A Writing (and Music) Retreat

About a year ago Phil and I decided we would go on a three-week retreat in January of 2020 — music for Phil, writing for me. Several factors influenced our decision, among them: (1) Neither of us had ever experienced a retreat before and we both wanted to try it; (2) We have a cottage in Wisconsin that could serve as our rent-free retreat headquarters; (3) We each had big projects we wanted to work on in an uninterrupted fashion.

The view outside our window, January 2020

So, back in early 2019 we decided we would spend three weeks of January 2020 in our cottage, on retreat. The cottage is in Wisconsin, so we figured that the cold and snow would keep us indoors and working.

In December of 2019 we each decided what we would work on during this retreat. Phil originally thought he would work on music that he could play in clubs and other such venues (instead of the themed programs he performs mainly at libraries, such as “When That Great Ship Went Down: Music to Commemorate the Sinking of the Titanic.”

I have three unpublished novels in my file cabinet and originally thought I would take one of them and rewrite it in three weeks.

Neither of these initial plans worked out. Phil decided that he would spend the entire three weeks learning how to play the autoharp (of which he owns several), with the express purpose of determining whether this is an instrument he could perform with after he no longer feels like lugging the 35-pound hammered dulcimer around. His initial thought was that he would not be enamored of the autoharp because when he first tried it back in the 1990s, he just didn’t love playing it. Or at least that’s what he remembered. In case his anticipation came true, he would then sell his autoharps.

I had a very busy 2019 and as a result could not find the time to choose one of my three unpublished novels, read it, think about it, and decide how to change it in a meaningful way. All three novels were written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so they would have to be updated. In addition, all three of the novels dealt with topical issues that had changed over three decades. So, because I hadn’t had the time to thoroughly prepare one of these novels for rewriting, I chose to do something else on the retreat.

What I chose to do was continue writing my WIP (Work in Progress). This was a novel I had started in April of 2019. Between April 2019 and early January 2020 I had written 20 chapters totaling 30,000 words. 

Both Phil and I had goals for this retreat. His was to make a decision about playing the autoharp. Mine was to write at least 20 chapters and/or 20,000 words.

My workspace in the weaving room

Once we reached the cottage (snow everywhere!), we divided up our work space. I took the downstairs space, using a kitchen chair and a weaving table. Phil took the loft space, using another kitchen chair and a shared desk. He very soon moved my stuff off the desk, so that he had it all to himself and his tune book and his two autoharps). 

Our retreat was supposed to be 20 days long, but we decided to go back home after 19 days — mainly because our retreat goals had been met and even exceeded, and because there was snow coming and Phil had a gig two days after we got home. Best to not get stuck in a snowstorm, so home we went.

Next we planned our meals so that we would spend as little time as possible cooking. Phil made scrambled eggs (quick!) for breakfast most mornings, and I washed the dishes. I made some sort of quick lunch (hummus, for example) and Phil washed the dishes. In the late afternoon I made some a dinner that allowed me to walk back to my table and write while the stew or soup or pasta was cooking. I also planned it so that almost every dinner I made lasted for two nights: that way we had even more retreat time every second day. Phil did the dinner dishes and then we would either watch a DVD or read. Or, on several occasions, go back to retreat work. Which did not seem like work. It seemed more like pleasure.

By Day 7 Phil was pretty sure he really liked the autoharp. Its sound was rich and full, and he was having a lot of fun learning to play chords and backup, instead of playing the melody as he does on hammered dulcimer. And, based on his nineteen days of playing on the retreat, he felt that he could eventually play up to speed. He made plans to take private lessons and also to attend autoharp festivals. Phil’s end of the retreat was highly successful.

Phil in his loft workspace

My end of the retreat was also highly successful — more so than I had anticipated. I arrived with 30 chapters written, I left with 54 chapters written. I arrived with 30,000 words written, I left with 64,000 words written. I had spent two of my 19 days rewriting rather than writing, so in 17 days of writing I wrote 34,000 words — that’s about 2,000 words a day.

Even more importantly, I had moved from the first third of my novel, right through the middle, and into the final third. This was fantastic. The “middle” parts of novels often bog writers down. I’ve had that experience: wondering what happens in the middle. This time, though, the middle was not a problem, and I think that’s because I was totally immersed in the story. I was living with the characters and plot every single hour of every single day, and it became much easier for me to see how the story was moving, and in what direction, and what else needed to happen.

In addition to being a highly productive period in itself, the retreat actually influenced me even after it was finished. From the time we got back home on January 28 to February 19 (a period of 23 days), I wrote an additional 30,000 words and finished the first draft of my novel! I think that the energy of the retreat did not stop when we got home: it stayed with me and I was able to write an average of 1,304 words a day. I was so high on the energy of the retreat, and so into my novel, that I simply didn’t stop until I finished it.

Having had one very successful writing and music retreat, we are ready to have another when we can schedule it. The one thing we would do differently, we decided, is to give ourselves a two-day weekend break in the middle of the retreat. So only 17 or 18 of our retreat days would be work days, and two back-to-back days would be rest, relaxation, and socializing with friends. We were reluctant to do that the first time around, for fear that we couldn’t get back into retreat mode. But now we’re sure we can.

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In order to write his six Charlie Chan novels, Earl Derr Biggers went to a secluded spot each time: either an inn in the Berkshires or one in the California dessert. Read about Biggers in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.