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  • Writer's pictureKathy Coudle-King

Creating Your Own Writing Retreat

The first thing you must do is -- retreat. That's right. Back up and away from your daily life.

This is harder than it sounds for busy, engaged people. My husband goes to his office seven days a week and writes. He doesn't need a retreat.

I, on the other hand, hear the call of the kitchen floor -- it wants to be scrubbed. I hear the call of the bathrooms -- they want to be cleaned. Oh -- and that pile of papers in the corner? Surely, today is the day to sort through them. A free weekend? I haven't seen Kate in a while, maybe she'd like to go for coffee? Or perhaps Martha and Pirjo would like to have beers. Netflix has a new series . . . Yes, there are an endless number of distractions at home. Including my first grandbaby whom I love getting to know. So, away I must go to get some writing done.

As someone who teaches writing for thirty-four weeks of the year, it's hard to find the energy, let alone the time to work on my own writing. During the semester I reach what I call a point of "word saturation." I hardly ever read for pleasure during the academic year because student papers consume me. The last thing my poor eyes want to do is consume more black squigglies on paper.

However, I am always writing -- in my head. It begins with a seed of an idea. I noodle it around, take notes, outline, research, outline some more, and then it comes to a point where I need to get it on paper/screen. It's almost a physical ache, definitely a psychic ache. I have to birth this thing or I'll burst!

For the last twenty years, I've been regularly taking writing retreats at least once a year, typically in the fall as a birthday treat to myself, but sometimes I can squeeze one in during May, right after my grading is done. It just depends if I have a project begging me to write.

This May I did, which brings me to some tips I can share with anyone who feels they are in need of a writing retreat of their own.

First, where will you go? This, of course, will depend on your bank account. If you don't have a lot of money to spend, perhaps ask a friend if you can house sit for them when they go out of town. Or, maybe you have a friend who has a lake house or cabin they'd be willing to let you use in the off-season -- or the on!

Universities ($)

College campuses have housing in the summer for nonstudents. The University of North Dakota, where I teach, rents dorm rooms for $45 a night. About fifteen years ago, members of the International Center for Women Playwrights created a writing retreat at OSU, hosted and organized by Alan Woods, the former theatre librarian there. We were able to share double rooms for about $25 a night. A steal. We all were deeply in need of a writing retreat, so we worked alone during the day, came together in the evening to read "pages," eat, drink, and talked "shop." This was/is an invaluable experience for playwrights who have very different needs than fiction writers or poets. Alan even found us professional actors to read our new work. It was a fantastic experience. I attended twice and wrote the first drafts of my plays St. Bette's and Companeras there. Both of those plays went on to find productions. Alas, not all my work does. I need another OSU retreat, please. I still keep in touch with the playwrights I met there, following their work and lives. Retreating together forges a special bond. Perhaps you know other writers who would like to create a retreat like this on a campus near or far.

State Parks ($$) I've gone to Itasca State Park in MN for the last few years.

It's about two and a half hours away, which is just far enough that I am not going to be tempted to run home for this or that, and yet it's not going to eat up a day of driving time. It's also far enough away that I am not going to run into a lot of people I know and get caught up in conversations. I do love to talk to people. Ask my children stuck with me on a grocery "run."

Another reason I like a state park is because nature relaxes and inspires me. Even if I am at a table writing, I love being able to look out the window and see the tall pines. There's something encouraging about them. They've been there for a hundred years, growing slowly, and they're a good reminder that art can't be rushed. I need to take my time, make sure the roots I'm sending out are not planted in shallow ground.

The third reason I like a state park is the cost. In the past, I split the cost of a cabin at Itasca with one or two other women. Cabins start at $140, so you do the math. Remember, you will have a small kitchen, so you can save by making your own meals -- everyone chips in and takes turns cooking.

This was the first year I went to Itasca by myself, (more on that below), and I paid under $300 for four days. I had a private bedroom, communal kitchen, bathroom, and common's area. The Headwaters Inn was everything I needed. There are only six units, I believe, and the last night I was there, I had the Inn to myself. (Don't think my imagination didn't want to toy with that idea. I think there was a ghost.)

