Issue 30: Retreat to move forward
6 min read

Issue 30: Retreat to move forward

Issue 30: Retreat to move forward
A picture of a table outdoors overlooking a yard. White mugs, a book, and a notebook sit on the table.

A few years ago, a friend and I both applied to the same writing retreat. While hanging out one weekend, we shared that we’d both been rejected. There was the expected sheepish disappointment, the mutual commiseration. But then one of us blurted out, “We should organize our own!” Of course, what we were proposing would not be the same rigorous schedule of readings, critiques, and author-led lectures. But the disappointment was replaced by a newfound giddiness. Why shouldn’t we organize our own retreat?

It was one of those ideas that was mentioned so off-handedly like “We should start a band!” that I half-expected us to abandon the idea once Monday rolled around. But the idea stuck and we ended up finding two other friends who were also interested. We picked a weekend, found an Airbnb upstate, and hashed out the details around grocery shopping and meeting times in a spreadsheet. (Bless my friends for being spreadsheet people.) It was such a restorative trip that we did another artists retreat this year.

I’ve always thought of retreats as these grand secluded stretches of time to focus on my writing. No job, no errands, no distractions. Walden in the woods. I had this idealized version of it in my head, which started to add pressure around the trip. What was supposed to be a time to renew my creative and spiritual focus was rapidly stressing me out.

As Beth Pickens reminds me in her book Make Your Art No Matter What, the solution that a retreat offers is often an illusion. In reality, “expanses of unstructured time are the enemy of most artists.”

Unstructured time creates the conditions to feel anxiety, fear, and grief that remain contained, managed, or stuffed down while a person lives their busy life in a familiar routine. Having eliminated that routine, they now feel a pressure to enjoy, be productive, or otherwise “make the most of” the opportunity..

Here are some things to keep in mind when organizing a retreat so you can feel restored and connected to your work, no matter how much time you have:

Set a creative intention

I found it helpful to set a concrete goal. I knew I wasn’t going to crank out new essays or half of a book in a long weekend, so I set smaller, measurable intentions. For the first retreat, I just wanted to outline an idea for a novel plus some character sketches. This past retreat, I finished out #1000wordsofsummer. It’s important to be realistic about the time that you have and how you want to use it. You can mitigate the guilt and pressure to be productive by being intentional about your own expectations.

Surround yourself with other artists

The thing I value most about these retreats has been the community of my friends and fellow artists. We cook meals for one another, do puzzles, and get intense about hoarding the puddings in Sushi Go! We plan group activities like going on a hike, but are also able to retreat to some corner of the house for solo creative time. I actually work better knowing I need to finish my writing within a certain timeframe.

If you’re looking to do deep work, a solo trip might be best. But I’ve found that a retreat with other artists—especially ones in other disciplines like visual art, crafts, and design—can be energizing and expansive. My friends and I end up talking for hours about our creative obsessions as well as bigger topics, like how to balance an artistic practice with rest and ways we use social media. We used a friend’s Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck to do tarot readings and the interpretations led us to some deep conversations about our relationships and ourselves.

A lot of creative practices involve working alone, so a group retreat is a great way to feel connected to a larger artistic community. One of the easiest ways to broaden your horizons and interests is through good conversation.

Bring back motivation

I always wish our trips were longer, but I also know that retreating to the woods is a great privilege. Not everyone has the time, money, or ability to do so. Pickens also notes that “it’s unrealistic to expect that a span of open time will be the panacea to one’s issues with time.”

Rather than pinning all my creative hopes on one burst of time, I like to see it as a way to rejuvenate. Once you feel refreshed and nourished, you can bring back those feelings into your regular routine.

Another thing that stuck with me from Pickens’ book was that “time scarcity” contributes to anxiety and makes it into a “precious commodity that must never be wasted.” She poses these great questions:

What if there is no wrong thing, just the next thing? Only the present choice in front of us? We can transform indecision and anxious wondering by making a choice and accepting it.

See your retreat as a starting point, not a solution. Use it as a gateway to more what ifs. Sometimes all that's needed to take a step forward in your creative development is to ask a question.

A tweet that says "writers with day jobs" with an image of Merry and Pippin from the Lord of the Rings movies asking "We've done one work, yes. What about second work?"

Creative resources

  • “How to Curate Your Own Writing Retreat” by Elaine Mead
  • An incredible read by Emily VanDerWerff about Isabel Fall’s sci-fi story and the internet’s response. There are great points made about genre writing, anonymity and gender online, how Twitter escalates emotion, and paranoid vs. reparative readings of art.
  • A helpful thread full of advice for submitting to literary journals.
  • Min Jin Lee’s essay on her Uncle John and how a lifetime of reading molded her as a writer: “All those shelves of books had built my mind, teaching me how to shape a narrative about my people, from what they had lost and found. In life, even in my life, there was a coming-of-age, tragedy and meaning.”
  • A walk with Susan Choi around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She characterizes her writing as meandering around a big, messy garden.

Recent reads & other media

I watched Zola and found it hilarious and unsettling. Based on a viral Twitter thread, I thought it did a great job of capturing the original author’s voice and was impressed by how they integrated technology (notification sound effects, the time on an iPhone lock screen) without it feeling hokey. I enjoyed these two profiles of the director, Janicza Bravo. E and I also continued our watch of the ‘Before’ trilogy with Before Sunset.

Black Widow was a lot of fun but I wish she’d gotten her standalone movie when she was still canonically alive! I enjoyed the sister dynamic though and Florence Pugh’s frowny face foreshadowed great acting as always. In related MCU media, my 2011 Tom Hiddleston Tumblr obsession has been reawakened by the Loki Disney+ series. I will be sincerely disappointed if the season concludes without Mobius riding off on a jet ski!!

I reread one of my favorite romance novels, Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient. I enjoyed Make Your Art No Matter What by Beth Pickens, which is a very practical handbook for all kinds of creatives. Drawing on Pickens’ work as a consultant for artists and arts organizations, it talks about both the practical (money, jobs, education) and emotional aspects (anxiety, grief, isolation) of creative work. It’s a quick read and I felt energized and motivated by her advice.

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

Nothing says “I live a well-adjusted life” quite like a private Instagram account. The Timekeepers are at the Waffle House. Don’t squeeze the bread so hard (unless you’re making a panini). Dancing to all types of music hits different. Cat vs. DDR. Anytime I use my feet to pick something up.

A bird labeled "me" is held by plastic tongs. The tongs are labeled "stress" and "anxiety."