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Plan a DIY writing retreat this summer

Sick of staring at your own four walls? Here are tips for creating an alternative writing vacation.

An RV is parked near a picnic table overlooking mountains and a beautiful lake.
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I run the creative writing program at Ringling College of Art and Design, and I haven’t set foot on campus since March 2020. No joke. On one hand, that hasn’t been a problem because I’ve been holding classes via Zoom. But on the other hand, staying away has become an issue for me as a writer. Whenever I really needed to get some writing done, I hustled over to my semi-swanky school office, put a “ZOMBIE OUTBREAK – STAY AWAY” sign on the door, and engaged in some marathon writing. No longer!

As good as I’ve been about getting writing done at home in the meantime, I’m utterly sick of my home office. (I even had to take down the “Pay No Attention to My Browsing History – I’m a Writer, Not a Serial Killer” poster because, well, it’s less funny after seeing it a zillion days in a row.) And let’s be honest – we all have plenty of idiosyncratic distractions and comforts on our home turf that can keep us from writing.

In the past, writers in my situation just went to a writing retreat, like those offered by Yaddo or Willow Writers’ Retreat. But Yaddo’s been closed since April 2020. And Willow’s turned virtual for 2021. Heading off to a writing conference has always been another fine option, but those have gone on hiatus or become virtual, too.

So, what’s a stir-crazy writer to do?

Relocate at home

To create a quality place to write, Todd Pierce – a writing teacher, novelist, and The Writer contributor – overhauled the stand-alone garage of his California home. It’s a snug fit with his dog and boxes of Christmas ornaments, but it’s got room for a desk, a computer, a leather club chair for reading, and a photographer’s backdrop so he can do high-quality Zoom meetings and teaching from there, too.

“Coming out to the garage gives me a place to focus on my own work for a few hours without distractions,” Pierce says. “It’s so much easier to get writing done in the quiet of the garage than in the house, where our twins are Zooming their own classes or playing up and down the halls.”

You’d think he’d be fine out there with the California weather, but Pierce suggests having a space heater to keep yourself toasty during late-night writing sessions.

Assemble a mobile writing kit

Prior to the pandemic, I witnessed the following at a Starbucks inside my local Target.

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A woman ordered a Decaf Pike Place Roast and a Red Velvet Whoopie pie. Then she took over a corner table and emptied her backpack. Out came a MacBook. AirPods. iPad. Rainbow assortment of stylus options. USB-powered personal fan. She had power and data cables for all of her devices to work in any setting.

It was a mobile writing kit tucked into a normal-sized nylon backpack! Like those “go bags” TV spies and FBI agents always grab before rushing off on a mission.

For the better part of two hours, she worked in relative comfort. For an eight-buck investment, she had room to work paired with a delicious ambiance thanks to the sights, sounds, and scents of Starbucks. You can’t rent decent office space at that price point, let alone space that smells so yummy.

Now how does that relate to us both during and after a pandemic? Well, since everything in your mobile writing kit has batteries, you can go to a park, a courtyard, or anywhere you choose. Just grab that mobile writing kit whenever the muse strikes, and you’re ready for an out-of-the-house socially-distant-appropriate work session at a moment’s notice.

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Try a staycation

While a staycation is really about creating a vacation experience in your own home, we all know that writers don’t take true vacations – we’re always writing wherever we’re at, aren’t we? For us, it’s about changing the environment to give it a different feel, so our creative muse stays attentive enough to do her job.

Last month, I gave the staycation idea a shot. Thanks to a trip to my local Dollar Tree, pillaging my wife’s craft bin, and raiding the darkest corners of my kids’ closets, I transformed my home office here in Florida into a winter wonderland. Fabric snowmen. Plastic pine trees. A wading pool full of snowballs (huge cotton puffballs). A menagerie of cold-weather stuffies.

Yes, I was still in my home office, but for a week, I was writing in a blizzardy campground in Antarctica alongside emperor penguins, polar bears, and snow petrels. To my family’s displeasure, I even cranked the AC so low that my skin felt prickly cold. At one point, I had to put on a hoodie and scarf.

If you’re on a slimmer budget or just want something easier/simpler, set the mood another way. Light a tropical-scented candle and play some traditional Hawaiian music. Or change the lighting and put on a soundscape from a Japanese garden or Parisian café. Even adding a few fresh plants might be all you need to create a hey-this-isn’t-my-normal-boring-office feel.

Create a schedule

Learning is a vital part of any writing retreat. So, whether you stay at home or change your location, give yourself a structured agenda that allows for time to read, rest, write, AND learn. For example:

7:30 a.m.
Breakfast

8:00 a.m.
Writing session one
(goal = 1,000 words)

10:00 a.m.
Reading

11:00 a.m.
Learning (Masterclass or
LinkedIn Learning videos)

12:00 p.m.
Lunch

1:00 p.m.
Exercise (brisk, socially
distant walk)

2:00 p.m.
Writing session two
(goal = 1,000 words)

4:00 p.m.
Creative relaxation/reflection
(or watch more educational videos)

5:00 p.m.
Book discussion
(virtual with a writer friend)

6:00 p.m.
Dinner

Repeat that for three days straight, and you’ve got a DIY writing conference complete with educational components, and you’ll have knocked out two chapters of your current manuscript.

Take the big leap

Non-writers who’ve seen their careers turn entirely remote are starting to realize “I could do this from anywhere.” They’ve moved in with relatives in a distant state, purchased an RV and hit the road, or relocated to a more pleasing climate.

One of the best aspects of being a writer is that, unlike many careers, it can be done anywhere. I’ve written dozens of articles for editors I’ve never met. And whether I’m writing in Florida, Madagascar, or Nova Scotia, the novel or picture book manuscripts I email my agent all end up in her inbox.

So, I’ve been pricing RVs. Used one- or two-person deals can be had for $10,000. Family-sized ones go for three to six times that much, though if I really want to get writing done, I’m not sure that loading up the family with me is the best plan. (But maybe your family dynamic is different than mine.)

In any case, I’ll probably rent an RV and give it a solo run for a week or two before making a real purchase decision. Even if it turns out to not be as glorious as it currently sounds, it’ll still be a chance to get some fresh air, witness more of America firsthand, and enjoy a welcome change of scenery. Oh…and get some writing done along the way as well.

•••

I think that we’re going to get COVID under control. And I think things will return to normal well enough such that writing retreats and similar venues will reopen and welcome writers once again. But in the meantime, don’t let the stir crazies or the same-old, same-olds be an excuse to skip the work. Take control of your writing life and set yourself up for success, even if it looks far different than anything you ever imagined.

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20+ books, the head of the creative writing program at Ringling College, and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & OnlyPictureBooks.com.

 

This article originally appeared in our May 2021 issue.

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