Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What I learned on my summer writing retreat

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I've just completed an eight-day summer writing retreat. Most writers I know love retreats for getting big chunks of work done, but few of us can manage to get away from day jobs and other responsibilities, or afford the cost of leaving town. I normally write a little each day, and the few retreats I’ve taken have been incredibly productive.

After winning the Dayne Ogilvie grant in June (thank you, Writers’ Trust of Canada!), I made a commitment to take one week off each season to just write. So, at the end of August, I closed my psychotherapy office, limited my activism (during the War Show, no less!), and hired a dog walker.

I wanted to be thrifty with the grant money, so I stayed home, except for the last two days, when a kind neighbour offered her country home.

Here’s what I learned (or was reminded of) during my homemade retreat:

1. Location doesn’t matter
I’d expected to camp out at Naco Café or the Bloor-Gladstone Library, but I spent almost all my writing time at a cluttered desk in a crowded spare room.

I realized that all I need is (relative) quiet and a desk ergonomic enough to not hurt my arms and butt. I’d forgotten that mindset is more important than location. Speaking of which…

2. Give me a break
Leading up to the retreat, I found myself growing increasingly anxious. Would I write enough? Would it be any good? I set a goal of 50 new pages, but then arbitrarily increased it to 60. While goal-setting is important, I put too much pressure on myself. On Day 1, I forced myself to remember why I write. I reconnected with faith, fun, and the joy of creating. Whenever I faltered, others chimed in…

3. Encouragement, please
On Day 2, my editor sent me a lovely note, inquiring about Novel #3. On Day 4, a colleague who is also a recent widow, thanked me for writing Six Metres of Pavement. Each day, I reported my page count and plot ideas to my partner, Judith, who offered congratulations.

4. Social media alert!
I posted about the retreat the day before it started, and tweeted my progress midway. Like giving up smoking, I figured it would aid my motivation to share my goals with (potentially) hundreds of friends.

But I knew to be cautious. Writers often lament Facebook’s intrusions, Twitter’s distractions. I allowed myself to visit these worlds only as a reward for completing new pages. Except for a few moments when I got lost in new puppy photos and silly banter about turtlenecks, I stayed on track.

5. Go outside
One friend asked, “Are you allowed to go out?” It turned out that I didn’t want to go anywhere during the day, but leaving the house each evening was necessary. I attended my regular boot camp, had dinner with friends, and went to Value Village with Judith on half-price day. I needed to get out of my chair, get a little sunshine and socialize.

6. Know when to stop
It became harder to concentrate by Day 6. Facebook notifications led me astray. The writing slowed. My protagonist’s conflict confused me. In hindsight, I think I'd reached a “retreat limit”.

I’ve often found that, after a period of heavy writing, it’s helpful to take a break to let the mind process the work. Forcing myself to continue (which is my tendency) often leads to crappy writing.

At the start of the retreat, I had to reconnect with joy and by the end, gratitude. I’m thankful for the privilege of creative time, for a community of friends who care about my writing, for 56 new pages, for a book that’s on its way.

2 comments

Thanks karachiyogini!

love it Farzana. I think I will encourage my friends who want to write to do something similar for themselves. you are in my thoughts often!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based author and the recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada's Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an emerging gay Canadian author (2011). Her first novel, Stealing Nasreen, received critical acclaim and earned a devoted readership upon its release in 2007. She is currently touring her second book, Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn 2011).

Go to Farzana Doctor’s Author Page