A Writing Retreat Re-Defined

Last weekend I spoke at a writers’ conference, and my last talk was on self-coaching and self-care. If no one else got anything valuable from the talk, I did.

I realized as I preached about self-care for writers that my own had slipped badly. That was part of the reason I was talking armed with cough drops and hot tea with honey.

I needed some time apart to get rejuvenated. I needed a retreat.

I Don’t Have the Time or Money!

Most of us have preconceived ideas of what a “writer’s retreat” would look like for us. Anything outside that box (we think) just wouldn’t fill the bill. A cabin in the woods–alone. A week at a convent–alone. A long weekend at a hotel with room service–plus writing friends in adjoining rooms. Everyone has an idea of the perfect writing retreat. And that’s often why our internal response is, “But I don’t have the time or money for that.”

So, if that’s your situation, what do you do when your body and mind scream for a retreat? Dig into The Writer’s Retreat Kit: A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression by Judy Reeves, author of A Writer’s Book of Days. She challenges writers to think of retreats in other ways–and thus to see the possibilities around us to create such retreats. Her themed retreat ideas can be for a weekend or scaled down to a few minutes, depending on what time you have available.

Make a Mental Shift

Chew on this quote for the weekend and see what you come up with.

Much as I believe that the idea of a writing retreat will always include Time Away Alone (I expect secluded mountain cabins or pri­vate, distant seashores will also remain in our writer’s mind’s eye), I also believe it is possible for each of us to create other, less extensive writing retreats that can refill and restore us, that can be containers enabling us to produce new work and to open us to creative expres­sion and that allow us to dip into the solitude we need to communi­cate with our inner selves.

  • Consider that a writing retreat is not necessarily a place, but a concept.
  • Consider the word retreat not as a noun but a verb.
  • Consider time not as a measure in length, but in depth.
  • Consider the idea of being alone not as being distant from people but as not allowing others to intrude on your solitude.

Get Practical and Make It Happen

In other words, let loose all those old ideas about what is nec­essary for a writing retreat to be “real,” and open your mind and heart to another way of giving yourself this gift of self-care. Get out your notebook and begin listing retreat ideas that last fifteen minutes, an hour, half a day, and a weekend. Brainstorm ideas that range from free to a trip to a European hide-away, if that’s your dream retreat.

Then choose several ideas and put them on your calendar as important appointments with your writer self. I added one ten-minute retreat idea to my daily routine this week, and I’m loving it. That tea and pumpkin spice candle does it for me.

How about you? Do you have mini retreat ideas you could share?

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Jealousy: Conquering the Green-Eyed Monster

Last weekend, I went to a 75th Anniversary showing of “Gone With the Wind” in a local theater. It was a treat! After the Civil War ended, Scarlet OHara nearly starved with her family on their broken down plantation while she burned with jealousy toward anyone who still had money. Later, after marrying Rhett Butler, Scarlet built a gaudy mansion in Atlanta to make her enemies “pea-green with envy” in return.

Unfortunately, she found (like many writers) that having people jealous of her success caused her as much heartache as when she was jealous herself.

Private Pain

Jealousy. Envy. The green-eyed monster. Call it what you will, it attacks writers on a regular basis.

We don’t talk about it much. Sometimes it’s just a twinge, like a side ache. Other times it’s a full-fledged cramp. It can strike when someone in your writing group sells a story or book, when someone on Facebook posts a glowing book review, when we see that someone’s book (that we started and couldn’t even finish) just landed a major movie deal: any of these can bring the sting of jealousy.

On the flip side of the coin, if our story just sold or garnered the starred review or landed on the short list for a big award, we can find ourselves stunned, in the position of receiving cold shoulders, raised eyebrows, rejection, and backbiting. This can happen if you finally sell your first manuscript, but your friends haven’t sold anything yet. As Bette Midler once said, “The worst part of success is to try finding someone who is happy for you.” Frankly, both types of jealousy present challenges, but the second type feels like betrayal, so can be more difficult to handle.

I’m not sure why, but I only had to deal with others’ jealousy very early in my career, when I decided to break out of the farm wife mold and write on the side. I think it’s when you first do something different than what others expect that you run into the most jealousy. Oddly enough, there was nothing much to be jealous of back then! After people in the family and community got used to my being a writer, I don’t recall any more catty remarks or put-downs, even after winning awards and being able to write full-time. If there was jealousy at that point, they kept it to themselves.

What’s a Writer To Do?

If you’re jealous–or others are jealous of your success–there are a number of ways to deal with it. 

First, here are some methods for dealing with others’ jealousy.

