Lessons from a Writing Retreat

Hi guys! I just got home from a self-constructed writing retreat with two of my best writing buddies. Before I get back into the normal of groove of things today, I thought I would share with you all some of the things I learned on my little trip.

And if you haven’t yet, writers especially, please go read my guest blog at Writer Unboxed! Okay, here we go…

Lesson #1: My “ergonomic” keyboard is useless if I don’t use it right.

If you work at a computer, take a moment to look at your desk. Now think about your body. What hurts? My bet: neck, shoulders, wrists, and forearms, plus possibly back, knees, and even ankles.

I thought I was doing pretty good. I mean, I have an ergonomic keyboard, a foot rest, and my screen raised up on a stand. But I was still having pain.

Three day retreat, with five times my normal daily word count, and I was almost pain free. The difference? The table I was using and my positioning on that table. I had my laptop propped up on a binder and pushed back about two feet away from the edge. That way, my forearms were resting on the desk. That this could make such a difference had never even occurred to me.

My lesson: Experiment until I find what feels the best.

Lesson # 2: I have been setting my daily word count goal way too low.

Everyone has different word count goals because everyone has different circumstances in which they write. Some people have three day-jobs and can only write on the weekends. Others, like me, work at home all day writing. So this isn’t about my specific numbers; those are irrelevant. It’s about goals.

When I’m not working on a first draft of a novel (which makes my word count go up drastically because I like to pound them out), my daily word count goal is 1,000 words. That can include poetry, short stories, or whatever (blogs don’t count), but I try to hit that minimum five days a week.

At this retreat, I did 5,000 words a day. That’s FIVE TIMES my daily goal. And it wasn’t even difficult! What the spelunking?! I know retreats are different than real life. I mean, there really isn’t anything to do but write, so it’s easy to have a higher output, but still. Adjust that number for paying bills, cleaning up cat vomit, and buying groceries, and I could still easily double my previous goal.

My lesson: I had gotten comfortable with where I was and never moved up. I was being too easy on myself.

Lesson # 3: Brains need food too.

So crazy output is great, as long as you don’t feel like a steaming pile of zombie brain at the end of the day. At the end of my first 5,000 word day, I was so tired I couldn’t even think. As I lied in bed wondering how just sitting at a desk and thinking could be so tiring, it hit me: I was doing five times my normal output and eating less food.

I mean, all I was doing was typing. Who needs a big lunch when they’re sitting still all day? But the thing is that even brains need fuel. The next day I did the same output, but was conscious to have small snacks every couple of hours. I was still tired at the end of the day, but I didn’t feel like a brain zombie.

My lesson: higher productivity requires higher energy input.

Lesson #4: The world doesn’t end when you don’t have internet.

Really. It was still there when I got back.

(I know, I was kind of surprised too.)

My lesson: It’s okay to unplug.

Lesson #5: My friends are the best.

I mean, look at them! They speak of movies, boobies, books, and awesomesauce.

This is Addley. She has excessively loud sneezes.

 This is Febe. She helps me rate Addley’s excessively loud sneezes on a scale of 1 to 10.

My lesson: writing with friends is only about a thousand times better than writing alone. Bonus: free brainstorming sessions!

Lesson #6: Beautiful views are not so much seen as felt.

You must feel it here *taps heart*, not here *taps head*.

We were lucky enough to have a gorgeous, brand new vacation house to go to for free. (Thank you to Addley’s Aunt Susan!) There was a whole wall of windows overlooking a lovely view of a part of the Colorado River. I looked at it, of course. I stared at it. I went out on the deck and mused over it. And then I got to work.

Did I need the view to write? No. When I was actually actively writing, I didn’t even glance at the view. But the strange thing – the really magical thing that makes retreats totally worth it – is that I could feel the view as I wrote. It was like a peaceful, inspiring, but invisible blanket tucked in around me. I didn’t need to look. I knew it was there.

My lesson: Hold this retreat feeling in my heart as long as I can, and get to work.

