Friday, September 25, 2015

Retreat Retreating Retreated. Why I Love Writing Retreats

This retreat felt different.

It is a place I know--"The Barn" at Boyd's Mill, a retreat facility run by the Highlights Foundation. This was my fourth time retreating with them, and let me tell you, these people are experts.

I am something of an expert now myself on what makes a perfect retreat, and I think what it comes down to is a blend of

  • setting (remote countryside/woods in Eastern Pennsylvania) 
  • characters (writers)
  • plot (extended, unstructured time to write)

Oh, and

  • food. In this case, chef-prepared meals, three times a day. Appetizers and wine at night. All you can eat snacks. (I am a sucker for Twizzlers and somehow, they know that.) 

Woods. OMG Do you see a bear?
For this retreat, I'd signed up for what they call an "unworkshop." You get to use the facilities, eat the food, and chat it up with whatever writers happen to be hanging out at the same time.

I was looking forward to the quiet. The walks in the woods. Making real progress on a new manuscript.

I didn't get as much quiet as I'd planned.

There happened to be tons of other writers unworkshopping, as well as a more formal novel writing workshop going on. I know a lot of these people, some in real life (I carpooled to Boyd's Mill with my writer friend Natalie D. Richards) and some from online. The YA book world isn't very large and many of us have bumped into each other at a conference or book signing or virtually bumped into each other on social media. These people are my friends, and I wanted to chat with them-- instead of holing myself up in a quiet cabin and writing.

Someone saw a bear when she was walking in the woods!! So, uh, that put a slight damper on  my wanting to take walks alone goal. I did, one day, take the risk and hiked out into the woods, live tweeting that "event" in case a bear happened to attack me... and I guess a twitter follower might notify the authorities of my death by bear mauling?

And I took lots of walks with other writers. We had conversations that ranged from, oh my God did you hear that? Is that a bear? To working out plot holes in our stories. To freezing and pointing into the dark underbrush at--oh my GOD--do you think that was a bear?

I ate too much food.

It's an issue I have. Throw food at me, particularly gourmet food, food that I do not have to prepare myself, and I will eat it. Also, if you throw wine at me, I will drink it. Luckily, Highlights had purchased lots of wine for me.

I mean, for us.

One day I did the 7 AM yoga. Lately, I get up extremely early. Boom. Six AM and I am snapping awake for no good reason and often I will ponder about that. WHY am I waking up so damn early?? I will think. And why did I not have this particular skill in years past when my kids were young and I was cursing the dawn (and them) and blearily waking to feed them and praying that I could lie back down while they were engrossed in Scooby Doo episodes?

But I digress.

Yoga. It was fun. Just me and one other early riser.

I felt very virtuous that morning and rewarded myself by eating several extra slices of bacon.

The talks we retreat-goers had a dinner were illuminating. Stuff about the writing process and what we are working on and struggling with and excited about. But also stuff about finding balance between writing and life. Spouses. Kids. Book promotion. The Publishing Business.

I don't know how I would've felt about conversations like this on my first retreat. Back then, I was just trying to break in. Publishing was an impenetrable wall and I had no idea how to scale it. Now I'm on the other side.

First lesson: there are more walls.

Most of the people on this retreat have at least one book out. Some have many. One morning the topic veered to money. Specifically: How Do You Make a Living Writing Books When the Reality Is That It's Nearly Impossible To Make a Living Writing Books?

The answer? You do what you can. Teach (like the writers who were facilitating the novel writing workshop). Critique manuscripts. Write in other genres (a popular moneymaking venture, apparently, is writing erotica under a pen name).

Most of the writers have non-writing jobs.

When I wasn't chatting or trekking through bear country or eating, I was writing. The Barn has a loft--a place I'd discovered the last time I was there--and I claimed it for myself again, spreading out my papers and laptop and Twizzlers and tapping away during the afternoons.

My big goal was to input a first draft into a new Scrivener document, but I wasn't quite sure how to set that up and in a moment of pure serendipity, I discovered that one of the other writers teaches classes on using Scrivener, and she got me all squared away. So, HA!

That alone was worth the price of admission.

That and the bacon. And the never-seen-by-me bear.

I am thinking that bear may have been made up. It was a writer, after all, who claimed to have seen it.

portrait of a writer on retreat