More Thoughts on Retreats

Susannah/Sadie here, just trying to keep cool…

A few weeks ago the Wickeds posted about the annual retreat they take to the Maine coast. Today I thought I’d post some tips about how to plan your own retreat. Whether you’re a writer, a scrapbooker, a knitter, or have some other craft or hobby you want to have some uninterrupted time to work on with other like-minded folks, a retreat can be a great way to get away from (most of) the responsibilities of daily life and really focus.

I’ll use a writing retreat as an example for the rest of this post, but this basic template will work for most other types.

First you need to decide whom you want to ask to go on your retreat with you. Think very carefully about your roster. You will be in close quarters with these people for several days. Make sure you choose a team of people who don’t have habits you can’t live with, and whom you can trust to pull their weight with shared chores, and whom you can trust to leave you alone when you are working. Don’t bring a diva along with you, anyone who needs to be the center of attention, or you’ll spend the whole weekend focusing on or distracted by her instead of your work. In a similar vein, make sure the people you ask are at more or less your level of skill and expertise. You don’t want a rank beginner, or you may end up doing more teaching than writing. The group I go with has been together for several years and we know each other well in and outside of the writing world. Although, we’re never really out of the writing world.

Next, you need to decide on a venue. I’m blessed in that one of my retreat partners owns a large, beautiful ski home on a mountain in Vermont that she is generous enough to open up to 8-10 of us twice a year. There are 4.5 baths and 5 bedrooms, good Wi-Fi, and, oh, a hot tub. If someone in your group has a second home somewhere, that might be just the place. If that’s not an option, depending on your budget, you may wish to rent a cottage somewhere, or even go to a hotel for a weekend. Obviously, the size of your venue dictates the size of the group you can take. Make sure everyone understands what kind of shared expenses there will be.

I highly recommend having a focus for your retreat. With my group, we set aside several hours (in two blocks) to work on plots and characterizations. We have a designated time where everyone sits around the big table, and we brainstorm a plot for each attendee. You would be amazed at how complete a story can be hammered out by 10 women in a half hour to 45 minutes. This ensures that everyone gets equal time, is giving as well as receiving, and comes away energized and ready to get to work. Bear in mind that we’ve been working together for a while now. The more times you retreat with the same group, the more efficient the process becomes.

Decide how you will handle meals, snacks, and cleanup. For our Vermont weekends, we potluck it, although we do a little advance planning so we don’t end up with 8 slow cookers full of chili. Anyone who’s crunched for time or not much of a cook can bring wine or offer to do the dishes. Oh, and we consider wine our eleventh member of the retreat.

Depending on where you hold your retreat, you may want to set aside a couple of hours to make a field trip into town. Where we go in Vermont (Manchester), there are both an amazing independent bookstore (Northshire Bookstore) and a yarn shop (Yarns For Your Soul). Do set a time limit so you don’t spend your retreat shopping instead of writing.

Finally, decide on some personal goals for the weekend. Perhaps you have a new project and you want to complete several chapters. Or you’re nearly finished with your first draft and you want to bring that puppy home. Or you have a word count target. Be fairly aggressive with your goal setting. The energy that comes from the group may surprise you. Take advantage of it and get as much, or more, done than you ever thought possible.

Oh, and do something nice for your hostess. Bring her a gift, and don’t leave her with a dirty house to clean after you’ve gone.

Do you go on retreat? Would you like to? It’s not that difficult to organize one!

17 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Retreats

  1. I think making sure you share the same goals is important. Do you want all the people there to retreat to a quiet corner and write alone? Do you want to hold group sessions where you all kick around ideas and/or critique each other’s work? Or a mix? How much non-writing time do people want? There’s no best way, but it helps to make sure everyone is on the same page. (I second the recommendation for Northshire Bookstore!)

    • I, too, love writing retreats, both alone and with others. For the alone ones, if I’m going to a conference, I’ll often spring for an extra night in the conference hotel. You can get so much done after everyone is gone and you’re still buzzing with conference energy. For this year’s Malice, I both stayed an extra night and took the Acela both ways. A very productive three days!

  2. I love going on retreat, either solo or with others. One “rule” we try to follow at Old Orchard Beach is, “If you walk into a room and the person sitting there working doesn’t look up – don’t talk to her!”

  3. Interesting read, Susannah/Sadie. You are lucky to go on a retreat with people who have known you for a number of years. But how do you deal with those troublemakers — the diva, or the slacker? And that productive brainstorming session sounds awesome!!

    • I would do my best to just not invite them in the first place. I would be very leery of going on a retreat with anyone I did not know well and trust. You will be be discussing your plots and ideas and possibly other personal things. And yes, I do know how lucky I am!

  4. I haven’t been on a writing retreat. I have a friend who goes at least once a year and she loves it. Maybe someday. Your retreat sounds wonderful and very productive!

  5. A friend and I have been talking about a retreat but it has yet to happen. However, we hope to do one this summer, even if it is just the two of us. We want to hike in the mornings then write in the afternoon/evenings.

    • That’s a wonderful idea! I didn’t put this in the post but during our Vermont weekends we also try to get some exercise in–the house is halfway up the mountain, so we walk up and down! And two people can make for a very nice retreat–with a lot less logistics to work out. Let us know how it goes!

    • Oh, it’s great to have that Hive Mind, and as I said, the plots come together fast with that many people working on them. One thing we can count on is brutal honesty. We all know each other so well that we don’t have to sugar coat anything if it’s not working.

  6. My Sisters in Crime chapter is going on retreat in a couple weeks. We’ve rented a lodge in the Laurel Highlands and we’re also pot-lucking it (and there will be plenty of wine). One of the ladies is our Food Wrangler. We haven’t done this for a couple years. This year it’s pure writing. No classes, no workshops – just working on your current project. If someone needs help with something we’ll arrange it on the spot. We’re going into town for dinner on Saturday night. I am so looking forward to it. Always have a lot of fun with this group – and yes, if she doesn’t look up, don’t talk to her! That’s me, btw. The one not looking up. 🙂

    • Food Wrangler–I love it! And a less formal arrangement can work just as well. We’ve just found that with our group we can get the plotting done so efficiently, we take advantage of it. But uninterrupted writing time (and the group energy) is pure luxury! I hope your words flow along with the wine. Let us know how it goes!

  7. I have gone on other retreats (sewing and cloth doll making). I know the energy and creative juices really get flowing. I would love to find a group of writing friends to go on a retreat with.

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