How To Plan Your Own Writing Retreat To Find Creativity Again
It was my first spring in London. The sun was finally high enough in the sky to warm the city air. I was a year into graduate school, studying nonfiction writing, and the other students and I were all rushing to complete our book manuscripts before the summer break. Two of my peers suggested we leave the city for a few weeks to write. Before I knew it, the three of us were on a bus headed for the airport, destined for a farmhouse on an island off the coast of Scotland.
For two weeks, we read voraciously, worked on our manuscripts, and visited the local pub. We also chopped wood for the fireplace and watched the sheep graze in the front yard. It was as magical and impractical as it sounds—three full-time students, using loan money to pay for their trip, justifying every expense as part of their studies. But the writing retreat was exactly what each of us needed; it was what I needed as well—to complete my assignment, yes, but also to find creativity again.
In her LitHub essay, Finding Creativity in the Wintertime Rhythms of a Bordeaux Vineyard, Mari Andrew writes, “I’d endure weeks at a time where [creativity would] fail to visit me and I’d start doubting my judgment, and then she’d throw open the doors and come through with a dramatic ‘Miss me?’ She was intoxicating to be around, perhaps because of the very real possibility that she might leave for good at any moment.”
Even in grad school, while focused solely on writing, I discovered that my creativity often dwindled in stressful seasons or when under the pressure of a looming deadline. It was difficult to stay inspired as my mind and creative practices were challenged and stretched. Weekend writing retreats became my go-to source for inspiration during those years, though they were much less grandiose after that first trip to Scotland.
“I made a promise to myself that I would continue getting away at least once a year to write and carve out space for creativity to find its way back to me.”
Upon graduating and returning to the United States, I made a promise to myself that I would continue getting away at least once a year, even if only for one night, to write and carve out space for creativity to find its way back to me. This is not to say creativity is impossible to come by in everyday life, but sometimes it’s harder to see when working full-time and balancing life’s demands. A writing retreat, I’ve found, offers a quick escape to sort through and clear out all the mind clutter.
If you’re curious (or desperate, ha!) to plan your own writing getaway in the near future, I’m right there with you (eyeing you, fall 2023). Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned from retreats in the past. I hope they can help you in your own planning process:
1. Where to go on your writing retreat
I love dreaming about where I’d like to go and browsing all the possible homes on Airbnb. But while traveling to a distant and idyllic location to work on your next book or creative project is quite literally the dream, these trips can also require a lot of time and money. That said, if you have the means to do so but are hesitant because it feels a bit indulgent, consider this your encouragement to book the trip!
A small writing retreat in your backyard can be just as meaningful, too—and these shorter trips often mean you can get away more often, say for a couple of weekends a year. I’ve booked guest houses in my city, house swapped with friends, and sent my partner away for the weekend so I could have the house to myself. Whatever you decide, make it personal to you!
If you are looking to book time away and travel, here are a few pieces of advice:
Consider the location and how close you’d like to be to the nearest city. Do you want a local coffee shop you can visit each day? Do you prefer city noise or nature? Think about where you feel inspired. Safety is also an important consideration.
Look closely at listing photos and reviews. Does it have a desk? A comfortable space for writing? Do reviewers note construction noise happening in the neighborhood? It’s okay to be picky about where you go and the place you book! If you have additional questions, feel free to reach out to hosts.
Be realistic about costs. A self-led writing retreat costs housing, travel expenses, food, and time. It’s okay to save up for this! Consider creating a fund at the beginning of each year (like you would a vacation fund) and set aside a small amount each month.
Alternatively, consider if you want to invite a friend or two along. This can save on cost and also lend itself to additional inspiration. During that first retreat in Scotland, it was helpful to have other writers around to brainstorm ideas and workshop essays.
2. How to set a writing schedule
In Scotland, my friends and I followed a strict schedule. We woke at the same time each day and then had slotted time blocks for writing. Here is how we structured our days:
7 a.m. – 8 a.m. Yoga and breakfast
8 a.m. – 12 p.m. writing
12 p.m. – 1 p.m. lunch
1 p.m. – 4 p.m. writing
4 p.m. – 6 p.m. break/dinner prep
6 p.m. – 8 p.m. reading and workshopping each other’s pieces
To make the schedule flow more seamlessly, we created a meal plan in advance, and each of us was responsible for specific meals or chores each day (like summer camp!). Of course, we made this schedule fun too, and we didn’t always stick to it—we are creatives, after all—workshopping often included wine, and writing sessions sometimes meant going on walks to sort through plot problems. And we always ended our evenings watching reruns of favorite TV shows together to clear our brains (RIP to the pile of books we brought).
However you decide to structure your retreat, it must work for you. If you get your best writing done early in the morning, perhaps you do that first. More of a night owl? Allow yourself to sleep in and schedule some writing hours for after dinner.
3. What to pack for your writing retreat
As dreamy as they sound, writing retreats are also challenging—to our brains and emotions. This is especially if, like me, you’re writing a memoir or personal essay and digging up old memories from your past.
I like to prioritize comfort items and creative tools whenever embarking on long spurts of writing, and this is even more true when packing for a writing retreat. Think cozy socks, a yoga mat, a favorite smelling candle, a stack of books from beloved authors and writing guides, photos and quotes to tape up around your desk. I usually invest in a few new creative tools as well, like Moleskin notebooks and fresh pencils. And I always bring a novel (or a few good movies) I can indulge in before bed. Again, choose what works best for you and your creative practice.
4. Which writing goals to set—and what to expect
In addition to having a daily structure, I always set goals for myself before going on a writing retreat. Of course, writing often has a mind of its own, and these goals tend to morph once I’m there. But I’ve found it helpful to have a starting point and adjust as needed.
A few questions you can ask yourself to help set goals:
What do I hope to gain from this time away?
How many words or pages do I hope to produce?
Do I need to focus on rough drafts, creative thinking, or edits and revisions?
What rules do I need to set for myself to stay focused?
How do I plan to navigate inevitable writing blocks?
What small rewards can I offer myself each evening to celebrate my achievements?
One final note to remember is that creativity is not a destination but an ongoing act we nurture and practice, and it will often feel different depending on the seasons. While writing retreats are a wonderful way to honor this practice and give ourselves (and our minds) room to breathe, they must come with a surrender of expectations. Not every writing retreat will lend itself to a new manuscript or even a well
of creativity and inspiration. I’ve walked away from these weekends with rough drafts of books, and I’ve also walked away with nothing but journal entries about how uninspired and exhausted I felt.
“Revering Creativity would mean humbling myself in front of her power,” writes Andrews in her Lithub essay. “She’s much older and wiser than any of us—even older than wise old trees and vineyards—and she will come visit when she wants.”
So just as we set structure and goals for our writing retreats, no matter what they look like, we can also release our expectations with the hope that whatever is supposed to happen will. That’s the beauty of creativity anyhow.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.