Last month, I took a solo writing retreat at St. Francis of the Woods in Coyle, Oklahoma. I stayed in a cabin for four days with no TV or internet, and I let my brain reset while I wrote.
Since the retreat, I’ve had some time to think and process my experience. And while it wasn’t my first writing retreat, it was my first solo writing retreat, which is a horse of a different color. So with that, I thought I would share the lessons I learned from my solo writing retreat.
001: Don’t Focus on Word Count.
Writing and the online writing community can feel toxic. It’s not that the people who are a part of it are intentionally trying to cause harm, it’s just so easy to compare ourselves to others. And one way that we tend to compare ourselves the most is with word count. I know that I tend to harp on this, but every writer is different. Every writer has a different process. Every one is capable of writing a certain amount. And depending upon how you’re writing or when you went through school, you may be writing by hand like a fiend, or you may have never learned to type and that’s seriously holding you back. Or maybe it’s not. Who knows?!
(Psst! If you want some tips on writing faster, here they are.)
One thing that I really enjoyed with my retreat was that it was my own space. I could use it how I wanted. And I did that by immediately throwing my word count goals out the window. So, I say take the time out in the woods (or wherever you retreat to) as permission to do what you want with your writing. Try new things! Work at times you don’t normally get to work! Sleep in and drink coffee on the porch for the first three hours of your day! I actually let my mind wander and started a completely new project. I hadn’t intended to do that, but it happened, and I’m of a mind that your work happens the way it happens because it has to happen that way.
(There’s a scene from The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus basically says something similar, but Lawrence Fishburne has repeatedly ignored my requests to narrate my life.)
002: Use the Time to Try New Things.
I’ve been experimenting a lot lately with the idea of building the life I want. The only issue is that I really had no idea the kind of life that I wanted. It’s hard to imagine what your life could be like in certain scenarios when you’ve never experienced those scenarios or let your mind wander to what it would be like. So, I kind of just followed my heart when it came to my days during the retreat, and I really liked that. I don’t assume that I’ll be able to have as relaxed a time as I did during the retreat during my daily life, but I did find what I liked.
Instead of pushing myself to wake up and write first thing, I slept until I woke up, and then made coffee. Then, I drank the coffee on the back porch and just had thoughts for a few hours. Sitting quietly and letting my mind wander is one of my favorite hobbies, and I’m happy that I did it. Then, I’d read for a bit, have lunch, take a nap, and then write. On some days, I didn’t write until the evening. It felt really good. And getting to do things on my schedule was the best part of the retreat. I’m glad I took the time to do it.
003: A Solo Retreat is Different Than With Friends.
A couple years ago, I went on a short retreat to the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs. It was a great experience, and I got to go with four other women. We stayed in the same house and shared communal spaces. And while we all got a lot done, there were moments where we shared lunch or drinks or jelly beans, or just talked about big and little things.
Both experiences were great, and I wouldn’t trade either of them for anything. But it is important to note that a solo writing retreat is different than a retreat spent with a large group of people. I think I was definitely more productive during the solo retreat and I found out more about myself when I was alone in the woods. But don’t let that stop you from going with a group of friends to a writing retreat. The fun you have with a group is a lot like a slumber party for a group of grown adults.
004: Mindfulness Goes a Long Way.
Mindfulness is something that I struggle with. There are significant parts of my life that are on autopilot just to give me the mental capacity and energy to do other things. But that’s the thing about mindfulness. You don’t get better about it if you only do it occasionally. So, since I knew I was going to be away from work and people, it was easy for me to get in that mindful headspace and focus on how what I was doing made me feel.
I’ll be real. I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t take some time to focus on mindfulness. And I wouldn’t have taken the time to try new things if mindfulness wasn’t one of the goals of the retreat. But through being mindful, I was able to approach writing in a new, healthier way. And I’m trying to carry that over into my daily life. Mindfulness isn’t allowing me to push through things so quickly, and it’s making it easier to see where my sticking points are when it comes to writing and work.
005: Learn What You Need in Your Writing Process.
If you followed me on social media during July, then you know that I was doing Camp NaNoWriMo, and I was pushing pretty hard through my word count. I don’t know if I wanted the validation of hitting that goal, or if I wanted to have a pile of words where once there was none, but I did it. And needless to say, after pushing through a semester where I taught an extra class, then an intersession class, then two summer classes, pushing that hard wasn’t good for my mental health.
And even though I finished teaching on July 6, I didn’t take my time off as an opportunity for a retreat. But I’m so glad I got to get away for a few days because it really put things in perspective. I’m not sure if I’ve been able to integrate what I’ve learned about my process into my life, especially since the semester has started and I don’t’ have the free time I want to write when the feeling strikes me. But I am sure that I now know what I’m looking for when it comes to my life as a writer, and how my process needs to shift to accommodate that.
Have You Even Taken a Solo Writing Retreat?
So, in a nutshell, that’s what I’ve learned from my solo writing retreat. I’m definitely planning a few solo writing retreats in the future, and looking forward to the days off and downtime in my working schedule to use some of the things I learned. Have you ever been on a writing retreat? Do you prefer solo writing retreats to group retreats? What’s your writing retreat wish list?