These days of steamy late July always send me back to my first ever (terrifying) writing retreat when I was 24 and searching for the muse. Five hot highway hours, a tiny dormroom, a stolen laptop (I’ll tell if you ask), 10 fantastic women. Though I’d never written anything but journal entries, I burned up the page that week and kicked off a 25 year (and counting) love affair with the written word.
But how do you know if a writing retreat is going to put fire in the muse’s belly or kick it out? For fifteen years, I’ve been interviewing people who run retreats and people who go on them. The upshot is: all retreats are not created equal, some actually have snake poison (or oil) in their pens and others deflate the creative urge and waste your time and money. The magic ones are mind-blowing, shape-shifting, knock-your-socks off fantastic.
Well…. to satisfy that escapist palette, I drew up a little go-to guide so you can know for sure, check it out and if you leave me a little note at the end, I will write a little love note back which will give us a mini-escape of our own…
The sneaky six that can slander the muse:
- 1. It is a traditional workshop method:
We writers are most familiar with this workshop model. But some cutting-edge creative brain science studies from Penn, Harvard and the National Institute of Health have shown that it can actually harm creative output and productivity. You create your best, most domain-changing work when the part of your brain associated with criticism and resistance is silenced. If the critical/comparing mind is too active, your intuition and imagination can’t go wild and break every expectation of what you thought you could do on the page. During the traditional workshop model, writers wait to be critiqued and then spend precious time sifting through contradictory feedback. They also have to convince themselves they don’t want to cry and don’t hate everyone in their class. The best, most effective editing actually isn’t done in a group, it’s done alone or with a skilled mentor. Sometimes a master at both the craft and the art of teaching, can make this model worth it, but to create really incredible writing it’s usually better to go with a master who doesn’t need to lean into the critical mind. I know, that’s like finding gold in a miner’s camp, but it’s worth it.
- 2. You have to work:
I know it’s very un-Zen monastery of me, and I should really love getting my hands wet in someone else’s dishwater and sweeping the dining hall, but it just makes me feel like going home and cleaning my own kitchen instead of someone else’s. I work pretty hard, and when I go on retreat, all I want to work on is my writing. At retreat, it’s good to be spoiled: a stocked fridge, a fantastic massage, time to write and read and write some more and then someone to show you specific reasons why your dream of being a writer isn’t so crazy after all.
- 3. No one else but you you you:
These retreats are fantastic, for about thirty eight hours. It’s bliss to nap and eat and read and write write write and then lie around gazing at the ceiling, feeling lucky to be alive. But then I start feeling like someone put me in time-out. The only time this model sometimes works is if you are in the last last stages of editing and polishing your work. Otherwise, it’s great to have someone there to dream with you, to take walks on the beach and talk about books and craft. And then you get to go back and write some more in an almost silent room, where all you can hear are scratches on the page, taps on the laptop. And if you get stuck? You can catch some crazy creative energy from the person sitting across the room. It’s also hard if there’s a ghost at the helm, meaning you want a skilled leader there to tell you what works, to pass you craft tools and to show you how to lean into your strengths. Studies show that writers working in a group inspire one another, push limits and stimulate new parts of the brain.
- 4. They promise the impossible:
Four days to a book deal! There’s something so shiny and appealing about that. It’s like a hair commercial. But you also get that no-good, slippery feeling when you sign up. Like you just slept with an armed robber. Your retreat leader should be ready to provide the craft wisdom and skills to make the book deal happen, but also show you exactly what that path might look like. It’s never good to find out the small man behind the curtain has been controlling a huge, smoky, diaphanous head. You want a visionary, rather than fool’s gold. Most of all, you want to know you can do it, and you want to know it’s possible whether you set out on this particular retreat or not.
- 5. Us and them:
This is a drag. The urge to write a book is a dancing order from the divine. That’s a rendition of what Kurt Vonnegut said once, and I’ve never forgotten it. The divine is not picky (unless you are committed to a literal translation of the Old Testament), it loves everyone equally. Retreat is about finding yourself as close as possible to that divinity so you can create your best work. When you have to bow down to a proverbial podium, your sense of that divinity can recede, it becomes external. Make sure you are on par with the leaders, you can chill out and have fun with them, your teacher is available, hangs out at meals with you, loves you up by hearing you share and even shares herself.
- 6. Your retreat leader is not skilled at leading writing retreats:
Put up a shingle, find a house, gather a bunch of writers and…have no idea what you are doing. Retreat copy on a website page can look fabulous, but really good retreat leaders are career mentors in the craft of leading retreats. They have a well-defined pedagogy in terms of teaching others how to reach new creative heights. They can hold a room in a safe container where absolutely anything can happen. Retreat leaders know how to keep the whole thing from turning into crowd therapy and are very skilled at group dynamics. They can shift people beyond their own (seeming) creative limits, are skilled at showing each writer how to lean into her strengths and can pass you honed craft tools to move the work. It’s a huge plus if the retreat leader has some spiritual training so her/his ego isn’t on retreat with you. A retreat leader is a visionary, s/he’s able to see your career clearly and provide you with every resource you need to move your writing in the direction of your dreams.
It’s true, after doing all this wild research on brain science and what makes a life-changing retreats, I created new terrain in the field called Gateless retreats. These combine all the elements that seem to make a rich experience for the writer: massage, the ocean (or the mountains), fantastic food, one-on-ones, a very specific tried-and-true pedagogy that blows through creative blocks, and tons and tons of writing.
These retreats tend to fill up fast (only one more space for the RI retreat in September!), so you may not have been able to join us but remember this: Your writing time is precious. Make sure you are giving yourself a true gift. If retreat doesn’t set right with you, or something not-so-good happens to your creative urge when you are on one, most likely it is the fault of one of the sneaky six above. All this retreat talk aside, send me a note below to tell me how your writing is going. I’ll send you a love note back and we can have a mini two-minute retreat from our busy busy lives.