Saturday, May 27, 2006

Retreats

I always thought of a writing retreat as a time you take to get away from every day life, maybe travel away from home, and either discuss writing or write your brains out.

The first time I went on a writer's retreat, I was the only writer in the group who didn't drink. This is never fun under normal circumstances -- many writers tend to drink a lot -- but I didn't realize that drinking, whining, and whining while drinking was the basic purpose of that particular retreat. I spent most of the time in my room working on my laptop while everyone went out clubbing. It was okay. Like being at home except I didn't have to cook and fold laundry.

The next retreat I attended was held during a high-brow literary conference. I checked first and was assured that it was all very serious and there would be no drinking. I arrived at the hotel to find my group in the bar getting loaded. It was eleven a.m. I spent a lot of time writing by myself in my room for that one, too.

The last time I went to a "proper" retreat was for a dinner/mini-retreat at a writer's residence. I thought for sure I'd be safe. Who would have the bad manners to get drunk at someone's home during a meal? (Yes. I was that stupid.) For that one I ended up in the kitchen washing the dishes while the others polished off eight bottles of expensive vino and bitched about the biz.

I know there is a certain glam attached to drinking authors, and God knows you certainly have the right to destroy your liver if that's what you want, but I got tired of being the designated writer at every retreat and get-together.

From that point I avoided the usual writer retreat opportunities and deliberately sought out other writers who weren't into the grain or the grape. One used to meet me monthly for a few hours at a Borders cafe and we'd bounce ideas back and forth and crit chapters from each other's WIPs. The wildest thing we drank was exotic tea. Another invited me to a gym where we worked out together while talking endlessly about story structure and great books.

I think the retreat I learned the most from was right here on the internet, spending three years moderating an online writers' think tank. A bunch of us would get together and troubleshoot writing-related problems every Friday night (a chatroom/group-style version of the Friday 20 here at the blog.) As a result, I've been mulling over some ideas on how to do a virtual weekend retreat of some sort on a discussion board or newsgroup this summer.

Have you participated in any unusual writing retreats? Tell us about them in comments.

22 comments:

  1. My only experience of writers getting together to create was during my uni years. Early on I realised I could do all my units in the evening with the mature age (working) students, leaving me free during the day. However, most mature age students weren't particularly interested in sensationalist SF, fantasy or horror, and to be fair I wasn't particularly interested in their literary drivel.
    It wasn't a good match, and since then (almost 20 years ago) I've learned to keep to myself and just get on with it.
    Like golf, I believe writers need to 'play' with people more advanced than themselves to benefit, but like golf that puts the betters in a position where folk lower down the food chain are clamouring for their time and their betters are only looking for people even higher up. (I'm useless at golf, btw.)
    The benefit of the net is that I can seek out kind folk like yourself willing to share ideas and thoughts on the writing game, without you feeling like I'm clamouring for your attention. You give, and one or one thousand people can benefit.

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  2. Oh, S! Or is it L, R or J today? I remember the think tanks! They were lots of fun. Who knew writers could be so blood-thirsty and think up such interesting solutions to difficult problems? It's because of your mentorship on the think tank that I still write today.

    But I digress - gush over and done with.

    I was fortunate enough to be invited to a writer's critiquing group at the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia, that is not Melbourne, Florida. Unfortunately the named writer had his eye on the clock and dissed everyone's work, regardless of the fact that one member had already been published! I really wished I'd been put in Elizabeth Moon's group sigh; I think we all did! He had nothing positive to say, left the discussion to us and as soon as it was time, he was up and outta there.

    I was astonished at such disrespect. I'd spent a fortune getting to the Convention, to have the chance of feedback from a published writer; and all I got was "hmm, interesting premise. Next." What a... insert appropriate derogatory term.

    Now, I read the sites of those authors who are willing to help, even if they don't know it. It's not about competition, it's about nurturing, and for that I'm grateful to so many people.

    Like Simon, I found no-one interested in my writing at uni, and I sure as hell wasn't interested in what others saw as their own 'perfectly profound' writing. As writers, we have an isolated career. But when we reach out via the internet, we're not so alone. When we touch the like-minded, the unselfish, the mentors, on-line, our writing is that much better.

    Pay It Forward. A fundamental belief, not a lip-service.

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  3. Writing by its nature is a solitary pursuit. I enter retreat every time I enter my study.

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  4. Blogging is the only forward retreat of which I'm capable.
    I learn things here.

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  5. A virtual working retreat sounds terrific! I'm not into wining or whining. I like to work.

