Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 28, 2015

Writing and Retreating

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

Today I am a brand-new, improved model of “Kathryn Craft, Author” thanks to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association retreat in Albuquerque this past weekend. I am no stranger to the benefits of retreating. Each spring and fall for the past eight years I’ve hosted writing retreats for women at my lakeside summer home in northern New York State. Here is what retreat means to me.

Retreat: A period of group withdrawal for meditation, study, or instruction under a director.

Grass Island

Grass Island

“Silence creates room for breakthroughs,” said a recent Facebook meme. Nothing is more seductive to a creative person than enough solitude to hear her own thoughts. Of course sudden silence can also freeze you solid, which is why many retreats offer creative exercises to get the juices flowing.

But the chance to really focus once you find your groove? Ahhh. I’ll let one of my first-time retreaters summarize: “I parked my car on Thursday and didn’t have reason to move it until Sunday.”

We women get that. But we also like to be alone…together.

I have found that a few days of nutritious food you didn’t have to prepare, a gorgeous setting provided by the Great Creator, a little fun you didn’t have to orchestrate, meditation or stretching you never take the time to do, wine around a campfire, and camaraderie among like-minded women goes a long way toward shedding the everyday stress that can keep a muse at bay.

Retreat: A place of privacy or safety; a refuge.

Kathryn's Lake Office

Kathryn's Lake Office

To create the kind of emotional experience our readers want, we authors must draw again and again from our own painful memories in a way that can leave us feeling exposed, vulnerable, and drained. Nature offers constant inspiration for renewal.

When my writing seems to ask too much of me, I know all is well when I see a loon bob to the lake surface with a fish in its mouth or a great blue heron soar over the water with its crooked neck and six-foot wingspan.

Retreat: The process of receding from a position or state attained.

All publication seekers want is to find that hidden trapdoor and sneak through. But once “safely” on the other side we find an industry that encourages us to take bigger and bigger risks. Which means that we might fail big. In public. Even as bad reviews stick like darts in our skin and rejected proposals cramp our composure we’ll slap promotional smiles on our faces because we earned our way through that door, and dagnabbit, we don’t want to slip back through. White-knuckling it takes a lot of energy and does nothing to improve our writing.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the much-anticipated book on creativity that came out last week, Big Magic, once said to Oprah Winfrey, “If you are going to step up and answer the call, get ready, because this is not a day at the beach. Expect to be challenged. Expect to be hurt. Expect to feel lost. Expect to feel despair. Expect to be double-guessing yourself at every turn.” Retreat allows new strength to well within us so that we are ready—in fact, eager—to re-enter the fray.

Retreat: The usually forced withdrawal of soldiers from an enemy because the enemy is winning or has won a battle.

Retreat is not surrender, nor is it cowardice. It is a wise reallocation and renewal of resources in an attempt to win the war. It is that moment in every epic story where ammunition is spent and our hero hides to regroup before the final climactic push. Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m going down, I’m going with a rebel yell and guns a-blazing like Butch Cassidy because we storytellers don’t just want to write good stories, we want to live them.

Writers who make it do so because they never give up. We know this. But when our supplies run low and our defenses weaken we can’t stay on the front lines taking bullets, no matter how good a soldier we want to be. We need to look at the big picture, like good generals. Adopt a strategy that allows backing off, tending wounds, regrouping.


We don’t need Maui or Paris to treat ourselves once again to the riches of self-care, gentle exercise, creative stimulus, and schedule surrender. Or do we? In what ways, lavish or frugal, have re-centered within the sacred creative act? If you go on writing retreats, what has been your greatest benefit?

About Kathryn

10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_nArt of FallingKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor

64 comments on “Writing and Retreating”

  1. Kathryn, your words always invigorate my stamina to forge ahead in my writing. I long to one day be a member of this awe inspiring retreat.

  2. I was one of the lucky ones to be able to retreat with you! It was an incredible experience.

    Sitting on the patio, a fountain tinkling in the background, my fellow writers tapping away on laptops - it's amazing how inspiring that silence was for me!

    And then, of course, when the writing was done, I was renewed by the camaraderie of women on the same road . . .


    Thank you, fellow traveler, for the inspiration, the friendship, and the camaraderie!

