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!

Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo

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Steph here, three or four time loser of NaNoWriMo. That’s not even counting all the times I’ve lost Camp NaNoWriMo. And yet, I am doing NaNoWriMo again and, this year, I have to win. I’m a high school teacher and I have a few students who want to do it as part of our newly formed Creative Writing Group. Nothing like a teenager to hold you accountable.

If you are on the fence about whether or not to participate, gather round and I’ll share a few of the pros and cons with you:

What is NaNoWriMo?

You can check it out at their website, but basically, it is a challenge to write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November. To sum up, if you do NaNoWriMo, your November will look like this:

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Pros

Community – Outside of the actual crafting of a story, the best part of writing, for me, will always be the amazing online community. In November, writers from all over the world will be on the NaNoWriMo forums and on twitter, trying to write a novel. It’s a great time to do something with a larger community and meet other writers. Even if you aren’t doing Nano, there will be plenty of word sprints for you to jump in on.

Accountability – For me, I sometimes do better with a goal and a deadline. Nano will give that to you with beautiful charts and graphs to go with it. Your goal is the end of November and the site will break down your daily word count based on how much work you have left to do.

You’ll actually get started – If you’ve always wanted to write a book, but never tried, Nano is the perfect time to just get it done. Or, if you are a seasoned writer, tired of hearing people regale you with tales of all the books they were going to write, this is the perfect opportunity for you to challenge them to shut up and do it.

Cons

Falling Behind – I’m the kind of person who gets overwhelmed if I fall behind, and in Nano it is easy to fall behind. I think I’m doing fine, then all the sudden it is November 25th and I have 8k words a day left to hit my goal.

Start of the holidays – I always think the holiday will give me a ton of time to write, but it usually means that I get extra busy and have less time to write than usual. But… if you can make it work during Nano, you can make it work any time, and that is an important lesson to teach yourself.

You spend a lot of money at coffee shops – If you are on a tight budget, like me, this is a bad thing. Otherwise, if you love Panera (also like me) it’s a good thing!

Let me know in the comments: Have you done NaNo before? Are you doing it again?

A Word About Trolls

I’m going to get personal. Which is not something I do comfortably, but sadly, it’s a good jumping off point for my post today.

I just had a terrible fight with my husband. And the reason I’m telling you about it is that what we were fighting about is what I’m seeing all over social media right now, most recently and virulently on Twitter.

Here’s why my husband and I fought: he said something tone deaf and I called him on it. (He’s white, I’m brown, it happens.) But instead of hearing me on why his words struck a bad note, he defended himself and then got mad at how it was too hard to say anything today without fear of recrimination.

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We talked it out, we’re okay, and he understands why I took offense. Truly understands.

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But had this happened on Twitter? The trolls would have come out. Defending my white husband – even when he himself no longer believed what he said was defensible. Terrorizing, excoriating me, the brown woman, for calling him on the carpet. There may even have been death threats.

Author Laura Silverman got them last week. And I won’t repost them here because they’re gut wrenchingly terrible, and I won’t disseminate the hatred.

But they were awful, awful volleys of hate, and they gathered steam even after people stopped engaging the trolls who posted them.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, writer AC Thomas drew terrible heat – from members of the writing community! – in the fallout from her genuine bid to gather support for diversity.

My god, people. What are we doing?

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These conversations are hard and scary enough already. Because – giving everyone the absolute benefit of the doubt – many caring people (not the trolls) say things that come off poorly or ask obtuse-sounding questions because they truly don’t know the answers. Not because they’re trying to hurt people – more often, it’s just a symptom of learning. And even allies make tone-deaf mistakes. It’s not a perfect world and none of us gets it right 100% of the time.

If only we had an edit function on Twitter. But we don’t, and we mess up. And if we were in a safe space, having hard conversations in productive ways designed to help all of us see each other’s worlds more clearly and sensitively, messing up would be a good starting place for a constructive conversation.

But it’s not.

Because the trolls come. Out of the woodwork. And when they do come out, it’s with a maniacal defiance and vengeance. And then we no longer have an honest conversation with people helping each other navigate scary, tricky, painful waters. We have hate pile-ons from the most vicious, hateful members of society hiding behind the safety of a Twitter handle, setting fire to the world because they can.

Innocent authors like Laura Silverman and AC Thomas are forced to protect their tweets and hide. Which can hurt their brand, sales, and souls.

Silverman wrote about her ordeal in this recent piece for the Huffington Post – where she quoted recently deceased Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I believe that’s true. I believe speaking up is a forceful way to fight the trolls. And by speaking up, I don’t mean engaging them directly – that just fans the flames. I mean, shine a light on the dark place by reporting that nastiness. Send a DM to support the author who’s been attacked.

That said, I also believe not everyone can or should support in all the same ways. Minority communities will feel these attacks in ways our allies won’t. If you don’t understand fully what’s happening, you don’t have to speak out – you can still report and reach out.

In whatever ways we are able, we must refuse to let the trolls destroy all that is good about a group of people whose creative souls thrive on community, interaction, understanding, and acceptance. And who are willing and ready to learn and evolve, given the safe space to have those conversations.keep_calm_fight_bigotry_card-r575513c82f764aeda240fd8c16b87bd4_xvuak_8byvr_324

So how can we protect ourselves?

Report and Reach Out

  • Report tweets that threaten a life or use hateful language. Let your voice be heard: tell Twitter trolls aren’t acceptable.
  • Reach out — support the attacked author – send a DM, tweet a message of unity against hatred.
  • Use #GoodFightBrigade to report harassment against writers.
  • Follow @yalitsos to know when someone in the writing community needs help.

But those are all reactive strategies. It’s important to be proactive too:

Support, Include, Listen

  • Support diverse authors by preordering and buying their books.
  • Promote diverse authors – tweet about them, talk about them, signal boost them.
  • Listen before you react when the conversation is tough – especially if you’re not from a marginalized community.
  • Follow some of the voices on Twitter who have made a point of articulating what’s happening in a cogent, thoughtful way: @getnicced, @justinaireland, @meredithIreland, @heidiheilig, @ElloEllenOh, @SC_Author, @missDahlELama

There must be more than this – please add resources and ideas in the comments.