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  6. I belong to a "friends" reading group and we meet once a month to read the stories, novels or any other WIP we have laboured over since the last reading night.

    We do try to have a writing weekend retreat about once a year where we all go over to one of the group's farms (200 acres) and write for two days.

    My one go to this event ended in cramped hands from typing on the laptop (after two hours) and there was little to no drinking. Our group is pretty good that way.

    So, the weekend was mostly a hang around the farm and chat about writing and not actually writing. No whining though but nothing formal either.

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  7. I've never done a formal retreat, but I did a do-it-yourself retreat last year. Hubby gave me the green light to book a room in a B&B by myself for my birthday. I spent the weekend alternating between writing and shopping. (The downtown area was all unique little gift shops and antique stores; not a Walmart, or even a chain fast food join in sight.) Not only did I polish off a big chunk of Christmas shopping, I started NaNoWriMo off with 10,000 words.

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  8. I'm not too knowledgeable about formal writing retreats, but I've heard about the ones where you hole up in a cabin by yourself and the staff leaves meals in baskets on your doorstep. That sounds like something I could go for.

    But really, except for the meals on the doorstep part (I think in the real world that's called Dominoe's or Papa John's), I have my own writer's retreat right here. I do have to emerge five days per week to earn the right to sit in my dining room and play with words while watching the dachshund gaze forlornly through the window pleading for attention, but I have a wild section in my backyard to make it seem like I'm in the woods. With a little effort, I can tune out the wooden fence and rooftops that serve as the constant reminder that I'm, for the moment, trapped in modern suburbia.

    Unfortunately, it's a luxury I too often squander, but it is a luxury I have.

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  9. I've never gone on a formal retreat. I'm too much an introvert to benefit from it, I think, unless it was one of the lengthier ones like Whatsit (can't remember the name) West. My ramp-up time is too long.

    My form of retreat comes early in the morning. I'm up before everyone else, and I get a cup of coffee and write. As retreats go, it'll have to do for now.

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  10. As a result, I've been mulling over some ideas on how to do a virtual weekend retreat of some sort on a discussion board or newsgroup this summer.

    What about a wiki-based solution? Something powered by software similar to that which powers Wikipedia? The best ones allow you to create original content, attach things, discuss content, keep track of revisions, etc.

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  11. Simon wrote: The benefit of the net is that I can seek out kind folk like yourself willing to share ideas and thoughts on the writing game, without you feeling like I'm clamouring for your attention. You give, and one or one thousand people can benefit.

    And neither of us have to eat Mystery Chicken Entrees, a big plus. :)

    Jaye wrote: It's because of your mentorship on the think tank that I still write today.

    That's a huge compliment, Jaye. Thank you.

    Dean wrote: What about a wiki-based solution? Something powered by software similar to that which powers Wikipedia? The best ones allow you to create original content, attach things, discuss content, keep track of revisions, etc.

    Interesting suggestion; I'm adding that one to the list.

    To explain my comment a little more, I have a week this summer when I'll be completely alone (the family goes on vacation, and I have a week to write and be by myself, which is my vacation.) I was thinking about setting up something online for that weekend and gather everyone else who was interested together to do a virtual retreat. Something like a chat with a discussion board and various topics, that sort of thing.

    If I can talk other authors into getting involved, I may be able to set up some workshops and specific discussions, but I wanted to keep it very open and informal -- let everyone do their own thing, write, talk about writing and keep it multi-genre, that sort of free-for-all.

    It's probably a crazy idea.

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  12. It's not a crazy idea, PBW.

    That you'd be part of it alone will send us racing to sign up.

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  13. Ditto what May said. I'd definitely be interested.

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  14. I have a week this summer when I'll be completely alone (the family goes on vacation, and I have a week to write and be by myself, which is my vacation.)

    What a wonderful vacation. It's not a crazy idea, but I'm certain more than me are honored to think you'd consider sharing it with a bunch of us.

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  15. I've toyed with attending a few getaways that my local group puts together. The only reason I hesitated is because they don't write what I write.

    I think Simon is absolutely correct when he stated: I believe writers need to 'play' with people more advanced than themselves to benefit, but like golf that puts the betters in a position where folk lower down the food chain are clamouring for their time and their betters are only looking for people even higher up. It is only beneficial if there is someone in the group that you can learn from.

