Re-imagining the Creative Writing Life

When I tell people that I’m planning a writing retreat in Mexico, a lot of people are like, “Isn’t that just an excuse for a vacation with some ‘writing’ thrown in to make it sound more serious?” I mean, I get it. Going on a writing retreat in some exotic place to get some writing done sounds too good to be true.

Here’s the truth: writing retreats actually help people get writing done. In fact, people should be retreating more.

My enthusiasm for and belief in the power of writing retreats doesn’t just happen to be my opinion, either. There is actual real, peer-reviewed, and evidence-based research that writing retreats help people write more and develop sustainable writing practices.

Every academic I know is under massive pressure to write and publish these days. Literally everyone I know who is tenured, has a tenure-track job, or wants a tenure-track job is supposed to be writing all the time and have many impressive publications in top journals. If you’re going to scale the sheer walls of academic hierarchy, you should be writing.  There are even academic jokes that end with the punchline, “Shouldn’t you be writing?” And we laugh that self-knowing nervous laughter because we know we should be and then slink away and feel terrible about ourselves.

And yet many people struggle to be the kind of productive writers they want to be. Writing isn’t easy, even for people who (kind of) enjoy it. I don’t know anyone who feels truly excited by the idea of sitting down and banging out a certain number of words each day and trying to explain really complicated stuff through writing. Some days, writing just sucks. And nobody ever feels like a good enough writer. So combine the massive pressure to write and most people’s natural dislike of writing and suddenly there’s a whole lot of people feeling absolute shame over their writing and not getting much writing done at all.

I think we’ve got to rework our idea about what a productive, creative, and (dare I say it?) joyful vision of writing looks like.

First, I think we’ve got to let go of our romantic fantasies about how people get writing done. We’ve all got these romantic ideas of the solitary writer, hunched over a typewriter in a cafe in the midst of the ruins of post-war Paris or on the set of an Anthropologie catalog shoot.  In "Let's Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer's Lifestyle," the author argues that we engage in romantic, wistful nostalgia for the writing practices of the great writers of the past whose writing practices we cannot emulate with success. I felt a lot of shame about my writing for a long time because I couldn’t get the Hemingway model to work for me. I could have saved myself a lot of grief if I’d realized that my romantic visions of the creative writing life were just visions and fantasies, not reality. 

In reality, productive writers don’t write like this. Very few people can produce highly creative work in isolation. Writing is hard because it feels like just you, your idea, and your keyboard. Writing can be a surprisingly intense encounter with the self. Solitary confinement, including the self-imposed kind, feels terrifying and traumatic.

Second, what I know about writing is this: your writing practice is really just an external representation of the internal relationship you’re having with yourself.

I’ve met and seen a lot of people with some pretty serious writing dysfunction. I’ve seen people crack under the pressure to produce words on a screen and who end up sobbing in agony as they write. I know a lot of people who say that they “work best under pressure” and then engage in these frantic writing binges that leave them exhausted, stressed, drained, and weak because they don’t have time to eat. Mostly, however, I see people who feel very ashamed because they’re not writing.

When I first started this blog, I thought I would be offering the kind of basic writing advice that I used to offer the students I taught. “If you use less passive voice,” I’d say, “it’s easier for the reader to understand your idea.” I imagined that people would take my advice very seriously. What I found, instead, was this: most writers don’t really need writing advice. They want to feel better about themselves as writers, scholars, and people.

And here’s where the beauty of the writing retreat model starts to really shine.

First, writing retreats solve the problem of dedicated time and space. You don’t have to figure out when you’re going to write or where because the facilitator has already figured that out for you. Essentially, the facilitator has made you a container in which to place your writing. The beauty of making a container for your writing is that it alleviates the constant pressure to be writing. So if you write for X minutes between two designated periods of time a day (or whatever schedule works for you), you’re free to do other things in your non-writing time without shame and guilt. A writing retreat works because it creates those containers for you. Your day is structured into defined chunks of time in which you write and defined chunks of time in which you don’t write. You get a ready-made container, which includes time and space, for your writing. Suddenly, you find that you're writing and feeling a whole lot better about yourself.

The other thing that’s really key for a writing retreat is community support. Writing is solitary enough as it is. It is shocking how much better writing can be when it’s a social thing. It’s easy to feel emotionally alone in your writing; connecting with other people helps us feel like we belong to a group. We’re all in this writing soup together. Research articles about writing retreats discuss this as creating a community of practice. I love love love this idea. I want to help people create this kind of experience. Part of the reason that writing retreats work is that people start to see themselves as part of a community of people all devoted to practicing creating writing. 

Here’s my vision: Sure, writing is always going to be hard in certain ways. Ideas don’t generally spring out of our heads in their final, complete, and shining form, like Athena emerging fully formed from Zeus’s head. Ideas grow like oak trees; they start very small, but as we nurture and water them through writing, they grow big and mighty. The act of creating, birthing, and giving life to our ideas and creative work can be scary, messy, painful, and difficult. But birthing ideas can also be beautiful, powerful, inspiring, creative, and joyful.

So here are some ways that I’m helping people write with less shame and greater joy:

I started hosting Shut Up and Write on Tuesday mornings this year and its turning out to be one of my favorite things ever! I host this online community writing session every week at 11am EDT. Twitter is my main platform for this (because hashtags, #shutupandwrite and #SUAW) but I have a couple of people who write with me in my Slack group. I love seeing how motivated people become when they feel like there are other people writing along with them. If you’ve never done it before, its easy: we check in, write for 25 focused minutes, break for 5, write for 25 more minutes, and then do the happy dance and feel awesome all day! Everyone’s welcome. I’ll even send you an email reminder on Tuesday mornings if you sign up for one here

You may have seen me promoting this thing I’m calling the DIY Writing Retreat in a Box. As I was thinking about writing retreats, I started thinking about how one might recreate the retreat experience at home. Writing retreats are great, but they are often in faraway (and sometimes expensive) destinations. It’s fun to go somewhere and travel (and indeed, I’ll be blogging next week about why I think travel and writing are powerful in combination), but lamentably, not all of us can afford to jump on a plane and go to Bali or hang out in an Italian villa for a week. I started writing down some ideas about how I thought people could recreate the commitment, goal setting, time, space, and social support that are a built-in part of the retreat experience. I arranged those ideas in a way that seemed coherent to me and suddenly found that I had this little booklet that I thought really could help people create sustainable and inspired writing practices at home. You can download it here.

I’m planning a writing mastermind group that I’ll launch later this year. Right now I’m envisioning a group of five people (preferably a mix of different kinds of writers—non-academic writers have so much to teach academic writers) who meet weekly for a year. Yup, a year. That’s a year of writing support for your project with a group of brilliant people as dedicated to your success as they are to their own. If you’re writing a book or you’re planning to write a book, this is for you. More information coming soon.

And finally, of course, I’m planning my own academic women’s writing retreat in July. My intention for my July writing retreat is to inspire other people’s creative force. (Yes, creating knowledge is a creative process.) I get real joy out of helping people figure out time and space for writing and providing people with encouragement and support. It’s the full retreat deal, complete with designated time + space and community support in Mérida, Yucatán, México, a city I find beautiful and inspiring. I’d love to write with you there. Info here.

[Photo by  Jason Wong on Unsplash]