Making The Most Of A Creative Retreat

Taking part in a creative retreat can enhance your writing process. It can also improve your overall life.

Religious and spiritual people go on retreat to step away from daily life and become more in touch with the divine or their best selves.

If you’re creative, a retreat serves a similar purpose. It allows you a concentrated time to connect with the artist within, to stimulate your mind, and to immerse yourself in your art without distractions.

When, where, how long, and how to structure a retreat can vary. Here are some things to keep in mind:

When Is The Ideal Time To Go On A Retreat?

The best time to attend a retreat is when it won’t cause you too much stress to be away. (This affects the length of the retreat, too–see more below.)

If you’re worried about what’s happening at home or work or feel you’re shirking your responsibilities, you won’t be able to relax and focus.

But if the only way to take part in a retreat is to check on a few projects or do a minimal amount of paid work, don’t let that stop you. If you choose the right environment, you’ll be able to do that without undermining your creativity.

Rabbit Hole retreat working session.

As far as the time of year goes, if you are concerned about your budget, look for (or organize) a retreat in the off-season, also called the “shoulder season” in the travel business. This is the time when most people don’t want to go to a particular place, but it’s still pleasant enough if your plan is mainly to write, engage with other artists, and create.

For instance, if you visit a ski resort in May, you may still find lovely hiking trails and a quaint village nearby, but you will pay lower hotel or condo rates.

I once attended a retreat in Palm Springs a month after spring break. It was very hot out, too hot for most people, so we got a great hotel rate and structured the retreat around the weather. We had indoor meetings and writing during the hottest part of the day. We met outside in the shade in the morning and after dark near the pool.

Where Is The Best Place?

With sites like AirBnB you can go pretty much anywhere in the world, so the “where” has more to do with budget and time. If you have little of both, you can organize or join in a local retreat for a day.

A day may not sound like very long, but simply to focus on your writing for one day without other distractions, and with people who share your love of the written word or of other types of art, can be renewing and give you energy throughout the rest of the year.

One-day locations can include libraries, forest preserves, someone’s home, conference rooms, college campuses, or pretty much anywhere you can host a meeting that allows for enough space.

You will also want to think about what will both stimulate your mind and help you relax, which usually involves a change of place if you can afford it.

Because I live near the heart of downtown Chicago, I like retreats that get me outdoors, ideally near a lake or a river, with somewhere that I can walk. The creative retreat I attended last year had a historic old cemetery that had lovely paths. (Perfect for writing horror.)

If you live in a more rural area, you might find a city with architecture you love or clubs that have live music you can enjoy at night that will help you unwind and feel you’ve stepped out of your day-to-day life.

Remember that you will want some options for recreation. Part of creating is relaxing and enjoying life, and part of getting ideas is feeding your mind and heart and soul.

You’ll also need to be sure your location has resources you’ll need, such as WiFi or a kitchen (if you’re bringing your own food).

How Long Should The Retreat Be?

As mentioned above, you can do a retreat for a day if that’s what’s workable in your budget and timetable.

If you can manage it, though, I find a week away is ideal.

The first day usually is a travel and transition day where you’ll still be thinking about your regular work and life. The next few days you can gradually immerse yourself in whatever projects you’ve chosen to focus on. The last few days allow you to truly unwind and relax, which leads to a return with renewed energy and excitement.

A ten-day or two-week retreat might also work, though for some people being away that long creates anxiety.

It also can become tiring. If you’re in close quarters with a small group, that’s a lot of time to coexist. It’s also a lot of time to be away from the people you care about and usually see in your life. Sometimes, though, especially if you have a particularly stressful work life, two weeks is perfect for getting away.

What Are Some Way To Structure The Retreat?

Unlike conferences, which are typically about attending organized sessions where experts speak, retreats are about getting your own work done.

If you’re looking for critiquing and instruction, you’ll want to find a retreat with other writers who are around your skill level or better and/or that’s run by an instructor from whom you’d like to learn.

For novelists, these types of retreats often involve exchanging 1-3 chapters and perhaps an outline in advance. The participants and instructor critique the pages, usually both in writing and in person. Everyone retreats to their rooms (or their spaces outside) and rewrites for a few hours, then the pages are exchanged and critiqued again.

If you’re looking less for critiquing and more for inspiration and focus, you can look for a retreat that involves exchanging work with others to read but not to critique. This provides accountability to someone else. You can also ask for positive comments only or have the others simply relay back what they recall about the story so you can see if you’ve conveyed what you’d hoped.

This is most helpful if you are a beginning writer and need encouragement and accountability but feel critiques might inhibit your process.

Finally, you can go on a retreat where you don’t share your work at all (or where you and a coauthor work together but don’t share with anyone else). In this type of retreat, there are typically hours throughout the day when participants work on their own projects. They then come together for meals or to unwind and talk at different times during the day.

The advantage of this type of retreat is you clear out the rest of your life to focus on one or two projects. You also have the support and stimulus of talking with other creative people.

I just returned from this kind of retreat. It helped me generate ideas for a second book in my new mystery series and fill in chapters in a book I’m working on about character development. I also learned about string theory and the universe, as the game designers on the retreat are creating a game that includes those concepts. I’m not sure how that will play into my fiction in the future, but I’m sure it will.

All these types of retreats should also provide you time to absorb the creative work of others. I reread two novels (The Dead Zone and Gone Girl) on retreat and annotated them to use as examples in my book on characters. I also started a third novel, a mystery, that I’d never read before.

In my normal life, I can’t read that much.

If you can do a retreat this year or next, please consider it, especially if you’re feeling burnt out or stuck in your writing or you are longing to surge forward and reach a new level.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more about the retreat experience, particularly about feeling as if I were in an almost magical place away from “real life,” check out my author blog from last year’s Rabbit Hole Retreat.

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