Last updated on October 8, 2019
To someone with a book dream in their heart, there’s perhaps no more decadent phrase than “writing retreat.”
But what does it mean to take a writing retreat? If you’re going DIY, how should you prepare? What’s different about a solo writing adventure versus a facilitator-led group experience? And regardless, what should you bring with you to make sure you get into—and stay in—that writin’ feeling?
That’s what this article is all about. As someone who has her PhD in “retreat-taking” (and has coached a number of writing retreats, including two separate month-long, finish-your-book retreats in Bali) I have honed the craft. Let’s get you all set up!
What is a “Writing Retreat”?
A writing retreat is a set period of time where you put aside all the responsibilities of your regular life and focus on eating, sleeping and writing.
While hole-ing up in your own house is a definite possibility—as long as you don’t have roomies, children or interruptive cats—most writers find it helpful to find a non-home location for their retreats. This may be as elaborate as a lanai in Hawaii or as simple as a hotel on the other side of town. The key is to get as far away from day-to-day distraction as possible.
While the idea that writing a book requires you to take this solo time “away from it all” is false (most books are written at home, at the office, at the kitchen table, at the local coffee shop, etc.) retreats are highly functional.
A writing retreat…
- Removes lots of the really good excuses we place in the path of our book dreams (“but I have to do the laundry…”)
- Creates a “container” for writing, which helps you actually do it
- Separates you from those you care about (in a good way!) so you can focus
- Helps you gain “muscle memory” for writing, so you can pick your pen back up more easily once you get home
- Gives you a great excuse to take moody walks by the beach, light pretty smelling candles and wear a cozy wrap (true story)
But what a writing retreat really does is signal to your writing partner—by which I mean, Life—that you’re actually, really, fully serious about this writing thing.
What are some of the downfalls of taking a DIY writing retreat? Let’s take a minute to discuss.
How a Writing Retreat Can Go Awry
Most of the mistakes I see aspiring authors make when planning a writing retreat fall under the umbrella of “not actually planning it.”
- They don’t know what to bring and neglect to download a list like this one
- They don’t think through how each day is going to go—i.e. when and for how long they want to be writing
- They don’t bring an outline with them, so they aren’t sure where each writing session should start
- They haven’t planned for unexpected interruptions
- They forget their computer (resistance in disguise!)
But the #1 top issue I see is that they haven’t practiced writing at all before the retreat.
The Power of a Pre-Retreat Writing Practice
Practice writing? you may ask. Isn’t that what the retreat is for?
Here’s the sitch. Many writers who aren’t writing have convinced themselves over a very long period of time that the reason they’re not writing is that they don’t have the time. That’s their downfall—they are sure of it. Time (and the lack thereof) is the only thing standing between them and Hemingwaydom.
Enter the writing retreat: a time specifically set aside for writing and writing only. Surely this will lead them to get words on the page! Right?
Alas, in many instances, what was keeping them from writing wasn’t time at all. And whatever it was, it followed them to Maui. (Or the Berkshires. Or that writing cruise…)
Don’t want to be shocked by the discovery that you can’t write on your writing retreat? There are two fixes.
First, plan your retreat really well. (You’re already getting a head start just reading this article—well done!) I’m going to tell you my top two planning tricks below!
But even before you plan, practice. Set yourself some small-ish writing goals to meet before the retreat. If you cannot meet these goals and you were planning a DIY writing retreat, I suggest postponing it until you get good at writing practice.
(Note: If you’re doing a group retreat with a seasoned facilitator, s/he will very likely be able to help you get your writing groove on. Want to come on retreat with yours truly? Check out my events here.)
One great way to practice is to write your outline before you go. It’s one of my top two “Do’s” of your writing retreat.
Do’s and Dont’s of the DIY Writing Retreat
- Double-check the space. Calling ahead to your retreat space to make sure it’s conducive to writing is critical. You don’t want to show up for this retreat only to find that your room has no desk, is situated immediately above the hotel’s all-night disco, and has only one electrical outlet—conveniently located by the bathroom sink. I learned this lesson the hard way: I once booked an Airbnb for a meditation retreat and discovered it was a duplex with no door to the stairway, and the upstairs neighbor had a parrot. (Which had memorized every permutation of cell phone ring known to womankind.) Do not make my mistake!
- Turn off your notifications. Speaking of cell phone rings. I like to use my phone as a clock and timer, but there’s nothing that will derail my retreat vibe like getting drawn into Instagram, work email or robo-calls. I’m convinced phone notifications will eventually be outlawed as a public health hazard, addiction-causing drain of life force that they are. But until that happens, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands. Go to Settings → Notifications, and turn off notifications for all but one “emergency” application (I choose to receive text notifications but nothing else). Let your friends and family know that you’ll check your phone and email messages once per day, but if they need you immediately they should text.
- Plan to sleep. A lot. I often give myself a full day on the front end of a retreat to do nothing but sleep. Or at least, give myself permission for some epic 2-3 hour naps. Why? Because we modern humans are running ourselves ragged. We move at a pace that is unnatural to our species. We stay up late (thank you, electricity) and ignore our circadian rhythms. In short, when we slow down and get quiet, the first thing we often hear from our own inner voice is, “I need to go to sleep. Please let me sleep.” So let yourself. Ask for some directional dreams, and then write in your journal when you wake up. (I’ve gotten some of my best ideas for business and life that way.) Trust your body and follow its cues.
- Let yourself sit quietly and think. 80% of writing is thinking, so let yourself ponder. Take walks. Sit quietly looking at the sunset. Let your creativity have some space to open up. There’s nothing that will kill a writing retreat faster than forcing yourself to sit at the computer and write—when your body and heart are telling you otherwise.
But what are my very tip-top to-do’s before your writing retreat? I’m so glad you asked.
- Create a daily writing plan before you get there. This is key. As mentioned before, you may end up throwing it out the window. You’ll probably end up doing less than you’d planned. But it gives you something to orient yourself toward, when you’re asking—wait, what am I supposed to be doing right now? I suggest creating a schedule for each day of retreat, which includes time for exercise, short writing times, naps, meals and sitting doing nothing. The biggest mistake new writers make on a DIY writing retreat is to plan too little or too much. You’ll need a firm structure, but you’ll also need room for flow. Not too tight, not too loose. Show up at your computer or notebook when you agreed to, but then—surrender to Life.
- Come with an outline prepared. This might be the most important ‘to-do’ item of the whole list. If you show up to a writing retreat with a 10-12 page outline you will have “micro” assignments ready and waiting every time you sit down. (Want to know what I mean? Download my free outline templates!) The impact of this preparation cannot be overstated: It can be the difference between actually writing and, well, actually not writing. Take the time to prepare your outline before you go and you will be setting yourself up for writing success. Want my outline templates and a bunch of good info about outlining?
And finally: The fun stuff. There’s a list of personal must-haves that I always take with me on retreat. This list has been honed over many years, and I love sharing it so you will be professional-level set-up on your retreat. Download it here for all the goods! And know I’m rooting for you, every step of the way.
Have you ever been on a writing retreat? How did you prepare? What worked and what didn’t? I’d love to know—leave me a comment below!
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.