A few weeks ago, I thought up this idea that I called the DIY Writing Retreat in a Box because I wanted to help people get the writing retreat experience even if they couldn’t hop a plane to Bali on the spur of the moment. People have real lives with kids and laundry to do and responsibilities that don’t go away just because you need to get some writing done. Nevertheless, I really do think that with a little imagination and ingenuity, you (yes! YOU!) can engineer a DIY writing retreat even if you don’t happen to have easy access to an Italian villa or isolated windswept cliff somewhere. (What? You don’t? Me neither, sadly. And yes, the luxury to travel to so-called exotic places to practice writing and exercise interpretive power is bound up with privileges of all kinds. I wrote that dissertation.)
If you’re doing the DIY Writing Retreat and don’t have the option to travel, you can still change up your writing space to simulate the retreat experience. If you really can’t leave your house, maybe you can write in a new place at home? Or improve it in some small way? Change your furniture around? Maybe you write at your kitchen table instead of in your home office? Or (weather permitting), try writing outside? Maybe you’re out at a different coffee shop than the one you usually write in. Or maybe you go to a new co-working space or a different library branch than the one closest to your house.
What’s important here isn’t so much where you go, but rather than you’re doing something different, which helps shift your perspective and get you in the mindset of solving writing problems and taking creative risk. When I’m stumped about some writing problem, “Is there another way to look at this?” has become one of the most useful questions I’ve learned to ask myself. Shifting perspective, no matter how you do it, can give you new tools to tackle your most persistent writing problems.
On the other hand, if you can travel to write, doing something really big and out of the ordinary might be just the thing to jump start your writing. If you can travel somewhere to get some writing done, I strongly recommend you try it. I know. I know. Traveling to some exotic and amazing place to do some writing sounds awesome, but isn’t it just a vacation with some “writing” thrown in there to justify the expense and assuage guilt?
According to my (admittedly not very extensive) research on the subject, the word ‘retreat’ refers to a quiet and secluded place to rest and relax. And sure, travel sometimes is a part of recreation. But think about that: re-creation. Everyone needs some retreat time and some re-creation time when pursuing creative projects. [A note to any academic colleagues reading: the process of creating new knowledge is just like any other type of creativity. Academics often really hate the idea that their work would be considered “creative” as if producing analytical and evidence-based ideas is somehow devoid of creativity. It isn’t. Creating knowledge is an act of creation that brings something into the world that wasn’t there previously. It’s the formulaic and blah ways that we write about our creative work that often feels so soul crushing.]
Travel has some really great benefits that can help jolt you our of your daily writing rut and help you look at your writing in new ways. One of things that new environments can do for us is sharpen our problem solving skills. Particularly if you travel far to an unfamiliar place, you’re immediately forced to solve all kinds of new problems. Where is the bus? How much do things cost? What magic thing do I need to say to get food?
Travel is always stressful and uncomfortable, but in this case the stress is good because feeling vulnerable is also the key to being really creative. If you notice that you’re uncomfortable, that’s a good sign—you’re outside of your comfort zone and taking risks, which is exactly where you need to be to produce creative work. Even taking tiny risks can be beneficial to your creativity and overall perspective on your writing. Most people go out of their way to avoid taking risks in life. Many of us are risk-adverse because we don’t like the uncertainty and vulnerability of not knowing the outcome of a particular action. But, as with so many things in life, the best stuff is always sitting on the other side of fear. If you’re taking tiny risks every day, you’re challenging yourself and becoming more open to creative risk taking in general. And you need all of your creative energies to get your writing done.
Writers also benefit from travel (or at least seeing the world from a new angle at home) because you get to try on a new persona. What if you can invent a new persona in a new place who is a writer? Many academic writers hesitate to call themselves writers because they feel so poorly about their writing. None of us like to identify as something that we do badly. (I, for example, would never identify as a carpenter or software engineer, because I absolutely do not have those skills and if I tried to do them, would do them exceedingly poorly.) But what if you’re now a new person who is a writer? And what if part of being a writer is having a professional job in which you sit down every day and crank out some words? Again, you don’t necessarily have to travel to some exotic place to pull this off, but what if you started shifting your identity to include being a writer? What might be possible?
Changing your perspective + creative risk + solving problems + a new writing persona? You’re getting some writing DONE.
P.S. The DIY Writing Retreat in a Box has been really popular and I'm thrilled that so many people are going to be engineering their own retreats! I decided that people might benefit fom a live workshop about it! :D If you’ve already gotten your DIY writing retreat in a box, you’re already signed up the DIY Live Workshop. If not, why not grab the DIY Writing Retreat in a Box while you can and signing up for the live workshop at the same time? I’ll be talking a little bit more about how to DIY and some research about writing retreats about how you should be retreating more and not less, even if you’re doing the DIY at home version. :)