What to take to a writing residency or retreat

Based on their previous experiences, writers provide packing tips and advice on how to maximize a writing residency or retreat.

Packing for a writing residency
Writers provide their suggestions for what to pack for a writing residency or retreat.

Writing retreats and residencies offer wonderful opportunities to immerse yourself in a project and your craft. They can also vary greatly, from location to supplies to programming. To maximize the experience, check with the organizer to know what you can expect and consider the following items when packing.

Business basics

For any writing getaway, you obviously need the right tools. For some, that’s a laptop. For others, it’s a pencil or special pen with a notebook. Author of Pen on Fire and radio host Barbara DeMarco-Barrett takes three typewriters. “I’m all about getting off the computer,” she says. “The delete key is too easy to use.”

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But those aren’t the only important writing tools you may need. Writer and visual artist Megan Culhane Galbraith recreates her home workspace. “I use a laptop with a keyboard and something that elevates it on my desk,” she says. “I have a mouse I like to take because it’s ergonomic. It’s best to replicate the place where you’re the most productive.” Another option is a portable lap desk for comfortable writing anywhere.

Work files – whether electronic or hard copy – are essential. This includes project drafts, as well as research and resource materials. DeMarco-Barrett advocates bringing more rather than less, including all drafts of a project. “If you’re driving, treat your trunk like your filing cabinet,” she says. “You might go with the idea that you’ll work on one specific project, but there might be minor projects you’ll dip into. You should bring all that.”

Many writers recommend taking a portable printer with paper if the location doesn’t offer it or it’s not easily accessible. Don’t forget chargers for all electronics, as well as adapters and converters if you’re headed internationally. Consider packing extension cords and even a multi-socket power strip. Business cards are also helpful to have on hand.

Creativity boosts

Just as important are things that inform your work and inspire you. Most writers take books, whether for craft, idea stimulation, or pure leisure reading. Writer Jennifer Fliss takes poetry books on retreats. “I’m not a poet and don’t typically read poetry for fun,” she says. “But I find poetry – the imagery and word choices – very inspiring.” Photographs and music can also relate to your work, serve as prompts, or tap into emotions.

Galbraith packs a dollhouse with dolls and furniture. Her narrative is about being adopted and what home means. She finds the dollhouse helps her examine issues on a meta level and has become an art project, too. It also determines the residencies she goes to. “I can’t ship it, so if I can’t take my work, then I really can’t go,” she says.

There are also items to give your hands or mind a break from writing while still nurturing your imagination. During one retreat, journalist and author JoBeth McDaniel packed polymer clay at the last minute and found herself playing with it throughout the whole retreat. “When you’re working with your hands, it means your brain is free to just play, which is extremely important,” she says. “Your brain shifts into a whole different state of being.”

Other easy-to-pack activities include knitting and drawing. When driving to a retreat, DeMarco-Barrett often takes her loom.

Sometimes you need a complete distraction from your writing projects. “It can really be hard to be in your head the whole time,” says Galbraith. “You’ll probably need a break. Whatever that is for you, bring it.” For many, that means exercising and having their own equipment, like a yoga mat. You may want to play your musical instrument. At one retreat, there was a grand piano in McDaniel’s cabin.

Comforts of home

Residencies in remote areas can leave some writers feeling isolated. Many places offer limited Wi-Fi. Galbraith recommends downloading movies, TV shows, or music ahead of time to ensure access.

Regardless of where they are, many writers want to create an environment with personal items to make them feel snug and secure. Popular items to pack include pillows, bathrobes, and slippers. Some like a comfy blanket, a candle, or their favorite room fragrance.

Fliss learned the hard way that warm socks are important. Her last retreat was cooler than expected. “This time when I go, I’ll make sure I have enough cooler weather clothes,” she says. “I’m going to take twice as many socks as what I think I’ll need.”

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While some writers like clip-on, plug-in lights for the headboard to read in bed, Fliss goes a step further. “I love LED fairy lights – the really small ones,” she says. “They create a cozy ambiance and don’t take a lot of room in your suitcase.”

Other items that add a homey touch include a favorite mug, pictures of loved ones, and special mementos. “My daughter will always send something along that makes me think of her,” says Fliss. “This last time, she gave me her hot pink dress-up oversized sunglasses. Another time it was a Peppa Pig figurine.”

Food (and drink) for your soul

Another way to feel comfortable in a different place and fuel your creativity is to nourish yourself. Some residencies and retreats include meals, while others don’t. For those that do, not all cater to special dietary needs.

The most generous and flexible meal plans can’t provide everything. “If there’s something you like to eat, don’t count on it being there or accessible,” says DeMarco-Barrett. “Even if there are places nearby, you have to leave and find it. That takes time and energy away from being immersed in your work.”

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Consider bringing your favorite snacks, condiments, or drinks. “For me, good balsamic is essential,” says McDaniel. Many writers pack their preferred coffee and, if not available, a compatible coffeemaker and grinder.

Alcohol also frequently makes the list, and packing a corkscrew is never a bad idea. Some writers take a bottle to share, which can help break the ice. Chocolate can work, too.

Survival kit

Finally, there are the essentials to keep you sane and safe. Earplugs can be your best friends. If you need a sound machine but it’s too much to carry, download a white noise app for your phone. A small fan can also drown out noise and help when you’re in a room without air conditioning.

For remote places, consider sturdy boots and something to whack weeds. “Next time, I’m going to take a walking stick,” says McDaniel. “There are snakes and other critters out there. Maybe I would’ve been a bit more adventurous last time with a little extra bit of protection.” Even if you’re not in the woods, it’s helpful to have a flashlight, a good water bottle, and bug spray.

Last but not least, pack your willpower to stay off your phone. “I really should take a box that locks,” says McDaniel. “I feel like I need to put away my phone. It’s the number one distraction.”

To make the most of your writing getaway, be honest with yourself about what you need to be productive and take it with you. “When you go to write, you want to create the most comfortable place for you,” says Fliss. “And that’s hard to do when it’s not your home or office. You want to do your best to make it as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible.”

 

Jennifer L. Blanck is a freelance writer whose articles and essays have also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Entropy, Toastmaster, Whole Grain, and Wine Business Monthly. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @JLBlanck.