DIY creative retreat

A few weekends ago, I cleared my schedule and holed up in my apartment  for a DIY creative retreat. The main goal for this weekend was to catch up on the writing schedule for my novel, which meant writing 21 pages over the duration of the weekend. There were other things I wanted to get done — two blog posts, a visual rebrand for my blog and social media accounts, and an editorial calendar for my blog through the end of April — but all were secondary (and tertiary, etc.) to the main goal.

During the weekend, I reached my desired page count, wrote two blog posts, and made incremental progress on my other goals. Want to do something similar? Here are some tips.

How to prep

If you’re starting your retreat on Saturday morning, carve out some time on Friday evening to prepare:

Plan and time-block your retreat. I put slots for writing, plus other creativity-supporting activities, on my Google calendar. You might prefer to use a paper planner. Regardless, having specific things to do in a specified order will help you stay on track.

Buy food. I ventured out into a snowstorm on Friday night to procure everything I’d need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the weekend.

Collect the notebooks/journals/planners/etc. you need. I have about 45 different notebooks, partially because there is nothing more alluring to me than a new notebook and partially because I like to have a different notebook for each project. Whatever your tools are, gather them near your creative workspace.

Stack up some motivational books. If you get stuck, read a page or two to get back on track. (See hero image above for some of the writing/creativity books I have on hand.)

Clean your apartment. Having a clean space around you will free up your mental energy to focus on the task or tasks at hand. It also will remove the potential excuse of, “I’ll start writing [or other task] once I’m done with the dishes.” Remove environmental distractions before the clock starts on your retreat.

Identify your priorities — and key outputs you’ll have. My key output was hitting page 45 of my novel. Other goals were negotiable, but this one wasn’t.

List online classes/webinars you’ve been meaning to take. You probably can’t sit and write, draw, podcast, etc., for the entire weekend. Include time to let your brain rest while still gaining inspiration and practical knowledge. Some of my favorite general resources are Yes and Yes, Kimberly Wilson, and Get Bullish. You may prefer to find a webinar recording tailored to your field of expertise. Listening to a snippet of an audiobook or podcast is another great way to get a burst of motivation and energy.

On to the retreat itself.

Saturday

OK! This is where I admit that while I was supposed to wake up at 6:30 to meditate, then have a leisurely breakfast and write in my journal before heading to yoga, I instead slept until 8:30, popped two of my favorite vegan banana muffins into the oven (freeze the batter in foil cups and you can have fresh muffins every morning!), and skipped ahead to what was supposed to be a late morning activity: writing five pages of my novel. I’d been out at a podcast taping the night before with a friend I hadn’t caught up with in a while, and we ended up grabbing a drink afterward, which put me in bed after midnight.

I share this to emphasize that, should you find yourself off to a similarly slow start, you can always shift things around. (Here’s a blog post from the always-great Yes and Yes about getting back on track with a goal post-screwup.) The most important thing is that you reach your primary goal for the weekend, and a late start doesn’t have to prevent that.

Here’s what I actually did:

8:30 – 9:00 a.m.: Breakfast of champions: Two banana muffins and a homemade soy latte (this is what I eat most days when I’m eating vegan)

9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.: Writing. I wrote five pages during this block, which was slightly disappointing because I’d budgeted to write five pages per two-hour period. I ended up doing more research than expected, which was time-consuming. I finished the block on page 29.

quinoa

12:00 – 1:30 p.m.: Lunch and goal-refining. I accomplished the lunch part! I made a super easy yet equally delicious quinoa bowl with kale and butternut squash, then topped it with tahini dressing. There’s no real recipe for this. I copied it from a favorite lunch at Greene Grape Annex, but subbed in quinoa for farro since it’s what I usually have on hand. (Pro tip from Mark Bittman’s VB6 Cookbook: always have cooked grains in the fridge.) I roasted the butternut squash, sautéed the kale with some garlic and olive oil, and then mixed everything together. Add the tahini dressing and you’re in heaven.

1:30 – 3:00 p.m.: More writing. This time, I wrote four more pages, finishing this block at 33.

3:00 – 4:00 p.m.: Three-mile run. I’m training for the Brooklyn Half, and since I just started my training plan, I had two short runs to complete last weekend. On Saturday, I ran to the Promenade, ran the length of the Promenade, then turned around and ran back. Afterward, I went to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop for a vegan hot chocolate, which was absolutely amazing.

3:00 – 4:00 p.m.: Back to writing my novel. During this block, I made it to page 35, which was my goal for the day.

4:00 – 6:30 p.m.: I wrote this blog post, checking in on my New Year’s Resolutions for 2018.

6:30 – 8:00 p.m.: I made and ate the above linguine with vegan pesto.

8:00 – 10:00 p.m.: I had this time blocked off as “Immersive cultural activity.” I was planning to go see a movie, or watch a foreign-language film at home, or go see some live music (the point was to be engrossed in what I was doing instead of, you know, scrolling Instagram or Twitter while half-rewatching 30 Rock for the dozenth time. Instead I spent a bunch of time trolling Unsplash and working on my site logo, only to decide “Fuck it” and switch to a simple typewriter font until I can dedicate real time to thinking about visual branding.

Then I made some chia seed pudding for the next morning and went to bed.

Sunday

8:30 – 9:00 a.m.: Consumed chia seed pudding, along with a banana and a soy latte.

9:00 – 11:00 a.m.: Back to writing. I wrote four pages during this block.

11:00a.m. – 1:30 p.m.: Training run + creative inspiration. Since I needed to run four miles, and I’d skipped my cultural activity the night before, I decided to combine them. I ran over the Manhattan Bridge to Housing Works Bookstore for their monthly sale, during which everything in the store is 30% off. (I also needed to know, for a scene in my novel, whether they allow dogs to enter the store. [They don’t.]) Afterward, I grabbed my favorite breakfast wrap at by CHLOE. then headed home to shower and get back to work.

1:30 – 4:00 p.m.: After my shower, I sat down to work on my novel some more

4:00 – 6:00 p.m.: Wrote the bulk of this blog post and made incremental edits to some others I’ve had sitting in my drafts folder for a while.

6:00 – 7:00 p.m.: Dinner (leftover pesto) and reading Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women. I’ve been reading it in fits and starts, which works out OK since it’s a short-story series, but I want to get through it faster. I find that I don’t read as much fiction lately, and a Stephen King quote has been haunting me: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” If I want to write fiction, I need to read more of it.

7:00 – 8:00 p.m.: This was blocked off on my calendar as “Champagne and brag on social” BUT I had an open bottle of Bordeaux so I went with that instead. (This means I still have an unopened bottle of pink bubbly, if anyone wants to come over.) And I didn’t brag on social.

Overall:

  • Wrote 21 pages
  • Drafted two blog posts
  • Made and ate a bunch of delicious vegan food
  • Ran seven miles

I’ve been replicating this full-weekend retreat in smaller ways over the past few weeks by putting my phone on airplane mode for large chunks of time, deliberately making plans with MYSELF and putting them on my calendar, and doing creative sprints that squeeze a bunch of important work into small blocks of time.

Have you ever done a creative retreat?

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