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My DIY writing retreat – what I learned, what I’d do differently

In 2008, I booked myself a hotel for the night for a DIY writing retreat, after being frustrated at not being able to afford a traditional retreat, and also too impatient to wait for one I could afford. I’d been meaning to do it again since then, and last weekend I finally did.

DIY writing retreat tips

Finding a good writing retreat location

If you read the PDF article linked above, you’ll see that the last one didn’t go entirely to plan. The main issue I’d had was the location I’d chosen – a small, boutique hotel in the busy Kensington neighbourhood of Calgary. I chose it mainly for its proximity to interesting places if I needed a walk or coffee. However, my room was on the main floor, right by the hotel’s busy and loud lounge area. There’s nothing less conducive to working on a writing project than the music and laughter of people enjoying themselves on a Friday evening. I was supposed to be a shut-in, dammit! Plus, my room didn’t have any sort of food-preparation area, and leaving to get food so often interrupted what little focus I’d had.

So. My 2018 DIY writing retreat would be different. Because Airbnb exists now, I was able to find a lovely private apartment in an old farmhouse where a family lived. I chose it because it looked like it’d be quiet, but not too isolated, and because it was close enough to town that I could make a quick drive if I wanted to get coffee or groceries. The apartment itself was spacious enough for me, and had a kitchen and a private entry. The grounds were also very picturesque, and I imagined myself strolling along amongst the autumn trees, working out plot details. It would be miles better than my 2008 location.

How my DIY writing retreat actually went

I arrived at the apartment in the late afternoon on Friday, was shown around, and left to my own devices. As soon as the door shut behind me, I started to feel the dread. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have any strategies. All of my informed decisions were used up on choosing the location. But because Instagram exists now, I was able to ask other writers for their advice on staying focused on retreats, and I got great tips right away – my favourite being: eat the same things over and over so as not to waste time thinking about or preparing food. I went back out, driving into town to get some groceries (and a toothbrush, which of course I’d forgotten to bring from home). It was pretty dull stuff: sweet and sour pork, egg salad sandwiches, bananas, croissants. I allowed myself an indulgence, however, in the form of a large bag of cheese puffs. Hey, I’m half-Filipino; I need food excitement.

That first evening, the dread lifted slightly, but didn’t entirely go away. I called my husband to complain, and he gave me encouraging words, and pointed hints that I shouldn’t waste writing time on the phone. He wasn’t wrong. I hung up and sat back down at my laptop. I remembered my 2008 retreat, how I’d spent so much time screwing around, only writing just before the end of my final night. It really sucked, and was a waste of time and money. So I decided to work on literally anything, as long as it was novel-related. And that’s how I spent my first evening – developing each character by determining their D&D alignments.

DIY writing retreat tips

The next day went much better. I woke up early, motivated to write, and tapped away at my laptop as my bacon and eggs were cooking. Later in the morning I did go on that lovely tree-lined walk I had imagined, and stood by a pond on the property, going over plot details with myself. In the late afternoon I decided a change of scene was in order, and I took myself to a nearby coffeeshop for a flat white while I continued working. I kept writing when I returned to the apartment, but my energy and enthusiasm were flagging. I had been writing all day, but I had only written two chapters. The rest of my work had been all in the background, untangling knotty plot problems and worldbuilding. Wasn’t I supposed to be in frenzy of output, letting that trance come over me as the word count approached ridiculous levels? It was then that I’d realized I had subconsciously made a plan after all – it turns out that I’d expected to write half the damn book over one weekend. I poured myself another bowl of cheese puffs.

I had planned to stay up late that night working, but I had zero energy and will. Instead I just read and went to sleep around my usual time. The next day, I wasn’t as much in a rush to checkout as I had been in 2008, so I was able to write again in the morning, quietly, in my pyjamas with a cup of coffee. I was still annoyed at not meeting the goal I didn’t know I’d set for myself, but overall I was pleased. I felt I had a deeper understanding of my characters and what they wanted and what they were going to do. I also felt that I was pretty much done with worldbuilding for the moment, at least. I had enough of a foundation – something I have to keep reminding myself of. At lunchtime, I made my last cup of coffee and ate the last of the cheese puffs, and started to get ready to leave. I was happy to go home, but I was glad I’d done it.

What I learned & would have done differently

Even though I count this DIY writing retreat as more successful than my last one, I did sometimes feel lonely, like last time – on Saturday evening I found myself having a little “Tyres from Spaced dancing to the beeps of the pedestrian crossing signal” moment to the gurgles and thunks of the coffeemaker.

