Writing retreat renews creativity and friendships

A bit of wonderful

By Mo Conlan

I’ve been going on writing retreats for about a decade. Several other writers and I go two or three times a year -- in January, over the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend; over Memorial Day weekend; and often for an entire week in August.

A writing retreat is like going to a spa, only instead of mud packs and massages, we are soothed by stories and poems.

Being in the company of these writers is, for me, a bit like Brigadoon – a bit like “Same Time Next Year.” Over time deep bonds connect us; but, often, we see each other only at these writing retreats.

In the realm of writing retreats, there are those that are structured and led. These you may find online and advertised in the back of Writers Digest and other magazines.

The writing retreats I go on are deliciously unstructured. We lead ourselves. We gather in a big old guest house at a retreat center in central Kentucky. We are fed, cafeteria-style, three meals a day. Whereas “led” retreats may be costly, ours are dirt cheap. $40 per night for bed, board, meals, and unsullied nature, trails and ponds. There even is a modest swimming pool.

There have been as many as a dozen writers at a time, but usually there are six or seven of us at any given writing retreat. During the day, we read, write, nap, take walks – make sure not to miss the meal bells drawing us to the cafeteria.

Everyone does exactly as she wishes, no questions asked.

Each evening, we have our one structured event. We meet in the big old parlor of our guest house where a volunteer leads the gathering. The meeting begins with the reading of a poem, chosen by the leader. Then, we each say, briefly what our day has been like -- whether we have written or seen something spectacular in nature. Both happen often.

The evening's leader offers one or more writing prompts. We write to them for about 15 minutes. Some of my most cherished writing has happened in this way.

(If you don't like a prompt -- you can just write whatever you want.)

After 15 minutes or so, we read some of what we’ve just written. If you don't wish to read, that's fine. Everything at this retreat is entirely voluntary – no shame in not writing, no shame in not reading.

After the prompt reading, there usually is a second reading where writers share something they've written that day or brought from home.

There are no critiques or comments. There are bravos for words and phrases that especially resonate.

We call ours the “Or Not” retreat. You may write to this prompt – or not. You may spend your days writing – or sit on the back porch in a rocker catching up on your reading. Or staring at the pond and listening to the birds. You may go to meals, or not.

Mostly, though, all writers show up for our group meeting in the evening. We know we will hear fine writing and have our own writing appreciated.

After the evening meeting, we gather around the big kitchen table for wine and song, laughter and, amazingly, since we’ve been fed heartily all day, divine snacks we've brought – chocolates to cheeses and pates.

The “Or Not” aspect of these retreats, I believe, is key. Often writers come to the retreat worn out from jobs, beaten down by stresses of work and family life. They need more than anything to rest in the company of other writers.

There are writers who come to the retreat and churn out hundreds of words a day on a novel. We understand each. Each is honored.

Some tips for self-led writing retreats

• This retreat works best with a group of writers who know each other, such as an existing writing group. There needs to be trust and goodwill.

• Participants are responsible for themselves. Nobody is going to tell you what to do. Nobody will frown if you sleep all day. Nobody is going to prod you to write more.

• Have one structured event daily. It should have a predictable form, such as ours: read poem, say a word or two about your day; writing prompt; writing time; reading what we've written; second reading or excerpts from other works. This is the structure we use; you can devise your own.

• The place for your retreat is key. Look at retreat centers associated with religious groups or non-profits to find a good place at a good cost.

Editors note: Many participants of this retreat are grads of a writing program called Women Writing for a Change: Visit the Web site. (www.womenwriting.org)

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Here is one piece I wrote to a prompt while on retreat. (The prompt was to write a postcard to a friend, imagining you are writing from a favorite or exotic place. I addressed my postcard to Jane, my friend since grade school days, and wrote about my favorite place, Northern Michigan.)

Dear Jane ~ In Northern Michigan the air reminds me of the first time I tasted apple butter – sweet, delicious.

The water is so clear I could see a pretty little fish that followed me down the beach as I walked. Do you know, is this usual behavior for fish or possibly magic?

The stones on the beach are smooth ovals, delicate shades of blue, gray, green and mushroom. I cannot go more than a few feet without leaning down to pick one up – and consequently have a sunburn on the back of my neck.

There are so many stars at night I get dizzy looking up and melt into them.

Storms over the lake are major events – ink black clouds rolling across the sky, zigzagging bolts of lightning and thunder like cannons.

I am never afraid – funny isn’t it? I watch from the window of my beach house as if the gods were putting on a show. Sometimes I run down on the beach and let the rain pelt me.

Wish you were here.
M


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