‘A retreat is a creative space to settle into that allows you to go deep into your projects for a more prolonged period of time than at home’
Today I am delighted to welcome back, author of the Nine Lives Trilogy and Caramel Hearts, E.R. Murray, with a very informative piece on writing retreats.
For many of us, myself included, the idea of a writing retreat conjures up a place of relaxation and chilled glasses of wine, overlooking a lake as the sun goes down. I may have a slightly idealised vision, so Elizabeth has put that to rights today with some facts and a very interesting overview of what’s involved.
She also gives a few suggestions of retreat centres that she herself has been lucky enough to visit, places that sound so tranquil….perfect to refocus the writer’s mind.
Some fascinating information here folks so please do read on…
Writing Retreats – Settling into Creative Spaces
by ER Murray
I regularly use writing retreats as a place to reset and do some extremely focused work on my latest project(s). I love travel so I choose interesting locations, such as Australia, Iceland, Spain and France as well as other parts of Ireland. I also love hiking so I try and choose places that can feed my outdoor needs. I buy books from the area – books that I may not have come across otherwise – because new places unearth new desires and emotions. I also love colour and visuals so I record the various places I visit, especially the natural world, through photographs and words.
I’ve discovered, however, that I may have been giving the wrong impression about what a writing retreat is/is not and how it can help a writer (or other creative person) with their work. Many people imagine me in sunny climes, relaxing by a pool and enjoying long lazy lunches, or sleeping the day away in relaxed bliss, when in fact, the truth is completely opposite. A retreat is a creative space to settle into that allows you to go deep into your projects for a more prolonged period of time than at home.
And so, I thought I would try to dispel a few of those myths (that I may have helped to create) while talking about why writing retreats are important to me – and might be useful to you.
A writing retreat is…
A place to create and focus on creativity. The space to work to your own rhythm. Somewhere to think and achieve and read and explore. Somewhere to go deep into your work and unlock the themes that have been evading you. A place to catch those elusive threads and cling on tightly to them, so you can begin to unravel them. The work you do in a retreat is intense, full, exploratory and should feed into the work you continue to do at home. It’s like an intense warm-up before a marathon. It’s not a standalone experience – it pulls together all the work that’s gone before and opens new chapters for the work to come.
What a writing retreat is not…
An excuse or substitute for not writing at home. A taught course, a workshop (though some retreats can combine taught elements with the space to write). A place to go to be handheld. Somewhere you expect to be nurtured by another creative (though of course, friendships happen). The chance to fix everything on your WIP. The opportunity to write a full and complete novel. A place where you hang out all night chatting and drinking wine (this may happen but it will be rare – people will continue their night with work, thinking, reading).
Why it might be useful
For me, giving dedicated time to a creative space like a retreat enables me to flip the day and my priorities on their head and regain some balance. It’s inevitable that over time, work stuff pushes its way to the fore – contracts, invoices, events organisation, teaching, freelance work, social media, all take time and pay the bills – so now and again I find it helpful to give the creative stuff complete priority. Even if I choose to continue freelancing while on retreat (if it’s a three week or month retreat, I’ll usually work half of it), this work comes later, when all the creative projects goals have been completed for the day.
Lovely room at La Muse Retreat, France
How to choose yours
Retreats are available all round the world, in different locations, catered and self-catering. It might sound obvious but you have to choose what’s right for you – your needs, your tastes, any special requirements. Don’t make do; this is not a holiday. You’ll be spending a lot of time in your chosen retreat and a lot of time alone, with just your brain for company. There will be other creative people around, but they’ll all be intensely focused on their own project and might not even want to speak at all. So for instance, if you hate insects, don’t choose somewhere in tropical countries. If you need coffee shops for some thinking/work time, don’t choose somewhere remote. If you’re writing, you need a good desk. Check these things out carefully before selecting where you want to go.