 

I’m perfectly content to spend long stretches of time on my own, and I wasn’t there to socialize, but I did often wish there were other writers around who I could discuss things with over a break, or attend workshops with. Even though Instagram was great for reaching others quickly, it somehow didn’t feel the same – I mean, who of us hasn’t been bored on Instagram for far longer than we’d meant to? I wonder what I can do to temper this next time, if it’s even possible.

While I did have a productive weekend with no schedule, near the end of my retreat I began to think that maybe it would have been good to have done up even a rough schedule, things I would work on in chunks of thirty minutes or an hour. Not only would it have saved me wondering what to work on, but that feeling of dread I’d felt on Friday evening would have been avoided.

I’m so glad I finally got the chance to do another DIY writing retreat, and I’d recommend it to any writer. It doesn’t have to be in a hotel or far from your home; just someplace where you’re guaranteed quiet and freedom from your usual responsibilities. And bring cheese puffs. I’m going to dedicate this novel to cheese puffs, seriously.

A library clerk saves the day!

In 2016, I wrote the following blog post for my history blog, The Small Histories. I was thinking about it again recently and wanted to share it here as well – book lovers will appreciate it!


February 29, 2016: A few months ago, I visited Ottawa and went on a guided tour of Centre Block (which is one of our Parliament buildings, for those unfamiliar). It was very interesting to see all of it, but my favourite was the Library of Parliament. There were many gasps from my group when we walked in, and I was definitely one of those people.

I mean, just look at it!

The Library of Parliament, Ottawa, ON

In 1916, a fire broke out in Centre Block that razed most of the original building to the ground. The Library of Parliament and the northwest wing were the only parts of it that survived. According to our tour guide, a library clerk named Connie MacCormac shut the heavy iron doors before the fire could make its way down the narrow corridor to the Library. This quick thinking saved the Library from destruction – along with all of the books inside it.

The Library of Parliament, Ottawa, ON

I believe what you see here is mostly original. A smaller fire did break out in the Library in 1952, necessitating the replacement of the domed roof, the ceiling, paneling, and some books.

Still – not a bad job considering this gorgeous library is 140 years old!

My summer of sorta writing

Writing on Manitoulin IslandIt’s been fall for a few days now, and it’s probably the third one in a row where I can look back on my summer writing and actually feel fairly impressed. Usually, summer is terrible for my writing. In my part of Ontario the summers are scorching, humid, and long. Many people love this, but I tend to wilt and become sluggish and annoyed. In the past this has meant my writing becomes sluggish too, and I don’t really produce much of anything at all. However, since the year I started writing my first novel, not writing in the summers simply wasn’t an option. It just wouldn’t work. And I suppose since that time my brain has learned to dust itself off and get on with it, even when the sun sizzles my skin after five minutes outdoors.

Some things help: Writing on my balcony (above), where it’s actually quite pleasant for most of the day, and having a project to work on that excites me. I wrote in my TinyLetter recently about how much of my mind palace is taken up with the storage of ideas, histories, facts, details – all those tiny things that create the scaffolding I can actually support the narrative with. So while it doesn’t really look like I’m doing a lot of work, there is a lot happening.

The highlight of my writing summer, though, was a quick midweek trip my husband and I took to Manitoulin Island at the beginning of September. We both love visiting Tobermory and have always been curious about nearby Manitoulin, and we thought it was a good time to finally go. We chose an off-grid Airbnb cottage in the forest that looked perfect. It was perfect, but what I didn’t know beforehand was that it also had a quite extensive library! It was like the secondhand book store of my dreams – and I got to live in it for three days. I did more writing than I had planned on there, both on the deck overlooking the lake, and at the desk nestled in a corner of two bookshelves with rain and thunder rolling outside. It was pretty damn magical and something I’m so pleased happened, especially since I hadn’t planned on it at all.

One thing I have planned, however, is an actual DIY writing retreat next month. In the past I’ve booked myself a hotel room to spend a weekend writing, and thought it was about time I did it again. I’m very excited and hope that, by then, I will have enough novel scaffolding ready that I can actually let some narrative happen. Fingers crossed!

“Freedom is the best thing” – Reading ‘Tove Jansson: Work and Love’

Tove Jansson

I’m half-Finnish, but I didn’t know what a Moomin was until I was an adult.

Maybe that’s not entirely true; I do have a dim memory of receiving a Moominpapa piggybank as a child, but I had no idea what what the character was supposed to be. However, as an adult I did finally learn, and I began also to learn about the Moomins’ creator, Tove Jansson. And I began to like her quite a lot!

