Days of uninterrupted writing time. The concept was foreign to me. As a teacher and mom of two, I was used to jotting or typing a few lines on my lunch break, while my children napped, or at 2 a.m. when the house was finally quiet.
So three days of time alone and nothing to do besides write? It sounded dreamlike, and I couldn’t wait to go on my first writing retreat. But there was also a self-imposed expectation to produce something great, or at least be productive. I was taking time away from my family, so I needed to make the best possible use of it.
Here’s what I did:
I made a list of upcoming deadlines. I write a lot of essays and shorter pieces, so I looked online and checked call-outs for publications I have contributed to in the past. I made a list of those and packed it.
As the writing retreat date inched closer, I reviewed my list of call-outs and topics and brainstormed ideas that might fit with some of them. I figured a little preparation couldn’t hurt, and I could start writing something as soon as I got settled in.
I bought new supplies even though I didn’t really need them. I bought ballpoint pens and fine point markers in a rainbow of colors. I bought notebooks with flowered covers, college ruled and unlined journals. I packed items that were enticing to write with and on. If creative genius decided to visit me on my retreat, I would be ready to welcome it - in beautiful hues.
I made a list of topics and stories I had been wanting to write but hadn’t had time for. Compared to #1, this list is less practical. I wrote down all of the pieces and ideas I’ve had in recent months but thought “that’s silly” or “I don’t have time to write about a woman who can’t play a chord after 6 months of guitar lessons because she ended up having an affair with her teacher.” I planned to make time for the whimsical stories that I had been wanting to write just for me.
I packed books. I packed more books than I could possibly have time to read because I don’t know what I will need or want when I’m away.
I took a couple of novels - one that I had been wanting to read as well as an escape read. If I’m taking a writing break on the porch with a glass of wine, I want to read a book by an author I trust. I need to know I can sink into it immediately. I don’t have time for 50 pages of introductory, descriptive writing in this situation.
I packed memoirs I’ve already read and some I have been wanting to read. Sometimes I buy them throughout the year and save them just for the trip. Since I write primarily nonfiction pieces, I consider memoirs to be both research and relaxation. Either way, they are essential.
I included something inspirational. Right now, my book of choice is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve already read it twice, and I will take it with me on future retreats as well. Gilbert does a beautiful job of explaining the relationship between people and ideas and provides valuable insight on creative living despite production and outcome and regardless of judgment from others.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all the items on my list: I gave myself permission to do nothing. Even if I didn't feel I'd been incredibly productive or written something I’m proud of, I wanted to allow myself time to breathe in the fresh air, read something for pure enjoyment, or drink a glass or two of wine.
I had a hard time with this concept on my first retreat, but I have since realized its importance. I need to nourish my soul and enjoy every aspect of this experience. I’m not always going to write beautiful work, but I can always welcome it by living a peaceful writing life and embracing stillness and self-examination. Sometimes the retreat is less about what I produce while I’m there and more about what I set myself up to welcome for the remaining 51 weeks of the year.
To date, I have attended three writing retreats - all at the same location, and all completely unstructured. I continue to learn more about what works for me and what inspires me during this escape from my everyday routine. I have also decided that there is no such thing as time poorly spent when I’m away. No matter what, I’m enjoying my time and enriching my writing life. Nothing is more important than that.
Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee, an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids...a little more. Her essays and articles have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine, Tidewater Family Magazine, Scary Mommy, and twenty-four volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She lives in Prince George and teaches world literature at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology.