How to DIY your own writer’s retreat

Every writer dreams of being able to dash away to the Tuscan countryside for a few weeks of uninterrupted writing bliss, gazing upon distant lush hills, finding inspiration in every cup of coffee, and interacting with kind locals … or something of the sort.

The reality is that we all have day jobs and families and commitments and – oh yes – we don’t have a spare couple of thousand dollars lying around just for the airfare.

You can get your best writing done standing in a queue or waiting around for the kids to finish guitar practice. But at some stage, you might really need a few days to yourself to kickstart your writing. Whether you’re at the beginning of a new project, or are floundering in the middle, or are stuck five pages from the end, sometimes you’ve just got to get away and get it done.

There are many excellent writing retreats offered all over Australia and the world. But if you don’t have the time or money to splash out, you can also do your own writers retreat.

Find the time

The first thing you’ll need to do is carve out some time. If you want to succeed, you have to commit wholeheartedly. That means finding a weekend (or longer, if you can!) where you don’t have any weddings, grand finals, or family picnics. The last thing you need is to be feeling guilty while away on your own.

Winter and rainy seasons are great, because you have an excuse to stay indoors. But the warmer months also offer opportunities to go for walks and find inspiration. Don’t get too hung up on this, though. The main thing is to find a time that works for you and your lifestyle. If you focus too much on finding the ‘perfect time’, trust me, you will never find it. What are you doing next weekend? Nothing? Then that is the perfect time.

And once you’ve committed, put it in your diary. Do not accept any invitations for that time. Make it clear to your friends and family that that time is fully booked. 

Find the space

It’s tempting to put off doing a writing retreat because you want to find the ‘perfect’ place. Well, like the perfect time, the perfect place doesn’t exist. You don’t have to go to Tuscany. You don’t even have to go to the mountains. You can just go down the road.

When writer Noe Harsel did her own retreat, she stayed in Melbourne. “I didn’t even go far from home, but did an Airbnb in a neighbourhood I liked, with a great view,” she told the So You Want to be a Writer Facebook group. “It’s the time and peace that makes it great. Do it.”

Fellow writer Danielle Norton agrees. “It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as it’s away from home. When your intention is to focus on your writing you get into that headspace and you write like mad.”

Danielle is a keen DIY retreater. She has done two and has another one in the works. “They are very effective. Carving out time to write is easier when you have nothing else to do but write.”

Getting away is also great for other projects where you just need some dedicated time. Writer Kristyn Maslog-Levis used her retreat to crack through the edits of her third novel.

“I was going to use the time to write the next book but my publisher came back with edits for book 3 and so I used that time instead to edit it,” she told me. “The time away cut my editing time by 80%. By the time I went back home, I was way under the deadline set by my publisher. That same book is being released next month.”

Take a look on Airbnb or You don’t need luxury, but it should be comfortable. At the very least, the space you choose should have a decent desk. Think about your minimum requirements. Do you need power for your laptop? Will you need internet? Or is a notebook and a dictionary enough?

Also don’t forget sustenance! Will a kitchen be a help or a distraction? Are there dining out options nearby? Kristyn admits that during her retreat she didn’t leave the house for three days so relied on food delivery.

“I ordered Uber Eats, had heaps of coffee and ate a lot of junk food!”

If a hotel or house is still out of your budget, you can look at house sitting, staying in a hostel, or even camping. I have done a few retreats where I had the time but not the cash, so I opted to stay in a dorm. Each morning, I would pack up my stuff and go sit in the library or cafe all day, because I literally had nowhere else to go. When it’s just you, your computer, and a long day ahead of you, you will write. What else are you going to do?

Author James Phelps wrote his first three books sitting in a tent. “I went down the coast and got a campsite for the whole two months and sat in a tent, nothing more than a fridge, a tent, my laptop, no internet, and would write for up to 18 hours a day,” he said. “Basically my only breaks each day were cooking or cleaning. It’s funny how clean you can make your campsite when you’re writing a book; you can distract yourself with anything.”

Find a buddy

If solitude isn’t really your thing, consider doing a writing retreat with a friend. There are a number of benefits to this. One, you’ll be able to split the costs which can make the whole enterprise more affordable. Two, you’ll have someone to bounce ideas off. And then of course there’s the whole accountability thing.

“Doing it with a friend means you are accountable and you can talk through plot issues on your breaks. You can really encourage each other to push through,” Danielle says. “I’m a teacher so have spent a good many years eliciting words from reluctant writers. It’s much easier when your friends want to write.”

Make sure your buddy is a fellow writer, otherwise you may just find yourselves sipping pina coladas by the pool when you should be working.

Set a goal

Finally – or perhaps firstly – set a goal for your retreat. In the excitement of planning and booking, you can easily forget that you are going away for a reason. 

So what’s yours?

Remember that the best goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound. Good writing goals can be word targets, chapter targets, or project targets. For example, 2000 words a day for two days. Or, finish the final three chapters. Or, draft an outline for your new novel.

Write your goal down. Read it out loud to yourself every day or every hour. Remind yourself why you are there – and you’ll be less tempted to go for a walk or check your social media.

A writer’s retreat can be just the thing you need to smash through the tough part of a project. It doesn’t have to be expensive or long; it just needs to be some time dedicated to you and your writing. 

Never feel guilty for making time for yourself. Plenty of writers at all levels frequently do DIY writing retreats. If you are really committed to your writing, then do it. It’s not an indulgence, it’s not selfish, it’s not a luxury – it is a gift to yourself and to your art.

By Nat Newman
Nat Newman is a freelance writer.

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