The creative mind savors uninterrupted time to wander, tinker, and ultimately move great ideas into action. An in-house retreat from 4 hours to 48 hours could be just what you need before the holiday frenzy begins.
The experiment: For 48 hours, I would not have to answer the phone, email messages, cries from my 16-month-old daughter, or requests from my wife. I could stay in my study, walk in the woods, shape my book. Did it work? Did I find uninterrupted focus we writers salivate for and open wondrous space for new connections to forge? Could my wife refrain? A Molly Bloom, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
I won't bore you with diary-like details. Instead, I will say this: Try this one at home. Typically, we think of taking retreats to beautiful locales - yes, like Taos or Paradise Island. But re-imagine a retreat alone at home.
For the record: I gave my wife the same 48-hour retreat last week.
Disclosures: I work at home. My wife and I mutually support each other's creative endeavors. And we have our fair share of obstacles - stomach flus, disagreements, baby care, family obligations, income panics.
Gentle reminder: Take these ideas for what they're worth. At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau clarifies that he's not suggesting all readers find a cabin to hole up in for a year. Do it your own way, and take from the experiment the essential principles. And tape up that voice that says, "Yeah, but..yeah, but...yeah, but..." (Need some masking tape?)
PREPARE & PLAN
1. Get support & inform the right people. If you live with a partner, communicate your intentions. Express how important the experiment is to you and what you hope comes from it. Once he or she's on board, discuss how your partner can help you out. Hillary and I made the rules clear: The person-in-retreat was not obligated to speak to the other at any time. The supporting partner would do everything possible to avoid interruptions. If you live alone, tell your best friend what you're up to. Sharing such an idea helps you commit to it, and your friend can be your ally at least in spirit and at the very least won't call you during your retreat.
If you have clients calling or emailing every day, let them know what you're up to. When social media guru Gwen Bell takes digital sabbaticals, she sends out an automated email message informing everyone that she'll be back in a day, two, or three. More than likely, your clients will be a tad envious and might try a retreat themselves.
2. Know how you tend to spend free time and how you deal with solitude. Prepare accordingly. When silence surrounds you, does your body automatically gravitate to the television, telephone, Internet, or café down the road? If you have not built the resolve over the years to stay focused on your own, then prepare yourself. Bolster (if not barricade) yourself from distractions, too. One of my clients puts his Internet-connected laptop in another part of the house during his retreats.
48 hours alone, frankly, might be too long for you at first. If you're not accustomed to extended solitude, the first 24 hours will feel as if you've had three days to wander and roam in your soul. Writer Will Self told The Guardian that if you don't have "a healthy appetite for solitude," then "you have no business being a writer." Some people, though, can build up their solitude muscle.
3. Set one to three creative intentions. Setting intentions can help you stay focused on what matters. My wife intended to spend quality time in her big teaching gardens project and envision its future. She also intended to envision and take action on a big business change. She felt gratified with both. I intended to make a plan for interview subjects related to my next book and to get clarity on its purpose, audience, and shape. In general, I also just wanted good wonder time and at least a little time in my small orchard. By retreat's end, I felt gratified. If you find yourself doing something not related to your intention, check in: Is this serving me best? Is this something I could do when I'm not in retreat?
4. Sketch a schedule if it helps you check in with your focus. Designer Stefan Sagmeister and his whole firm take a one-year sabbatical every seven years to experiment. At first, he made no plans and got lost in petty distractions and small projects. Then he listed all the activities important to him and that would serve his sabbatical. He took an unlined notebook, sketched his own weekly planner design, and set intentional chunks of time. His sabbatical became far more productive.
Focus is a tricky thing. When your typical distractions vanish, the mind feels like a puppy released from a yard. Where can I go! What can I do! Then it gets about 20 yards away from home and freaks out and returns to the fenced-in yard of familiar, creative habits. Having at least a flexible schedule with big chunks of activities will help you remember what your heart and soul long to do on this retreat - not what your default small self will pull you into. Hillary didn't prefer a schedule. I did.
5. Be open to surprise and serendipity. One great thing about being on retreat is you don't know necessarily what will happen next. If you're focusing on a creative project, keep your mind open to chance discoveries. Our creative minds feed on surprising stimulation. So, get away from your desk or studio, and venture for a walk or bicycle ride. The innovative Modernist composer Eric Satie walked about ten kilometers regularly in France. Roger Shattuck speculated that that regular walking along the same landscape might have been "the source of Satie's sense of musical beat." (Robert Orledge, Satie Remembered.) Thanks to DailyHabits.com for that example. In essence, "seek stimulation from randomness."
6. Daydream and wander. New research suggests that all of your years of daydreaming may not
have been wasted! Seriously, Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been studying people's stray thoughts for several years. Most of our minds stray about 30% of the time. Gulp. That's a lot of wandering. But Schooler suggests that in certain situations - traffic jams, mind-numbing committee meetings - the mind's ability to wander can fuel our creative insight and problem-solving as well as keep us motivated with larger projects. So straight Mindfulness has a new cousin - Mindwanderness. And you'll want both on your retreat.
7. Go slow. This is retreat time. That means slowing down the mind's wheels a notch or two. It means taking a catnap, lounging in a hammock, sauntering, meditating - slow activities that your creative mind needs. Such deliberate slowness nudges open the mind's back doors and basement windows that typically stay closed during the full-force work day.
8. Honor what happened. A retreat is a retreat. If you didn't finish that short story you've been working on for a year or complete the three paintings ready for your next exhibit, so be it. You've likely made progress just by taking the retreat. Refrain from sizing up the experience or flagellating yourself for not "accomplishing" what you expected.
9. Schedule the next one. No need to wait until the summer or next year. Even an eight-hour retreat of sorts could be productive. How about next weekend?
We all know the reasons and excuses why this model might not work for everyone. But how do you take creative retreats? What works for you? What doesn't? What are viable alternatives to the in-house creative retreat for those of us with four kids scurrying about?
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is a writer and creativity consultant. He works with writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and schools around the world. He is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing and teaches in Western Connecticut State University's MFA in Creative and Professional Writing Program.