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How to Make the Most of Your Writing Retreat

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Every year, when my husband asks what I want for my birthday, my answer is always the same: "To run away from home."

This year, he granted my wish.

I love my husband, my house, my work, my kids. I don't even mind Saturday recycling or grocery shopping. (Okay, I might be lying about the grocery store.) But, like most writers, I fantasize about a room of one's own, a place where the cell phone doesn't ring and nobody knocks on my door.

Writing retreats allow me to live this fantasy for a few days at a time. Through the years, I've taken them at friend's houses, cheap hotels, and even actual writing retreats like Wellspring House in the Berkshires, where I holed up this past week to edit the page proofs of my new novel, Beach Plum Island, and launch the next book.

My idea of fun is to write thousands of words a day, until my wrists are literally on fire. However, as always, this past week I had to use some tricks to make the most of my retreat and not fall prey to 1) a crisis in confidence or 2) my instinctive desire to screw around.

Every writer suffers from insecurities or has a favorite Procrastination Station. That's when you need some handy strategies to combat your freakout and make the most of your writing retreat:

Go Someplace Boring.
Sure, New York City's a blast, and who doesn't love Paris? But the point of your retreat isn't to play tourist. Unless you're researching the actual setting of the book at hand, go somewhere you've been to already, or to a place that offers only a handful of distractions.

Take a Friend to Be Your Creative Muse -- Or Go Alone.
I often go on writing retreats with friends, because that gives me someone to read aloud to over a glass of wine at night -- sort of a mini-workshop. But sometimes I just need to be alone, and that's when places like Wellspring House are perfect -- as in, cheap enough for me to afford by myself and full of a great creative vibe. The house is set up so that each writer has a bedroom with a desk, and you share the kitchen and bathrooms. For other solitary retreats, I've borrowed summer houses from friends, rented studios through websites like VRBO.com and stayed in cheap hotels.

Take Inspiration with You.
Part of packing for my retreat includes choosing an inspirational memoir by a writer I admire to keep on my nightstand and dip into as the need arises. A few timeless favorites: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life; Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. This time around, my nightstand companion was Dani Shapiro's wonderful new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, a gift from my good friend Maddie Dawson (who has a terrific new novel coming out this spring called The Opposite of Maybe).

Walk through Your Freak-Out Period.
When you arrive at the retreat, you'll be shown to your room. You'll carefully and meticulously unpack your laptop and set it on the desk, and you'll unpack your clothes and sit on the bed to see if you can actually sleep on it. And that's when the real freakout begins. You become sure, absolutely POSITIVE, that this retreat was a mistake and you're wasting everybody's time and money. That's when you need to take your first of many walks. Walking may seem like exercise to some, but to writers, it's meditation-in-motion. Plan to arrive at your retreat early enough in the afternoon so that you can walk for at least an hour before you even try sitting down.

Forget Getting Dressed, Cooking, Wearing Makeup, or Anything Else You Ordinarily Do.
For my retreats, I bring these essential items: slippers, flannel pajamas, and a shawl. I bring makeup and a blow dryer, too, but I leave those things in the car until I'm getting ready to leave. I get up in the morning and don't dress until it's time for my walk. Immediately after my walk, I jump right back into my writing gear, liberated of all ordinary human trappings. I also don't cook. Why would I cook on a writing retreat, when I've got writing to do? This past week, I lived on cheese, bread, chocolates, soup, and tangerines. And tea. Lots and lots of tea.

Let Yourself Read.
Many writers think they're not writing if they're reading, but in fact, reading -- whether it's the morning paper, background research materials, or somebody else's novel -- is a great way to prime the creative pump. You can write about 10 hours a day -- I did about 7,000 words a day on my retreat -- but eventually either your brain or your hands will give out, and then it's time to lie around and read. I usually bring the magazines that have piled up at home, plus a gritty mystery or some other page turner. I also bring novels that I admire, and that I might think I can learn from for whatever project I'm working on at the moment. No, I don't worry about other people's work infusing/confusing my own.

Set a Word Count for Each Day.
I set a word count for each day on a retreat -- usually 5,000 words, but I have friends who do 2,000 and there are times when I've done over 10,000 words in a day. The point of a writing retreat is to get the words down on the page, because the more clay you have to work with, the better your sculpture will be in the end. I typically go on retreats to write brand new chapters. Sure, I throw a lot of that writing away, but the main thing is to have new material to revise during the little pockets of free time I have at home.

Leave Off Your Work at a Starting Point.
When you leave your retreat, don't leave at the end of a chapter -- unless it's the end of the book. Leave off in the middle of a chapter, or preferably the middle of a paragraph. Or even the middle of a sentence! Make it as easy as possible to dig back into your work when you're home again, amid the distractions -- and planning your next retreat.