I first learned about writers' retreats when I discovered Henry, a guy who lived and wrote alone in a modest ten-foot square cabin he built out of pine and hickory in a forest near Concord, Massachusetts, next to a little pond called Walden.
Thoreau was not the first writer to seek eccentric solitude, and writers continue to create in remote, unusual places. According to Random House, fantasy author Philip Pullman writes "...in a shed at the bottom of his garden. The shed contains two comfortable chairs (one for writing in, one for sitting at the computer in), several hundred books, a six-foot-long stuffed rat which took a part in his play Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror, a guitar, a saxophone, as well as the computer, decorated with dozens of brightly coloured artificial flowers attached to it by Blu-Tack."
Pullman's retreat seems luxurious when you compare it to that of Roald Dahl, creator of Willy Wonka and author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl wrote his novels in a small shed hidden behind his greenhouse. A plastic curtain blocked the view from the shed's only window while he sat in an old armchair and wrote. For a footstool, he filled an old suitcase with wood and kept it kept tied to the legs of the chair so it was never out of position. Dahl wrote with six yellow pencils (always six, never more, never less) kept in a jar beside him, a legal pad, a Thermos of coffee, heaters to keep his hands warm and a pencil sharpener.
Today most writers keep their lawn and gardening equipment in their sheds and instead work in their homes. Full-time writers usually set up a home office, but it isn't a prerequisite. The take-along convenience of today's laptop, PDA and wireless technology make places like coffee shops and libraries into popular spots for writers who want a retreat away from home.
Do writers need a retreat? I think it depends on the writer. Some writers seem unable to function unless, like Pullman and Dahl, they write in complete isolation. Sitting in a crowded cafe with a hundred conversations buzzing around your head doesn't seem like a terrific work atmosphere, but I know a lot of writers who say they do their best work under just those conditions. I've watched others sign into writer chatrooms where they pop in and out while working, talk about writing and cheer each other on, and they seem equally productive.
If you're 100% happy with your writing environment, then you've already found the perfect retreat. If you're not, or you find you're not writing well, look around you. Is there something getting between you and the work? Pay attention to what you do as you write. What do you find yourself staring at and listening to when you're not writing? Is it keeping you from concentrating? What distractions can you can remove from your work space?
I'm not a shed lover, but I do write at a small desk that holds only my work computer. I'd estimate my total work area is about four feet square. Because colors, patterns, and movement distract me easily, over time I've uncluttered my visual field. When I write now, I face a blank white wall. I've been downsizing desks over the years as well, and my current work station is only big enough to hold my computer. It's also on wheels, so I can unplug and move my computer to another spot in the house without a lot of fuss.
Making your own writing retreat can be tough for a person with a day job, kids, a spouse, partner, pets, etc. Because space and time are usually a premium, you have to work harder to make some for yourself. The most important thing about creating your own retreat is first to ask for it. Those who share your life should always know when and where you write, and respect both.
Whether you write alone in an attic corner, or in the middle of the biggest coffee shop in town on Ladies' Free Latte Night, make sure your retreat is a comfortable fit for you -- even if you need a six-foot-long stuffed rat to make it that way.
More reading: Rich Turner's article In Defense of Solitude.