7 Tips on a Successful Writer's Retreat

How I imagine each writer on a retreat

I am just back from a weeklong writing retreat about 5 or so hours of travel time from my home.  It's amazing how you do not need to board a plane to have a successful writer's retreat.  You do not need to drive for twelve hours to a different state or find a new country.  Many times, just a new town can do it.

As I've been on this retreat, I've been realizing there are certain things that make retreat successful.  Here are a few things I noticed during my week away--

1)  Pack everything you need when you write.

For me, this just doesn't include my laptop and plug, but also my mousepad, wireless mouse, wrist rest, fingerless gloves (my metal MacBook is cold in the morning), as well as my glasses (I brought 2 pairs), coffee, special coffee mug and a scrunchy to keep my hair out of my eyes.

I would have been crazy if I didn't have my wireless mouse, coffee or fingerless gloves.

I did not bring my favorite cup and regretted it until I found a great snowman mug in the cupboard, which made my world okay.

2)  Pack what you need to wear to write.

I am always cold, so I included my favorite cozy sweater and these thermal long-sleeve shirts that might as well be called "my uniform" in everyday life.  Also, warm socks/slippers were a must for me, as well as yoga pants and a tank top.

I brought a pair of my favorite corduroys thinking I would want to wear more "regular" pants just to feel "dressed for work" and also so I don't return 2 sizes too large (I have a belief the reasons Americans are overweight has more to do with Lycra than what they are eating, but I digress...)

But I wore my yoga pants all week with varying tops.  I'm not the fashion plate, but I'm cozy and very comfortable.

3)  Pack what books you need to write.

This is a hard one because it can be hard to know what book you will reach for.  All three of us who were on this retreat, brought *way* too many books, but is there ever such a thing?  Worst case scenario, we carry them to our car and drive them back home.  So what?  I like the security of knowing, I have my own library with me.

I chose my books based on the books I usually grab when I'm stuck.  For poetry, a few of mine are:  Blue Hour: Poems by Carolyn Forche, Mortal Geography  by Alexandra Teague (my current favorite book I'm reading), Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing in Odessa (an old favorite), and Now: Poems by Molly Tenenbaum.

I grab instinctually until I've loaded up 2 book bags, then I don't look back.

4)  If there is internet, DO NOT use it to check the news, Facebook or Twitter.

Your goal on a retreat is to LOSE yourself from the real world, not update your status or stay connected.  A retreat is valuable time where you are to discover *new* habits, not reinforce existing bad habits.

This is interrupted time you will *not* get back.  This is the time you dream of in your real life when you are cleaning the kitchen, putting out the dog, letting the cat in, driving your child to another sport, grading papers, doing all those things that you are responsible for in your every day world.

There is a reason you came here, don't dwindle your time away with activities that do not need to be done.  The world can go a week without knowing what you are doing.

5)  Stay in touch with loved ones through texting NOT phone calls.

I cannot tell you the difference this makes!  When you get on a phone with someone (say a husband who is home taking care of the house, your child and pets, etc.), they want to fill your ears with information-- the sump pump might be broken again, it is raining, we lost power, the cat is drinking from the Christmas tree, did you see in the news...--and it goes on.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhh, I'm on a retreat!

What texting does is let's you connect with your family and know they are okay, but they cannot vomit up their days on you bringing you into the regular world.  I know, vomit is a tough word, "share" might be kinder, but I truly believe, when you are away and writing, that is where your mind should be, not on home repairs or whether your cat is getting too much pine-flavoring.  It should be on your writing. your goals, your projects, your creativity.

If you don't have texting, sign up for it.  It is worth every penny when you are on a retreat.

6)  Set your email to away, whether you secretly check it or not.

If you can completely ignore email, do it.  But most of us don't have the willpower to do that or aren't able to due to some optimistic belief that there's an acceptance with your name on it or you might miss something important...

Whatever the reason is, the "Away Notice" let's people know you won't be answering emails until you return and if there is an emergency, they can call or text you (or call or text your spouse, etc.)

This is your golden ticket.  With this notice two things happen-- 1) People stop emailing as much  2) You have put a date on your responses so you DO NOT have to worry about them.

If you do secretly check email on your retreat, just flag the emails you want to return to when you get back.  Don't respond during your retreat.  Really, we're just not that important and people can live without hearing from us for a week.

7)  Arrive with a plan.

Before you go, make a list of the things you want to get down and bring things needed with those projects.  

If you need your poem titles on index cards to organize your manuscript, bring them.  You do not want to take time to go to town to purchase what you need, that again just brings you out of retreat mode and into the real world.

Figure out what you'd like to work on and make a to-do list.  It will keep you focused if you are feeling the urge to check Facebook or twitter away time.  Figure out what you want to do and stay focused.


Retreats go by quickly enough.  Remember, your real world will begin the moment you return home, don't invite it into your life while you are away.  This is your time, your time to be the safe blue egg safe in a nest without anything else to worry about.  It's your time to write, create and revise.  Enjoy it and use it well.



  1. great advice!
    & "Blue Hour" is one of my favs too

  2. Wonderful tips. When I feel grouchy about driving to my retreat at Mepkin Abbey (a 10-11 hour drive), I remind myself of all the books and supplies I can lug along--a much more difficult process on a plane.

    This chunk of your text is my favorite: "This is interrupted time you will *not* get back. This is the time you dream of in your real life when you are cleaning the kitchen, putting out the dog, letting the cat in, driving your child to another sport, grading papers, doing all those things that you are responsible for in your every day world."

    I've been trying to be more intentional in my at-home writing life, plus some chores (like submitting) that I can occasionally sneak in at work. I try to do my creative work when I'm freshest. Later there will be time to answer/delete e-mails, unload the dishwasher, work on assessment documents . . .

    And I tend to live out of a laundry basket instead of putting clothes away. Some chores just don't have to be done.

    Thanks for all your posts that give a window into how to live our best creative lives!

  3. Great tips. Kelli.

    Blue Hour is a touchstone of mine as well, especially that long Abecedarian poem!

  4. Thanks for this post, Kelli. I also loved your reminder that this is the time we always long for. When I have attended conferences, I am always afraid I will be viewed as anti-social because I spend every second I can writing...

    I always reach for Leaves of Grass, The Great Fires, and anything by Stephen Dunn.

  5. Kelli--

    I stumbled upon this post after searching up a Google term, and I have to say, I'm so glad I found your blog! This post really contains everything I need for my writer's retreat. I really appreciate your tidbit about the fingerless gloves. I'll definitely keep that in mind when I pack next time! (And when I'm trying to write, I'll keep your blog in mind, too. I've checked out a few of your other posts and adore your writing style.)

    -Lucy at http://www.howtowriteandwritewell.blogspot.com

  6. Lucy--

    SO glad this was helpful. Fingerless gloves make everything better!

    And thanks for the link to your blog. I'll check it out!

    All best


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