Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Read, Revise, Relax: Six Steps to a Successful Retreat

Linda M. Hasselstrom writes poetry and nonfiction. She conducts writing retreats and email writing consultations on her South Dakota ranch. Here, she offers tips on making the most from any writing retreat you might choose to attend.

Guest post by Linda M. Hasselstrom
You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.

You’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.

Now you’ve decided: what you really need is a writing retreat. You looked over the website and Facebook page, you’ve sent in your application and yes! You’ve been accepted.

How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?  Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, no matter where you go.

First: Ask Yourself This
Will go to retreat alone or with someone else?

In most retreats, you may not have a choice; these businesses need a heavy income to provide any amenities they consider necessary to their business success. Working with a group of writers gathered for a writing retreat can be beneficial; having three or four thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement.

Consider, though, if you’ll work best if you are required to attend group meetings or if you’ll be tempted to chat more than you write. Be sure the retreat atmosphere allows for plenty of time on your own, no matter how it’s organized.

Second: Set goals
Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Decide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can make changes in your schedule if necessary.

I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you go to retreat, so it’s fresh in your mind. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? Retreats usually have good libraries covering many facets of writing, but may not have the volume you like best.

When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t take every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes. Save the scraps to organize at home during down time, such as after work or before bed. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.

Third: What to Take Along
Once you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow?

Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on chilly floors, and layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. Most retreats will have extras jackets and foul-weather gear, and even walking sticks in the closets, but be sure to consider variations in weather and take clothes for every variation.

What writing materials do you need? Ask what retreat supplies, but plan to include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. If you want to print copies of your work, take a printer, ink cartridges, paper, and cords. Take your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, and your favorite books. Many retreats will have extra supplies of ordinary materials like pens and pencils, paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape.

What about food? If you’re at a retreat where meals are provided, be sure that the management is aware of any special requirements you have, such as allergies or preferences. If the retreat is self-catering and cooking relaxes you, consider taking ingredients for a special meal or two. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. If you will have your own kitchen, ask about equipment to be sure that it has what you need. Coffee maker? Coffee grinder? What about the type of stove?

If you will be cooking, here’s a handy chart for calculating how much food you’ll need for each day. Count the meals you will eat at retreat, and consider whether to get foods on the following list for each day’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner as you plan your shopping.
  • beverages _______
  • grains _______
  • fruit/ vegetables _______
  • dairy _______
  • meat/eggs _______
  • nuts/seeds _______
Don’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so take plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, take what you want. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”

Consider the drinking water. Sometimes a change in water can upset stomachs; ask if bottled water is provided, or consider bringing your own favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated can help you sleep and work more efficiently.

Four: What You Leave Behind  
Of course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, so you won’t be expected to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach. You might even tell them—even if it’s not true—that the retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.

Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Give responsible adults the contact information for the retreat’s directors.

Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. Sometimes writers are so exhausted by preparations that they sleep most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that the point of the retreat is to improve your writing, and you should try to feel your best while you are there.

Consider the moment when you are finally alone on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you like hot baths and have favorite bath salts?  Ask if the retreat has bath tubs. Chocolate? Wine?  A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Take anything legal that will help you relax into your stay. Please don’t compromise the integrity and possibly the operation of a retreat by taking illegal substances. Do take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.

Five: You Are There
Here’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.

If your retreat involves conversations with other writers, take notes to help you recall verbal comments; conversations among several writers always bring more insights than you might have had as you reviewed your work. If you disagree with someone’s ideas, say so politely; discussion may lead to improvements no one else has considered. Even if you think the other commentators are wrong, take note of what they say about your work; at some future time, you may decide they made good points. Tastes differ, and experience in writing and publishing does not make anyone who comments on your work infallible.

While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished
 The day your retreat ends, or before, consider how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband, the house or garden.

Before you leave retreat, think about how to establish a writing place and time at home. Think about methods to keep yourself focused. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.

Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.


Linda M. Hasselstrom, a South Dakota rancher who has roamed across miles of grassland with no company but her horse, is the full-time resident writer at Windbreak House Writing Retreats, established in 1996. Her writing has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines. Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen won the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry in 2012 and was a finalist in both the High Plains Book Awards and Women Writing the West’s WILLA Literary Award. Bitter Creek Junction won the Wrangler for Best Poetry from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK. No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life, won the 2010 WILLA in creative nonfiction. Linda is an advisor to Texas Tech University Press.

Her newest book is The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, (Red Dashboard Press), challenges to inspire writing for two years. Learn more about Linda at www.windbreakhouse.com.


  1. Love the photos you chose to illustrate this, and thank you for posting it!

    1. We greatly appreciated the insight you shared, Linda. Thanks for sharing it!


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