    1. Yes and that mountain view off the balcony each morning didn't hurt either! And I agree about witnessing others at work. Powerful! So glad we could restore our souls side-by-side Laura!

    2. All of the best peeps were hanging out in Albuquerque last weekend! My budget didn't allow it, but I'll be looking toward the next one. 🙂 SO glad you ladies had a grand time.

  3. I applaud your well-written post. Thank you. I haven' gone on a retreat in a very long time, and this makes me realize how much I miss it. I last went seven years ago, when on my own. I took a monthly rental on the beach of Dauphin Island, AL, I sat on the porch and vegetated for about a week,before I went back to writing. I'm sure I missed being with other writers, but it was the best I could do at a time when I needed a break. I have now put a retreat on my to-do list.

    1. I've gone on a few lone retreats but find that to make good use of them I have to have clear, well-defined goals (and perhaps a looming deadline). Curious if you felt that transition week was a part of your process, Marilyn, or if you felt overwhelmed as to how to wade through all that free time ahead of you.

      1. I think the week of vegetating was both . . . part of the transition process and a bit overwhelmed but the overwhelming part was the ocean in front of the porch. I've never lived near "big water" and the Gulf of Mexico was fascinating. If I were to do a lone retreat again, I would definitely need a deadline or some well-thought-out goals to take with me.

  4. I really enjoyed this Kathryn, especially looking more closely at the word "retreat," which in some ways has negative connotations. It sounds like your retreat was full of rejuvenation and inspiration. I can't wait to go on one myself! So far I've only managed one day workshops and a two-day Unworkshop, but I know I'd benefit from time away and communion with like minded writers.

    1. Yes—the retreat, coupled with reading Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC on the plane. I saw on FB that you're reading it too. Finished it during my Dallas layover yesterday and ready for our own private book club when you're ready!

        1. I only had a gel pen with me on the plane and feared it would bleed through the page if I underlined so I did something I never do—folded corners. The book is quite fanned out!

  5. I love this--I'm feeling as if I need a retreat not just for my writing but also my life! I do incorporate time each morning to be in a space (my back porch) unplugged with a cup of coffee and a notebook and pen. A mini retreat! But a weekend sounds better. Just sayin'.

    1. A retreat from life—I agree that this is necessary at times. So glad you take time to compose yourself each day Amy. The morning pages help, for sure, by draining away worries and meddlesome thoughts, but in a way, they too can be draining! A retreat can jar us out of our habitual way of looking at things and refill the creative well.

      1. It is a wonderful location, Jenny. The last time I was there I thought it would be fun to rent one of the homes for a week--even though I only live thirty minutes away!

  6. Kathryn, I applaud this post--we women writers always feel too "necessary" to take the time we need to not necessarily write a certain word count, but to simply have time to reflect and refuel. I occasionally take myself on mini-weekend retreats, usually to the borrowed house of a friend or to a cheap off-season condo, but I also love meeting up with one or two other writer friends for a retreat to a library, with a lunch break in the middle of the day, just to get away from my usual surroundings. Your retreat sounds like it was really a splendid one. Good for you! And for Laura, too!

    1. Yes, Holly! Great comment. At the Albuquerque retreat we had an interesting conversation on what it means to be "selfish" and we were pretty sure men and women define it differently. We women need to be more "self-ish"—to guard our self. If we are used up we have nothing to give our mates and families.

  7. Kathryn, I loved this post and would love to be apart of your retreat next year!! Is there a way to receive info on this ahead of time, a waiting list, or by invitation only?? Would so love more info! Blessings, Cate Tuten

  8. Love this post, Kathryn!!! For so many reasons.
    The WFWA retreat did so much for me, not so much for the WIP. I'm plotting another mini-retreat to get back into the writing flow. May have to send you some pictures ... maybe I can tempt you. 🙂

  9. Kathryn, always love your posts. And often they find me in a place where I am one of the walking wounded. Recently re-entered the work-force. It felt forced, it felt desperate and it felt as if someone had reached inside of me and took away my inner child. Re-treat ... the art of finding a place to regroup and rethink, a place where we can find peace and share with likened minds what we so much need to share. While I can always turn to "hand work" to quiet my mind, being with others who know what this is like cannot be found alone.

