A huge segment of my friends and acquaintances are writers. Many are published. Many teach writing. Many wish they could write more and have more time for their craft. Many miss the forced deadlines of writing programs or National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or have fallen out of the habit of writing every day. I hear a lot of sorrow in the voices of people talking about lack of uninterrupted stretches of several hours, voicing the reality that some folks’ concentration styles requires a great burst of word volume to start a project. One friend and former classmate reported she occasionally checks herself into a hotel for the weekend just to get writing done, away from the distractions of her regular life. Still others participate in bootcamps—writers tapping away in a room together for hours at a time. I’ve done a few of those over the course of a day, weekend, and some as long as a week. These are all great and have their unique benefits. But of all these special approaches to writing, what I’ve come to see as a truly viable option that affords the time, space, and novelty of sensory input needed for productivity as well as the chance to network and commune collegially with other writers is a retreat weekend.
There’s something inherently different about a retreat weekend that can’t be replicated by other means.
A solitary hotel stay is great for focus, but it lacks the novelty of sensory stimulation and it certainly lacks community and networking. The bootcamps I’ve done with colleagues are also great, but often we’re just holed up in an empty classroom during the 9-to-5 for a week. This model is great for focus and certainly doesn’t lack for community and networking, but it has even less novelty of sensory stimulation than a well-appointed hotel or bed and breakfast—you are literally in the most familiar of environments and go back home to your normal routine in the evenings. In some cases, the door of a windowless room is routinely locked during writing sprints, giving you literally nothing but your laptop and bare walls to inspire you. A retreat weekend is something very different, something that aligns the sensory, community, and focus, and allows for a great deal of flexibility and freedom of process.
Last spring, I attended the Bourbon Ridge Writing Retreat hosted by Raw Dog Screaming Press (also the owners of the Broadkill Writing Resort) in the Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio. I got to see old friends, made new friends, and managed in the course of just a few days to not only make great progress on a novella but got much-needed editing work done on several projects, outlined a new YA series that had been up to that point just a flicker of an idea, and taught myself to use Scrivener—a beast of a tutorial that otherwise would eat up several evenings for over a week if done piecemeal. I read bits of other writers’ work, got to observe some of their creative processes, participated in a group reading, went hiking under crystal blue skies in the crisp, early spring air, and joined in the formation of so many ridiculous inside jokes about the limited fire starting skills of the group and a still-lingering debate about bad (or very good) supermarket beer. I’ve since read some of these fellow writers’ work and found a new community I know I could still turn to for discussion, idea inspiration, and professional contacts. From that weekend alone, I learned a new poetic form, I talked other writers out of plot knots in their own work, and the sensory experience provided setting inspiration that I’ll always be able to draw on for future projects.
It may be cliché to need a cabin in the woods to set one’s head to creative thinking, but nature, exercise, and travel can indeed shake perspective just enough to get the juices flowing. I’ve written before about the benefits of endorphins and creativity and how yoga and meditation are integral to my writing process. Hiking is seen by many as a form of walking meditation, and walking itself has enough cardiovascular benefit to encourage endorphin production. In fact, a new study recently discussed how leptin—not just endorphins—can also contribute to the sensation known as a “runner’s high”. Whatever the chemical mechanism in the body, exercise produces great results for the creative person: greater focus, a feeling of euphoria and well-being that may energize and inspire, and the benefit of sensory input during an outdoor walk, run, or hike. Observing nature (or any new setting, really) with all five senses is key to drawing on that material later—every smell of a flower, ever flick of a squirrel’s tail, every cool breeze across your cheek can be mined for the same moment in a story, book, or poem.
Look, smell, listen, and then write and remember.
Travel itself is research. Even mundane moments of travel, like the Samuel Beckett-esque wait I endured picking up a rental car after a bumpy flight. As I stood in a winding, too-long line full of other weary travelers, I noticed the streaky fingerprints on the half-empty vending machine, the snatches of overheard cell phone conversations, and the grim conditions of the rental car office’s walls. The faces of the employees were haggard, unsmiling, and spoke of long hours and likely a stream of less patient customers than I. All of that input is now fair use in my writing. During the same trip, I made a simple observation of the jauntily-painted door of a brownstone I drove past. I snapped a cell phone photo of it and wrote an entire horror story about what might dwell behind that flashy rectangle of wood and brass. Travel expressly to somewhere beautiful is even more a wellspring of writing research. In high school, I spent a week at a beach house in Oak Island, North Carolina, and now over twenty years later I still write about that house, that stretch of sand, the play of the full moon on the ocean and the strange effects of seaside humidity that melted lipstick in the tube and frizzed my hair into a coppery cotton ball. If called upon to write a scene of someone lying in a hammock regarding the ocean, it would be that hammock and that ocean.
At the Bourbon Ridge retreat, I filed away moments on my drive from my urban Dayton neighborhood to the retreat site, off gravel-lined roads that wound and dove around much hillier terrain than exists in the western half of the state. I blasted Taylor Swift and gloried in sunshine and freedom. I filed away into that sensory research place the cabin’s leather couches (perfect for napping or long conversations), the feel of smooth-polished wood floors (slippery under our socked feet), the play of firelight across laughing faces, the slip of muddy terrain, sun through leaves, and the call of birds in the trees. I filed away coffee sipped on the front porch on chilly mornings and sunshine on bare shoulders in late afternoon. And I filed away the heady rush of returning safely home to a comforting and unhealthy dinner of cheeseburgers and the good night’s sleep of the exhausted. So in addition to all the friends, laughter, and intensely focused productivity, there are wellsprings of travel material I can call upon when I need it.
Because, too, cementing a place into your writing allows the memory to linger longer. I used an old apartment of mine as the basis for Sam Brody’s pad in The Red Eye, and I know doing so caused me to remember that apartment more vividly than other places I lived but didn’t similarly immortalize. Since getting serious about my fiction writing, I’ve tended to observe places with a keener eye, to listen to conversations with a more attentive ear, and to always keep one part of my brain in a sort of continuously-recording mode for this Method approach to writing. Look, smell, listen, and then write and remember.
K.W. Taylor is the author of the urban fantasy Sam Brody series, about a dragonslaying disc jockey (The Red Eye and The House on Concordia Drive, both 2014 from Alliteration Ink). She has an MFA from Seton Hill University. Taylor lives in a restored Victorian home in Ohio with her tech writer husband and—unlike every other novelist in the world—an insanely photogenic kitten. She teaches college English and Women’s Studies and blogs at kwtaylorwriter.com. The Curiosity Killers, her first science fiction novel, will be released by Dog Star Books in 2016.
Read her previous post Boost Your Writing Output in 2016
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