    That said, I think it depends on what kind of retreat you're talking about. Some are for brainstorming, while others are for writing. I'd be interested in both as long as there was a good mix of folks. :)

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  16. I agree that being able to learn from someone who knows more than you is invaluable. On the other hand, my personal experience with critiques is that I learn a lot even when I'm looking at the work of someone who's less advanced than me. Teaching can help with learning.

    As for the online retreat idea, I think it'd be a crazy amount of work for you, PBW. But a crazily fantastic opportunity for the rest of us!

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  17. Anonymous5:50 PM

    An online retreat sounds fantastic, PBW...I've done BIAW loops where we post our progress and cheer each other on, but no in depth discussion like what you're contemplating. Hope it's not too labor intensive for you though...maybe a bunch of us could help out in some way?

    My favorite writing retreats were short in time but unconventional -- at least I haven't heard of many writers doing what me and my best writing buddy used to do. We used to work together, and take long lunches almost every work day where we walked along and envisioned our works in progress. Something about the walking and talking created a magic between us...we wrote a screenplay together and I wrote a slew of short stories during that period that have germinated into bigger ones (some novellas and one big honking novel I haven't started writing yet).

    Sadly, I moved away and we only get to brainstorm by phone now. It is magical to talk with her but all too rare. We knew how amazing a set up we had even back then, but I miss it more and more as I become a more prolific and more solitary writer.

    Thanks for asking about this PBW...your question gave me a good excuse to reminisce. :)

    MicheleL

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  18. My retreat are the blogs, though I have always wanted to sit and do the think tank thing. I've never been to a retreat.

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  19. Hehe. At my one creative writing prose class in college, I was so much better than just about everyone else that people just sort of got big eyes and stunned expressions when it was time to "workshop" my work. It wasn't that I was that good--my short stories usually suck like you wouldn'be believe. No, everyone else was that BAD. As in, the thought that your story had to be ABOUT something and should contain sentences that made sense one after the next was foreign--never mind complicated ideas like characters that weren't as flat as cardboard. Heck, carboard has some thinkness. Try tracing paper.

    By the end of the semester, I was pretty fed up with it. I mean, if it's clear you've never read a book in your life, why on earth do you think you can write one? Especially if you have NOTHING TO SAY? The prof was impressed by my talent but was certain I was throwing it away on romance--she was determined that I should be the next Joyce Carol Oates. It wasn't entirely a terrible experience...but it was hardly a great one.

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  20. It's probably a crazy idea.

    Not crazy at all. I think it's a hell of a good idea.

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  21. Oh, Hello Sheila! You did such a wonderful job with the think tanks! They were great!! I've joined a critique circle, but the place I get the 'retreat' feeling is from an ongoing cluster group maintained through the Artist's Way class I took a few years ago. The events are an evening or an afternoon at someone's house, and while it's not unusual for wine or beer to be available, The Artist's Way does not tend towards the "alcohol is part of writing" school of thought, in significant part because Julia Cameron is very clear that substance addiction is a barrier to creativity.

    A cluster will meet for show and tell. Some people will have herbal tea and cookies, others a fizzy fruit drink on ice, some a glass of wine and cheese biscuits, and others coffee or a beer and some cheesecake.

    As we sit down together, one person will show his photography, another will show her calligraphy, another fellow will sing his song, and a painter will show a few canvases. A writer will read three or five pages of snippet, and a graphic artist will show her sketchbook. Someone else may show a painting or drawing and another writer may read or pass out sheets and have others read, each taking a part.

    How many of what art form and how far along or professional the art is will vary wildly, and the point is to find the good in it and celebrate, because this is an Artist's Way cluster, not a critique group, and the artists are there to celebrate their art. Alcohol is neither central nor forbidden. Nobody would comment about a decision to have iced herbal tea instead of ice cold beer, and unless someone else was driving, it would be unusual for anyone to have a third drink of anything alcoholic.

    I've never been on a writer's retreat, but after reading Cameron and reading about the struggles with alcohol of Nobel Laureates Faulkner and Hemingway, I'm not surprised to hear it.

    The cluster groups have, as advantages, both the clarity that there is no connection between addiction or mind altering substance and creativity and the variety of kinds of art. One of the calligraphers makes her own paper for certain projects; the art has ranged from tile mosaics and decorating wood to singing, sometimes together, all quite sober and filled with laughter. Morning pages by hand, like your journaling, are a part of the Artist's Way.

    Be well. Be happy. Best wishes with love, Kay

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  22. Now that I look this over again, I think your big mistake was in thinking you were retreating TO writing. Clearly, everyone else was retreating FROM writing. Big difference, but a mistake I could see myself making as well.

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