  1. You can call a spade a spade. Tell them they’re jealous and to knock it off and let you enjoy your success. This only tends to aggravate the problem though.
  2. If the person listening to your success story is a struggling writer—one genuinely working to write and sell—be sensitive to her feelings. Do share. Be happy, but don’t gloat. Don’t spend the whole critique period talking about your success. Keep it in balance.
  3. Find a writer who is more published than you are, then shout your success from the rooftops. Do you have an instructor or mentor who’s helped you in some way? Those are great people to share good news with, and you can pull out all the stops. They’ll be as excited as you are. I love having a former student publish, then write to share the news.
  4. Brace yourself with certain family members. Jealousy coming from nonwriters (including your family) is trickier, and often the most painful. Family members who were super-supportive while you played the Rejection Slip Blues can turn cold and rejecting themselves when you begin selling. I’ve never understood this type of jealousy, but I’ve seen it in my own life and other writers’ lives often enough to know it’s real. Writers tend to withdraw and shut down when their success stories fall on the deaf ears of family members. Be sensitive to your family issues, but don’t let the nonsupport go on too long. Confront it. Your sale or good review is an achievement, and it should be recognized, just as you recognize their accomplishments. [And be sure you are developing supportive friends outside your family circle.]

When You’re the Jealous One

Oops! Your claws are showing! What should you do if you’re the jealous one? Here are things to try:

  1. Try to distance yourself from the jealousy. Put some space between yourself and the other writer for a moment, and view the event objectively. What can you learn from this writer’s success experience? How did she find the right market for her book? How did he help promote his novel so that it got such great publicity? Did they do something you could use to boost your own success? Find the lesson in the experience. And then if you really want to nip the jealousy at its roots, smile and congratulate the writer on her success. Fake it till you make it!
  2. Choose to make that “enemy” into a friend. Rachel Simon, in The Writer’s Survival Guide, talked about one of her friends, Marianne, who was having great difficulty dealing with the success of another new writer. “The extreme heat of Marianne’s envy made her see just how much she wanted to succeed. So Marianne set herself to combating envy with harder work and, instead of seeing her friend as someone to revile, saw her friend as a pioneer leading the way. And so Marianne turned the object of her envy into an object of inspiration.”
  3. Don’t focus on someone else’s success, if it brings down your own self-esteem. Instead, get to work on your own manuscript! Your mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, the experts tell us, so turn your attention away from the object of your jealousy and address your own writing. Bonnie Friedman agrees in her article, “Envy, the Writer’s Disease,” that the remedy for jealousy is focusing on your own work. “Not the thinking about it. Not the assessing of it. But the doing of it.”
  4. Develop a sense of humor. Probably one of the best ways to handle jealousy, if you can muster the courage, is to laugh about it. I challenge you to read Anne Lamott’s chapter on jealousy in Bird by Bird and not laugh out loud. She doesn’t pull any punches, but her honesty about the not-so-nice feelings we can harbor about others is so refreshing. “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster,” Anne says. “But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”

So the next time the green-eyed monster takes a chunk out of your hide, remember Scarlet O’Hara’s other famous line: “I’ll go crazy if I think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” And by the time tomorrow comes, you’ll be so involved in your own writing project again that the envy will shrink to its proper proportions.

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Writing Fast or Writing Slow: Which is Better?

I’ve always been a fan of writing rough drafts at high speed. Turn off that internal editor! Get those words down as fast as you can! Don’t read anything till you get to the end.

And after absorbing Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, I gave myself permission to write really rotten rough drafts as well.

So Now What?

Today I was reading a couple short chapters in writers in the Spirit by Carol Rottman. Something she said struck an inner chord with me, even though it isn’t actually what I believe. But it’s stayed with me all day, and I’m beginning to wonder. (And I’d like your reactions to it.)

First she talked about how writers used to write: slowly, on paper using a pen or pencil, thoughtfully. That regimen went out the window with the introduction of typewriters, although typing still required white liquid to cover typos. The computer came along and even eliminated messy corrections, and writers were encouraged to create right on the screen. Later, fixing and revising would be a snap.

Then Ms. Rottman said: “There may be a downside to easy writing on computers. More of us are writing, but most are not writing very well. I speak also of myself: I have become a sloppy typist and sometimes, I fear, a sloppy thinker. Knowing how easily words can be changed or rearranged, I don’t give my whole self to the first draft. I am less careful, thoughtful, and creative than I plan to be in the end product. Where once my internal editor ruled,  inhibiting all but the choicest words and  phrases, the antiperfectionist has muscled in, convincing me that anything will do.”

I know I am the same way, chanting “just get it down, just get it down” when hurrying through a rough draft. I’m beginning to wonder how wise all that hurrying is.

Is Writing Speed Everything?

Later she adds:

“Those imperfect first drafts need the clear thought of a devoted writer if they are to be salvaged by revisions. The creative front end of writing is our first drive for truth-telling. Authentic. Passionate. Perceptive. Not perfectly formed but potent.”

In the interest of not letting our internal editor stop us in our writing tracks, have we perhaps shut her up too much? What do you think? Where’s the balance between slow enough writing to capture what you want to say–and enough speed to build momentum and get the story down?

