My DIY Writer’s Retreat

Yesterday, I came home from two days away at a writer’s retreat. I use the singular form of writer’s as there was just one of us there. Me. It was a do-it-yourself retreat. 

I planned it for two reasons. First, I was stuck with my second book. I had a general idea, and I had begun the work needed to flesh it out, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Why? That brings me to my second reason.

I hadn’t been alone in my house for more than a year. My husband and I had been – and still are – doing our respective full time jobs at home during the pandemic. Our kids were largely remote learning via live synchronous Zoom classes. What’s more, the writing nook that I had carved out for myself when writing my first novel was now where I did my day job. My home wasn’t the same, and it was decidedly not an environment conducive to kick-starting my creativity.

I fantasized about attending a writing retreat, one that was blissfully free of distractions and offered guidance and inspiration to get me past my writers block. Of course, such offerings are not in the cards during Covid. And if they were, the cost of ones I had researched – often upwards of $1,000 or more for travel, hotel, meals, and conference fees – was simply out of my reach. At least, until I can get this book written and sold (optimism!). 

One Saturday afternoon, as I sat at my writing-desk-turned-work-desk struggling with Untitled Book Two, an image of myself clacking away on my laptop with the ocean outside my window came to mind. It occurred to me that change of scenery might be the short term solution to my problem. I decided if I couldn’t attend an official writers’ retreat, I’d create a budget version of one for myself. As I started planning, I thought about what I both wanted and needed in order to call it a success. Keep in mind that these are the things I wanted and needed. Your wants and needs will be different for your own DIY retreat, but the process I followed in planning mine may be helpful.

What I wanted

  • A room with a view not too far from home. I didn’t want to purchase a plane ticket or spend hours in a car, nor did I want to be so close that it would be tempting to pop home and check in on everyone. And the view? Well, it is a wish list after all.
  • Comfortable – and separate – spaces to sleep and write. For me, this meant a large enough desk or table for my laptop and notebooks. I know some people can prop themselves up in a bed or on a sofa and type away for hours. I and my 51-year-old back can’t. And speaking of said back, it also required a decent mattress. Any online reviews that featured the word “sagging” or “lumpy” were out.
  • Access to nature. If I was going to write successfully, I’d need a rejuvenating break in between sessions. For me, that meant time outdoors in the woods or near the ocean, preferably close enough to walk.
  • Minimal distractions in the form of chores. A hotel stay appealed to me over renting a cottage or condo via Airbnb or VRBO. For the cost savings, yes, but also for one embarrassingly trivial reason. I just didn’t want to spend my retreat doing dishes. The idea of two days free of standing over a kitchen sink scrubbing mugs and silverware felt like a vacation in itself.

What I needed

  • Goals. In order to justify bidding my family farewell for two days and spending my limited rainy day fund on this retreat, I needed something to show for it. What would satisfy me for two days away was 4,000-6,000 words of solid writing that moved my story forward.
  • Structure and a schedule that worked for me.There’s so much good TV out there, isn’t there? And finding myself in a room of my own with no one to swipe the remote was going to lead to temptation. But if I stuck to a schedule and met my daily writing goals, a campy horror movie or a few episodes of whatever show I was currently into would be an evening reward.
  • A coach. Part of the draw of a writers’ retreat was the access to experts and keynote speakers. I wouldn’t have a live version on my DIY retreat, so I brought a paperback one. I selected Story Genius by Lisa Cron based on feedback from fellow writers. It turned out to be an excellent choice for me.

I ended up at the Hampton Inn in Bourne, Massachusetts, an hour’s drive from my house and just steps from the Cape Cod Canal, which is lined on both sides by a seven-mile walking and biking path. The rate was within my budget, the stay included breakfast, and the room came with a coffee maker, a microwave, and a refrigerator, which allowed me to bring my own supplies for lunch and dinner.

In a perfect world, I’d have two full days on retreat. But since the world isn’t perfect, I had to get creative. I arrived at 3pm on the dot for check-in, and arranged for a late check out of 1pm two nights later. Over the next 46 hours, my retreat unfolded as follows:

Day 1: 

  • 3:00-4:00pm: Check in, unpack, settle in.
  • 4:00-6:00pm: Write
  • 6:00-7:00: Walk on the canal path
  • 7:00-bed: Dinner, movie (The Next Three Days – not bad!), journaling, reading

Day 2:

  • 8:00am: Wake up later than expected and get annoyed with myself
  • 8:00-10:00am: Breakfast, coffee, an episode or two of Arrested Development
  • 10:00am-1:00pm: Read Story Genius/Write
  • 1:00-2:00pm: Canal path run. Lunch.
  • 2:00-5:00pm: Write
  • 5:00-bed: Dinner, movie (The Car – hilariously campy 1977 horror film with James Brolin and Ronny Cox), journaling, reading

Day 3:

  • 7:00am: wake up on time and congratulate self
  • 7:00-8:00: Breakfast, coffee, another episode or two of Arrested Development
  • 8:00-10:30: Read Story Genius/Write
  • 10:30-11:30: Canal path run.
  • 11:30-12:30: Write
  • 12:30-1:00: Pack up and check out

Cost:

  • Two-night hotel stay: $313
  • Groceries: $20
  • Gas (four gallons): $12
  • Housekeeping tip: $10
  • Total: $355

On a scale of 1-10, my retreat – as Nigel Tufnel would say – went to 11. My room was sunny and comfortable, the canal path was a welcome mental and physical break, my schedule afforded me the right blend of writing and relaxation, and the coaching and guidance within Story Genius gave my novel the jump start it needed. I drove home excited and empowered, which was precisely how I wanted to feel. 

I see a new writing tradition in my future.

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