Traveling Afar ($$$)

If you are able to splurge -- this is an investment in your writing career, not to mention your mental health care -- the world is your oyster. I've been fortunate to tap into some state and university grants on occasion, which have allowed me to enjoy some amazing vistas. Thank you, ND Council on the Arts. Check with your state and local arts councils.

One year, I applied to Starry Night Retreat in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I used a university grant to cover part of my expenses. I landed in Albuquerque and rented a car to get to T or C, as the locals call it. This North Dakota transplant was white-knuckling it as I drove through whiteout in January to get to this out of the way little town. When I first arrived, I was taken aback. The town was kind of -- desperate looking, like maybe it took the "consequences". There was a mixture of run down trailers and houses with funky colored doors and odd yard "art". When I pulled up in front of Starry Night, which I'd driven past a couple of times before identifying as the "retreat," there was a faded, wooden fence and a small, painted sign announcing I was in the right place. Honestly, I thought: What have you gotten myself into this time? And this must be a scam. Fortunately, it wasn't.

I opened the rickety, wooden gate to reveal a half-dozen white, stucco cabins -- think old motel-style. One would be mine for the next ten days. They were actually former miners' lodges, so a good seventy years old. My cabin was the perfect nest: A studio with a kitchen, bathroom, and comfy bed. I was able to edit some of my plays there to create my collection, Broads on the Boards.

Plus, the host was fantastic, a painter who'd invested in the place to help other artists, primarily visual. She introduced me to the hot springs.


If you've never experienced hot springs, I wish this for each and everyone of you before you die. A soak was the perfect antidote to a day of hunching over a keyboard. And cost? Hello, Frugal Fran! $10 a soak! I think there was even a punch card that was crazy cheap.

There are hundreds of other places you can apply to if you have the funding. If you really want to get some writing done, though, don't pick a place that is going to tempt you to site see. That's what was so perfect about Starry Night. Aside from a coffee shop, a pawn shop, and an amazing Mexican restaurant, it was just me and my writing. Perfect.

Second, Who Will Go With You?

I've had the pleasure, as mentioned above, to retreat with other playwrights, who had similar goals for the retreat. We all had complicated lives at home with lots of obligations. Each woman recognized the gift this time was and we respected each other's privacy. That's very, very -- can't stress it enough -- very important. Forgive the pun -- but you need to all be on the same page. If one writer just wants social time and the others are there to work -- it can be frustrating for everyone. Been there. Trust me on this.

So, if you invite others to retreat with you, talk about your goals before hand. Do you like to get up and do morning pages in silence? Are you a night owl? Are you planning on writing all day and night? Or do you want to come together to discuss challenges? You might want to go so far as to create a daily schedule; draw up who is in charge of what meals. Maybe someone could lead a writing exercise, or provide a writing prompt each day at a certain time. Write me if you want more ideas. I led writing retreats in a past life. A note about this below.

Mixed Media

As a writer, I really enjoy the energy that visual artists bring to the table. They look at the world differently than I do, and yet there is a lot of intersection when it comes to the struggles of creating any kind of art, being women creating art, and being women of a "certain age" creating art. I love our conversations in between work sessions, our walks together on the trails as we explore ideas together. And sometimes, they let me use their art supplies -- if I ask real nicely. So, if you do not have writer friends -- or ones who want, or can retreat -- maybe you know quilters, or other types of artists who'd enjoy a week or weekend away. Again, you want people who are either okay on their own, or are looking for time to create. If your friend just wants to tag along, they might not know what to do with themself while you are working, which may create guilt or temptation for you. So, choose your fellow retreaters wisely.

Going Solo

Benson King 2008-2019

Animals as co-retreaters This section could go here or above, depending on your pet. I had a memorable retreat with my chocolate lab Benson one September. It's not easy to find a place that accepts dogs, but I found one that wasn't too far away. It was a converted granary in Casselton, ND. How could I pass up sleeping in a granary?

