It is Sunday morning and I am currently halfway through a DIY solo writing retreat weekend.
What, you may ask yourself, is that? Well, a traditional writing retreat would be a group of writers getting together in a quiet, scenic location to work on a mix of group activities and their own projects, with the focus being on support and encouragement. A solo writing retreat might involve individual writers spending time in a space – seaside guesthouse, cabin in the woods etc – which has been set up specifically for such visits. Some writers take themselves off to a hotel when they need to focus on their work and that would be another level of retreat. The idea of a DIY retreat owes a lot to the pandemic as it revolves around the idea of staying in your own space but setting aside a longer period of time than you usually allow to focus completely on your creative endeavours.
The aim was to encourage me back to my novel, which has been languishing whilst I’ve sorted out the “real job”. Now I’m finding my feet in my new job role, it’s time to get back to the writing side of my life because my intention always was to get a better balance between these two aspects of my work – essentially the professional and the amateur. Whilst commonsense says that all I need to do is pick up the novel and start working on it again, I feel that I need to mark the re-commencement with something more ceremonial. Dedicating an entire weekend to activities around writing seems appropriate.
Once I’d come up with the idea of a weekend retreat, deciding upon the structure and the type of activities I wanted to undertake was quite easy. I just thought about the kind of rhythm the sci-fi conventions I’ve attended had and applied it across. The first evening is usually a gentle introduction or reintroduction of people who may be tired from their journey. A full day will be a mix of planned activities – interviews, discussions, presentations – and more ad-hoc circulating, looking at displays, shopping for collectibles, chatting with friends old and new. I translated this into a list of ideas:
- A writing session at a coffee shop
- An inspiring walk
- A mix of writing practice, editing the novel, reading and watching writing-related material
- Easy food
- Plenty of tea, coffee, nice snacks
- ? A film about writers?
As part of my preparation, I enrolled on a free online course on productivity for writers which I found through The National Centre for Writing. Although I’ve known about the Centre for a long time, and it is based at Dragon Hall in Norwich which is on one of my walking routes into the city, I have never before really explored their offerings. This free, short course seems an ideal way to dip my toe in the water. I completed the first few exercises on Friday evening to ease me into the weekend, and it reminded me of the working practices which I found suited me when I was writing the main bulk of the novel.
On Saturday morning I wrote for an hour in a coffee shop, watching the world go by. This turned out to be very close to a “morning pages” exercise in that I wrote about what I saw and how I felt about what I saw. An awful lot of it was about the grey skies and how they bleach the colour from clothes.
Now that I am earning again, such things as magazines are back on my radar and I bought the current copy of Writers’ Forum Magazine before hopping on the bus back home. I rounded off the morning by writing a short piece following one of the daily prompts which this magazine provides each month. It was a bit outside the type of thing I normally write about, but that spirit of experimentation is something I’ve been missing since my writing group meetings dried up at the beginning of the pandemic. Whilst I think it’s entirely appropriate, perhaps even obligatory, to know your own writing ‘voice’ and to understand the spheres or genres in which you do your best work, to never venture outside them is a big mistake. A small piece written outside your comfort zone can stretch you, but perhaps more importantly, it can remind you what is so good about the ideas you more usually explore.
After lunch I decided to reacquaint myself with the novel, reading the opening three chapters. This was a proper read-through and though I could see things that I wanted to change immediately, I didn’t want to start tweaking things as I went. This was completely the right decision because later on I realised that I want to completely re-work those first chapters, which have never quite managed to please me. I am confident that the background that they cover is important to the story, I just want to present that background in a more engaging way. I see this entirely as a positive thing, not least of all because it will give me the opportunity to do some solid writing which is far more interesting than editing a piece you’ve already got pretty well completed.
So, today it will be more of the same, but I started with a nice walk down to Cow Tower rather than another session in a café. It’s another grey morning, and less likely than yesterday that the sun will come out. The great thing about the DIY writing retreat is that the weather doesn’t matter at all. Come rain or shine, heatwave or bleak midwinter chill, the words will still be there.
All that is left is to hope that you have also found found something exciting to do with your weekend.