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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

14 April 2010

Retreat to advance

Attending a writing retreat can develop one's writing skill, help one charge ahead on a current work, and rekindle one's enthusiasm for writing.

Like a spiritual or health retreat, a writing retreat involves withdrawing from the ordinary world to immerse oneself in a single goal. A writing retreat has a major benefit over staying home to write: All the interruptions and distractions of everyday life are gone, allowing the writer to focus laserlike on a project.

Writing retreats can be structured in various ways. Here I'll describe the three retreats I've been to, starting with the Easter weekend retreat some of my fellow Clarionites held recently.

The Clarion retreat was held at one Clarionite's home in San Jose. We spent Friday socializing and getting settled in. Saturday and Sunday we sprawled in chairs or on the floor or sat at tables, laptops at hand, each working on a project. For example, I arrived with two book ideas to explore. One I researched and set aside, deciding the book I had in mind was one I would like to read but not to write. The other idea proved more fruitful, and by weekend's end, I knew the setting, who the main characters would be, and what would happen in the first quarter of the book.

Other retreat participants worked on their WIP, wrote blog posts, brainstormed a story with another Clarionite by Skype, wrote a bid for a writing project, wrote poetry, translated French comic books into English, and held timed writing races. During the occasional breaks we discussed writing topics and swapped book suggestions.

Clarionites relax Friday night at a New Orleans–style restaurant before starting work the next day; links go to relevant blogs. Left to right: Edward Gauvin, Nina K., Kim Stanley Robinson, Shauna Roberts, Emily Jiang, Liz Argall, Leonard Pung, Dana Huber. Missing: Eric Schultz.

In 2007, my New Orleans critique group held a retreat. Each day for four days, everyone showed up at my house early and stayed until supper time. We devoted time to each critique group member, working on whatever she wanted to work on. Our schedule also built in formal breaks to eat and chat so that we would not be tempted to socialize instead of work. During the retreat we brainstormed a YA novel, discussed how to add more emotion to one member's novel, worked on one person's query letter and synopsis, and shared techniques for plotting, producing fresh ideas quickly, and creating a story "bible."

 Critique group members take a break from their retreat for a photo op. Left to right: Margaret Nichols, Rosalind Green, Shauna Roberts, Laurie BolaƱos, Farrah Rochon.

By contrast, my first retreat was a solo effort. I went up to an apartment we were renting in Jackson, Mississippi, as a combination get-away place–hurricane refuge. For two days I daydreamed and brainstormed and wrote page after page of notes, with no cats to medicate or feed or take to the vet, no mail to sort, no phone calls or emails to interrupt my thoughts, and no long to-do list to distract me from my goals. I came home with the foundation in place for a novel.

Based on these three retreats, I think some keys to a successful retreat are:
  • a schedule
  • a goal
  • a dedicated space that's not the usual workspace
  • a dedicated time with interruptions kept to a minimum
  • preparation for one's project done ahead of time so that it doesn't cut into work time
  • time scheduled for socializing

Linda Weaver Clark (who was interviewed here in August) interviews historical fiction author Laurie C. Lewis at her blog this week, and one commenter will win their choice of one of Lewis's books. Lewis's series "Free Men and Dreamers" (Covenant Communications) covers the trials of the generation after the Founding Fathers, who must fight the British again to retain their freedom.


Next week's post: finding images of your characters


Ken Schneyer said...

Sounds marvelous.

You know (Edward must have mentioned) there are dedicated retreats, where (if you get accepted) you get to spend days or weeks just there, writing...

I'd love to do this with you guys sometime.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been on a few faculty retreats but no writing retreats. I really really want to go on one.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm hoping that Charles will go on such a retreat while he's off one Summer. He talks a good game, but I don't see a lot of action. Silly person!

Shauna said...

Ah my sweetest namesake;

I never did thank you for the cc in your travel itinerary of late. Caught me by surprise, but I know that you CARE Shauna, and that showed a lot of caring. Thanks my friend. <3

Each of the retreats you described, has parts to them that were unique, and obviously you took away the best of all 3 to make your idyllic list.

Is there a retreat or teaching days that are geared to help those writing non-fiction? I'm not finding much support in the Memoir department; save for four books I have on the subject. I'd like a voice, hear inflection, from my teachers.

Let me know or maybe I'll email ya with questions and get one of my favorite authors to look things over!!

Keep it up girlfriend, and please take care of that precious body of yours.

Gentle Hugs..... <3

Shauna Roberts said...

KEN, I know I've heard Edward talk about those retreats, but I never realized one could spend just a few days there. That would be a great thing for the Clarionites to do as a group. I'll keep that in mind for myself, too, and see whether I can find something within driving distance.

CHARLES and LANA, it sounds as if both of you want Charles out of the house. Charles, have you thought of asking to borrow Candace's lake house for a weekend or week? That would work well for a solo retreat or maybe for a few people. (I'm not sure how many bedrooms it has.) SOLA is having a writing retreat at Nottoway Plantation on 13 and 14 August: It's not cheap, unfortunately, but it would provide a lot of writers to interact with.

SHAUNA (the one who's not me), I don't know of any nonfiction groups in town, but then, I don't know any other writers in Riverside. I'd be glad to look over some of your stuff, if you like. By the way, would you or any of your friends be interested in a goal group—a group that would get together perhaps a couple of times a month for each person to set goals and to compare progress on the goals set at the previous meeting? The person I learned about goal groups from said they can have people with all kinds of goals, not just writing goals—for example, losing weight.