Beth Maiden talked on her blog last week about a great writing retreat she went on recently – It was in a secluded, peaceful place where she could be utterly alone, away from the demands of her business, emails, and social media, and she got lots done – much more than she could have achieved back at home in her “regular” working environment.
That’s the idea, isn’t it? Our lives are so busy (especially freelancers whose attention is inevitably pulled in several directions by things that claim equal time); carving out space for long-term creative projects is imperative lest we keep allowing other things to get in the way. The writing retreat seems like the perfect solution.
Last week I went on my own writing retreat. I normally work very badly in my own house, so I thought that getting away would provide the required jolt of novelty to get a few new chapters done, or at least I’d be able to thoroughly polish chapter 1 to send it in for a festival next month. I called a very dear friend who lives in Yorkshire, organised to stay with him for a week, and trekked up to Settle with my husband.
The plan was to have seven days in Settle, with the middle four spent entirely alone. Just me, a log fire, and my laptop. The first two days I was with my husband and Stephen, who owns the glorious house, but then they went in different directions, leaving me to my own devices.
I imagined the perfect schedule: up early, a hearty breakfast, perhaps a quick jaunt into town to the butcher’s or greengrocer’s; then three hours of writing, a break for lunch, and a walk in the Dales. Then back home for a few more hours of writing with the wood-burning stove crackling before me, and some nice baroque music on Stephen’s superlative hi-fi. After a simple supper, a glass of wine, and a glance over the astonishingly moving and humorous new work I’d produced that day, I’d be in bed by 10pm.
Ambitious, yes, but I’d say that even compared to a much more reasonable schedule, the week was an unmitigated disaster – I hardly got anything done.
This was entirely my own fault. For the first two days, Mr Č and I hung out with Stephen, went to the farmers’ market, and cooked extravagantly. I thought of the days yawning emptily in front of me and wasn’t worried that I hadn’t done any real work in those first two days. They both left the following morning, very early, and it rained hard all day. I didn’t really know my way into town, so I didn’t leave the house at all. I went on Facebook too much (whatever happened to my once-a-day rule?!), found a series of Buzzfeed videos I liked, did about two hours’ editing, and went to bed outrageously early. Although I didn’t realise it, I’d set the pattern for the rest of the week.
I wrote for maybe three hours on the second day alone, but I was overwhelmed with loneliness by the third, and horribly listless and unproductive. By the fourth day I was actually depressed. I was eating a lot of omelettes, taking a lot of baths, and writing for an hour or two, at most, each day. I wasn’t cooking properly, or writing very much at all.
On the final day, coming home from the grocery store in the rain, I saw somebody who looked like my husband from behind, lost the plot, and called him in tears. I was so lonely that I felt sick. He reminded me that Stephen would be back that night from Walsingham and I’d soon be having a jolly evening, and that I just needed to write a little bit more that afternoon and it would all be over.
So I went home and instead of writing, started baking: first almond and orange zest biscotti, then chocolate brownies, then a whole ham. Large-scale oven-related activities are a pretty good sign that I’m feeling a little manic, or very sad. In any case, it was all delicious, and at least I’d been productive in one way while I was there. And once Stephen got back that night, I was fine. It helped that he really, really liked the brownies.
But I had to admit to myself that the writing retreat had mostly been a failure. I’d achieved barely a fraction of what I’d thought I would.
These experiences aren’t without their uses, though. You have to fail to progress, sometimes, because failing teaches you what doesn’t work – and that knowledge brings you closer to figuring out what does.
I’ve noticed that I’m exceptionally productive when I’m given limits: I can write almost a whole chapter in longhand during my commute between Oxford and London – in fact, that’s how most first drafts have been written. Limited time gives me a sense of urgency. So does limited battery life. If I take my laptop to a coffee shop I don’t really waste any of that time, because I know I’ll have no choice but go home in about an hour. Sitting at home, or in someone else’s home, with unlimited time, spells absolute disaster, because there’s always something else to do before you really get started, right? Answering one more email. Watching one more Buzzfeed video. Designing one more version of those business cards you so desperately want to order from Moo.
Atmosphere helps, too: to paraphrase something my Dad once said, being shamed into productivity by the productivity of others around you is the best way to get writing done (and again, this works for me, but it might not work for you). In a cafe, surrounded by coffee smells and the urgent tapping of keyboards (they’re usually owned by earnest, industrious American exchange/grad students), I can get a huge amount accomplished. Peer pressure: sometimes a useful tool.
Ultimately, though, there’s no correct formula for everyone. I’m glad I’ve figured mine out at last: I need people around me, limited time, and an atmosphere that’s pleasant but definitely not holiday-ish. Being alone in a silent house is not for me, because it makes me look for noise and company (if only by watching a lot of YouTube). It does work brilliantly for a lot of people, though, so don’t rule it out if you’re trying to figure out how to finish (or start) your novel. But for me, working in life’s short gaps works best – in the company of others. As long as those others aren’t actually talking to me at the time.
And next time, I’ll be wise enough to know that a visit to Stephen’s glorious house should be an opportunity to drink wine, catch up, and absorb the Dales scenery with him and Mr Č. A place like that, with such fine company, is too good to waste by trying to work – and sometimes you just need to have a holiday.