Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lessons From a Writing Retreat

by Susan

I'm not sure what possessed me to drive four hours on two-lane roads in the dead of winter to South Dakota, but I desperately needed a writing retreat. I'd had too much on my plate for too long, felt too dried up on the word front. I found myself headed through western Nebraska, discovering that in that part of the world, "semen-tested" is actually used in radio advertisements. I was on my way to a weekend at Linda M. Hasselstrom's Windbreak House in Hermosa.

Writing retreats can take many forms. Linda's are highly personalized with a limited number of writers. I was alone on this one, needing guidance on some of my writing and needing some time to focus. I had become the pitcher of water someone is always trying to pour from without refilling. I came back refilled and with better versions of some of my work.

I learned things both about my work and my life. These were my lessons:

As I prepared for this retreat, I gathered my journaling from the past three years and discovered I had filled five, count 'em, five thick, college-lined notebooks. In fact, I had to run to Sam's Club for a new pack. Writing is writing, and I had put more words on paper than I thought I had.

I came thinking I was finally ready to delve into memoir and write about the hard issues in my life. As we talked, I am not so sure now. We spent some time discussing one piece of mine on mental illness and the difference between essays and memoir. I had included many personal things in the story without explaining them -- essays are more self-contained than that. I couldn't make an offhand reference to the ex-husband, leaving the reader wondering what the story was behind that relationship. If I was going to raise questions, I was going to have to answer them. In a longer memoir, I could address those pieces. Do I want to expand the work into a memoir or snip the loose ends from it and turn it into essay? I'm not entirely sure, but I now have a better idea of what needs to be done for each.

I have a problem with the word "it." I use this pronoun far too much, often without a clear antecedent. Even when I get the antecedent right, the word is vague and wimpy. I loved the book, "The 10% Solution" by Ken Rand. He advised that when you think you are finished with a piece, start running the "find" function in your word processor for clutter. These might be the "-ly" words, "-ing" words, passive voice verbs or, in my case, pronouns. Many of us have our personal "weasel words" that don't carry their weight, yet sneak into our writing. I am going to add "it" to my search list.

I have struggled to organize my submissions and publications. I have to keep track of what pieces I have submitted where and, more importantly, what pieces are published and what rights I granted. I don't want to sell first rights twice. I don't believe I've done that, but as I try to get more work placed, this becomes more critical. I came away with some handouts and ideas for organizing this information. I'll try it and let you know how it went in a future post.

Windbreak House has no television or Internet access. I was relieved of all household chores other than basic grooming and feeding myself. It was incredible how many hours there were in the day. I came away knowing I had to create those same pockets of time in everyday life. I need to guard my writing time and minimize distractions. I need to recreate that retreat atmosphere at home sometimes.


This last one brought me to (drumroll, please):


Like many women, I have a hard time saying "no" to things. But there is a limit to me. I cannot guard writing time if I have none because I have taken on too many commitments. I had a cold heading into this retreat, and my thought that week was, "I don't have time to be sick!" It dawned on me that there is something wrong with a life that does not allow for a moment of illness. When I came back, I evaluated what I could and could not set aside and made some hard choices. 

What will YOU take away from a writing retreat?
That depends on you and where you are in your writing life. It is an enriching experience, and I would encourage writers to go on one for the writing-focused time and guidance from a more experienced author. If that's not feasible, think about how you could create that writing-focused space for yourself. Hire a housecleaner for one weekend, lock yourself in your writing space, and tell your spouse to order a pizza for dinner. Turn off all the screens, except for your laptop, and turn off the Internet. Give yourself time and space for your writing. It's worth it.

Learn more about Windbreak House retreats at www.windbreakhouse.com. All photos courtesy of Linda M. Hasselstom.


  1. Thank you, Susan, for writing such an honest account of your retreat. I was pleased to have you here and you are welcome back anytime! And despite our intense discussions and working closely together, I didn't get your cold!

    1. So relieved you didn't get that cold. I'm sure I will be back!

  2. I tried a writing retreat last spring. It was free and facilitated by a gal in one of my writing groups. Since it lasted for two days, I hoped to have plenty of time to work on my memoir. It was located at a ranch at the base of the Big Horn Mountains and would have been ideal except for one thing. Since most of the participants had no projects, activities were planned during most of those two days, and I felt compelled to participate instead of finding some quiet place to write. When we were given time to write on our own, the facilitator rang a bell every twenty minutes, and we had to take a break. This was frustrating because it reminded me of when I was caring for my late husband Bill, and I had to get up every so often to do something for him.

    Windbreak House sounds like an ideal place to retreat, but the price plus the cost of air fare to South Dakota would probably be too expensive. Now that I'm alone, I should just create my own retreat, unplug the modem, turn off my cell phone, tell family and friends I'm at a retreat and not to worry if they can't reach me. I may try that sometime.

    1. I'd find 20 minutes at a stretch a bit too short, myself. There are a lot of ways to structure retreats, and it sounded like you needed more down time on yours.

      Something like a Windbreak House retreat is, indeed, a big commitment. I'm hoping to put together some retreat-at-home things once I get a few commitments off my plate.

  3. A retreat sounds wonderful. I hope I can do that one day!

    1. Perhaps if you can't get away, our group could do a DIY in town somewhere.


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