After visiting half a dozen artists colonies and retreats, I have finally figured out what makes a successful retreat and what makes a for a dud. Like romance, part of it is physical and the rest in in your head. Let me explain.
I have been a guest at a whole range of retreats– from full service pamerfests like MacDowell (New Hampshire) where they bring you your lunch in a basket, to Gilbraltar Pointe Center (Toronto) that was a repurposed elementary school, to my recent stay at La Muse in Southern France. I spent three weeks in Switzerland in 2004 in a set up that was kind of like The Real World, International Nerd Edition. I’ve slept in a haunted mansion, I’ve written in a converted barn. Sometimes I wrote like a maniac and other times I didn’t accomplish a gosh darn thing. And finally, finally, I think I understand what went right and what went wrong.
The physical space matters: I write best when I am in a tidy room with a lot of light. I need a large desk to spread all my stuff out and I need a comfortable chair. And I need not to feel cold. I prefer to write in a different room than the one I sleep in. So, basically, I know myself. I know what I like. Things will go better if I’m comfortable. When you get an acceptance to a colony, mention this to the people and they may be able to accommodate you.
The physical space matters even more when your head is not together. There have been times in my life when the story was just bursting out of me. I wrote sentences on napkins, I woke up in the middle of the night with ideas. (I wrote my first novel in a closet!) When I am in The Zone, all I want from an artist colony is for people to leave me the hell alone so I can do my thing. But when I am not already in a creative frenzy, when the story is not cooperating, I need the environment to woo my muse. I need the creative equivalent of candlelight and Luther Vandross.
The retreat should take up less energy than being at home. Now THIS is the major issue. I have noticed that the fewer services a retreat provides, the more women tend to be in attendance. I think this is because for a lot of women, just being away from their kids is a luxury. (A good friend I met at a colony that I didn’t love, answered all my complaints with “have you noticed that my kids are not here? I’m golden!”) A retreat that is “self catering” (that means no food provided) is fine because because many women find cooking only to feed themselves to be such a treat. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I was recently at a self-catering retreat in France and between the cooking, hanging my laundry on the line, fetching water from the spring, constantly keeping the fire lit and living in a communal situation, I was wiped out from effort of just staying alive. In my real life, I live in New York, alone. When I am hungry, there is take out. There is drop off laundry service. I have a writing room in my home with an excellent desk and chair. Nobody has keys to this apartment but me. So, the retreat wasn’t so retreaty because it was so hectic. But consider if I was on this retreat five years ago when I was used to working way more hours and I had a lot of personal obligations that were eating up my time. I would have been delighted to live the “simple life” in southern France is it meant I could actually hear myself think, and I would have written up a storm. You gotta a) know yourself and b) know what you’re getting into.
You have to push yourself even when the circumstances are not ideal. This is not my strong suit. I am capable of spending a lot of time and energy being mad. I can get mad because my room is not up to par. I can get mad because, over wine one of the colonist said something jaw-droppingly offensive. (Oh the stories I could tell! You wouldn’t believe it.) But at the end of the retreat, if you don’t get anything done, only YOU suffer, so you must try and push through whatever isn’t working, just like in real life… but that doesn’t sound like much of a retreat, does it?
Tomorrow, I am heading to Ucross, a writers residency in Wyoming. All my friends who have been insist that it is the pamperfest I have been waiting for. The food has been described as “spectacular”. The grounds “gorgeous.” I’m all packed and I think that I am in a good place in terms of being ready to write. I don’t think I am at the phase where all I need to peace and quiet, but I won’t pitch a conniption about scratchy towels.
Watch this space. I’ll report back with pictures and updates. This next month is really the home stretch for the novel. I need to write “THE END” by Christmas. I’ve let too much time slip away. It’s time to do this thing.