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  • Two very helpful posts, Annie. Welcome back. The retreat sounds so wonderful!

    I love all the tips you have here. Especially lesson #3. That’s a small one that makes all the difference. It’s so easy to forget. I take an enforced break from work now after two hours where I go and grab a snack plus a cup of water. Even if I’m not hungry or thirsty, I find I do end up eating and drinking over the next few hours while I’m working.

    • Thanks Nina! The retreat was just a little thing we put together, but it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. And yes, having food at the desk is good. That two hour break is smart too. I make myself stop to stretch my neck every hour or two as well. It’s definitely easy to lose track of time sitting at the computer.

  • Okay, nevermind my tweets because this post answers both my questions, lol! What a gorgeous view! The retreat sounds amazing!

    I only wish I could forget to eat, lol! No really, I know, brains need food… my ass however could stand a little less food! 😉

    Writing in smaller blocks with breaks in between is an awesome idea. Snack, coffee, pee, stretch, and dive back in! 😀 And I’ve found, as I’ve written more, I really have seen my writing muscles grow, and am able to get more output now than when I started. It’s an awesome thing!

    • And of course, I just answered your tweets. =)~ Lol and yes, there is a fine line between having enough food and having too much food. Intermittent snacks, not constant snacks. =) I guess brain muscles are just like body muscles; once you get comfortable with a certain workload you need to up the weights. (PS- That wasn’t our actual view. That’s just a pic I found online, my bad.)

  • All fantastic things, Annie! I’m so glad you had a great and super productive retreat! A couple of the things I do in regard to writing:

    I write on my laptop, with the wifi turned off. I turn the internet back on to make Facebook updates every so often (usually when I’m also having a coffee and snack break), but turn the wifi back off when I’m done. Clicking around the internet is *habitual* and we need to consciously break that habit. True fact.

    Sometimes, I write in different rooms. Sometimes I don’t. If I get stuck, I let myself crochet, or take care of some housework, or get up and find a cat to snuggle on, because *I’m stuck for a reason* and being active and away from the story for even a few moments can mean the difference between frustration and just working through the tangle of thoughts.

    There are times, especially in a first draft, where I feel daft and like everything I’m writing is really lame, but I acknowledge the feeling then write it anyway. Editing will STILL BE THERE when I’m done, and I can fix it later. There’s actually an infinite amount of time for me to fix it. I don’t need to worry!


    • Those are some great tips, Ashlee! It is SO TRUE about the compulsive internet-checking. All of us at the retreat got the urge to check our email several times a day even though we knew we didn’t have internet connection. I’ve gotten in the habit of using it to “think,” but your idea of getting up and moving is much, much smarter. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Justplainj

    Love this post, Annie. I’m so jealous! I especially love what you wrote about feeling the view. I think that’s true. All summer, I wrote outside, in my back yard, in parks, at the tables outside the library. There was something about feeling the actual world (not walls) around me that was magical. (And, bonus, when I was stuck for words, and staring off, the view was pretty.)

    I’m a little dubious about your internet claim, but we’ll leave that for now. 🙂

    • Thanks J! I would write outside more often if it weren’t for my stupid allergies. For me, a big window is the next best thing. I guess some day my dream-castle will have to have an office with a whole wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. 😉

  • febe moss

    Great post! Yes brain storming with fellow writers is much better than brain storming all by yourself. Mostly because answering yourself can get a bit weird. It was a great time!

    • Thanks Feebs! Yes, it really was fun. I think we should make it anual thing!

      • Anonymous

        yes yes we should make it an annual thing!

  • Wow!! I love your writing friends! And I love that *free* retreat space with the river view provided by Addley’s Aunt Susan! No wonder you want to go again!!

    Really enjoyed all your practical points as well. I’m planning to write that kind of post, too, as another follow-up to my recent writing retreat. I’ll be sure to link to this post to give my readers additional points to consider. Thanks, Annie!

    • I know, right? How lucky were we!! Thanks so much for the share, Milli. Can’t wait to read your next post!