Nurturing Creativity – Six Steps to a Successful Retreat

By Carol / January 17, 2013 /

Each morning I turn on my computer, open up the files, and write. By myself. For hours. Writing is a solo activity, at least much of the time. My story. My time at the keyboard. My effort day and night.

Photo courtesy of This Day Photography. Published in The Iowan Jan/Feb 2013

Photo courtesy of This Day Photography.
Published in The Iowan Jan/Feb 2013

Creativity is often an individual effort. One person with an idea they bring to fruition. But creativity is also nurtured in groups. I was reminded of that as I wrote an article on quilt retreats for this month’s issue of The Iowan

The women I interviewed for this article were effusive about the benefits of doing what they loved in groups. They enjoyed time with their friends who share the same interest, time to learn new techniques, time to focus without interruption on something they love. By the time I finished the interviews and wrote the article, it crossed my mind that I could have written the article without doing the interviews. Because what these quilters described was exactly what I get out of writing retreats.

Even though my writing buddy Mary Gottschalk and I meet every two weeks to discuss and critique writing projects, we still spend a week each summer in a retreat away from our homes. Over the years, we’ve established a retreat approach that works for us. Here are the steps:

  1. Agree on retreat goals. Everyone doesn’t have to be working on the same genre or be at the same place in the process but everyone should agree on the overall structure and goal.  In our case, the agreement is to actually write and critique. It’s not going to work so well if someone thinks sleeping in or shopping all day is a better use of her time.
  2. Take a walk. We start each morning with a walk. Exercise is good for the body and the brain. We might talk writing, we might not.
  3. Write all morning. After breakfast, we settle in at our computers. We might be in separate rooms. We might be at the same table. But we are both dedicated to writing. Upon occasion, if one of us reaches a particularly problematic point, we talk it through, but mostly we write.
  4. Have lunch.  We may talk about the morning writing. Or not. It’s as important to take a break as to focus on the task.
  5. Critique. After lunch, we trade copy, read and spend however much time we need to provide feedback on the morning efforts.
  6. Reward! In the evening, we reward ourselves for our dedicated effort over a glass of wine and a nice dinner.

The next day, we go at it again. Same approach. Every day for as many days as our retreat lasts. We’ve tried a variety of venues for retreats, from bed & breakfasts to meeting rooms, but the main requirement is that the space be physically comfortable for long hours at the computer. A coffee pot is mandatory; a refrigerator helpful.

As writers, we do a lot of work alone and we’ve scaled writing mountains together. 

How about you? Do you create in groups as well as alone? What works for you?

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  1. Shirley Hershey Showalter on January 17, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Love this post. I got started writing memoir by going on a different kind of retreat — a single bed in a single cabin in Michigan at the Gilchrist Retreat Center. I took my own food, sat in front of a fireplace, took long walks, drank tea, read, prayed, and wrote. In one weekend in 2007 I wrote three of the stories that will be included in my upcoming memoir.

    When I worked at the Fetzer Institute, I also had the privilege of planning a version of a writer’s retreat like the one you describe. It was fabulous. Here are two participants speaking about it on video.

    You inspire me to think of doing this kind of retreat on a smaller scale with a few chosen friends. Love the structure you describe.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 9:37 am

      A solo retreat is also a great idea. Sounds as though you opened yourself fully to the experience, Shirley, and had the discipline to also write. I’ve not done a retreat like that, but you’ve inspired me to give it a try.

  2. David Lawlor on January 17, 2013 at 9:24 am

    I write each way on the 50-miniute commute to work and during my lunch break. The aim is for about 350 words each way and about 200 words or so on my lunchbreak. I aim for one thousand words, sometimes I reach it sometimes I fall short by a couple of hundred.

  3. Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 9:29 am

    You’re making great use of your commute time, David. A bit of a forced retreat 😉 I’m impressed!

  4. Paulette Mahurin on January 17, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Great post, Carol! I’ve been very blessed with being connected with a great group of writers in person and in cyberville. It was through a group, a writing class, that the idea for my novel came to seed. A supportive group of writer, editor and readers is the best and for me does create a balance in the solo writing that I do for the most part. I love the idea of a retreat. Maybe some day we’ll meet at one. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

      I spent most of my career in public relations – around a lot of people. When I made the move to writing, I needed to find new groups from which to draw energy and inspiration. And so I wouldn’t feel so completely alone. Like you, Paulette, I get ideas from even passing conversation with others. I’d love to meet you at a retreat!

