Over the years, writing retreats have empowered me in unexpected ways. Since my days are packed with the duties of a non-writing “day job,” family obligations, and the general trivia of daily living, retreats have always been an oasis. Once I register for an organized retreat, or plan my own solitary retreat, the impending dates on the calendar beckon like a lighthouse calling me home.
Organized writing retreats offer a balance of solitary writing time and communal gathering. Sometimes the communal gathering happens in the form of workshops, or just for shared meals and commiseration. I’ve come away from organized retreats with talismans for the journey, including a clay model of my inner critic, which I destroyed and reformed many times, before finally burying it. One year we created collages reflecting our inner and outer selves, our lost dreams, as well as those dreams we still held onto. My collage has a special place in my writing room.
Solitary retreats are my salvation. The need for my creative “walkabout” builds and builds, until finally I announce to my family that I’ll be disappearing for a few days. The care and feeding of the muse cannot be ignored. Just about anywhere will do, as long as there is quiet, a comfortable chair, electricity to power the laptop, and a vast sky to inspire me during sunrise, and ground me at sunset.
Earlier this summer, I spent a solitary retreat in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The High Park fire was already burning out of control outside of Fort Collins. Even in Denver we could see and smell the smoke. As I drove south from Denver to Manitou, the temperatures soared. Outside of Manitou, smoke rose over the mountains ringing the town. In town, I learned that the smoke was from a small fire about thirty miles away, but nothing to worry about. Relieved, I settled into a tiny, turn-of-the-century house within walking distance of Manitou’s town center, ready to buckle down and write.
My muse has been trained over the years to kick into high gear as soon as I achieve solitude and uninterrupted time. Hours fly by as I dive into the world of my story. Sometimes the creative energy is so intense that I forget to eat until night falls, and I realize that I’ve been working for ten or twelve hours without stopping. That happened in Manitou for several days. Each evening, I emerged from my little house to walk to town for dinner, surprised that the real world was still spinning on its axis while I’d been lost in my own.
My last night in Manitou I sat on a bench eating ice cream, listening to a local band perform John Philip Sousa music while hippie kids performed on the sidewalks on their skateboards. I loved watching the peaceful coexistence of the funky and the fastidious. It was nearly one hundred degrees and the smell of smoke was strong. Locals talked of rapidly expanding fires outside of town. I slept restlessly that night, dreaming of fire racing through the town, of fleeing my sanctuary and losing all the work I’d done on my novel.
A few days after I arrived home, Manitou Springs was evacuated, and the horrific Colorado Springs fires exploded out of control. From the comfort of my living room, I watched on TV as reporters stood in an empty Manitou, the camera pointed right at the spot where I’d sat people-watching just a few nights earlier.
This summer, the fires devouring Colorado and the west lent an undercurrent of urgency to my retreat. The urgency has stayed with me, pushing me to grab every spare moment I can to work on my novel. When I face the choice of carving out writing time or frittering away free time, I call up an image of myself writing madly in the tiny house in Manitou, the smell of smoke ever present. I see the TV reporter standing in the empty town center and imagine the panic of evacuating, of taking only what is truly of value.
Retreats offer all sorts of unexpected gifts. Find a way to honor your muse with the gift of uninterrupted time and attention. Who knows what gifts you’ll be given?