Years ago, I don’t really recall when but you can measure it in decades, I first heard of a “writer’s retreat.” A place where writers, wanna-be writers, and other such notables gather to… well, write. There are of course, things like workshops and “readings” where the aspiring writers sit around and read their work aloud–which sounds positively horrifying for those of us with an introvert streak.
These retreats can be stupidly expensive, and last from a week to ten days. There are even writer residency programs that go for months where people live in the woods in “colonies.” Some are insanely competitive and attract Pulitzer Prize winning types.
That extreme has little practical application for me. However, the idea of sequestering myself in a cabin–with no internet access and nothing to do but write, read and think–has long sounded appealing.
Call me crazy.
So a couple of weeks ago, I finally quit thinking about it and did it. Look, I’m no Henry David Thoreau who’s traipsing off to Walden Pond to live off the land for a couple of years. I’m talking about taking a ferry across the Puget Sound from my home in Edmonds, WA and staying in an AirBNB–for 48 hours.
Borrowing a page from similar-but-different yoga retreats, the decision to make this adventure a self-imposed, “silent writer’s retreat” swiftly took shape. I’d hole up in a small AirBNB, one where the host would agree to hide the WiFi password, and say nothing. NOTHING. Like a monk in a vow of silence. No talking out loud, no singing, no video, no music. Just silence. I’d do nothing but write, read and think. Take an occasional walk on the beach for inspiration. Hopefully sleep. And that’s it. For 48 hours.
I haven’t gone 48 hours without internet access since Al Gore invented it. And I haven’t gone two days without talking since I was what, three?
The prevailing theory is this period of isolation and silence allows for reflection and introspection. Deep thought. All that sort of esoteric philosophical hippie bullshit that whacked out artists wander into the woods to contemplate.
More seriously, there’s more than anecdotal evidence that some isolation and quiet can be productive in many ways. Besides, I’ve long had this desire to write a book, why not get that kick-started with a little introspection? Seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do.
Off I go
With my AirBNB secured (and the WiFi stowed out of sight) I packed my laptop and charger, loaded my reader with several books, threw some snacks — healthy and not — and some comfy clothes in my backpack. Oh, a swimsuit for the hot tub too. (Hey, this isn’t some sort of self-torture, suffer in silence, how much can you endure thing. It’s just an experiment to try to improve my focus. There’s no shame in being comfortable. After all, it helps relax the mind.)
Setting the ground rules
My self-imposed task was, primarily, to write. Of course I have my Inman column, there is the woefully neglected blog you’re reading now, and there’s the aforementioned book. So there’s plenty to write for, I just didn’t know what to write about.
Upon arriving at the “cabin”–which was indeed cabin-like, I settled in. I had one room, a combo sitting area/bed/kitchenette. The laptop was placed on the desk, and I sat there looking at it. Of course the cabin also had a bathroom, running water and heat. Again, this isn’t a survival test (though it was super-challenging at times). So I brushed my teeth, fiddled with the heater, and paced around (in a 20×20 room).
I didn’t know what to do.
Thinking (silently, not out loud, which is kind of weird) to myself that setting some guidelines and goals for the 48 hours would be helpful, I opened up Scrivener (the BEST writing software, ever) and wrote some:
This is what I came up with:
- Just write. No editing, no critique, just write.
- Accept that most of what you write will suck.
- Know that some will not.
- And that there will be isolated instances of brilliance.
- Stand and walk around frequently.
- No talking to anyone.
- Yes, that means not to yourself either.
- Eat. Not just the chocolate and wine.
- Write from 6:00am – 11:00am, 1:00pm – 5:00pm and 7:00pm – 10:00pm
- Know that’s a long ass day, breaks are OK.
- Allow time to do nothing, no one can focus 24×7.
- Get some sleep.
- Stop going back and editing.
- Try to maintain your sanity.
That’s it. Pretty simple.
Simple, but not easy.
Just do it
Once you’ve got your goals and rules written down, it’s time to execute. I found that within just a few minutes I would be absorbed into my own little world. Having no distractions–no internet, no TV, no music, no phone, no pets no people–having NOTHING but my thoughts and a laptop allowed those thoughts to spill into said laptop.
