Friday, 13 September 2013

The Run-Away Writer

I’ve been running away from home to write for a long time.  In the beginning, I organised group weekends.  Other people on retreat make it hard to retreat into writing.  I also see ads for professionally run escapes to striking locations with workshops and gourmet food.  These sound like holidays for people who dabble or want to meet published writers.  They’re probably fun, but not my cigar.

Inside my retreat
This week, I’m AWOL, and have decided to give my best tips on taking a final draft retreat.  A bit practical from me, but it’s Friday the 13th so the unexpected is expected.  Just a note that research or creative retreats differ enough in environmental needs that today, it’s all about what works for the final blowout get-every-word-in-place draft.

I write from home, have cleaners come in, don’t do the cooking.  Why would I have to leave home to write?  To pare down distractions and focus my efforts.  The dryer beeps, the glads need cut, Big Nose wants petted, the post’s been delivered.  All those little daily events take my attention.  Once a week I go to the Lit & Phil, a private library in Newcastle, to escape those things.  A final draft takes days of straight concentration, and that happens best outside my daily life. 

I’ve had some fine people let me house sit, the perfect arrangement, especially if you can’t afford to rent.  This depends on friends with a congenial space that are buggering off when you need to retreat.  My experiences with house sitting have been positive, so the only caveat I can offer is pets.  I leave home to get away from the enticements of the Big Nose Dog and his feline cohorts; I wouldn’t want to pet sit as well.  People who come to my house to write often say the animals are part of the plus.  That, and the Butler’s cooking.

So house sitting, unless that’s your job, not so easy to get.  Mostly, I do self catering.  Do you choose some place inspirational, with an exciting night life?  For the final draft, I give that a big NO!  You need your butt on your chair.  If outside is too interesting, you won’t be inside.  Pretty outsides are for when you’re creating and researching, not when you polish.

Know your creature comfort needs.  You may think a yurt in some forest would be great.  For my final draft retreat, I prefer a double bed, climate control, a table where I can work, wi-fi, a cooking area.  I love a nice, deep bath, or at the very least, a power shower.  Shere Garcia-Rangel (Alliterati) says every writer needs a window.  You’ll need electric lights to extend your working day.  To avoid screen glare, I find lamps are best, preferably ones that are adjustable.

Most places won’t have an office set up.  Think about what you need to sit in a kitchen chair all day.  A stool for your feet or cushions for your rump.  DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK and do it in advance.  In all my years doing this, I’ve only had one crap host.  The rest wanted me to enjoy my stay.

My current rental is close to home, so almost no travel time and outdoor temptations can be delayed until the Butler picks me up.  More often, I choose a place I’ve always meant to visit but haven’t, interesting but not irresistibly interesting.  An exception to the dull factor is if it’s the place you’re writing about.  Then it’s like a reference book, being able to walk out the door to check details. 

Leave them at home.
Writers differ in what they need.  As my hands age, I’m more dependent on the keyboard, but I still do edits on the hard copy.  I take my laptop and printer, external backup, a few reams of paper, pens of various colours, highlighters, reference books, a camera, and my phone.  Don’t forget things like wrist supports, eye glasses and typing stands (to hold the pages you’re typing from). 

I also bring something to read at night and never read it.  It acts as a writer’s teddy bear, I suppose.

You don’t need many clothes.  You’ll be indoors, butt on chair, remember?  My usual method of culling is, what fits in the suitcase?  When I'm running away by train, I use a large suitcase for the printer and paper, plus a backpack for the laptop.  All clothing, books and toiletries have to fit around those essentials.  Socks, underwear, sweaters, are the first things to pack; I wear my heaviest jumper or shirt on the trip.  Ask if there’s laundry facilities.

If you’re not driving, pre-order groceries.  Remember, what’s left, you have to cart home or toss, so this is not the time to try new recipes or stock up.  Bring your normal three meals/day plus snacks.  You’re not as active – your butt is . . . where? – you probably won’t eat as much as you do at home.  Ask your host what things are provided – tea, milk, sugar, salt, etc. – to save bringing them.

BRING TREATS.  You deserve them.

Since I don’t cook, I bring pre-prepared meals, but to be honest, the Butler’s too good a cook for me to enjoy ready-made.  Next time, he's catering.  If you’re driving or have an insulated bag, make extra servings during the weeks before you go, freeze them to take with you.  A lot healthier and tastier than Tesco’s finest.

