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Three ways to do a DIY writing retreat

Since 2008, I’ve taken myself on three DIY writing retreats. I’m sharing the things I’ve learned about DIY writing retreats, and what I’d do differently next time. Or, will there be a next time?

Writing retreat #1: 2008

The idea for my first DIY writing retreat came to me out of impatience. I had the urge to attend a formal retreat, but all the interesting ones had either just finished, or were starting months in the future. I’ve always been terrible at waiting for good things, so I decided to save time (and money) by booking a hotel room for myself for a weekend.

I decided on a small boutique hotel in one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Calgary, where I lived at the time. I liked that neighbourhood because there were interesting places to walk around and get food, and that decision informed my choice of hotel.

In the end, the neighbourhood became moot thanks to a traditional April snowstorm (ah, Calgary). I arrived at the hotel looking like a drowned rat after a mere five minutes’ walk from the train station, and quickly realized I had no idea what to do. I had made no plan. I suppose I thought I’d just sit at the desk and start writing. Instead, I sat at the desk and stared at my open laptop, listening to people having a lovely Friday night in the lounge down the hall.

I’m not going to say I had a weekend out of The Shining, but spending two nights in a small hotel room during a snowstorm was quite isolating (quelle surprise). On Saturday afternoon I ventured out to a coffeeshop for lunch and read for an hour, emptying my brain of all things related to my writing project. Back at the hotel, I kept reading. I think I kind of just gave up, resolving myself to the failure of having spent money on a hotel room to watch TV and read in.

However, something about that resolution unlocked something in my brain, and I ended up writing for the entire rest of Saturday, and Sunday morning. After checking out on Sunday I met my boyfriend and our friend Carly at a nearby pub for brunch, feeling happy with my progress.

Score: 5/10
Pro: Being able to walk to get coffee in an interesting neighbourhood was good for a brain break.
Cons: Thanks to making absolutely no plans, I spun my wheels for most of the weekend instead of working. Additionally, choosing a boutique hotel with virtually no amenities meant that I was on my own for many things – no room service or in-room coffee, for example. If I had been in a writing phase, having to leave the hotel for these things wouldn’t have been ideal.

Writing retreat #2: 2018

Ten years later – rematch! I had been feeling the urge to lock myself away again to work on my novel (which eventually became Seeker of the Lost Song), but without the “lol idk” vibes of the first DIY writing retreat. Instead of a boutique hotel in the city, I booked an Airbnb farmhouse apartment in the fairly rural-seeming area outside of Kitchener-Waterloo.

However, once I arrived at the apartment, I felt the dread. I hadn’t made a plan! The lack of a plan was the thing that got me the last time. However, thanks to Instagram I was able to get some advice for staying focused on retreats. I went into town to stock up on easily-to-prepare food, and returned to the Airbnb determined to work on something, anything. So on my first evening, I worked on developing each character by determining their Dungeons & Dragons alignments.

I don’t know if it was the lovely autumnal weather, not needing to leave my space to eat, or simple DIY retreat experience, but the next two days of my retreat went quite well. I still hadn’t come up with a writing plan, but my motivation was high. I wrote actual narrative, but mostly I worked on worldbuilding. Honestly, I think I had subconsciously expected to enter some sort of highly-productive fugue state and write half the novel over that weekend. I didn’t, but the work I did gave me a strong foundation for the future.

(If you want to read more about my 2018 retreat, check out my blog post about it!)

Score: 8/10
Pro: A quieter space with food and caffeine readily available helped me to focus and work.
Cons: Good ol’ Sammy No-Plan strikes again. Also, the physical isolation felt a bit depressing at times. I was able to drive into town and go to a coffeeshop to write for a while, but I found myself actually missing the more “peopley” hotel environment now and then.

Writing retreat #3: 2023

At the beginning of April, I tried DIY writing retreat number three. I’d evaluated the pros and cons of the prior two, and thought I knew how I could combine the pros of each and minimize the cons. I would do it at a hotel like in 2008, but a cheaper, quieter one (I love foreshadowing, don’t you?). I would prioritize a hotel that had an in-room coffeemaker and room service, and was within walking distance to other food options if I wanted to take a break. And I would make a PLAN, goddammit.

I chose a hotel that had a Denny’s attached (yes, this was the main deciding factor) and was close to a grocery store. I wrote out a loose plan that focused more on overall things I wanted to accomplish rather than a full-on schedule (I don’t always do so great with rigid schedules).

When I arrived at the hotel on Friday afternoon, I approached the front desk and was asked, “Are you here for the hockey tournament?”

A youth hockey tournament was on, and seemingly the entire hotel was taken up by kids from the hockey teams and their parents. And let me tell you, they made their presence known. That entire day, until midnight, it was either kids running and screaming in the hall constantly, or their drunk parents shouting and scream-laughing in the hall constantly. Did I do any work that first night? I honestly can’t remember. I do remember watching HGTV on a constant loop in an attempt to counter the noise.

The silver lining, though, was that the next day the kids and their parents had to leave for the tournament. I relished those quiet hours. I ordered a French Toast Slam from Denny’s room service. I walked to the grocery store to get sushi, fruit, cheese buns, and coffee. Back at the hotel, I worked through my writing plan. Like in 2018, my work consisted mostly of worldbuilding, though I did write some chapters too. And the hockey people were even kind enough to start up their routine a couple of hours later than the night before. (🫠)

Overall, I’d say this was the most productive DIY writing retreat I’ve done so far, despite the drain on my mental health brought on by the noise and the anticipation of it. I’d probably do a retreat this way again next time – making no big event is going on when I book, of course.

(If you want to see a mini-vlog of my weekend, check it out here on Instagram!)

Score: 5/10
Pros: She made a plan! Callooh! Callay! Additionally, the room was clean and comfortable, and big enough that I didn’t feel as boxed in as I did in 2008. Having room service and in-room coffee plus easy access to a grocery store helped a lot too.
Cons: HOCKEY PEOPLE. This would have been a 9/10 weekend if not for the hockey people.

So – will I do a DIY writing retreat in the future? Five years ago I would have said definitely yes (I mean, I did, after all). But now, I’m not so sure. Honestly, I’m lucky enough to have the sort of life where I can say to my husband, “I need to spend eight hours per day this weekend writing with no distractions” and it will be relatively easy to make it happen. At home I also have my familiar things and won’t have to worry about figuring out a strange hotel’s rules or housekeeping schedule.

Maybe the pandemic deepened my already somewhat hermity tendencies, but I think next time I’ll try doing my writing retreat at home. I have a feeling it’ll be the best one yet.

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