I’d recommend you have a goal in mind. Know what you’re working on and what you want to achieve. It might a redraft of a chapter/several stories/a book. It might be to complete a first draft. It might be to get as many new story ideas down as possible – first drafts, no editing. You might need to order a poetry collection, fix some dialogue, delete 20,000 words from a longwinded draft; only you know what you need and how you can achieve it. Bring with you everything you need to get that work done – notebooks, highlighters, wall charts, playlists, diaries, emotion thesaurus, documentaries (and headphones!), warm socks, your favourite scarf. And then, prepare to be flexible – sometimes your work might take a different turn and that’s OK too. But having a goal gets you focused, which is the best first step for a retreat.
It can be difficult getting your head around a retreat at first, especially if there’s some crossover with people arriving/leaving/or who have already been there a while. Give yourself a day to find your rhythm. You may find that your routine that works at home doesn’t work at all once you’re alone with your work, surrounded by quietly working strangers, in a new environment. Explore the building and the local environment, hunt out the amenities you might need, make use of communal spaces, and get to know the other people on retreat at the appropriate times(outside of quiet hours). This will set you up for the work ahead, help you relax and feel comfortable, and give you some friendly faces that you recognise for the times when you feel lonely or the work is getting tough.
The lake in the grounds of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland
Making sense of time
People think that three weeks alone with a writing project is easy and blissful and will help the writer achieve a state of zen that will magically transform whatever project currently under scrutiny into a work of genius. That may be true to an extent, but there will be up and down days, frustrating days, days where expectations aren’t met, where goals doesn’t go according to plan. I often come across people who are completely phased by their own company for so long. I live a quiet, secluded life and every time I go on a retreat of three weeks or more I get a blip about midway – a kind of melancholy day, where things don’t sit quite right. I now recognise it for what it is – a day of evaluation, where recuperation and rest is needed. But we’re often so grateful for getting the chance to work just on creative projects, we forget that a break is also needed. Take walks, sightsee, eat different foods – open the senses, participate in the world you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in, and this will help you remain balanced and focused.
I usually do an evaluation about halfway through the retreat because this helps me see if I’ve stayed on track and helps me guide any unexpected diversions into measurable goals. It also helps me deal with the weird melancholy day. It’s difficult to measure writing so seeing progress is a good way to stay motivated – this is my standard everyday practice at home too. I find evaluation extremely helpful, but it should be quick and focused and not an excuse for procrastination. One does not replace the other; you need both the evaluation and writing. And at the end of the retreat I find it useful to make a list of what you’ve covered/achieved and how you’re feeling – followed by a checklist of what needs to come next. It’s a visual way of mapping progress but also preparing for the next chunk of work. You can highlight elements that have had a positive impact on your work, and think of ways to integrate that into your routine at home. After all, the retreat is a warm up, a sprint, but the everyday is the marathon.
Rainbows & waterfalls in Iceland
Some retreats I’ve worked in and recommend:
La Muse Retreat, near Carcassonne, France
Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Monaghan, Ireland
Gulkistan, Laugarvatn, Iceland
Varuna, Blue Mountains, Australia (you can apply for a place via the Tyrone Guthrie Centre)
Elizabeth Rose Murray writes fiction for children and young adults.
She lives in West Cork where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and enjoys plenty of outdoor adventures.
Elizabeth joined me for a wonderful Q & A session last year which you can read HERE
Her novels include the Nine Lives Trilogy and Caramel Hearts.
Website ~ https://ermurray.com/
Twitter ~ @ERMurray
This is most interesting! I think that, as well as your other warnings, some think that a writers’ retreat will somehow make them better writers, or just more ‘writerly’, by some weird creative magic! But it’s all down to you and your laptop, wherever you are.
Must be lovely to go on, if only to spend quiet time in a beautiful setting and have no interruptions like ‘Oh no, I’ve got to change the beds/go shopping’, etc!
Thanks Terry. I agree with you. These centres sound a great place to regroup and refocus without all the interruptions that life brings… Thank you for your thoughts!