    The traveling to this event was out of the question, but I would love to pick your brains for a more local type of event this spring. Thanks for taking me away from my current "whine" and giving me the idea of a mini retreat with our local group 🙂

    1. Oh, I hear you, Florence. You write here of your current predicament so beautifully, and back-to-work is a seemingly soul-sucking story that so many writers (and supposedly retired folks) can relate to. Jot notes, you've got great story conflict here. I think your mini-retreat sounds like a great idea, and who knows—one of the writers might have a connection to a free or discounted place in the woods somewhere. Let me know what you all come up with!

    1. Thanks, Densie. If you can't afford, why not try hosting? Charge the others just enough to cover your expenses for food and whatever facility you rent. You go free, and pass along to the others an amazing experience!

  10. Thank you, Kathryn! We're so often urged to "lean in," "move forward" and "charge" like we're on life's front lines. Your reminder to step back from the battle and linger in quietness is so needed these days. This summer I nearly completed a first draft of a novella while "retreating" in a log cabin in the upper MidWest. I too rejoiced with the loons ... but even more so in witnessing the adult loons with their new babies. Out of necessity, I've learned to brainstorm, write and edit just about anywhere at anytime, but I treasure (and I use that word purposefully) my down time each summer at the lake when I get to "lean back," "stop moving" and "retreat."

    1. While last year we were treated to "twins," this year our loons had no babies—it was the fourth wettest June since the 1940s and the high lake washed the egg away (you may know they lay them right on the ground near the shore because they can't walk very well. 🙁 But they are majestic, entertaining birds!

  11. Kathryn, it was an honour to be able to retreat with you and the other WFWAers in New Mexico! It's so great to hear everyone else's stories and to know we are not alone on this journey even though when we're alone in our offices and banging our heads against the wall, we feel we are. The retreat was exactly what I needed to remind me that even if I'm alone, I'm never lonely with my writer family a mouse click away.

    1. Oh Kelly, I love the way you said that. The WFWA retreat was so special on so many levels. And I'm glad you were a part of it.

  12. Great blog, Ms Craft. Time to simply sit and think -- or not think -- is not important, it's vital. And your timing is perfect. I took yesterday off and reread a favorite book of mine, "Starship Troopers," by Robert A. Heinlein, and it paid off. Today is already a good one. I think even mini-retreats have value. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I love the idea of re-reading a favorite book as a retreat, James! I'm not a big re-reader, as there are just so many books to experience, but I want to do more of it. A beloved book is sure bet, right? And I can go through ten or more hopefuls without hitting a great read...

    2. Starship Troopers! Yeah, James. I love SF comments. Heinlein turned me into a science fiction freak, bless him.

  13. Perfect timing, again, Kathryn. I just returned from a long week-end meditation retreat. Seeing your definitions of retreat made me think about the meanings with greater clarity. Years again, Laura Drake come to my house for our first DIY retreat. Tons of fun!

      1. I had so much fun getting ready for our first one--pulling out the books I had duplicates of and making a stack of "goodie books" for you--just like a real conference!

  14. I do this once a year on Mt. Baldy. We meditate, have silent meditation hikes (kind of grueling at that elevation), meditate, have great food, meditate, receive a lesson, meditate...But I'm tired when I return. We start at 7 a.m. and finish at 10:30 p.m. for four days. I'm taking a "day off" from working today!

  15. I've never been on a retreat but when things are stuck for me I treat myself to an extra long, extra hot, shower. In a country where we're encouraged to limit showers to four minutes, this feels indulgent. It also gives me time away from the 3 and 5 year old and a little quiet space just for me and my thoughts. Hopefully someone will give me a waterproof note pad for Christmas, then I'll be sorted.

  16. Oh my goodness, I recently retreated for a weekend with my critique partner, and it was the BEST! I got done in a weekend what I might do in a week. Moreover, I had a trusted writer on hand to ask questions when I got stuck or needed encouragement. The peaceful setting, lack of interruption, and ability to focus were priceless.

    I'm so glad you wrote about this! I will definitely be pursuing more retreat opportunities.

  17. Kathryn, I left you a comment earlier but I don't think it went through. Love reading your posts!......Did I understand you to say that you have retreats at your house!?? for women fiction writers?? Thank you so much! Cate Tuten

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