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.
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.
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.