What I Learned During My First Ever Writing Retreat

Honestly stock photographer, who can write with this many bangles on?

Honestly stock photographer, who can write with this many bangles on?

About two months ago, inspired by bloggers like Sarah von Bargen of the fantastic YesandYes.org, I took myself away on my first ever self-imposed writing retreat.

Self imposed writing retreat: To get away from your normal life (distractions, obligations), for a short period, and focus entirely on your project.

For years, I’ve struggled to fit writing in around my already busy life, bearing the constant weight of guilt for not getting more of it done. What if instead of trying to write in bits and pieces, over months, I crammed a big chunk into one short period?

Would isolating myself for a couple of nights bear fruit?

Reader, it did.

My 4 day retreat proved to be one of my most productive writing periods, ever. Here is what I did, why I think it worked, and how you can do it too.

What I did

I took Thursday and Friday off work, and rented a tiny studio in Normandy for 3 nights. I bought train tickets there and back from Paris, packed my laptop, and went. Thursday – Sunday was dedicated to writing.

Why it worked

It was affordable

The location had to be the perfect balance of cheap and convenient, but also inspiring and far from my normal life. I found a 36€ per night studio in a beautiful town in Normandy, with views over the ocean. I spent 70€ on the train, 140€ on the studio, and another 100€ on groceries and eating out twice. While everybody has different budgets and needs, for me, 310€ was a very good investment on advancing my project/dream in life/thing that I've been working on for 5 years.

I had clear goals

As I said, I have been working on this project for years, but the steps I needed to take to complete it only recently became clear. Entering this retreat, I knew exactly what I needed to write, so I could get straight to it without hesitating.

I gave myself some rules

I promised myself not to edit, or critique, or give in to doubts, but to just write, write, write, and keep moving forward. The doubt, critique, and editing can and will come later (oh how they will). At first I was worried that I would feel crippled by pressure, and guilty for every second that I wasn’t working. But I recognized this, and decided that my mantra would be “every minute you write is a minute more than nothing”.

In the end, this wasn’t a problem at all. I was able to write hungrily, almost frenetically for 3 days straight.

I was happy to be where I was

The weekend was cold, windy and rainy. Aka: perfect weather to be inside, watching a stormy sea. While I did get out and take some lovely walks, I never felt FOMO (fear of missing out) or yearned to be outside. Within seconds, if I wanted to, I could be out of my studio and walking along the cliffs beside the sea.

Knowing that I had an easy 'out' ensured that I didn’t feel trapped in my small studio, and therefore I didn’t feel much need to leave it.  

The sea recharges me, and nourishes my spirit. It's active, noisy, changeable and mysterious, all of which provides a wonderful backdrop to work: it's not too calm, or still. The rhythms of the tide, and the fishermen who would walk out every single day provided a structure to my days.

 I packed light

I took one book, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of shoes, and 1 hoodie. Men may not be able to relate here, but limiting my wardrobe was a very deliberate choice. Remember how Barack Obama used to wear only 2 different suits? He knew that every decision you make diminishes your mental energy, and ability to make further decisions for the rest of the day.

Like many women, I can spend hours agonizing over what to wear, but for I wanted to save my mental energy for my writing. It worked. My days were simple: I woke up, put on my clothes, and got started.

I created a positive environment

I burned some of my favourite incense while writing, and played classical music or Pembroke in the background. For those of you that don’t know them, Pembroke are my friends, and listening to their gorgeous album was a reminder that if my friends could make art, so could I.

Having no WiFi and bad cell reception also meant that I could easily ignore social media, and control the juju entering my brain. Good vibes all around.

How you can do it

If a self imposed writing retreat sounds like something you’d like to try, here are some points to bear in mind:

Make it work for you

Find something that suits your life, budget and responsibilities. You may not be able to spend as much time or money as I did. You may not be able to leave your city or town, or children. A retreat should feel like a gift to yourself - and your work - but not a burden, so make sure you come up with a solution that doesn’t put excessive pressure on your life.  

Know what you want to achieve

I couldn’t have taken this retreat 1 year, or even 6 months ago. The retreat can happen and the beginning, middle or end of your process, but it’s probably not a good idea to take it when you are feeling completely lost.

Celebrate it, no matter what

You didn’t finish what you wanted to? Found it harder than you anticipated? Don’t worry. Simply by prioritising your work and giving it a chance, you have given yourself a huge gift.

Happy writing!!


Have you ever been on a creative retreat? What worked for you? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!