Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

10 things I learned from my writing retreat

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When the ubiquitous “they” make recommendations for blogs, one common recommendation is lists, like “Top 5 ways to procrastinate on your WIP” or “Top 10 ways to sneak your family members into your novel without them knowing”.

I like lists. I like them even better when I can cross stuff off my lists (to-do and shopping). As I was driving home from my retreat, my Muse suggested I post a list this week.

Disclaimer: This isn’t an all-inclusive list, nor is it a top-anything list. These are just things that might help other writers when planning a retreat.

  1. Comfort rules. When you’re comfortable, you’re more relaxed. More relaxed, in my experience, means your muse doesn’t have to work as hard to shove those creative energies into you. This extends beyond clothes. Whether you write at a desk, a table, or in a recliner, make sure you don’t have toΒ  constantly readjust your position to stay comfortable. Caveat: Don’t be so comfortable you fall asleep. That defeats the purpose of going away to write. Right?
  2. Silence may not be golden. There’s something to be said about lack of noise (TV, kids sniping at each other), but there’s also something about background noise, like a playlist or even a thunderstorm. I like quiet, but I need to occupy the easily-distracted part of my brain, so I feed it music. That way, it can process something and let me write in peace. Caveat: Don’t start playing with online music services for the first time. I discovered YouTube music lists (Epic Celtic Mix music and The Piano Guys (their Star Wars farce/mix is awesome))(and no, I won’t post the links; I won’t be responsible for you falling down the music rabbit hole) and Amazon Prime streaming music. Oh boy. Talk about distraction. Unless you listen to that anyway, I recommend sticking to whatever your usual inspirational/writing/relaxing playlist is.
  3. Take breaks. Absolute necessity. This gives your brain and eyes a break. Get up and get another glass of water. Make a circuit of the backyard. Stretch. Walk. Take a nap (never underestimate the power of a nap, or at the very least, a 10-20 minute meditation session). Addendum: Find a good place to walk. The town where I grew up has a grand population of around 750, so there’s nothing like the walking paths that larger communities have, and no access to the trail system in the area. (In contrast, my grandmother lives in a tiny community on the Lake Wobegon trail.) Trying to walk for 2 miles without heading to the next town over is a challenge. Even walking out to the cemetery just outside town and back was barely 2 miles.
  4. Healthy snacks. I know, chocolate is a good thing, and coffee is the elixir of writers, but trust me, if you’re going to nosh (and you will), make it something like carrot sticks or grapes or even veggie straws. And no, I’m not being a kill-joy (much). I rewarded myself with chocolate for hitting various goals, so it was a treat rather than the snack of choice. Point is, you don’t feel as blechy if you binge on a bowl of grapes as you do if it’s Cheetos. And water instead of coffee. Add those neat flavor packets if you have to, but at least you won’t have the caffeine shakes by 3 in the afternoon. Bonus: It’s easy to get your vegetable/fruit servings in without trying. (Just because you’re on a retreat doesn’t mean you can’t take care of yourself.)
  5. Have more than one work area. A change of scenery can help knock you out of a rut or inspire you if you’re stuck. My dad has an awesome backyard he’s worked on since my mom was sick over 12 years ago. By now, the flowers and trees have matured, giving the yard and patio a cozy-by-nature feel. Not all the flowers are blooming yet, but the Japanese lilac was in full bloom, and there’s a birch with branches that arch over the patio path. I sat out on the deck to go through some of my notes. I also used the kitchen table to spread my notes out. I sat in a recliner to do most of my writing, but it was nice to move around a bit. Addendum: Community flower gardens usually have nice spots to sit. And flowers, trees, birds, and all the nice nature stuff. Take advantage of them, if you’re one of those people who likes that sort of thing.
  6. Prepare simple homemade meals. My dad lives alone, and we know he doesn’t have much in the house anyway, so when we gather at his house, we bring food. Since he was going to be gone for a couple weeks, there was even less than usual. I made sure to bring a few things: cheese, milk, carrots, blueberries (my personal splurge, and I didn’t have to share), eggs, frozen veggies, frozen chicken breasts, and craft beer. Dad had pasta in the pantry and bread in the fridge, so I was able to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner pretty easily. Granted, the variety of food was limited, I don’t mind an egg and toast for breakfast, and I ate a lot of leftovers, but those basics are flexible enough to make a few different dishes. Add some spaghetti sauce for more options. I did reward myself for meeting one of my major goals by ordering lunch one day, and I took my grandmother out for lunch another day, so I didn’t eat boring stuff the whole time.
  7. Beware of ghosts. So, your (fill in relative or friend here) is leaving for a week or more, and you wrangled a writing retreat at their place while they’re away. Awesome! Depending on the relative or friend and the house, old memories may creep up on you. This will disrupt your writing. It’s okay (and recommended) to take time to work through those memories. Otherwise, they’ll distract you throughout your retreat. Try to keep that time down to a half-day. You are there to write, after all.
  8. Leave a to-do list for the family back home. I left a list of chores for my kids to do while I was gone and unable to “strongly remind” them to do. Addendum: Leave a to-don’t list as well. As in, Don’t Call Me To Fix Something I Need to be At Home To Fix, because that just ruins the whole creative energy flow, and I’m not going to torpedo my retreat because you didn’t think of trying whatever it is before I left. (Yes, my daughter. Yes, it screwed up my energy for a while.)
  9. Be prepared for overload. I didn’t really expect it, but in hindsight: Duh. You may get so entrenched in your WIP that you can’t tell anymore if what you’re writing is good, bad, or ugly. Then, you don’t want to look at it. Ever. Again. See #3. Needless to say, I haven’t touched my WIP since I’ve been back home. Taking a few days away from the project is a good thing in the long run, but it really puts a cramp in my race to the deadline.
  10. Accept you may not make as much progress as you plan/hope. It’s okay. Look at the bigger picture: did you get more writing done than you would have if you hadn’t done the retreat? If the answer is yes, the retreat was a success. Have some chocolate. Plan another retreat as soon as possible.

