On Writing · Writing Life

Winter Writing Retreat 2019

It’s the final day of a four-day, three night writing retreat I’m having with my dear friend and writer Charis Cotter in house in a beautiful suburb of Toronto.

I arrived at Union Station in downtown Toronto on Thursday afternoon lugging a backpack full of writing retreat necessities – laptop, journals, pens, glasses, manuscripts, oracle cards, prayer box and books to read for pleasure. As well, crammed in my luggage were manuscripts, photos and other writing project related things I planned to work on.

This is not the first writing retreat Charis and I have created and shared together, so we know we’re a great match when it comes to making these retreats happen and staying disciplined to reach our writing goals. That’s a key ingredient if you’re thinking of creating your writing retreat – DISCIPLINE.

It’s oh-so-easy to get swept up in conversations, to take breaks to walk or read and let time slip away. And, those kinds of retreats are fine too! But, for us, we know that these retreats are meant for maximum creative output. In my mind, I bank ideas and in my body I hold energy knowing that this retreat is coming and that I will have the opportunity to get some serious work done.

Our days look like this:

7am – wake up

7:15am – 8:00am – meditation and yoga – Both of us practice yoga and meditate on our own, so we agreed that we didn’t want to stop this practice at the retreat. It means that we have to get up early to fit it in, but it also means that we’re starting our writing practice with spiritual practices that essentially prepare our bodies and minds for the creative outpourings we’re going to have. Meditation and yoga set the space, the energy and the confidence we need to get our work done with clear minds and open hearts. Particularly for me, the meditation helps me quiet all the negative voices that aim to quell my belief in the stories and poems I need to write out. The voices are relentless and intrusive – so if I can begin the day by focusing on quiet and intentions toward writing from my heart without negativity – it really helps me. Following meditation with yoga allows me then to get back into my body – which in the morning is often achy, stiff and tired. Doing gentle yoga allows me to wake up my body and move my energy around. It also allows me to feel my confidence in my muscles and bones so that when I sit to write, I feel strong, awake, aware and prepared.

8:00am – 9:00am – breakfast and morning pep talk. We make breakfast together then sit to table and discuss our intentions and goals for the day – including scheduling, oracle cards and spiritual discussion, and then commitment to our goals. We tidy up, maybe get dressed (sometimes we stay in our jammies until lunch!), then get to work.

I’ve been writing at a small table or laying on the carpet in a room that’s got a wall of windows. The natural light is gorgeous and we can see and hear birds, airplanes, wind and squirrels. Yesterday, each time I looked up from the pages, I watched fat snowflakes meandering from the sky. It was so calming.

Thinking about your natural surroundings is an important part of creating the writing retreat that will work well for you mind and body. Sometimes I crave the cave-like attributes of a hotel room – somewhat dark, small and very quiet – to write in. This time, we were able to find a place with plenty of open space, natural light and nature to surround us.

9am – 11:00am-ish – First block of intensive writing. Over the past days, I’ve used this time to work on my poetry manuscript (re-format, re-organize, choose photos, amalgamate all writings, and prep what I need to write next), to write two children’s book outlines, to write and read poetry for my class, and to write in my journal.

This first morning write is the most productive, focused and disciplined.

11:30am – 12:30pm – break for lunch, get dressed, quick chat about how the morning writing session went.

12:30pm – 2:30pm – second writing block – used to continue work from the morning write. I find that I also make time to answer emails, check social media, and make lists of things to do so I don’t forget to do them when I return home. This is the hardest session for me to stay focused and disciplined. For some reason, my brain starts to lose its ability to keep the voices quiet, and I start to get a bit of anxiety/worry about all the non-writing things I have to do.

A lot of deep-from-the-belly sighs happen during this sessions. It’s kinda funny – if you recorded us, you’d hear house sounds like radiators gurgling, birds chirping, and then a symphony of sighs. It’s important to breathe! And I write this in all honesty – I find that when I’m extremely focused on the words, my body tenses and I hold my breath (even now! I just let out a big sigh!). My extremities get really cold and my lower back aches from squeezing my muscles as I write. Sighing really helps relieve the tension.

2:30pm – 3:45pm – Nap or rest. Now, I’m not a napper. But, I know that when I do these retreats, I get very tired and it’s important to give my body and brain a rest. So, I lay down on a sofa or bed and close my eyes. Sometimes it takes me twenty minutes to fall asleep and I only actually sleep for another 15 minutes, but other times, I’m able to close my eyes and fall asleep. The point is to not do anything! Rest your body and your brain. Charis is great at keeping the time – so she’ll wake me up after 30-35minutes. It’s not the best feeling in my body when I wake/get up. It takes a few minutes to shake off the groggy-ness and get back to work. Sometimes I stretch.

3:45pm – 5:30pm – This last chunk of writing time is flexible. I don’t always know what I’m going to work on. It depends on how the earlier part of the day goes…and how chatty we are! But there’s usually a third chunk of writing time before dinner.

