How to make yourself a writing retreat

Run away with your writing.

Take some time together. Fall in love again. Try it in new ways.

At least once a year, make yourself the space and time to retreat into your writing.

Open up your diary right now, and find a week you that know you can take off. Choose your week now, and we can take it from there. Maybe you have more than one week you can take? – Fantastic. Go ahead. Maybe you’re thinking you can get by with less than one week? – Wrong. Think again. An entire week. Yes, two weekends separated by five full days. Mark those days in your diary and commit to devote them to your writing. Commitment is, after all, an orientation to your future which transforms your present. Make that transformation. Now you can become a writer who is working towards an annual retreat week. Take a moment to reflect on how this changes your attitude towards your notes, towards that half-started piece you’ve pushed contritely into the back of a drawer. Now those ideas can have a time of their own, and you can keep adding to them knowing that there is going to be a space where you’ll develop them. The first step in making yourself a writing retreat is to make a commitment to your writing.

You could stay at home, or you could buy yourself some extra routine-changing time by leaving town. It’s up to you. Leaving the computer behind, leaving the tv, leaving the internet. (Well, maybe not the internet. Let’s not go nuts.) Choose a place that’s comfortable, affordable and within easy walking or riding distance of all the basics. An old-fashioned hotel in the high street of a country town. A cheery little B&B. A private room in a hostel one suburb away. There are plenty of writing retreats you could apply for though our writers’ centres, and if you’re successful you could spend extended time in the Macedon Ranges, or the Blue Mountains, or somewhere in Asia. Yet while that would be a great achievement, you don’t need to make the possibility of a retreat contingent on securing one of these. The possibility rests entirely with you.

If you’re going to stay at home, you’ll really need to think through how well your writing space is working for you. How are you going to refresh your creative environment? This is essential to your retreat. You can’t retreat without going someplace new – even if that new space is within your home. You need to draw on your space to feed your creativity. Home or away, you’ll need to set your space to retreat mode.

Take a slow and deliberate look around. What is the source of light in the room? Do you have a writing area with natural light coming in from two sides? Can you find such a space, or set up a table in a new corner? – Is there more than one place where you can write and more than one place where you can read? Is there a desk, a bed, a couch, a comfortable chair, a corner and some cushions, a garden, a balcony, a kitchen bench? – Is there a spot that’s just for eating, so that you’re not eating at your desk? – Draw a diagram. Don’t worry if you can’t draw straight lines. Make a floor plan of your space, and annotate it with notes about what you do most comfortably in each space. – Is there a space on the floor for stretching out with big sketchbooks of mind-maps? Is there an armchair to flop into and write in your journal as a break from the piece you’re working on at the desk? – What can you see out the windows? What’s on the walls? – Think about how many different ways there are to make the space yours, and map a new set of possibilities. Vital to making yourself a writing retreat is to create the space that will create new work.

And all this before having written a single word. Writing is not about making words form neat sentences, tight paragraphs, concise verse and complete texts. Writing is about making meaningful connections between ideas as they develop, harnessing what’s linguistic about them and crafting this across the page. Lists, mind-maps, brainstorms, loose notes, meticulous notebooks, clippings, journals. Each of these came from somewhere, were written somewhere in particular, inspired or provoked by real space and time. Writing needs a context, a culture, a world. Juggling that everyday world of work and play can frustrate your writing, but it also feeds it; after all, this is your world, your culture, your context. By resetting your environment you can see your own context anew, and discover new ways to build and rebuild it. The one thing you can’t do is imagine it away – or imagine that it’s in the absence of that world that the best writing will come.

Retreating is not a quest for solitude. It’s not about fabricating a blank slate, and it’s not about shutting out the rest of the world. Don’t be fooled into thinking that writing needs solitary confinement. You haven’t written anything until someone has read it, until your text has participated in that great intertextual beyond. And you certainly can’t write anything that hasn’t emerged from a rich and complex culture; your writing sits within that culture and responds to it, creating something new in the process. Years ago I was encouraging a promising young writer to visit Melbourne for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and his response was: “I don’t need a festival, all I need to do is to lock myself away and write.” Today, he and his writing are still locked away somewhere. Yet art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and nor does good mental health. Like any healthy physical activity, writing is best fed by a balanced diet of work and play.

Iterate and reiterate.

Take your body into the world, take the world back into your writing.

Immerse, extend, share, rethink, rewrite.

For your writing retreat, create the conditions that will generate a depth of practice that you don’t commonly experience. So that what you’re retreating into is a place of concentration.

