Leah Collum is a women’s fiction writer represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. When not writing, she stays busy advising and teaching a diverse group of college students from around the world. A native Texan, she loves traveling (especially to Europe!) and has earned degrees in English and French. Follow her on Twitter: @leahcollum.

My First Writer’s Retreat: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend my very first writer’s retreat with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, and I’m already counting the days until registration opens for next year’s WFWA retreat. In the meantime, though, I’m sharing a breakdown of retreat-related highs and lows, in the hopes that it will help you get as much out of your writer’s retreat as I did (and avoid some of my mishaps along the way.)

What I did Right:

I took care of business as much as possible before the retreat.

Reservations were made, time off from the day job was requested and granted in advance, and bags were packed. Unfortunately for me, a double whammy of a sinus infection / strep throat reared its nasty head just days before the retreat began. But I acted fast and went straight to the doctor, starting antibiotics on the same day I first noticed symptoms. When you’re headed to a writer’s retreat, you want to be at your best, both physically and mentally. Nipping any unwelcome illnesses in the bud can make the difference between being on the mend during your retreat and being shunned by your fellow writers who are (understandably) wary of your germs.

I socialized with other writers.

I’m a natural introvert, so I’ll admit, chatting it up with strangers doesn’t always come easily to me. But I am so glad I came out of my shell at the WFWA retreat! Connecting with friends I’d already interacted with online, as well as making new writer friends, was hands down the best part of my retreat experience. There’s nothing better than discussing the world of writing and publishing with people who understand what you’re going through because they’re walking the same road with you.

Every writer’s retreat is different: some will focus more on butt-in-chair writing time, others may emphasize networking and/or craft. But no matter what kind of retreat you attend, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to connect with fellow writers. Make the most of that time and those connections. These are your people. They are your tribe. Forge those bonds and don’t let go.

I stopped trying to do it all and focused on what mattered most to me.

After the first full day of the writing retreat, which was bursting with workshops and small group discussions and writing time and a group dinner, I quickly realized that, as much as I loved soaking up knowledge and networking with my peers, I was on track to burn out fast if I kept pushing myself to maintain such a full schedule (especially since I was still not feeling my best physically.) My body and my mind desperately needed down time.

So I assessed the schedule for the remaining days and picked out the events and  discussion groups that I felt would benefit me the most—and I skipped the rest. Most importantly, I decided not to beat myself up for not doing it all.

What I’ll do Differently Next Time:

I’ll set realistic goals from the start.

At first, I had a somewhat unrealistic idea of how much I would be able to accomplish in three and a half days. I imagined myself writing thousands of words each day and socializing with my new writer friends and attending every discussion group / workshop and catching up on my sleep and hanging out by the pool with a margarita in the afternoons (because hey, I was technically on vacation!).

But although I’d left my husband and my job behind to focus on writing for a few days, I quickly discovered that, even in retreat land, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day. I still had to recognize my own limitations and prioritize how best to spend my time. Next year, I’ll set more realistic writing / word count goals for myself from the beginning, so I’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of chastising myself when, inevitably, I can’t do it all.

I’ll get out more.

Because the hotel in Old Town Albuquerque where our retreat was held was so beautiful, and because I was still getting over two infections, I was mostly content to stay put throughout the retreat. I did take a couple of excursions into the old town, but next year I would love to spend even more time exploring. Because, bottom line, these are vacation days, and I love exploring new places while on vacation. And, just as importantly, because I believe engaging with the outside world makes my writing stronger.

I’ll look for opportunities to contribute.

One of the things I loved the most about the retreat was the egalitarian nature of the discussion groups. Everyone was invited to contribute, and everyone’s contribution was welcomed. Best of all, the people facilitating the discussions were my peers. Maybe they had agents, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were published, maybe they weren’t. Either way, they still led fantastic discussions on topics they were passionate about. Next year, I’ll look for ways I can contribute to the conversation more actively, perhaps by volunteering to facilitate a discussion on a topic that’s close to my heart. After all, I got so much out of my first writer’s retreat, it’s only fitting I give a little bit back.

So there you have it: the highs, lows, and lessons learned from my first writer’s retreat. Here’s wishing you your own productive, restorative, and fun-filled writing adventures!

Self-Care for the Overextended Writer

A writer’s life is about more than just writing. It’s life, and life comes with non-writing-related joys, stressors, and time-suckers like work and family obligations, chores, errands, and the need for downtime. Balancing the writing life with work, family, and everyday adulting can sometimes feel like you’re walking a thin, precarious tightrope without a safety net—especially when your schedule is stretched to the breaking point. So I’ve put together a list of a few of my favorite basic self-care tips for the overextended writer as a mini road map for how to survive when you’re facing down a never-ending list of to-dos.

Make a Routine That Works for You (And Stick to it!) 