  5. Stephanie Renee dos Santos on January 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Carol and Fellow Writers,

    Great post! I am a writer and yoga teacher. I lead Writing & Yoga Retreats in the USA and Brazil. Here is some of my thoughts on writing/yoga retreats:

    Writers need dedicated time to connect with the Muse, or to bring concentrated effort to complete a project ̶ time that can be hard to come by in everyday life. Everyone’s standards are raised in a community of writers. And getting outside of one’s everyday writing atmosphere can trigger new perspectives and imagination. A writing retreat combined with yoga offers an ideal space in which to concentrate on writing without interruptions and to help you relax into your work. And like walking, yoga stimulates our creative minds (there are wonderful walking yoga meditations to explore).

    Writers often suffer from physical pain in the shoulders, neck, head, lower back, hips and eyes. This stress in the body can inhibit or block creativity. A daily yoga practice helps reverse and relieve bodily tension; when the body is eased, so are the tensions of the mind.

    Participating in a writing retreat is a public declaration of being a writer and demonstrates your courage and willingness to test your ideas ̶ honing, sharing, and readying them for the world. A daily yoga practice aides the writing endeavor.

    Sometimes, often times, we writers can benefit from writing community. I know I do! And some sort of movement and stretching is helpful to all writers.

    Again– Great post, I liked reading everyones comments too!


    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      I’m interested in your point about walking yoga meditations, Stephanie. I’d like to know more about that. A few weeks ago, I posted on how walking is an integral part of my writing routine. Finding the right exercises is important to all of us, particularly those of us who spend a lot of time at a keyboard. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Carol McGrath on January 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

    I organised a retreat in Portugal and interestingly we did all this and it was a great success. I am renting a stone house in the Greek Mani and although back and forward from the UK we are doing it again here in May. What a great post. Thank you.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      A retreat in Portugal, UK, or Greece? I’m in! My writing buddy and I retreated to Italy a couple of years ago and we’re off to Utah in March. Nothing like a change of venue to help a writer think about things differently.

  7. Sherrey Meyer on January 17, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Carol, although not exactly a retreat, I’m attending my first writers’ conference (attendance limited to 50!), so reading this gave me a sense of balance and peace about what is approaching in another six weeks. I’ve never sat with others and written anything so this will be a new experience for me. Fortunately, we will be broken into groups by fiction, nonfiction (including memoir — my current project), and journalism. So our groups will be smaller than all 50 in one room at one time. I’ve saved this post to Evernote so I can go back and read it again and maybe even print it out to carry along.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 17, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      I’m glad the post was reassuring, Sherrey. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. I’ve attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival many times, as well as other workshops. Breakout groups are limited to 12, with teaching moments plus lots of opportunities to write and critique. Have fun! And be sure to let me know how it goes.

  8. Mary Gottschalk on January 18, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Carol … as your “writing buddy,” I can only reinforce the amazing value of writing retreats. I guess the one thing I would add is that, even more our bi-weekly meetings, the daily schedule forces you to keep on writing, no matter how hard it seems at the moment. I would never have finished my memoir without those retreats, and I owe the first draft of my novel to our month in Italy.

    What a team!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      I am still reveling in the beauty of that month in Italy, Mary! The every-day discipline really moved us both along, showing the true value of ‘showing up’ to write. Doing that in such an inspirational place as Tuscany was a dream come true.

  9. Flora Morris Brown on July 14, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Hi Carol,

    I just discovered this post from the Gutsy Indie Publishers group. It’s exactly the type of getaway that would be a big push to get quality writing done, especially when following the steps you’ve outlined.

    You’ve inspired me to find a writer of like-mind who’s ready to take off to get our manuscript finished or a new one started. Until I can get far away, I like your idea of meeting every two weeks to discuss your goals and progress with your writing buddy.

    Most writers spend a lot of alone time, but partnering on occasion in the way you’ve described is guaranteed to be productive and satisfying.

