“Most productive week of my life”: A Self-Guided, At-Home Writer’s Retreat

A version of this article first appeared on the Nonfiction Authors Association’s blog on May 23 2019.

Beyond my budget!

Problem: As a member of various writers’ groups, I often receive notices about writers’ retreats, usually in exotic (and expensive!) locations. These retreats generally last between three and five days, many offer “yoga for all levels,” (they clearly haven’t seen me lately!), and all feature erudite experts who will lead participants in writing exercises to unblock our repressed creativity, and so on. There’s also plenty of free time to relax, explore, and enjoy local cuisine.

Sounds dreamy! But by the time I added up travel, accommodation, and meal costs to the several hundred dollars charged for registration, it was all way beyond my budget.

Solution: Design an at-home self-guided writer’s retreat for myself!

Using the advertised retreats as an example, I created my own program. The result was a wonderful week of intensely creative writing, reading, relaxing, and pampering!

I enjoyed this experience so much that I have included a template for you to plan your own at-home writer’s retreat.

Plan a Self-Guided, At-Home Retreat

Here are some headings for you to consider as your design your retreat:

  1. Title of self-guided retreat: Professional retreats go by titles like “Write by the Ocean” or “Blue Mountain Writers’ Retreat.” Choose anything relevant and lofty-sounding for your retreat.
  2. Goals: You might choose a creative writing-related goal, or do intensive research for a new project, or do something more administrative to do with promoting your last project (set up Amazon Ads; upload a Kindle version; pitch for podcasts or guest blog posts, etc.). But I’d caution you to ask: Is this goal really “retreat-worthy”?
  3. Budget: By my calculations, I would have spent well over $1,000 to attend one of the retreats I saw advertised. I set a $200 limit for my at-home retreat, which would cover a couple of restaurant meals and a massage. What budget would work for you?
  4. Preparation phase: To make the most of your actual retreat days, it helps to prepare mentally and logistically beforehand. For example, I went to the library so that I would already have the books I needed on hand during my retreat; I stocked up on groceries so no such mundane chores would divert me during my retreat; and of course I warned my family that I would be “away”/unavailable for five days.
  5. Program: I created a table with activities and evaluations/reflections for each day, divided into morning, afternoon and evening slots. (See details about suggested activities below.)
  6. Logistics: I moved into our guest room for the week, to signal to myself and my family (who kindly humoured me on this and many other points) that I really was “away on retreat” for the week! I did minimal housework and meal prep the whole week, with my family gamely covering for me. I made a sign saying “Respect the flow” and placed it beside my keyboard. I closed my office door when writing and stayed in there for as long as possible without leaving. I found that my ideal “work chunk” is somewhere between 1.5 – 2 hours. What’s yours?

Suggested Activities

Borrowing mercilessly from ideas gleaned from the professional retreats that had initially inspired this idea, I planned for:

  1. Some physical activity (early morning walks or bike rides, a mini-yoga session following along on YouTube).
  2. Outings to “inspiring places” nearby that I seldom make time to visit (playing tourist in my own neighbourhood to get a fresh perspective on things).
  3. Visualizing exercises (again, YouTube is the best source: there are even some clips for visualizing success that target authors specifically).
  4. A couple of treat meals out, both to avoid time-wasting meal prep and clean-up at home, but also to mark the fact that this week is really special.
  5. Intensive reading and learning about writing (I devoured Stephen King’s highly recommended “On Writing” [2000], and watched some excellent Ted Talks on the craft of writing; I read several poetry books, and started reading a new book in my genre).
  6. Brief daily journaling to reflect on the day’s activities, insights, ideas for new projects, and feedback for my next retreat.
  7. But mainly, mainly reams of uninterrupted, focused time to write and brainstorm about my next project(s).

Reflections

This first retreat could not have gone better! I was infinitely more productive than during a normal week. In fact, as the title says, this was the most productive week of my life.

  1. In the end, I spent less than $30 on restaurant meals, $85 on a 1.5-hour massage, and had no other out-of-pocket expenses.
  2. I felt strangely validated: “Only writers go on writers’ retreats, right? I am on a writer’s retreat, therefore I must be a writer!” (I still have a hard time believing in myself as a writer even though I’ve published five books with mainstream publishers, numerous others with non-profit organizations, and self-published another one just last year. Maybe it’s “imposter syndrome” or maybe it’s internalized sexism, but either way I still need a confidence boost…)
  3. But it’s the explosion of creativity and productivity that was so remarkable. Maybe “cascade” is a better term, because each new idea seemed to spark a related but independent idea. I started the week with one new blank document open on my desktop, and planned to focus on that project for the five days. By the end of the week, I had five separate documents, each representing a potential new writing project, and each, I can absolutely guarantee, would not have been “born” were it not for the magical creative bubble that my at-home retreat provided. My total output for the five days was 63 pages, or 12,650 words. That’s 12.6 pages or 2,530 words a day. King (2000:156) recommends that writers should set a goal of 1,000 words a day. I got two-and-a-half times more. And not to be competitive or anything, but the famously prolific King says he sets himselfa goal of 10 pages or 2,000 words a day (2000:154). Ha! (Granted, he sustains his output consistently, year after year. Maybe I need to go on a permanent retreat! Mind you, King admits that his wife is a major support to him. Maybe I just need a wife!)

So there you have it, fellow writers. I cannot recommend this strategy highly enough. What will it take for you to design and manage your own writer’s retreat? Perhaps on your retreat, you might write a story you’ll consider submitting to my new anthology project: Tales from Bipolar Country! (See the guidelines for contributors here.)

To your success!

2 comments on “Most productive week of my life”: A Self-Guided, At-Home Writer’s Retreat

  • Michelle

    Love this idea…thank you for sharing Merryl!

    • Merryl Hammond

      Thanks for posting, Michelle. An update to further motivate you: since I did my initial self-guided retreat, I’ve found that I can create “mini-retreats” here and there (e.g. an evening during the week; a full day on the weekend, etc.) to continue with the progress I made during the initial 5-day retreat. But without that original impetus, I would simply let these other occasions just pass me by… Good luck with your writing!

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