Some of life’s recurring tasks (laundry, filling up the gas tank, trips to the grocery store) work best if you put them on auto pilot. If Thursday night is laundry night, you run less risk of drowning in a heap of dirty clothes that’s been building for three weeks while searching for something—anything!—clean to wear. If you make it a habit to fill up your tank every Friday on your way home from work, chances are you won’t find yourself stranded on the side of the road, miles from the nearest gas station, with no fuel on a Tuesday during rush hour. And a scheduled weekly stock-up trip to the supermarket insures against food emergencies that leave you ordering pizza again because you kept putting off making that grocery run. Once you’ve set a routine that works for you and put life’s recurring errands and chores on auto pilot, you free up brain power to focus on less mundane tasks (like writing!)

Know Yourself (And be Honest About it!)

I’m an introvert. To recharge, I need lots of quiet time by myself. So if a last-minute social invitation comes up and I’m not feeling it, I’m not afraid to make my excuses and bow out. My extroverted friends might not understand how spending the evening alone with Netflix could be more fun than a night on the town, but that’s okay. I know I need that time alone to be my best self, and it doesn’t do anyone any good for me to pretend otherwise.

Prioritize (And Put Yourself First!)

Chances are you aren’t getting anything on your to-do list checked off if you’re too sick, exhausted, or emotionally drained to even start. So when you’re setting your priorities and goals—for the short term and the long term—don’t be afraid to put your physical and mental health at the top of the list. Different people have different needs, but for me, this is all about getting enough sleep. I will give up television, time with friends, even writing time to make sure I get at least eight hours of sleep every night, because when I’m not getting a full night’s rest, I’m not operating at my best. Similarly, I will never work through my lunch hour without stopping to eat (even if that means eating at my desk.) These may seem like basic things (and they are), but in today’s hectic world, people often half-brag, half-complain about skimping (or missing out entirely) on what seems like basic self-care. I refuse to wear this brand of sacrifice as a badge of honor. This goes back to knowing myself and how I function best. I can’t function well, even in the short term, without regular meals and a good night’s sleep, so those essentials are non-negotiable, no matter how crazy busy life gets.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up 

I’ve always been a bit of an anxious overachiever, ever since I was a child. When I started stressing about a looming test or school project deadline, my mom always repeated the same mantra: “Do the best you can, and don’t worry about it.” Doing the best I could came naturally to me, but the not worrying part . . . not so much.

As an adult, I’ve discovered being a thin-skinned overachiever isn’t necessarily the best attribute for someone hoping to break into an industry where strangers judge the work of your heart and rejection is par for the course. Everyone has different tips on how to deal with the disappointment and rejection that inevitably come with the writing life, but for me, the bottom line is this: Don’t beat yourself up. As a writer, my job is to put my best effort out there and not worry about what I can’t control. Easier said than done, I know, but I’ve found it helps to surround myself with other writers (both in person and online) who can relate to what I’m going through and help me see whatever it is I’m beating myself up over from a different perspective. Which leads me to my last point . . .

Find People Who Can Relate

The writing life has a unique set of joys and stressors it’s almost impossible for a non-writer to fully understand. To keep your sanity on this crazy ride (and have more fun along the way!), find people who can relate to your goals and your journey. Brenda Drake’s #PitchWars is fabulous writing community and a great way to start connecting with other writers online. There are also wonderful organizations for writers of different genres, such as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), Romance Writers of America (RWA), and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I also found some fantastic in-person writing buddies by attending a writer’s conference in my hometown. Not only do our monthly writing get-togethers help me prioritize writing time on my calendar, the in-person comradery with people who understand what I’m going through helps me keep things in perspective.

Question:

What are some of your coping strategies for dealing with the demands of work / writing / family / adulting?

Writer Envy, Imposter Syndrome, and the Dreaded Day Job

We all know writer envy and impostor syndrome are bad. Everyone’s journey is different, there will always be someone doing better and worse than you, writing is not a competition, etc. So true . . . And yet so easy to forget, especially when you’re in the clutches of the green-eyed monster. All the more so when you’re staring enviously across the divide separating writers with a day job and full-time writers.

It can happen in an instant. One minute you’re working productively at your desk, entering data into a spreadsheet for your supervisor, perhaps; the next minute you find yourself surreptitiously checking Twitter, and there it is: an ecstatic tweet from a fellow writer that sends you plummeting into a dark pit of envy and / or self-doubt. It could be something as simple as a full-time writer happily announcing at ten a.m. that they’ve met their daily word count goal and plan to spend the rest of the day curled up with a good book. You, meanwhile, have at least a good six hours of office drudgery left before you can drag your tired self home and try to squeeze out a few words before collapsing from pure exhaustion.

This particular brand of writer envy has bit me square on the behind more than once. But if I’m honest, it’s more than wishing myself in the shoes of the writer who is free to devote all day to her words. I envy her, yes, but the darker truth is that behind the envy, I fear that this full-time writer is the “real” writer, whereas I am merely a wannabe—someone who sometimes manages to squeeze in a bit of writing during her “free” time away from her “real” job.

