TO RETREAT OR NOT TO RETREAT
In November, I attended my first writing retreat. Weekend on the Water Retreat on Bainbridge Island was offered through the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). The retreat was held at Islandwood, an immense, wooded park equipped with cabins, an education building, a dining hall, and several cabins.
I shared a room with two others in a cabin called Bird’s Nest. I’m strictly a writer; both my roommates are writer/illustrators. Watching how they approach projects was educational for me. They attended the writer track for this retreat, so I saw them a fair amount throughout the weekend. Check out artist/writer Andrea K. Lawson’s website https://www.andreaklawson.com/
Writers in private rooms claimed that being light sleepers was their main reason for the choice. I’m an extremely light sleeper, and truthfully, I slept poorly. I was recovering from a bad cold and coughed a lot. Islandwood was not to blame. The room temperature was comfortable, windows to the outside were adjustable. The bed was cushy, and it was forest-quiet.
For me, the pros of roomies outweigh the cons. Learning about my roomies work and struggles was so valuable. I had someone to pal around with to meals and workshops. We didn’t have to say goodnight at the end of the day and hope we hooked up tomorrow. And just like summer camp, half the fun is lying in your bed listening to someone else chat about stuff that isn’t even in your wheelhouse (illustration) but still fascinating.
One of two tree houses guests could use for writing, art, or quiet time.
Attendees could stay Thursday through Saturday nights. Speakers and workshops were Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning. I stayed Friday and Saturday. Being surrounded by woods and the opportunity to tune out, shut down, or engage helped me recharge. I chose to engage because I didn’t want to miss any of the offerings. I did spend Saturday afternoon in our cabin’s sitting room free-writing from ideas that came during Joni Sensel’s Liminal Spaces workshop. To sit in a cozy room with three other writers, each involved in their own thing and not have to talk and be sociable was a treat.
Open mic night was scary, heart-warming, and inspiring. So fun to hear an oft-published author’s WIP and to hear another’s 11th (?) revision of a fantastic take on an old standard. Writers read humor, sci-fi, teen romance, and animal fantasy. All reminders that there are as many stories as there are people.
I loved hearing a veteran published author read a new work, unsure of how it would be received. Knowing they’ll rework it 20 times to get it “publication ready”. I observed support for the new, fearful, burned out. Prima donna competitiveness? None – even among award winners.
A huge bonfire, s’mores, popcorn, and wine kept us comfy. It ended at 10 p.m. and many went to an after-party in one of the cabins, but some of us were ready to rack out, which was fine.
Keynote speakers were author/illustrator Jennifer K. Mann and author Kirby Larson. Authors Beth Bacon and Joni Sensel also taught. Mann’s informative, inspirational presentation explored her transition into children’s books from a career in architecture. Pictures of her messy studio and her admittance that during a project many things fall by the wayside (housework, errands, sometimes sleeping and eating) was a good reminder that “balance” may not be a reasonable or achievable goal.
Larson presented tools for self-care, revving oneself up to write, and writing resources. She shared personal struggles that led her to writing her Newbery Award-winning novel, Hattie Big Sky. She spoke eloquently about how our families and lives can and should inform our writing process and content.
Sensel introduced us to the concept of “liminal spaces” which are the spaces “in-between” – thresholds, doors, hallways, transitions that lead from one place to another, one perspective to a different one, or from an old attitude to a new one. This was a pivotal workshop for me.
Sky bridge at Islandwood.
Bacon used examples of writers such as Kate DiCamillo and M.T. Anderson to illustrate ways to tap into our creativity. Freewriting without editing or even punctuation can lead to deeper intimacy with our characters. When I can silence the inner editor, I have good results.
The group dining experience was fun. I met new artists, learned about all sorts of projects, heard some juicy gossip. Nobody’s stressing about their pitch, most have had a glass (or two) of wine. Sublime food. If you just showed up for meals and spent the rest of the time hiking and writing it would be worth it. I think some people did just that. I never saw them at workshops, but at mealtime, they’d be in the beautiful dining hall typing away, throwing back coffee, waiting for food.
Retreats are worth saving for. If you have polished stories that are ready for pitching, go to conferences with agents and editors. But if you’re in a “gathering time” (Jane Yolen), or need a reset or need to breathe fresh air into your story or your muse is mute or you’re not sure you can keep doing this or you think that being a creative is not your best idea anymore or you want to quit or you just want to go – then go.
Attending a retreat doesn’t make it easier to write your story or get published. There’s no magical butt-in-chair pill handed out. You may get unstuck. I did. That open door Sensel had my character walk through led me to changing a huge part of my middle grade novel-in-progress. Not revision. Rewrite. This means MORE WORK.
No amount of visualizing, support, and fresh air is going to get our stories written, completed, revised, edited, and submitted. That’s on us. But now we’re refreshed; ready to tackle it anew.
Rejuvenated, I headed back to “real life” Sunday. The blue sky sported fluffy clouds. On the ferry, the Captain announced over the PA that a pod of orcas was on the north side of the ferry. We watched the orcas circle and arc a few hundred yards away. What perfect closure to the weekend.
That’s an orca fin in the upper left quadrant in front of the sailboat.
When I consider future retreats, I’ll remember the orcas doing exactly what they were created to do. I hope I’ll commit to doing what I believe I was created to do. Instead of retreating from the difficult, the challenges, the risks, I’ll retreat to a place of rebuilding, recouping, and rejuvenation. Just like at Islandwood.