Always – there is lots of tea to drink and snacks to be had (typically of the dessert variety). It is good to have plenty to drink to stay hydrated and snacks that please your palate but don’t weigh your belly down.

5:30pm – 6:30pm – cook dinner, talk about the day, laugh, do dishes/tidy up.

During dinner, we decide if we’re going to write more or if we’re going to talk when dinner is done. We usually end up talking about what we did during the day. We talk about how we met our intentions/goals – why or why not, and we flow with conversation about our writing lives, processes and goals for the next day.

There’s a large amount of talking that happens. I’d say pretty equal to the writing, actually. Because we can support each other through the challenges of hard story plot points or help each other push through doing work we may not love doing but that we need to do to pay the bills. There is much talk about the state of our writing lives – what we do in the community, what we’d love to accomplish, what we have accomplished and why we need to remember these accomplishments! Certainly, being there as support for each other’s writing processes and dreams plays a large role in the energy, output and value of the writing retreat.

After dinner, we’re usually pretty wiped. We get in our jammies and then watch a show or movie to wind down. This weekend it was ‘Sex Education’ – a series on Netflix, and last night we watched ‘Unleashed’, a sweet little rom-com on Netflix.

We get to bed between 10pm – 11pm…and then try to get at least 7-8 hours sleep. We know that’s what our bodies need in order to be able to get up and face a day of intense writing. I read before I sleep. Currently, I’m reading ‘Finding Dorothy’ by Elizabeth Letts.

I try to fit in one visit with a friend who lives in the area. It’s hard to come to a place where I have friends I want to visit and not visit them! So I try to squeeze one ‘night-on-the-town’ with friends. Last night, I shared a delicious meal with Harriet Bernstein – a friend of many years…who I hadn’t seen in many years! Over the outstanding food at United Bakers Dairy Restaurant – Jewish and middle easter fare – we ate and talked for four hours. I let Harriet choose the dishes so I could get a powerful tasting of Jewish food. It was all delicious! (And we have leftovers!)

Harriet is a creative and a writer as well. Her first book ‘Irving Layton- Our Years Together – A Memoir‘ comes out from Inanna Publications in May 2019. I will not miss it! We talked about so many things! By the end, we were filled up in our bellies and in our hearts. We stood on the snowy sidewalk as fluffy snowflakes continued to fall, embraced and shared love at the end of our visit.

It is essential – essential – to give time, energy and love to writers in your life. I think that creative people find each other and can have extraordinary connections that help our writing and creative lives. So if you meet someone – another creative soul – and you feel a connection, move into it and see what gifts you can share with each other. You never know! You may find your writing retreat soulmates, you may find a wise woman whose life experiences are so like your own it’s goose-bumpy, and you can hold each other’s creative dreams and accomplishments up for all the world the see.

This afternoon I’ll head to the train station and head home. I’m feeling emotional about this. Be prepared for the feelings of ‘back-to-reality’ to want to overpower your last retreat day. Hold steady. Writing retreats feel very much like utopia-parallel universes. They are, really. So, don’t be surprised if you have some intense feelings when the retreat is nearing its completion. And, don’t feel guilty about wanting the retreat to keep going. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your life, your work, your family – NOT AT ALL! What it means is that you’ve had a miraculous explosion of creative output and you want to hold fast to that energy and dapple your days with it.

We create writing ‘retreats’ – to do just that – retreat into our creative selves with like-minded creative people for the pure, soul purpose of writing. That’s what writers do. And it is a gift to be able to experience this retreat by actually creating a special schedule, space and discipline for yourself/selves.


Here are some photos…

Working at the table…kinda messy, but I can work in that!
Mama needs her glasses for this work!
Floor work. Felt compelled to hand-write an outline for two kids’ picture books.
Organizing photos for my poetry manuscript.

It’s nearing 11am. I’m feeling pretty good. Happy to have taken the time to write this blog and share our retreat experience with you. Also feeling a little stiff from yoga and sitting at the table, so I’ll move to the floor next!

Soon, we’ll break and talk and eat. Spend time reflecting on all that we’ve accomplished.

It’s been emotional for me…struggling through some serious self-doubt and worry. And guilt. My, the guilt. It’s wild to me how much I still struggle with the same creative challenges. I pulled an Oracle card this morning and it was all about asking for help, collaboration, working with people who share and support dreams…I can feel a shift in my life towards these things…and also the emotions attached to letting go of what seems like a biological need to take care of everything by myself. Change on a cellular level is deep.

Gratitude leads the way.

Thank you Charis, Harriet, FW, Nick, Jett, Miller, Alley, Alice, Erinn, Adrianne, Peter, Kerrie, Mom – and all the amazing people who fill the world (and me!) with joy and support.

Charis and I. Two writers at work and play!

9 thoughts on “Winter Writing Retreat 2019

  1. This is like a guide, How to Retreat into Writing. Love the clouds of self-doubt parting to illuminate this wonderful post.


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