When my husband decided in October that he’d be making a quick trip out of town in early December, I immediately knew what I’d be doing that weekend: an at-home writing retreat.
Credit for my inspiration belongs to Linda Hasselstrom, a friend and mentor who has run writing retreats at her South Dakota ranch home for twenty years (someday I’ll share how Linda saved my writing life back in the fall of 2007). A year and a half ago, Linda and I found ourselves experimenting with the at-home retreat model at the same time; she wrote about her experience on her Windbreak House blog. That piece, like her other posts on writing retreats, is full of the sort of steely pragmatism and insightful generosity anyone who has worked with Linda will recognize.
Having dabbled with the model before, I knew preparation would be key. Doug’s trip provided the necessary solitude, and I immediately started hoarding leftovers in the freezer so I wouldn’t have to cook that weekend (I knew better than to be tempted to use retreat time for dietary asceticism; my brain works harder than usual during these things, and it needs fuel—preferably carbs). I also planned to clear the decks of household chores the week before: bills would be paid, firewood stocked, laundry beat back from spilling into the hall. I established my rules for contact with the outside world in advance. I don’t worry much about unscheduled visitors or phone calls, but the Internet is a deadly distraction. I would be allowed to turn the modem on to check email once a day; otherwise, the wireless hotspot would be off.
The logistical details are less important than the commitment such planning represents. By far the most critical aspect of the at-home retreat is mental. The traditional writing retreat involves removing oneself from the everyday, but by definition an at-home retreat takes place in familiar territory, where you’ll be vulnerable to sabotage by habit and routine. Do whatever you need to do to convince yourself that this time will be special, even devotional, and I do not use the word lightly. You’ll be dedicating yourself to words for a few days; craft is part of that, but the retreat spirit runs deeper. It’s selfish, and impractical, and that’s the point. Treat this time as a gift. It’s okay to be ambitious, but don’t impose ridiculous expectations. Plan to write, but also to read, and nap, and walk, and sit still, and journal or sketch. The retreat is a reflective interlude, not boot camp.
By the time my retreat weekend rolled around, this framework of self-generosity was wobbly. I was frazzled and desperate, not because writing had gotten squeezed out of my life, but because I’d been writing hard and getting nowhere. I’d been working on a 1000-word section, about the length of this blog, since the second week of November. I would arrange and rearrange sentences and paragraphs that contained, I knew, what I wanted to say, but the elements just weren’t working together. Every time I thought I’d nailed it, I’d take one look the next morning and shred everything.
I usually work upstairs in my office. I wanted to break my routine, however, so on Friday morning I launched my retreat by writing in my journal propped up in bed, using a pillow as a desk, the day’s first cup of tea on the table next to me. Avoiding my workspace felt a little like taking a sick day, and I didn’t mind the implications. The goal was self-care, verging on indulgence.
For the rest of the weekend, I wrote and read on the couch in front of the fire, or in bed, and when I needed to work on my computer, I sat at the dining room table. I worked on my pages. I read, and took short walks. I stared out the windows, wrote a lot in my journal, napped. I stayed up late one night and fell asleep early the next.
My back was killing me by Sunday, crying out for my somewhat ergonomic office set-up. By then, though, I’d broken through. I’d given the troublesome pages a place at the center of two full days, and they reciprocated by aligning themselves and then extending to a few thousand words of respectable draft: nothing earthshaking, and yet everything.
I was still working on Sunday, but my mind was starting to drift. I noticed that the Norfolk pine was pathetically wilted, begging for water. With that, the retreat was done. I reheated some lunch, watered the plants, and moved my computer back up to my office. I managed to fit in a businesslike hour or two of editing before it was time to start fixing a simple dinner with which to welcome Doug home.
After those two days, I was mentally wrung out. I knew the at-home retreat had been a success because I felt exactly the way I do at the end of one of Linda’s Windbreak House retreats: dazed but exhilarated, dizzy in the face of everything still needing done but happy with what I’d accomplished.
I’m not a fast writer, and never will be. In the week since I finished my retreat, new pages have been accumulating in their usual very slow way. Whatever had me stuck has released me, for now. I know I would have ground my way through the trouble spot without the retreat, but there’s no question it helped.
The beauty of the at-home retreat is the short commute. Staying in place takes some mental gamesmanship, but I think it’s worthwhile, as long as the technique is used sparingly. Developing a regular writing schedule, for me, required thinking of writing as a job. A writing retreat, whether at home or somewhere else, is intense, and it feels too self-indulgent to be made a habit. Still, I’ll do it again, sometime–and the when I do, I’ll be sure to water the plants before I start.