Unplug and Zero In: Could a Writing Retreat Be Standing Between You and a Finished Manuscript?

BurrelloPostThe following is a guest post from Jotham Burrello, publisher of Elephant Rock Books.


I arrived at Ragdale House on a sunny June morning in my rusty Saab. I’d packed my laptop, printer, notes, manuscript, suitcase, peanut butter crackers and a bottle of Glenlivet. I had abandoned my MFA thesis and was at work on a new project, a novel centered on the decline of a New England mill town. I had applied for a two-week residency at Ragdale the previous January for one simple reason: I needed time to write. Work and day-to-day life didn’t allow me long stretches at my desk, so I was forced to carve out time at the margins. Sound familiar?

Writing retreats, or colonies, have been around for a long time. There are hundreds of residency programs operating today, catering to many disciplines. The locations and programs vary, but here’s the gist: Each affords artists extended creative time to make their art. Each offers basic amenities and a work space. They are places to unplug and tune in without the distractions of daily life. Read the Acknowledgments pages of a dozen books, and at least half the authors will thank retreats like Yaddo, Provincetown, Art Farm, Anderson or Hedgebrook.

“We don’t have print studios and ceramics studios and painting studios. We just have spaces,” says Ragdale’s executive director, Jeffrey Meeuwsen. “I think for people coming to Ragdale, there is that opportunity for it to morph into what they need without being complicated and without a lot of interference. There is something about that neutral space that I think is really important for creative work.”

I chose to apply to Ragdale based on recommendations from fellow writers, the cost and its proximity to Chicago, where I was living at the time. They also offered two-week residencies (which have since been extended), and that appealed, because I couldn’t play hooky from life for much longer than that. The subsidized cost has increased by $10 since I was a resident; it’s a whopping $35 a day now. I had known about Ragdale for years, but I waited till I had a critical mass and momentum to apply. Meeuwsen believes applicants should be serious about maximizing their creative time.

The Ragdale application asks potential participants to write an artist statement and work plan. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t confidently answer and complete this section, you might not be ready for a residency. Meeuwsen says, “Ideally you would come in with a plan that says, ‘This is what I am trying to accomplish,’ so that jurors have a sense that not only are you serious about the work, and you are really committed to taking that leap, but that you are really going to use the time effectively, because it may often be that there are dozens of equally capable, equally credentialed people applying at the same time.”

The application also requires letters of recommendation that attest to the applicant’s commitment to their art and ability to work independently—and not steal all the flatware. In other words, these recs are part artist endorsement, part crazy filter.

Like many residents, I was amazed by my productivity. It took me two days to get into a routine, and—this is important—when I visited, the Internet and smartphones had not yet conquered society. Google was not yet a verb.

“There are many reasons, many great reasons to go to a colony, and many indulgent reasons to go to a colony,” says writer Jane Hamilton. “When I started out writing there was no email, there was no, you know … we didn’t have computers. It sounds medieval. But now we have to work a little harder to cut ourselves off from all the noise that is just so seductive and distracting. So that’s a great big reason to go to a colony in the middle of nowhere that’s not quite on the grid.”

Hamilton’s favorite colony is Hedgebrook Foundation on Whidbey Island in Washington State. “At Hedgebrook there is no Internet in the little Hobbity huts you get to stay in, so even if you were distracted, wanted to distract yourself, you really can’t. So, you are in a self-imposed exile, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Times book review ran an essay by Alex Mar on retreats and the Internet called “One Hundred Seconds of Solitude.” He quotes Junot Díaz on the dire consequences of the digital distractions we carry in our pockets. “I calculate that if I keep this Internet crap up for another three decades,” Díaz said, “I’ll lose roughly a novel and a half to my Internet distractions. That ain’t cute.”

Of course, we have to draw a distinction between watching Hobbs the surfing cat and doing research on the New Bedford whaling for a novel or nonfiction project. The key is to eliminate distractions and procrastination triggers. Luckily for many writers, the old standby of doing housework to avoid writing won’t fly at a colony. (They don’t allow residents to bring their own vacuums.)

A key distinction between colonies and writing conferences is the lack of emphasis on feedback. At the colony, you are on your own to practice your craft. The group is not there to support you. I’ve been to two retreats, and each time a fellow writer asked me if I wanted to exchange work and offer critiques. I said no. That wasn’t why I had come. I had a writing group in Chicago. The novel had been swirling around in my head for years. I needed time to write.

“People are coming here and working 24/7 for 18 days. I find it amazing,” Meeuwsen says. “I can’t think of another profession where people are so dedicated that they will not only commit to what may be a difficult life, where you may not ever make it big, and you may not ever be really wealthy, but you are doing it for the passion. I think that that is incredible. It also speaks to the passion and the need for places like Ragdale.”

Hamilton adds that another reason to go is simply the basics: peace, quiet, time. Moreover, “If you are a young person and don’t have a lot of writer friends, it’s a way to meet people who will be your lifelong readers. You tend to go and find at least one or two or three like-minded people who you take home with you.”

Any reputable colony will have an excellent website detailing their routine, application process, scholarships, special needs and so on. Many magazines do lists of annual retreats and colonies.

When you get your chance, remember to focus on the work first. Many of us only get one or two shots at a retreat, so be patient, and when the work is ready to be taken to that next level, do your research and plan in advance for an experience that will alter the trajectory of your writing career.

—Jotham Burrello is the publisher of Elephant Rock Books and the author of the forthcoming e-book Guide to a Successful Writing Life (fall 2013), which is designed to assist writers in developing a meaningful career. The book will feature text and video clips on agents, manuscript consultants, MFA programs, licensed properties, genre markets and more. Burrello teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the Publishing Lab, and at the Yale Summer Writing Conference.



You’ve Got a Book in You by Elizabeth Sims

Are you writing a book or novel for the first time? Chances are you probably have (or have had) a bout of insecurity, fear of failure, or worry about making it perfect. But you don’t have to let all of those feelings take hold of you and cripple your ability to write. In fact, You’ve Got a Book in You is filled with friendly, funny, telling-it-to-you-straight chapters that teach you how to relinquish your worries and write freely. With this book, you’ll get tips, advice and exercises geared toward helping you gain the skills and best practices needed to finish a novel.

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