My friend Susanna is a Finnish visual artist, and together we share this Tove-admiration. I had asked her if Finland had a good Jansson biography in English, and soon enough, a book more beautiful than I could have imagined arrived at my door.

Written by art historian Tuula Karjalainen, Tove Jansson: Work and Love, as the title suggests, focuses on Jansson’s life as it relates to her work and her relationships. I knew a bit about her life, and I knew that she did more than create the Moomins (I own a few of her non-Moomin books and love them dearly), but her level of dedication to her work was new to me. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be an artist. She worked at it diligently, and was prolific across many creative fields – as Karjalainen writes:

. . . embracing painting, fairytale, short stories, novels, plays, poems, songs, stage sets, monumental paintings, illustrations and advertisements to political drawings and cartoons.

Tove Jansson studio

My friend Susanna is also the one who encouraged me to read Big Magic last year, and so we had many long chats as I was reading the Jansson biography. We talked about the creative process, and how important it is to take it seriously and assert your self-identity as an artist (and, yes, for these purposes I’m classifying writing as an artistic pursuit. Odd how people separate it out from that category, isn’t it?).

I’ve been making more of an effort to put writing higher in my list of life priorities than it has been. The novel progress I was able to make during NaNoWriMo by writing every day reaffirmed to me that waiting for vague inspiration to strike only defeats projects before they get going. Reading Big Magic strengthened that belief, and since then I’m proud to say that I’ve been showing up more regularly, ready to do my end of the collaboration between me and my creativity. So it was highly timely to read about Jansson’s commitment to her work. She had her own vision and her own style, and she rarely strayed from it, even if it alienated her from her friends and peers. When abstract art came to Finland, she largely rejected it even though everyone else embraced it. She wrote that she would be:

a so-called individualist who paints lemons, writes fairytales, collects strange objects and hobbies, and despises mass meetings and associations. Looks ridiculous, but that is how I want my life.

Tove Jansson GARM

Jansson did have quite firm political and social beliefs, but she expressed them in her own way, and often in a way that may not have been obvious. She experimented with different styles and forms, but only if she wanted to. She brushed off the expectations people had of her, but she was also sensitive to criticism and worried about the value of what she was creating. Even though she struggled with the popularity of the Moomins and her specific identity as a painter, she still arranged her life so that her work came first. And even though I can’t follow her example quite so precisely, I know I’ll be forever inspired by her quiet determination, and how intricately she wove her life and work together.

Tove Jansson studio

Yesterday, I made myself a cup of coffee and read from the book in the shade of my balcony. It was a scorcher of a day, and most of my neighbours were indoors. All I could hear were birds, the occasional car. A family across the street was going in and out of their house, getting ready to move. I was, as usual, texting Susanna about all my Tove-thoughts, at that point so affectionate that they could easily appear to be thoughts about a distant relative. I looked up, thinking about a passage I had just read, and I saw a girl emerge from the house across the street. She was, almost impossibly, wearing a t-shirt with the Moomin character Pikku Myy on the front. I can’t help but take that as a good omen. An encouraging nudge.

If you’re in the US, you can find it on Amazon here, and in Canada, here.

Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer (please)

don't call yourself an aspiring writer

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about the phrase “aspiring writer” or “aspiring author.” I recorded a quick YouTube video about it, but I wanted to share my thoughts about it here too.

I want to say first that I don’t mean to call anyone out or be a downer. In fact, I hope this is a positive rant! I’ve just been noticing that a fair number of people on social media refer to themselves as an aspiring writer. They post pictures of their works-in-progress, they talk about story ideas they’re fleshing out, they talk with other writers, they even attend workshops and conferences.

And every single time, I wish I could tell them: You already are a writer!

I do understand why they use the word “aspiring.” It’s a way to signal to the world that you’re serious, that one day you’re going to be published, maybe even famous. You’re saying “one day I’ll be a professional writer.”

But here’s why it bugs me: Being published doesn’t make you a writer. Being well-known doesn’t make you a writer. If you’re developing your craft and doing the work, then you’re a writer. Whether you’ve been at it for two months or twenty years – if you are writing relatively regularly, have stories in mind, think and talk about writing, then you are a writer.

I know it seems like I’m nitpicking here, but I really believe that using the word “aspiring” rewires our thinking in ways we wouldn’t seek to do consciously. “Aspiring” puts the focus on getting paid or “arriving.” While getting paid is good (I’m a freelance and fiction writer – I love getting paid!), it removes the work as the main thing. If people believe they have to be at a certain nebulous level to be considered a writer, then they might never get started. For every published piece of writing, there are months and often years of unseen work behind it. Sleepless nights, revising, re-revising, rejections, self-doubt, the tyranny of the blank page. Not to mention all the work that the writer decided was best to just keep in a drawer. Anyone who pushes through all that for the sake of a story they want to share is a writer, whether or not what they produce is ever published. If you start out thinking you’re not a “real” writer yet, you’ll probably feel less ownership over the project you have in mind.

