Thoughts On: Creative Retreats

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. Marcus Aurelius

Creative retreats - particularly for writers and artists - have long been heralded as a necessary activity to re-focus and hone craft. Henry D. Thoreau’s ‘Life in the Woods’ (popularly known by the title ‘Walden’ and first published in 1854) may have set a precedent for the benefits of retreating away from society for creative and spiritual capacity.

Getting away from the everyday distractions of your daily routine and humdrum environment certainly has its benefits, but it might be wrong to think a week away in the middle of a forest is the only way achieve these benefits.

Maya Angelou details in her interview with The Paris Review, much of her writing was undertaken outside of her home, but not in a wooden cabin; a simple local hotel sufficed. She sought a room of her own, in order to focus on her work:

"I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning."

I love the idea of a writing retreat. Of escaping to a room somewhere new, on my own, to focus on my own creative writing pursuits, distraction-free. Unfortunately, I really don’t love the travel and rental costs generally associated with such retreats. It seems a tad indulgent when one has financial commitments, international travel plans, a freelance career, and a full-time job to juggle (without throwing in relationships and social needs). But perhaps we can take some of the components of a creative retreat and build them into a place of familiarity in order to achieve some of the desired creative outcomes.

After all, even at the beginning of Walden, Thoreau establishes that he is not by any means suggesting that everyone reading the book should head off to hole up in a cabin for a whole year. Channelling the creative-self needs to be uniquely tailored to you. A highly customisable, adaptable (and thrifty!) D-I-Y retreat might be just the answer.

Here are a few tips I've learnt from my experiences to help get you started on the process:

Location, Location, Location

A quick google of writers retreats heralds a range of establishments offering their locations up for the purpose of seclusion and a refocus on a creative craft. Prices range anywhere between $250-$2800 for a weekend or 5-day trips. Disappointingly, on reading the fine print, it doesn’t seem like you get much for your buck, with many stipulating the fee didn’t cover accommodation, travel and meals. Throw in the fact that you’ll also be sharing the area with fellow creatives, the idea of a bit of respite from society swiftly goes out the window.

When considering location, think about what you need to be your most focused creative self:

  • Do you buzz off of the ideas and conversation with other people or do you prefer total solitude?

  • Do you have a budget you could use towards your retreat?

  • Does a hotel room, akin to Angelou’s process, appeal to you?

  • Would you prefer to stay nearer to home comforts and your own bed?

  • What about offering to house sit for friends or relatives while they’re away?

Choose a location that best reflects how you do your best work. For me, a couple of days in a new environment really helps to kick-start my ideas, but a local hotel or Airbnb is just as effective in achieving that as a $2000 weekend retreat on the other side of the world.

Communicate Your Intentions

Especially important if you decide to host your retreat in your own home. Making sure flatmates, partners and other ad-hoc house guests know what you’re up to is important to help you create the space you want.

My partner often takes out-of-state work trips, which is the perfect excuse for me to hole up at home and refocus on some of my own creative work. For parents, enlist the support of your partner to take charge of the kids (might be easier said than done!), and with flatmates, tell them what you’re trying to accomplish and what you need from them to do it (e.g. pretend I don’t exist for the next two days).

Set Creative Intentions + One Defined Goal

While it’s admirable to get carried away with ideas of producing your next novel or filling an entire sketchbook with paintings/designs/ideas, it’s important to be realistic.

Before you get started, no matter how long you’re planning your retreat for, it’s important to create realistic and clear intentions for what you want to gain from the experience. Alongside these intentions, write out one highly realistic and achievable goal for your retreat.

If you’re a writer it could be completing one chapter of the book you’ve been putting off, or working on some character development. As an artist, you might simply use the time to gather inspiration materials, or spend some time building colour palettes for your next set of work. If you’re in the middle of setting up your creative business, this could be the opportunity for focusing on finally reading one of the business books you haven’t got round to yet.

Write your goal down and pin it somewhere you can see it. Achieving a realistic goal is far more rewarding and motivating than falling short of unrealistic expectations.

Perform a Digital Exorcism

In his interview with The Guardian, ‘Why I Write’, prolific writer Will Self ascertains that:

“If you do not have a healthy appetite for solitude, you have no business being a writer.”


While solitude can be cultivated, within our modern society we can apply a slightly loose construct of what solitude really means. For many of us, this could simply mean parting with our phones for the duration of our retreat.

Put your phone away, sign off social media and email on your laptop (better yet, invest in blocking the websites altogether), and make sure you fully immerse yourself in the intentions you’ve set yourself for the retreat.

Be Flexible in Your Approach

Intentions, expectations and goals aside, make sure you allow yourself some breathing space. The main point of taking the time to indulge in a retreat is to refresh and hone your thinking, not feel stressed out because it didn’t pan out exactly how you envisioned in your mind.

If you've got an image of sitting at a sun-dappled desk, steaming coffee in hand, as you furiously scribble away productively, not a care in the world - please remove this image immediately.

The reality is it will probably take you some time to feel settled and make a start on whatever it might be you've set the retreat aside for. Imposter syndrome might rear its ugly head or stifling creative block could show up to be your best, and needy, friend.

If you do experience a creative block, allow yourself space to undertake other activities that you know fuel you - going for a walk, reading, cooking, yoga, swimming, playing music - whatever it might be, be flexible and roll with the punches.

Don’t Underestimate the Merit of Journaling

Virginia Woolf was a big fan of the merits of journaling for creative, and professional, output. She believed journaling helps to “loosen the ligaments” and regularly practised free-writing that she felt allowed her to see patterns in her thought processes.

Keeping a journal of your thoughts, ideas, bores or other generic observations during your retreat can be a good way to kick-start a feeling of productivity. It can help to remove any feelings of pressure to achieve something and free up your mind for new ideas.

And finally ...

Don’t Forget About Everything When Your Retreat is Over

As with many things in the way we operate, it can be easy to plan and execute your creative retreat, tick it off the to-do list and move on.

Don’t do this!

The real power of a retreat can be found in the reflecting of what happened:

  • What worked well for you? What didn’t?

  • What did you achieve? How will you use this?

  • How can you incorporate a smaller version of the retreat into your weekly or monthly schedule?

Make sure you invest some post-retreat time to develop a better understanding of how you work as a creative and what fuels your output.

For me, therein lies the true benefit of a retreat.


This article was first published on the Rising Tide Society blog.

Copyright © 2020 Elaine Mead | Coffee&Books

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