It was hard not to focus.
Some tips I learned pretty quickly:
Cover up your clock. Trust me, focused and productive as you may be, you’re going to be bored too. Add in the fact that you’ve got no external clues about the passage of time, and it’s quite easy to get focused, and frustrated, with the clock. Watching it won’t make it move faster.
Take a walk. Writing retreat thing is harder work than many realize. It’s sort of exhausting and easy for your brain to fill up. You’re not a machine. Get up, walk away from the laptop and go outside. Get some fresh air. Clear your head.
Hydrate. It’s one of the rules. It’s important. It’s also surprisingly easy to forget. It’s also easy to forget to eat. I know, sounds weird. But what’s weird is sitting alone in a room for two days without a sound other than the incessant tap tap tap of a keyboard. Eat and hydrate, it helps you not GO CRAZY.
Use brainstorming rules to increase output. You’re alone. Sometimes you get stuck. You can’t look on the internet or text someone a question. So move along to another topic, or do some “self-brainstorming” to dislodge some fresh ideas. No self-critique, anything goes, just write down ideas no matter how crazy. Yes, you’ll feel like an idiot brainstorming by yourself in silence. The good thing about this is no one will see you.
Practice self-care. Trust me, sitting alone for two days is not normal activity. Your brain does weird things. It’s difficult, very difficult, at times. It’s also incredibly rewarding and resulted in almost superhuman productivity levels. You need to take care of yourself. Rest. I found reading a great escape from the mental gyrations that were to be honest, exhausting at times.
Will I do this again? Absolutely. While there was no blinding light of enlightenment, no life-changing revelations, there is no question that I made great progress on the book, and more importantly, I learned a lot about myself, and how my goals fit in my life. Those are great things for anyone to experience.
What I’ll do differently next time
Add another day. I really wanted one more day as it felt I was just hitting my stride around hour 40 or so. I think I could go five days. I’m not sure how people do this for more than a week without losing their mind.
Might skip the silent treatment next time. While it definitely contributed to the high production, not speaking for 48 hours is just weird. At times, the silence was deafening, almost a distraction.
Then there were the voices in my head.
No, really. A whole lot of thinking was going on. Not being able to verbalize those thoughts was difficult. I’m a fairly fast typer, but there’s no way I can type as fast as I can think, or even talk. Some fleeting thoughts were lost because–and this will probably sound weird–I thought my way through them (if that makes any sense) before I could jot them down.
Bring more wine. Because, why not?
So really, how was it?
It was hard. I’m much more of an introvert than most suspect. Being alone wasn’t difficult, I enjoy being alone. If you’re super-extroverted and get jittery at the thought of being alone, you might find a retreat like this excruciating.
The hard part for me was not the lack of company, it was the “vow of silence.” It got so quiet at times I swear I could hear my heartbeat. It was uncomfortable. I’m not sure the silent treatment added much, so the next time I’ll probably do silent periods, and have other times I can listen to music, or talk to myself out loud (hey, as long as you don’t answer back in a different voice, you’ll be fine).
It was boring. Mind-numbingly boring at times.
It was insightful. When there is NOTHING to do, one’s mind wanders. Mine wandered WAY off the beaten path. I thought about all sorts of things, with some I just scratched the surface, others got deep, introspective thought.
Not having internet is bizarre. Some of it I missed. Some of it I realized I really should give up. The internet is a deep, dark, strange place, full of goodness, and full of bullshit.
It was productive. I wrote over 9,000 words, most of which were crap. There were however, some moments of brilliance if I do say so myself.
Far more important than the word count was that I was able to outline my entire book. Having never been much of a planner–I usually just sit down and write–it was interesting to think ahead and plot out main topics and flow. It should, in theory, help with the writing.
In one paragraph, it was: difficult, enjoyable, exhausting, amazing, weird, boring, enlightening. 48 hours holed up in a cabin, alone, silent. Nothing but the tap tap tap of the keyboard over and over and over. Some think it’s crazy, I found it a remarkable experience and can’t wait for the next run.