Take advantage of any opportunity to get away for a few days/weeks to write. I can’t wait until the next time my dad leaves on a trip for a few days. Getting out of your usual environment removes all those distractions like needing to clean this or do that laundry or mow the lawn. At a different location, you don’t have those responsibilities, and you can focus on the task at hand: writing.

 

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Author: Julie Holmes, author

Pen names: J. M. Holmes, J. M. Goebel A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for a decade, I've been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. In real life, I am a technical writer with a family of two teens, a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, four chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

16 thoughts on “10 things I learned from my writing retreat

  1. Sounds like you had some great discovery time. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great list, Julie, with some things (like food) that I wouldn’t necessarily think of or plan for. I think you could do a whole post on #7. I notice that my state of mind is affected by environment and my writing follows suit. If I’m at a secluded beach the writing is different than when I’m sitting at a coffee shop. If I’m tired, my characters are all yawning. Dangerous! I can imagine that visiting a place full of memories would require some acclimation. Bringing some familiar comforts – like the writing playlist – is a great idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Diana! Oh, yes, #7. That was an unexpected situation. I thought I’d processed all those emotions over the past decade, but they never really go away. And the playlist fiasco–I thought I was so smart by listening to streaming instrumental music just for something different. Ha! I ended up monkeying with the list and searching for other music instead of writing. Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was an awesome informative post. It sounds like you had a great retreat, overall.

    I mix up my writing space at times….mostly in my office, but every now and then I like to sit outside and take in nature while I write, or jaunt over to a coffee shop. It does help to inspire creativity.

    Sunday is normally my primary writing day so I always have a simple meal planned in advance (crock pot or something I can throw together quickly or reheat). It makes it so much easier when I am involved in a scene and don’t want to have to stop to worry about getting dinner ready.

    Welcome back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mae! Yes, it was a great weekend. Love the idea of a dedicated writing day–all day. Hoping I can make that happen once both kids are off in college. It’s nice changing writing environments, especially this time of year when it’s comfy temp-wise outside. As long as the mosquitoes leave me alone, I enjoy sitting outside. Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love the “beware of ghosts” one! Thanks for sharing all of this!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. These are great tips. I’ve never done a writing retreat, but it sounds like a great way to get some work done.

    Stephanie
    http://stephie5741.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, Julie. I love lists too – particularly the ticking items off once achieved. Oh do posts the link to the music – I need some rabbit-hole moments! Talking of ghosts – those memories can so easily creep up and can become an oddly welcome visitor even if totally distracting. I’ve never thought of a to-don’t list – excellent idea as I’m always first port of call!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So right, Annika! Love crossing things off lists. The problem I sometimes have is making sure all the stuff I need to do is actually on a list! πŸ™‚ I can include the links in my next post, if you like. I never thought of a to-don’t list either until my daughter called me to fix an “emergency” problem trying to offload a s*tload of pictures from her school-issued iPad before she had to turn it in for the year. Sigh. Have a great week!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great blog. I have to write in silence, otherwise my propensity to sing along or even hum, means I can’t concentrate

    Liked by 1 person

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