So, off we went, but like I said above, you and your retreat partner need to be on the same page. Benson discovered he did not like sleeping in a granary on a farm. The nocturnal noises kept him alert all night, which kept me alert. Also, the place was infested by Japanese beetles -- think Lady Bugs. When I awoke the first morning, my bed was covered in little specks of red. I'd rolled over on the beetles during the night. Yeah. No fear of serial killers; I was the serial killer.

During the day when I was writing, Benson couldn't settle down. He -- neutered -- seduced the granny farm dog, much to my embarrassment. "Stop that, stop that this instant," I yelled. I did manage to crank out one of the darkest scripts I've ever written, No Vacancy, but it was not the ideal situation. Not just because Benson wouldn't let me go into the farmhouse to pee without telling the entire county I was doing so, but because a metal granary in September is like a kettle boiling. So, beware quaint lodging -- not all are a good fit for writing. And ask your dog if he really wants to go.

Sans Dog

This May was the first time I went to Itasca by myself. Typically, I invite a friend or two to go with me. When I went to Starry Night, it was a solo retreat, and the same feelings bubbled up this time as they did then. As I looked around my little room at the Inn on Thursday night, I could feel fear welling up. What have you gotten yourself into this time? Are you really going to be able to sit down and spew out a new play in three and a half days? Who are you kidding? But then I said, "Get back, Satan!"

Self-doubt can be debilitating. It can cause you to choke. I took a deep breath, had a sandwich, discovered I had two bottles of wine but no corkscrew, read for awhile, and made my plan. The next day I'd start with Joan of Arc -- the opening character in my new play, Retail Therapy, and then I'd proceed to the section on asylums. If I still had energy, I'd move on to Virginia Woolf and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Goal Setting I cannot stress how important goal setting is to the success of your writing retreat. Now, if you just need time to get away to think, you don't need to set goals. Go for long walks, eat good food, drink some wine -- brink a corkscrew. No need to set lofty goals for the weekend -- like write an entire draft of a play? You don't even need to write. You could research or free write about the project you have in mind. You could feed your muse. All very important steps in any creative process. However . . .

If, like me, your hours and days are accounted for way in advance, and retreat time is write time, set your goals. Make an outline. Keep in mind how long it takes you to write; what can you accomplish in the allotted amount of time? A chapter? An outline of a book or a play? XX amount of pages each day -- set it low. By low, I mean what is low for you might not be low for someone else. Ask yourself what it is you want to go home with at the end of the retreat. And if you do not hit your goal -- don't worry about it. Time to think is never wasted. You may be germinating ideas that will bloom months, even years from now. Be gentle with yourself.

Leading a Writing Retreat

You might get the idea that you can do this. And, no doubt, you can. You rent a place, advertise or invite writers, organize meals, maybe even some sharing time. But here's the thing: If you are playing host, you will not be a great guest. Your brain should and will be on making sure things are going smoothly. So, while it may save you money -- you can build into the retreat costs a stipend for organizing it, perhaps even covering your own room costs, you will need to be "on." I enjoyed every retreat I've organized, but I did not get much of my own work done. Still, it was a retreat, and that was important to me at the time. I held these at a quilting retreat in Mayville, ND; Rutgers Birchmont Resort in Bemidji (managed to write a draft of Caution: Children at Play); and a couple at The Inn at Maple Crossing in Maple Lake, MN -- sadly no more. My friend Emberly Lietz has a place she rents specifically for retreats -- The Lake House Retreat. It's definitely on my list to try.

That said, if anyone reading would like me to organize a writing retreat, complete with writing activities, please contact me. I'd love to create one just for you and your fellow writers.

I like to work in some meditative time, too.

I hope my musings on retreats has sparked your own desire to take one. Creativity is like a flame, and we need to feed it if we want it to continue to burn.

P.S. - I did manage to crank out a draft of Retail Therapy. I'll be revising it this summer. Revising takes a very different kind of energy than creating the initial draft. I can do that at home.

WRITING PROMPT: What retreats have you gone on? Or, imagine your perfect retreat: Where would it be, who would you go with, what would a day look like?


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