Retreating to Write

First stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
First stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Retreating usually means to withdraw from something. A scene from “The Patriot” comes to mind when the militia retreats from the British in order to lead them into an ambush. I sort of did the same thing. Without the bloodshed, though. I retreated from my everyday life and schedule, and retreated to something. This writing retreat was scheduled months ago, and it turned out to be perfect timing. Last month was Mayhem March, with a full schedule that didn’t allow any writing time. April is calmer; however, there is a huge event at the end of the month that requires a lot of preparation on my part. As it turns out, it’s another retreat – a women’s retreat. So I set out with road trip snacks and several goals down on paper, and headed to the mountains of southwest Virginia, not far from the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.

A spot on the campus to think, write, pray, or just distress.
A spot on the campus to think, write, pray, or just de-stress.

I chose this particular location because it holds memories for me. The last two years of my Bible College years were spent there preparing for ministry. The college was closed years ago and is now a conference center, among other purposes. As a licensed pastor, I have the benefit of using an apartment for up to one week each year at no charge. It makes it a cost effective, and beautiful, place to run away to write.

Since this was the first writing retreat I’ve done, I gathered many tips from friends and online articles which were very helpful. My intent is not to rehash what others have already put out there. I’m sharing my personal experience, what I learned, and what I might do differently.

Things I Discovered:

  1. Outlining a book is essential for me. When I started my book ten or so years ago, I didn’t have any plan at all. Nada. A few years later, I took an online writing course and put together a very basic plan and partial outline. The problem: I was at a place in the book with no plan. It’s hard to knock out thousands of words when I have no idea where I want to take the story. It meant I had to spend some time after I arrived to decide where the book would go.
  2. I would probably never make it as a full-time writer. I don’t see this in my future, anyway; however, I definitely don’t have the focus or discipline to write for hours straight every day. In my last blog, “Discoveries of the Writing Process,” I talked about how I am my own distraction. And nothing has changed since then.
  3. Detailed planning is key. By detailed planning, I mean detailed planning. I sketched out a schedule each day, in 30 minute increments, to help guide me toward my goals. Granted, I didn’t stick to it exactly, but that’s okay. Without it, I would’ve been willy-nilly all over the place and not much writing would have happened.

Things I Would Do Again:

  1. Pack printer and supplies. I’m old school and prefer to edit off of paper as opposed to the computer screen. Since my printer is small and portable, this was a feasible idea. Turns out I didn’t need to print much, but it still came in handy and I would’ve regretted it if I hadn’t taken it with me.
  2. Make goals and break up the tasks. I tend to over plan and had a total of eight goals written out. Then I broke down each one by the four days I had available in order to make them doable. For instance, my goal was to add 10,000 words to the book, which averaged out to 2,500 words per day. Because of my short attention span, I broke those 2,500 words down to four to five 30-minute segments throughout each day.
  3. Sightsee and eat out. This really makes it sound more like a vacation instead of a retreat. I’m not Wonder Woman at writing (or anything else, for that matter), so there’s no way I can write 24/7 and not take time out for a bit of fun and relaxation. The reason I would do this again is it helps to break up the time and gets me out of the confines of an apartment. I was strategic, though, and took writing stuff with me, which weaved a bit of productivity into those times.
  4. Plot stories in my head and pray while traveling. The six-hour road trip provided plenty of opportunity to think ahead about the stories to be started as well as pray for the trip. About halfway into the drive, however, the mountain curves demanded my attention. I think I’ll blame those curves for why I didn’t plot out the cavernous holes in the book’s story.

Things I Would Do Differently:

  1. Fewer and healthier snacks. After my last few road trips, I’ve noticed a tendency to go overboard with the snacks. While it’s essential to have snacks to fuel my brain’s energy, I don’t need five boxes of crackers, two bags of chips (which were never opened), pretzels, etc. Healthier snacks packed with protein are better at helping my brain function well.
  2. Limit the number of projects. Like I said, I tend to be an over-planner. Over four days, I had six writing projects, in addition to some reading and spiritual activities planned. I think if I were to focus on fewer projects, I wouldn’t have felt so schizophrenic.

There are other, smaller things I would do again, like leaving the laptop on all the time so it’s ready to go in the case of insomnia (it happened). While I think this will become an annual tradition, I don’t always need to “get out of Dodge” in order to have a writing retreat. For example, I’m finishing up this blog at the local beach before I head a few blocks over to the library, and then to my favorite restaurant for a late lunch. Everyone’s experiences and goals are different for getting away. Whether you retreat to write, get alone with God, or to have some time away from the spouse and kids, plan it well and it will be a success.

Another favorite place on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Another favorite place on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Where is your favorite or ideal hideaway place?

6 thoughts on “Retreating to Write

  1. Very impressive!! I will enjoy your continued progress writing. Great pictures and glad you had an opportunity to take a road trip. Some times the only real retreat can happen when you step away from home where people can find you and distract you. I shall look forward to more writings from our Beloved Pastor Pam!! In His love and Mine~Steph White

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! You are so right about getting away. I was able to unplug and focus. Okay, maybe at least a little.

  2. I remember when you asked for tips on going on a writer’s retreat. I’m so glad it worked out for you. It is important to find out what works for you, rather than everybody else’s ways. For example you say you have trouble with concentrating for long periods. I’m the opposite – funnily enough something I attribute to not going to Sunday School, but rather staying with the adults and learning to sit still for long sermons in the church. Given the chance, when I write I can go for hours – days even – immersed in the fictional world I’ve created and oblivious to life around me. I find it frustrating to have children/pets/housework who need my attention, dragging me out of the imaginary world. Writer’s retreats are an amazing experience and you are right, they don’t need to be in an isolated log cabin high on a mountain.

    1. Kat, I envy you. I don’t think I’ve ever been as focused as you. Even as a child I remember sitting in church with my mom, playing with her thumbnail to keep occupied. But she was also good at playing games on paper with me. I used some of the tips I gathered from others; but you’re right, everyone has to find out what works for them and go for it.

  3. I’ve never been on a retreat to write, so I must admit that I envy you. I love where I live (Vermont) and find writing at home to be quite wonderful. I don’t mind the interruptions, as I find that sometimes I lose track of time while writing and need my dog to let me know he needs attention. With that said, I would like to try getting away for a week to simply write and see what happens. Thanks for your insights.

    1. Vermont is beautiful, James, so I don’t blame you for being satisfied with writing at home. While I don’t have interruptions at home, I have plenty of distractions so I tend to do my most productive writing when I go elsewhere. Without a full blown writing retreat (this was my first one), my favorite local places are the library, parks, the beach, and Panera Bread. Getting away for a week once a year is a nice bonus. And with living in New England, you have a ton of gorgeous places to get away to that aren’t very far away from home.

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