Maybe some people tag themselves as “aspiring” because they encounter others who don’t put the same value on writing as a craft, or believe that writers are only as big as JK Rowling or Stephen King. People who expect “writers” to be prolific or popular are short-sighted, and in the minority. Most people take me at face value when I tell them I’m a writer. They don’t ask me to prove it. So if they believe me, and if I’ve been writing poems and stories and novels and zines and blog posts for years, who says I’m not a writer? There’s no governing body. There’s no entrance exam. There’s just your brain, your story, and your writing implement of choice. That’s it.

In 2012, I attended a Paul Auster interview where he said, “It’s impossible to describe how much I dislike my own work.” It was so liberating to hear. A revelation. Paul Auster’s work has been published since the ’70s, but he still dislikes it at times. Being published means nothing. It is not a train station that you will arrive at and be crowned Finally A Writer. So why not just crown yourself Writer at the very beginning and give yourself an easier – and infinitely more fun – time of it?

New novel & worldbuilding

At the end of 2017, I had finished the draft of my novel, and was feeling kind of lost. I had been working on it for a year, I had finished NaNoWriMo with it, and suddenly it was done and off to beta readers.

I had this writing momentum I didn’t want to lose, but I didn’t know what to work on. So I dipped back into something I had started years earlier. In 2012, Readers’ Digest invited people to submit their ultra-short stories on Twitter. One of my submissions was published, and I took this little snippet and started writing a story.

readers-digest-sg

I abandoned that story, and picking it up again last year, after so long with a novel, felt weird. I struggled with it. Maybe my brain had rewired without me realizing it. Whatever the reason, I decided that there was nothing for it but to turn that short story snippet into a new novel. The novel I wrote last year was more magical realism than anything, but this one is looking like a sci-fi/fantasyish/mystery sort of hybrid. I’ve read a fair amount of genre fiction, but have never attempted to write anything substantial in those areas myself. And, as it turns out, I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

Okay, I’ll be honest: I just completed the first chapter the other day. What had been occupying my brain up ’til then has been the research, the worldbuilding. I examined the small amount of actual narrative I’d written for the short story, and realized that I couldn’t go on – I hadn’t figured out how the magic system in this world worked. I didn’t know what made these people leave Earth. And then – it was a spaceship. How many people lived in it? What did they eat? How did they get water? What jobs did people have? Who kept the peace? Was there peace?

As I did more research into the backstory of my little world, I realized that this spaceship couldn’t look sleekly futuristic. No Star Trek, much as I love it. So, then I had other considerations: What animals would exist and why? What would peoples’ homes look like? Will every area look the same? If not – how would they differ? How would this environment influence the characters and the way they act?

novel world-building in pinterest

As with my previous novel, I found Pinterest helped me to find more concrete representations of the vague threads of ideas I had swirling around in my brain.

And when it came time to decide the all-important question of population growth over time in my city-ship, there was only one option:

novel world-building in excel

I haven’t gotten to the map-drawing stage yet, but oh, I will. When I was in middle school, I wrote a couple of little books set in a fictional town. I spent some summer afternoons happily drawing each character’s street, their house layouts, even the layout of their local mall (I was twelve). And, in a strange way, this worldbuilding reminds me of those pleasant afternoons, sitting on my bedroom floor, leaning against my door so my brother wouldn’t come in, getting completely lost in this entire creation process.

Despite the novel I just completed, I have been a short story writer longer than anything. I got used to the constraints of that format, even though my stories were on the long side. When I wrote my last novel, I had to really work at internalizing the fact that I had more time now, that I could do more things. Now, with this next novel, all I have are things to create and invent. There’s something slightly infuriating about that sometimes, but it’s also more than a little addicting. One idea rolls into another idea, which rolls into another, and everything seems possible and fun and worthy of investigation. I can’t recall thinking about a writing project so constantly, so excitedly, in years. During my Humber mentorship I discovered how much I enjoyed the process of unpicking the knot of yarn that a writing project can turn into. It’s deeply satisfying, feeling a writing problem unfurl and begin to carry you along again.

At least, it certainly feels like the complete opposite to the state of mind I was in in 2015, when I wrote a post with the dramatic title I quit writing!

Worldbuilding resources that helped me:

Do you have any worldbuilding resources to recommend?