The thinking goes something like this: real writers spend all day in cozy studies surrounded by books, their loyal dogs at their feet, as they type away on their masterpieces-in-progress. When they aren’t writing, they are happily reading books for pleasure. In short, the real writer’s world is a literary world, free from the demands of time cards, traffic jams, and unreasonable bosses. The real writer is above the rest of us, living an ideal life in a perfect world that I could never hope to access.

Don’t laugh, but this is what I truly believed the writing life was like until a few years ago, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo on a whim and discovered that I could actually draft a novel in thirty days without quitting my day job. Sure, that first draft of my first NaNo novel was total crap, but so what? I wrote it! Just as importantly, I did it as part of a community of people who, like me, made time for writing in spite of jobs and families and innumerable other commitments that come with being an adult in the real world. Over the couple of years, I revised that first novel, drafted a new one, and started revising my second novel, all while becoming more involved with an awesome community of writers through online groups (shout out to my #PitchWars and WFWA peeps!) and a local writer’s conference.

And you know what I found? Far from being literary gods and goddesses who lived perpetually at the altar of words, almost all of the writers I met (including the published ones) either had full-time jobs, were full-time students, or were the primary caretakers of small children. In short, these “real” writers have more going on in their lives than reading and writing. They were real people. People with goals and setbacks and problems and creativity and intelligence and incredible grit.

And that’s a good thing.

Because the truth is, no matter what your deepest, darkest writer envy or impostor syndrome may lead you to believe, the words that you force yourself to write at ten p.m., after a grueling 12+ hour workday, are no less legitimate than the words someone else pens from their cozy home office at ten a.m. It doesn’t matter what time of day you get the words down, or what other real-world commitments you’re juggling in between. It’s all writing. We’re all writers.

Day job or no day job.

Your Day Job: Friend or Foe?

If you clicked on this post, chances are you’re a writer with a day job. Maybe you unequivocally love your day job, and you’re able to effortlessly maintain a perfect balance between your non-writing career and your creative pursuits. If so, this post is not for you. (Also, I’m incredibly jealous.) But if you’re anything like me, you’re sometimes tempted to view your full-time job as the enemy that’s holding you back from achieving your writerly dreams. If only you didn’t have to grade those papers / sit in those meetings / finish that report / deal with your annoying boss, you would actually have time to write. You daydream of spending endless hours at home in your pajamas, happily typing away on your work-in-progress, instead of wasting your time mindlessly entering data into yet another spreadsheet. You peek at social media during your lunch break, only to find that your writer friends who are unburdened by the demands of a non-writing job have already met their writing goals for the day—whereas you haven’t written a word. In moments like these, the message couldn’t be clearer: your day job is not your friend. It is a burden to be escaped as soon as possible. In fact, if you didn’t have to worry about pesky little things like rent and the electricity bill, you’d have quit already.

Before you start drafting that letter of resignation, though, hear me out: your day job may actually be good for your writing. Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to pay the bills, your non-writing work can actually be a source of inspiration and freedom.

Yes, you heard me right: freedom. It may be difficult to view your job as liberating when you find yourself chained to your desk, but hear me out. Many full-time jobs offer paid time off—a luxury you wouldn’t have if writing were your only source of income. If you’re lucky enough to have paid time off, maximize it: take every vacation and personal day you’re entitled to! Use those days for writing time, travel, or much-needed downtime. Few things in life are more restorative then a paid vacation . . . And knowing your personal finances won’t collapse if you take a break from the daily grind is a freedom that many full-time writers would envy.

Speaking of finances, there’s something liberating about having a reliable paycheck that’s independent of your writing. In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert describes the freedom that comes from uncoupling creativity from your economic needs and argues that relying on creativity as your sole means of financial support may place an untenable burden of stress on you and your art. When you’re supporting yourself financially, you have the option to write whatever you want, without stressing about publishing trends or the ever-changing market—which can potentially afford you more creative freedom than writers who must, like it or not, always have one eye on the bottom line.

And a non-writing job’s potentially positive impact on your writing goes beyond the financial. In her blog post “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet,” literary agent Carly Watters points out that working outside of the home often offers writers opportunities for social interaction and inspiration they wouldn’t necessarily find if they were at home working in their PJs. I know this is true for me. I could’ve never conceived—let alone executed—the idea for my novel, THE LOVE TEST, if not for my years of experience advising international college students on immigration issues. My non-writing job informed and enriched my plot, my characters, and my themes. And while I may not look forward to another early morning at the water cooler after a late night of revising, who knows? That water cooler conversation may spark the idea for my next project.

And if it does, then my day job may actually be more friend than foe.

 

References:

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Penguin Random

House, 2015.

Watters, Carly. “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet.”

http://carlywatters.com/2015/05/25/why-you-cant-quit-your-day-job-yet/