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Friday, July 16, 2010

The DIY Writer's Retreat

Sunday afternoon, I'll be driving a couple of hours northwest to a cabin in a state park with my mom and a friend. Vacation? Well, for my mom it is. She will be bird watching and hiking and catching up on her reading. For me and my friend/critique partner Jenny, it will be a writer's retreat.

I've applied for artist's residencies in the past and never gotten in (of course this was pre-publication so maybe now my resume would hold a little more weight). I was incredibly disappointed at first, but then I realized I could do it myself. All I needed was

1. A location away from civilization. Preferably without reliable internet access.
2. A few creative people to go with me to share inspiration, cooking duties, and a bottle of wine at the end of the night.

In the summer of 2005, I had to finish my first novel because I'd met my agent at a conference at my school and she'd loved the first chapter and I told her I'd have it to her by Labor Day. I was still in grad school at the time and had three other good friends who were very serious about their writing and willing split the cost of renting a place to write for a week. I wanted to go somewhere in Southern Wisconsin since that is where I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE is set. We found this place in Mineral Point, Wisconsin:

We went for five days (or maybe it was six?) and spent all day writing, then one of us cooked a vegan friendly meal (my friends are so awesome and accommodating of my dietary choices), and we built a fire and drank a ton of wine. Probably too much wine. This is all of the wine the four of us drank in a week. Mind you, we were grad students:

Despite all the wine-drinking, it was very productive and I hoped to be able to do it again.

Then in 2007, when I was halfway through writing BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, a former professor of mine told me about a writer's retreat he'd created in a house in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. Right by the sea! And he invited my friend/critique partner Katie and me to spend 10 days there for free! All we had to do was pay airfare! So I asked my parents for money for my birthday and Katie and I flew to New Hampshire and then drove north. We stayed in the house with two other guys, writers from other colleges, and another guy who wrote and also watched over the house for my prof.

This was by far my most productive writer's retreat. I got up early in the morning and bundled up (it was late November) to walk down to the sea:

Then I did some pilates, showered, ate breakfast and sat down to write.... usually for 10 to 12 hours with lunch and dinner breaks. (Katie and I usually cooked together. We'd lived together before and had a good cooking rapport.) Then I collapsed on the couch with my fellow writers to watch TV (House or Degrassi) or a movie. I think we only went out drinking once. I finished half of BALLADS and did a revision on it in those 10 days.

Last year, I was struggling to get a novel started, so I asked my friend/critique partner Jenny if she wanted to go somewhere to write for 5 days. This time another professor volunteered to let us use her summer home near Iowa. Jenny and I wrote by day, then one of us made dinner, then we did a mini-writer's workshop and settled down for a glass of wine and watched Veronica Mars. I also read a ton that week. It wasn't as productive writing wise as I had been in the past because I was struggling to start something--actually an early, very different version of what I'll be working on this year.

This year, my mom was grumbling about how she hadn't taken a real vacation at years (she has spent her time off doing things around the house) and she'd love to go to a state park or Michigan or Wisconsin. So I ran the idea past her of going to a cabin with Jenny and me, explaining that we'd be writing during the day, but we'd cook a meal at night and could have some wine and watch movies or tv shows. Mom loved the idea. And knowing that our financial situations aren't as good as hers, she agreed to foot half the bill! (In return, Jenny and I are doing most of the cooking.) So we found a nice cabin near a state park with a full kitchen, a TV (not that we really needed that, we can watch DVDs on our laptops), and probably way more cushy amenities than we actually need.

My plan is to work on my "bartender book." I've recently posted two teasers from it on my blog here and here. I am 130 pages into it and hoping to finish it by September so my agent can get it out to the world before she goes on maternity leave. It might be quite a stretch because I'm a much slower writer than I'd like to be, but my agent and I have decided that I really need to write and try to sell full manuscripts rather than partials (and my anxieties over that and that process of coming to that decision is detailed here.), but I'm really in the zone with this book, so I'm hoping my natural binge habits will emerge on this trip and it will be quite productive.

I've also got some excellent meals planned thanks to the new cookbook that my hubby got me for my birthday. I picked up a couple bottles of wine from Trader Joe's. And Mom got me seasons three and four of the Gilmore Girls for my birthday, specifically so we'd have them to watch on this trip. (The Gilmore Girls has been a huge inspiration for the bartender book because of the quirky mother/daughter relationship.) I've also got a stack of books to sort through to bring with me for nightly reading. (Among the top contenders: Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala, the latest in Jeri Smith-Ready's WVMP series, the latest in Alyson Noel's Immortals series, and possibly The Lightning Thief since I haven't read that series yet, but I think I might need more contemporary women's or commercial fiction if anyone has suggestions since those are the categories that my agent says my new book falls into.) Mom is also adding board and card games to the mix this time--she has a fine collection of them, mostly word related so they should be good for the muse.

I am beyond psyched for this trip and while I am planning to apply for a fabulous looking writer's residency in Washington next year (because I always am looking for an excuse to visit Washington), I am happy with my DIY retreats.

Fellow writers, what kind of retreats have you done or would you like to do?


Just Your Typical Book Blog said...

I love the idea of a writing retreat. I hope one day I can get a few of my writing friends together and do this because it sounds like such a relaxing and fun time! And whoot to Gilmore Girls!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I hope you can do it too. It really is both fun and productive! And yes, GG rules!

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...


*perks up*

Which one?

And I've thought about doing a retreat, but it never seems to work out timing-wise. And the residencies I've looked at before seem to rely a bit much on the idea of group work which frankly, I'd rather undertake with people I know rather than complete strangers. At least at first.

But still, the idea of nothing but writing and reading for a week?