I spent this week at a writing retreat with a writer’s group I have belonged to for several years. This has become an annual event with of course the exception of 2020. Although the retreat is not far from home it is like stepping into a different world. A lane that resembles a farm track, takes us away from the industrial estates and traffic to a low, wide gate. We enter the numerical code and drive through. The gate closes behind us and with it the outside world. Our home for the next four days is a beautiful Georgian mansion set in 52 acres of private woodland and landscaped gardens, with two ponds and a large lake attracting wildlife. There is no need to leave our paradise as we have bought enough food and drink to feed twice as many people for two weeks.
For me, a writing retreat is about having the mental space and time to focus on my writing in an environment that stimulates creativity and soothes the soul. This year I started each day with a pre-recorded yoga class and meditation. I had not done this at previous retreats and it made a significant difference. It gave me a sense of calm, clarity, and a deep appreciation for all that I was experiencing. My novel progressed well and I was able to reflect on my writing journey.
One of the greatest benefits of a retreat with writer friends is being able to share a writing problem – whether it is finding the right word, testing out novel titles or just talking through a dilemma.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the sun chewing over a marketing problem. I had great plans but I wasn’t sure how I was going to schedule everything. As I scribbled different project plans in my notebook, a writer friend settled herself in the corner sofa opposite me to drink her coffee. ‘I was just trying to work out how I’m going to…’ I started to explain step by step my problem. Without her saying a word I had two aha moments. The solution seemed obvious now I had explained it. I finished by telling her exactly what I needed to do.
‘That,’ my friend explained, ‘is what’s called rubber duck debugging. It’s a technique used in programming. When you explain a problem to someone else the solution becomes apparent. Rather than take a colleague’s time a programmer talks to a rubber duck and it has the same effect.’ I loved this idea. Although talking to my bright and interested friend drinking coffee in the sunshine was far better than sitting at a desk with a rubber duck for company.
It made me think. This is what I did in my working life. Talking through work problems at meetings with colleagues, giving presentations and lectures, it deepened my understanding of a topic and gave me insight. Creatives often spend a lot of time alone and so we need to find ways to create this practice. Journaling can work but sometimes we need to talk through the problem to get clarity. Fortunately, I have a few good female friends who will listen to me as we walk and talk without feeling the need to come up with answers and this is invaluable. And if not, I could run myself a hot bubble bath and chat to my duck.
I came away from the writing retreat feeling calm, in control, and inspired. By stepping into that other world, I gained a new perspective on my writing life. I had been full of angst worrying about the future and doubting myself. Something magical happened in that Georgian house because now I am content and confident. I am completely relaxed about my writing life and excited to try out some new ideas.
Retreats are not accessible to all creatives. Finance, location, and other factors can be a barrier. If you cannot get away alone or with other creatives then perhaps you could create a retreat environment at home. A different schedule and way of working where you commit to self-care for a few days. Turn off all distractions and use your creative powers to imagine yourself on a retreat. The tweet-chat that I host Friday Salon (#FriSalon) have suggested we have a virtual writing retreat. I am thinking about how we can do this effectively. If you have experienced a virtual retreat, then please let me know how it worked.
Next week I am sleeping out as part of the GlassDoor London Sleep Out, raising awareness and funding for this charity which helps people find a path out of homelessness and provides support. It is on Friday 1st/2ndOctober. Starting to feel a bit anxious now as I haven’t travelled into London since the pandemic and sleeping on the street amongst strangers is most definitely out of my comfort zone. I will report back here next Monday! Until then …