When Life Gets in the Way, Retreat

Taking a retreat is a way of letting your brain relax into itself.

Posted Apr 09, 2013

Some writers are happy working surrounded by hustle and bustle. Not me. I need quiet and solitude. That’s why I’m big on the writing retreat. And it required two of them recently to muscle through to the end of a book I've been working on, so they’re on my mind.

Have you ever taken a retreat of any kind? A silent retreat? A retreat to think through a big decision? A retreat to get something in particular accomplished?

Even though I work at home and have the house to myself most days, solitary retreats still help me keep my head straight and, more important, get writing work done. Sometimes I need to escape everything that must be done around the house in order to focus. And I need a different view for a fresh perspective. Also a clear calendar and complete control of my daily schedule.

On a retreat, I sleep and wake when I want, and eat when and whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs or trying to work around anyone else’s schedule. I might write late into the night and sleep late. I eat strange little meals all day long (a bowl of cereal here, an apple and cheese there). During writing breaks, I meditate, do yoga, take walks. And yes, my personal hygiene suffers, but there's nobody around to offend so who cares?

My first writing retreat in the mid 1980s was epic. I took a break from my contract job, loaded my clunky, prehistoric desktop computer into my car, and drove from Texas to Maine, where I had rented a cottage by a lake. This was before writing was a career and I just dabbled in fiction. Over about two months, I produced a handful of short stories. It was an absolutely wonderful experience until suddenly it wasn’t. A week before scheduled, feeling depleted and homesick, I packed everything up and drove home.

Not that I would rule out another long one, but my retreats have been much shorter since then. The recent retreats were unusually long--four and five days, although these were almost back to back. I didn’t get the book done on the first retreat, so after a few days home, I packed up my laptop and took off again.

A retreat doesn’t have to be fancy or far away to be effective. Although one of my recent retreats was a five-hour drive from home; the second was less than an hour away. These days I’m booking through airbnb, finding some excellent places for less than $75 a night.

Here are my must-haves for a good retreat:

Nice surroundings: I have a friend who says he writes best looking at a brick wall. Not me. I need someplace pretty and with a view, so I don’t feel punished staying inside with my computer. If there’s someplace I can work outside, all the better.

A kitchen of some sort: Even if it’s just a fridge, microwave, and coffee maker. I bring along food that doesn’t need a lot of prep: cheese, fruit, yogurt, cereal, crackers, deli meat. While I will go out to eat sometimes (and succumb to fast food sometimes), I mostly don’t bother and just graze on what I have.

Someplace to walk or hike: Great for thinking. Maine was nirvana for that. My last two retreats weren’t ideal. There were no trails nearby so I walked the rural roads in the immediate area, but couldn't go far without hitting busy thoroughfares. 

WiFi: For research, and to stay on top of other work and in touch with friends and family, although I try not to spend a lot of time interacting online during retreats.

Conversation optional: I like going days without conversation; it frees up all my words for the page.

A goal: I don't think I could do just a goofing around retreat. I think a retreat needs a purpose, be it writing, meditating, quitting smoking, intensive reading, or a cleansing fast. Even sewing. One woman on my Facebook page says she takes retreats to quilt. Very cool.

On my last retreat, I spent almost all my time working, mostly sitting in a big cushy armchair by a window, which sounds a lot better than turned out to be. There was nothing remotely ergonomically correct about the setup and I hurt in all kinds of places by the end of my stay. I work mostly at a standing desk at home, so I’m going to think about ways I might be able to adapt a table or desk next time.

Every retreat has given me ideas for improving my work situation at home. After one where I did most of my work on a balcony overlooking woods, I had my front porch screened in, so I can work there sometimes. (Mosquitoes are a problem here.) I cleared a lot of clutter from my office since realizing how soothing spare spaces are for me. Now I’m planning to buy a bird feeder for outside my office window, after staying  at a place where my “desk” was by a window with a very busy bird feeder right outside. It was delightful.

But home can never be a real retreat. Those are always away, and they are good medicine. Retreats give my brain space to relax into its own shape. They're a sorbet for my mind, a place to refresh and rethink. They allow me to drift a little, stop caring about anything but the purpose of the retreat. Plus, they help me stay disciplined. I get things done.

Yes, I finally hit “send” on the manuscript. I hope you will look for the book this fall; it’s called 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go

My recent book is The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. Check it out. And please come to my Facebook page and see what other introverts are talking about.