    I haven’t done the retreats or getaways, but I do have a phone chat with a fellow author every week. Now that we’ve become friends over the years, however, we have to really discipline ourselves to get in our “writing talk”.

    I also meet with a group of freelancers each month to share our progress, check our goals and exchange resources and leads.

    Thanks for sharing these retreat ideas. You’re so right that a change of venue works wonders.

  10. Carol Bodensteiner on July 14, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    I’m glad you found us, Flora. It sounds as though you and your writing friends would benefit from a retreat or getaway. With a full week, there’s time to catch up on the friend chat and do the writing, too. Having clear, shared, expectations going in ensures everyone gets what they need. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Ann Haywood Leal on January 4, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I loved this post! It has motivate me to plan a retreat for my writing friends.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Delighted you found inspiration here, Ann. There are more benefits coming from retreats than you’d ever imagine. Good luck and happy writing!

  12. Ann Haywood Leal on January 4, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Oops–I meant *motivated*–too little coffee this morning for me!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

      I know! I’m into my second cup right now. 😉

  13. Helen W Mallon on March 17, 2014 at 11:20 am

    I share a summer retreat with other writers, and it follows much the same pattern. It helps to plan logistics–whether people bring their own linens, whether food in the fridge is up for grabs, and who does dinner…etc. Makes for smooth writing/sailing!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 17, 2014 at 11:35 am

      That is a good addition to the list, Helen. My writing buddy and I do a fair amount of logistical planning – do we need a printer? who’s bringing what kind of wine and cheese and other snacks? You’re absolutely right – nailing down the logistics makes for smooth writing. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  14. Helen W Mallon on March 17, 2014 at 11:20 am

    I share a summer retreat with other writers, and it follows much the same pattern. It helps to plan logistics–whether people bring their own linens, whether food in the fridge is up for grabs, and who does dinner…etc. Makes for smooth writing/sailing!

  15. Sonia Marsh on June 3, 2014 at 9:33 am

    I remember you saying that you wrote with Mary. I think this is a brilliant way to stay motivated. Have you been to a writers’ retreat abroad? If so, did you find it energizing and helpful?

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 3, 2014 at 9:47 am

      Hi, Sonia. Yes, Mary Gottschalk and I spent a month writing in Tuscany. It was fantastic. We rented a house in a village near Lucca and committed ourselves to writing nearly every day. We followed our retreat approach, writing in the morning, critiquing over and after lunch, and then getting on our bikes to explore the surrounding countryside. Our village neighbors were intrigued by the American writers. Though my primary goal was my novel, I also challenged myself to blog every day about the trip. Search my blog for “Italy” and you’ll see our trip start to finish. Mary ended the month with an almost complete manuscript for A Fitting Place – and I believe the title was even conceived there. I made major progress on filling big holes in Go Away Home. I would love to do this one again.

  16. Ellen Girardeau Kempler on May 11, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Hi, Sonia. Thank you for an inspiring post on focused retreats as a motivating tool for writers. Support and retreat are key to this model–two things conferences and workshops lack. Many writers suffer crises of confidence from repeated rejections and competitive attitudes among other writers. Using the supportive group workshop method I learned in certification training with Amherst Writers and Artists, I designed Gold Boat Journeys’ Mind Trips for Writers for those tired of measuring success in words, pages & sales. Travel can reinvigorate your senses, change your perspective and inspire new insights. Gold Boat plans writing trips to refresh, rewire and reboot creative brains and help writers rediscover the joy in the journey. Each trip comes with a custom-tailored Unblock Box, a pre-trip reading list and a notebook. Group leaders, who travel free, lead a daily 30-minute free writing session to generate new ideas inspired by the trip. Trips are for no more than 16-20 people, in local settings that allow writers to stay together, cook, meet locals, and choose different daily activities alone or in a group. They are designed to encourage exercise, exploration and cultural immersion. Mind Trips are writers’ excuse to take a vacation with a professional purpose: to inspire new energy for future work.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on May 11, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing information about your “mind trips for writers,” Ellen. The concept you created embodies many of the elements of our retreat thinking. My writing buddies and I have structured several trips to include travel and writing. Daily walks stretch our bodies at the same time they inspire our minds. Food is also important – generally a reward for diligence at the keyboard.

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