Writing retreat

Last weekend I went to a cottage in Somerset with two friends in my writing group. We met two years ago, when we all took a non-fiction writing short course at City University (it’s taught by Peter Forbes and is excellent), and one of us who is much more organised than I am took the initiative to start monthly meetings. All of us have time-eating things going on in our real lives – combinations of work, grad school, a toddler – and the idea of the weekend was to clear some space and let ourselves think fully about our writing projects.

It went GREAT! At the end everyone said they were pleased at how productive we were, despite also getting a fair bit of walking and sight-seeing (and board games, and drinking…) in on the sides. Here are the things I think helped, and which I’m going to try to do in real life as well as idyllic rural weekend life:

Goals: We took a small amount of time on Saturday morning to think about what we wanted to do over the weekend. My goal was to look at my chapter ideas from fresh: the structure of the book has changed a lot since I first talked about the proposal with Lydia, my agent, and I wanted to set aside the accumulated version and “tell myself the story” from the beginning. I also wanted to think about what research exactly was needed for each chapter, and where I would go to do it.

Because I took the time to think about what I could reasonably get done in two days, and to set out what I wanted to think about, it was easier to get into the zone. Having a goal also helped me feel good about my writing when I left, instead of demoralised because I’m still so “behind” where I was hoping to be when I started this project.

Bribery: On Saturday morning we also wrote out a motivational “treats list”, starting from “biscuits” and running up to “Sunday pub lunch”. Working with the prospect of reward is so basic and so embarrassingly effective (that said, by the second day the biscuits were less a treat and just something we were constantly eating).

Set times: We worked in 50-90 minute sessions, agreeing the ending time at the beginning of each one. Each period we’d start by making a fresh cup of tea or coffee together (sounds so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, but it really was nice to start with a little group ritual). It was easier to stay focused with a known start and end time, and knowing that a pub trip or walk in the woods was coming up.

Paying attention to the writing space: I thought we’d all be holed up in our bedrooms, but instead we ended up all writing quietly together in the sitting room, which had good armchairs and sofas and an electric fireplace. Obviously this is easier to do in an attractive country cottage than in a university library, but taking a few moments at the beginning to make my little space as pleasurable as possible meant I was looking forward to settling in for each session. I also spent a (very small!) bit of time figuring out how to make Word and Scrivener actually full-screen and get the font size how I like it, which I’ve been meaning to do for literal years. Making the experience of writing more pleasant made it easier to want to start doing it.

Not putting the wi-fi password into my laptop, only my phone: The amount of times I wanted to look something trivial up, pulled up Firefox, realised I’d have to get up and go to my bedroom to get my phone, and decided “ehhh” and kept writing, was both alarming and great. It was the smallest possible barrier but it worked SO MANY TIMES.

Letting “thinking” be part of “writing”: I don’t think any of us had wordcount goals, or anything like that; our goals that we talked about were things like “reorganise” or “think about _______”. I find wordcount goals useful sometimes, when you have everything ready and just need to crank through and get it done, but sometimes I forget to let myself think about thinking as work that “counts”.

The only real issue I had was that, despite the cottage being in Somerset, it was surprisingly difficult to find local cider! Must try harder next time…

View from cottage door. The sheep also do not have cider as far as I know.

3 thoughts on “Writing retreat

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