There are no right answers here. What has your own experience been?

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Drains in Disguise

I was wrong–again.

For twenty years, I’ve told students and wannabe writers that you have to put the writing first! Do it before other things take over your day.

Fight the impulse to clean your kitchen first, or straighten your office, or clean up the mess the kids made before leaving for school.

“But I can’t work in chaos,” writers protest.

You know what? Neither can I anymore–at least not well! And when I force myself to, the work is doubly tiring. Doubly stressful. Much less satisfying.

Energy Drains in Disguise

Something I read today made me realize my advice might be a tad off. Not wrong altogether, since if we don’t make writing some sort of priority, we won’t do it. However, to eliminate energy drains in your life, you need to look at the whole picture. Certainly all the things you do in a given day take your energy. Every action you take on your lengthy “to do” list uses energy.

What you may not realize is that actions you don’t take use energy as well. Your disorganized office, the piles of laundry on the bedroom floor, the stack of bills to pay, the two birthday gifts to buy and mail today, the clothing needing repair–all this drains your energy reserves as well. It happens whether you are looking at the unfinished business or just thinking about it.

It siphons off energy that could be used in a much more positive way. “These items on your mental ‘to do’ list, the ones you’ve been procrastinating about, distract you or make you feel guilty and drain the very energy you need to accomplish your goals.” (So says Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life.)

NOT an Excuse to Procrastinate

Taking care of the unfinished business that nags at your mind–and keeps you from feeling like you can settle down to write–may be necessary before you can tackle your writing assignment. Don’t go overboard though, or you’re just procrastinating. Washing the dirty dishes is one thing–taking time to replace the shelf paper in your pantry is something else.

Figure out the things that you MUST have done to feel at peace in your environment, and do ONLY those things. (I do as many of them as I can the night before too.)

Eliminate the chaos in your environment, and you’ll eliminate a LOT of the chaos that blocks your writer’s mind. Now…off to clean my office–and then get to the writing.

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Stuck in the Writing Doldrums?

In the midst of the doldrums, our writing lives come to a standstill. We stop writing, reading craft books and magazines,  journaling, critiquing, and researching.

There is actually a place near the equator named the Doldrums. Because of shifting winds and calm spots in the area, a sailboat caught in the Doldrums could be stranded for days due to lack of wind. When we’re caught in the writing doldrums, our writing boat is stranded for days too.

What causes this? The Doldrums near the equator are caused by alternating calms and squalls. Super highs and super lows. Hyperactivity and then no activity.

That’s exactly what causes the writing doldrums too.

Uneven Pacing

The cycling back and forth between hyperactivity and doldrums is where many of us live. NOTE: the hyperactivity can be writing-related or nonwriting activity. Writerly hyperactivity includes writing marathons for ten hours, getting caught up in the Twitter-Facebook-LinkedIn-Pinterest-blog frenzy, and other ways of operating in hyper-drive. Nonwriting hyperactivity can be rushing from one kids’ activity to another while juggling your day job, a birthday party, a sick parent, and your aerobics class.

Either way, you’re too busy and out of balance. This always–and I do mean ALWAYS–is followed by the doldrums where you just can’t make yourself do a thing. (Partly it’s nature’s way of making you slow down and rest.)

Is this your pattern? If so, you’ve probably noticed that the time spent in the doldrums effectively wipes out how much you gained during the hyper, super active times.

The Solution

Do you get tired of crashing, of having days of no productivity that follow your super productive days? After the flurry of frenzied activity that accompanies your adrenaline rush, your bodies, minds, emotions and spirits shut down. This can be prevented though!

It takes daily discipline, but it can be done. And oddly enough, the discipline that’s called for is slowing down. You want to avoid the hyperactive days–be they writing or nonwriting hyper days–so that the doldrums don’t automatically follow.

To avoid the crash, you have to avoid the frantic days that precede it.

Balance and Pacing

If you want to have a writing career that will go the distance, your best bet is to avoid the extreme highs so you can avoid the extreme lows. Even if you can write five straight hours, it’s better for most people to stop after two hours and take a break. Do something else, something physical. Change gears. Let the adrenaline subside. You can write again later if you have time.

If you’re hyper in the nonwriting world, it may mean saying “no” a lot more often. Not everyone who asks for your assistance needs it nearly as much as you need to stop and take a few deep breaths and relax. Most of us have such an automatic “yes” that we don’t even stop to think or pray about the request. It’s only later–when we’re up till midnight trying to get our own things done–that we realize we agreed to something that we should have declined.

The Pay-Off

The writers who last, who keep producing quality writing, are usually those who have found a way to stay on an even keel most of the time. Then they can write daily, produce pages that add up over time, and still have a balanced life away from the keyboard.

Give yourself permission to get out of hyper drive, and thus avoid the writing doldrums. You’re the only one who can make that change. I urge you–and ME–to begin today.

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