Experiment with the techniques that will take you to that place. Play is an important part of making yourself a writing retreat. Have fun with it! Give yourself the means for understanding what stimulates your most prolific and exciting flow by experiencing those techniques under experimental conditions. – What happens when you take away the computer? What tools do you reach for instinctively to make plans and structures and sentences? – Find your favourite sentence in a piece, and delete it. – List each notebook you have. How easily can you describe what each one is for? What does this tell you about your practice? – Question your desk, your chair, the way you hold your pencil. Try it otherwise. – Choose a key concept, character, problem in the piece you’re working on, and write about it for three full pages without stopping to edit. – Change chairs. – Keep a forensic account of everything you write, read, do while you’re on retreat. Reflect on this each day. Invent new interpretations for the sequence of tasks you’ve taken. Imagine them as part of a much larger project. As part of a much smaller project. – Find the floor-plan diagram you made earlier, and enrich it. Sketch everything in the room, including each book and writing instrument you brought with you. Annotate which chair is for writing, which for reading, which for resting. Move to that space and undertake that activity for thirty minutes, no more, no less. – Switch from the first person to the third person. Switch from the conditional to the imperative.

Play frees up ideas and creates new connections. A game is a disciplining technique: it imposes a framework and challenges you to work within its rules, its duration, its inert space. Education conditions us to think of writing as a discipline and not an artform: the discipline of getting a few thousand words written in three weeks, in three days, in three hours under exam conditions. Discipline, however, is just the groundwork, the exercises for developing your techniques into a writing practice. Commitment, not discipline, is what makes you a writer

Don’t discipline yourself into a writing retreat – just as you wouldn’t discipline yourself into a regular writing habit. What did that commitment do for you earlier, when you set aside that week in your calendar? Did you really mean it? Be honest. The idea of a retreat seems attractive to you, but it’s all just a fantasy? There’s no time, no space, no way to break away from the reality of the everyday? Think of it this way: right now, your everyday life is already making you the writer you are. Your job, your friends, your local grocery, last night’s dinner, tomorrow’s deadlines. The everyday isn’t some inert, unchangeable aspect of who you are; it’s something you’ve chosen, something you’re constantly making. It’s your working environment. It’s you.

As an artistic practice, writing is completely mobile. A writer’s creative tools are linguistic – they are the medium of our everyday – and as such, they are deceptively familiar. Yet this mobility and this familiarity are equally radical and mundane. You can put pen to paper anywhere and make words, but anyone can make a shopping list. You’re juggling writing and day-to-day life all the time; we all are. Just because you know you can write on a tram, before work, in bed, doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to making an interstitial practice of your writing for all time.

Making yourself a writing retreat is not a one-off project. It’s not something that will redeem all those compromised practices from the past, just as one gym intensive won’t make you fit and healthy. Writing is a complex negotiation of the many structures that set your ideas free to interact with other ideas. Make this rhythm a part of your everyday. Make it a living thing, make it more than mere discipline. Make yourself a writing retreat as a regular part of your writing practice. Even once a year will have a significant effect on the way you write, and the way you see yourself as a writer.

Commitment builds character. It’s constitutive of who you are. Without writing, I wouldn’t be any form of me at all. Without making a commitment to your writing as an artistic practice, and without consummating that commitment by creating the conditions for deep creative practice, your writing risks remaining at that everyday place – constantly looking for those furtive few minutes of concentration. The essence of making your own writing retreat is to commit to your writing’s place, time, process. Commit to understanding it, developing it, giving it space and focus.

You’ve always wanted to make more of your writing.

Understand your writing as an artform: an infinitely diverse mode of expression; a tradition with a rich cultural history; a craft of subtle distinctions and intricate structures.

Understand your writing process as an artistic activity: a plastic thinking process; an agile synthesis; a complex composition.

Understand yourself as an artist: a creative person; an embodied person; a committed practitioner.

Be seduced by the romance of a getaway – but make it a lifetime relationship. Give it strength, complexity, grounding. A writing retreat refreshes your working environment, allowing you to discover new things about your practice, and then play with those new techniques in new ways. It gives you the experience of sharp concentration and deep practice, and allows you to keep drawing on the power of that experience. Creating and refining your modes of practice is crucial to making yourself a writing retreat. That’s what your retreat’s for – not just to read through your notebooks and drafts, not just to get that particular piece of writing done. Get to know yourself and your writing under experimental conditions, and soon you’ll find yourself carrying that new context with you, discovering ever more sophisticated ways to achieve that prolific flow.

Make a commitment to your writing as an artistic practice.

Now you’re ready to set off on your own writing retreat.


First published in The Emerging Reader (2012)