Sound the Retreat!

One of my biggest hurdles to meeting a daily word count is diversion. We live in an apartment complex in a populous neighborhood in a busy city. Outside our window is a lovely green space with hollies, crape myrtles and squirrels. A bazillion birds, along with dragonflies and butterflies, flit past my window, dragging my eye away from the computer. Neighbors walking or playing catch with their dogs, or children playing in the grass all steal minutes from my routine. It’s not their fault. Unless I’m already deeply embedded in my work and on a roll, I’m easily distracted.

Those are just the excuses that happen outside. In the apartment, there are always things that need doing. Cleaning. Sorting through boxes and closets. E-mail. Facebook. Trying to find something on my desk. Staring at that thing that I’ve been meaning to do for months (you know exactly what I mean; we all have that thing) and deciding maybe I should do it today. Whatever. This apartment is a trap for writers. I suppose any writer can struggle with the same thing, because I see ads for writers’ retreats and residencies here and there on a fairly regular basis when I’m online (and should be writing).

So when Bobby and I planned our vacation for this spring, we decided to go someplace quiet, off the main highways where there wasn’t a plethora of nightlife or nearby train tracks or hectic schedules of things we just had to do in this place. Last November, we started looking online for bed and breakfast establishments in small, out-of-the-way places that could/would be able/willing to meet our requirements for vegan food. We found a few, but finally decided on The Rosemary House in lovely Pittsboro, North Carolina. We made our reservations for March and went back to our daily routine.

As our stay neared, Jamie (of the Heather-and-Jamie ownership team at Rosemary House; that’s Wilma at Jamie’s feet in the photo) contacted us to ensure he was headed in the right direction for our dietary needs. Turns out he and Heather bought the B&B around the turn of the year and were only just reopening for visitors in the last month or so. They were both eager to accommodate us and make our stay a pleasant one.

At last The Day arrived. Bobby and I set out full of excitement for a Week Away From It All. Of course I packed my laptop. I intended to take every opportunity to write. What’s a vacation for, anyway? After a beautiful, scenic drive, we arrived at Rosemary House and checked in. Heather gave us a grand tour, then showed us to our room. We unpacked and took a walk around town (blink-and-you-miss-it small), where various diners and restaurants and other business establishments were all within walking distance. Across the street, a Methodist church and its cemetery held peaceful vigil. Everything was so quiet! So serene! We fell in love at once and settled in for a week’s stay.

Rosemary House has four well-appointed guestrooms, each with its own bathroom facilities. Ours, The Retreat Room (hah! Ironic, right?), was one of the largest. An upstairs corner space, it came complete with a ceiling fan, a gas fireplace that really warmed up the space, and a large bathroom with a BainUltra bubbling tub. Plentiful sunlight filled the room. To top it off, we had a large desk, plenty of room to stretch out with my notes and coffee and snacks (when I remembered to eat them). Right outside, on the landing, sat a small refrigerator with bottled water, and our hosts had thoughtfully placed vegan snacks in the dining room fridge, so we wouldn’t go hungry. Though breakfast was the only meal provided, there was no shortage of food, both in the snacks and in the surrounding eateries. We were ecstatic.

All that week, we alternated between Bobby relaxing and reading while I wrote, or sitting in the two-person swing in the back yard, or walking the quiet, quaint streets of Pbo, as it was called by local writer Marjorie Hudson, who holds twice-weekly writing workshops right there at the Rosemary House dining room table. When I needed a real break, we walked further afield, to a nearby nature space or drove to Durham to visit the beautiful and famous Duke Gardens. But a great deal of our time was spent right there in our comfortable room. Only once was there a noisy interlude; a firetruck pulled out of the nearby station and drove right past our bedroom, sirens howling. As it happens, I was so into my story at the time, I barely heard it. Heather and Jamie were happy to do whatever it took to make our stay enjoyable. When the time came to pack up and go home, it was hard to leave.

So why am I telling you this?

Simple. A change of scenery helped me break past some blockages I’d been working around. I was more productive during those six full days in a new place without the regular distractions than I have been in any week at home. And it was refreshing. Pleasant. Restful. Motivational. Now I know why retreats are so highly encouraged. Pbo was definitely such a change, but the fact that we chose to go someplace where the basic essentials were taken care of and we could walk almost anywhere we wanted to go made it easier to take it slow. I was able to think long and hard about my work in progress instead of what I would make for dinner, or whether that load of laundry needed doing today.

(I should clarify that in reference to writing, there are two “official” types of getaway: the residency, where you spend time at a quiet place where you can write in solitude; or the retreat, where groups of writers pay to attend in a smallish group, and which feature scheduled socials, dinners, workshops and classes, as well as one-on-one time with industry professionals. In my own experience here, I am using the word “retreat,” but in the context of a “residency,” though my own experience was self-designed and not part of a pre-established program.)

I don’t know whether retreats work for everyone else, but I know this one was an amazing experience for me (and for Bobby). Rosemary House and its outstanding hosts made our stay perfect. I highly recommend it or, if Pbo isn’t close enough to be feasible for you, some similar place in your own neck of the woods. Or maybe apply for a writer’s grant on Amtrak (assuming they continue it), or at some other establishment that hosts such retreats and residency opportunities. There are plenty to choose from that take place all over the world. (Check my links section; resources to help with this will be coming soon.) Most organized retreats are pricey, with good reason. The organizers are often paying for workshop facilitators and presenters. Residencies, on the other hand, are less expensive or often free. They are generally supported by philanthropic groups for the sole purpose of accommodating artists of all types – writers and screenwriters included. Organizers often arrange meals to be brought to your room so you don’t have to stop working. Off hours, they sometimes provide food and cooking facilities so that you can make your own. There is a plethora of specialized residencies to choose from, so shop around. You must apply to be accepted, and they don’t accept all applicants. Most have a non-refundable application fee of $30 or $40, so read the fine print, and get your request in early.

If you want to create your own retreat, like I did, do your homework; make sure the establishment can accommodate any special needs you might have, and that you will have some guarantee of comfort, privacy and peace in which to be your best creative self.  Look at the surrounding area and ensure there are some activities or places to visit that can provide a break or a meal when you need one.

Probably most important, if you don’t have a traveling partner who is content to leave you to your work, go alone. I am always grateful that Bobby understands how important writing is to me. The only time all week he encouraged me to walk away from the keyboard was toward the end, when the words on the screen began to blur. (Perhaps a clue I’ve been at it too hard? Nah!)

I once took a solitary week to write a few years ago at a hotel in Nag’s Head, on the coast in northern North Carolina, over the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I had a small suite all to myself, with a balcony and the ocean right outside. Meals downstairs, or brought to my room, made it delightful and easy to keep working, except that the group upstairs from me had a party the last few nights. Not so restful then.

Rosemary House beat that place hands down. Shout out to Heather and Jamie for making our retreat so perfect! We’ve already decided we’re going back next year. I encourage you, dear writer, to find a retreat of your own, and do the same. I’d be willing to bet you won’t regret a single minute.

(Above, a great blue heron hunts in a pond at the Duke Gardens)