ALWAYS HAVE EXTRA TOILET ROLL.  Some places will start you on one roll and then you’re on your own.  The week that I go through only one roll, I’ll sign up for dialysis.  Don’t get caught out.

Lastly, don’t forget your food weirdity.  I’m an American living in the UK.  I’ve only had one rental (really lovely in Berwick-upon-Tweed) that had an acceptable coffee maker and coffee.  My current rental has tiny sachets of Nescafe which to any civilised person are an affront to God.  Because it’s so close to home, the Butler brought my coffee maker over on Day One.  Check it out before you come.  You want to reduce discomfort, so your focus can be on writing.

Retreat writing station
This may surprise you, but I let my body determine my schedule.  I get up when I get up.  I write and eat and exercise according to my body’s signals.  I go to bed when my brain gets tired. 

Saying that, on a typical run-away week, I do two rewrites on a novel length manuscript.  I don’t have fixed daily quotas, but I know how much work and time I have left.  My creative flow seems to have an internal way of handling that.  You may have to be more structured.

Writing isn’t a healthy activity.  If you’re young, you’ve probably not noticed that yet, but it really isn’t.  This is why having pillows and stools is important.  Make sure you pack all the medications you need to cope, in addition to any you normally take, including supplements.  Most rentals have a first aid kit.

Be aware of your natural rhythms.  Have strategies for times when you slump.  When I’m at home, I quit writing at 5:00pm unless I have a deadline, then I quit at 9:00pm in order to remind my family I’m still alive.  Because my writing brain is used to that regular cease fire at home, I have a glass of wine in the evening when I’m away, to keep up my sugar levels and keep me writing.  (This may have the opposite effect on you.)

I also have a lull mid-afternoon, so usually go for a walk.  My first day here, I met a woman with several bearded collies on my walk, learned their canine family tree, lamented the one who just died, got advice for buying a puppy.  I next met a man who gave me the history of his house, then took me to see the goats.  After that, I met a woman spinning wool in her front garden who’s offered to check out a fleece I have at home.  I enjoyed all those encounters - it's what writers do, isn't it? - but I’m on retreat and that was my first day; I’ve not gone on any walks since.  The weather has been obligingly helpful about that.

To walk or not to walk . . .
However, movement is essential on a marathon writing week (fortnight, month).  I’ve done Tai Chi every day instead of walking.  I use a DVD, so I don’t cheat and skip forms.  (Know your weaknesses.)  Exercise is an antidote to most slumps, so find what works for you.

DON’T FORGET TO EAT.  One of the problems with letting my body set the schedule, is I skip meals.  HYPOGLYCEMIA IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  Bring healthy snacks and keep a bowl on your table.

DON’T FORGET YOU’VE PUT SOMETHING IN THE OVEN.  Having the fire department called is embarrassing and puts a dent your writing time.

We love them, especially new people.  NEW PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS, if you’re in the final drafts.  Creating?  Researching?  Great.  Wordsmithing?  They’re time thieves. 

The people who have self catering rentals usually have great interpersonal skills.  Hospitality is their livelihood.  A lot of them will be generous with their time, offer to take you around, fix meals for you, buy you a drink at the pub. 

Be judicious.  Ten minutes talking about their garden or a trip to the grocery store won’t break your writing regime, and may establish a base for continued retreats.  Drinks or dinner say you’re on holiday, not there to write.  If they know in advance I’m here to work, most people respect it. 

Phone home.
The Butler and I usually talk on the phone every night, but here, there’s no service, so we’ve relied on social media.  This is inefficient for him, because I keep the social media turned off while I write, and tempting for me, because I’ve checked it more often than usual this week.  SOCIAL MEDIA IS ALSO NOT YOUR FRIEND although it’s delightful in so many ways, I do have to admit . . .

You will be lonely, if you spend your retreat the way I’ve outlined.  Be realistic with yourself.  This isn’t boot camp.  Get a people fix if you need it.  Go for a walk if cabin fever sets in.  Spend time on Twitter to connect with semi-reality.  You have to be in an okay space emotionally, to do the work. Just don't let any of these things become your primary occupation.  Butt on chair.

DON’T FORGET TO BATHE.  At least before you go home.  Your family will thank you.


  1. I love the detailed nature of this post. It makes me want to go on a retreat.

    I agree that forcing yourself to be alone is definitely part of the process.



  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I suspect (no empirical data here) that because of the way writers process info, we need that isolation. Most of us are too interested in the world around us to not get distracted. If you go on retreat, let me know how you fare. I'd love to hear other stories about this.