Your writers’ retreat guide

quote calligraphy under cup of lemon tea

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For weeks, I had been counting down the days and hours to my trip down the QEW in my black Yaris, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, mounting over Lake Ontario on the Skyway bridge thankful the winds weren’t threatening and the bridge was open. I passed the usual industrial parks on my right and the Stoney Creek Furniture warehouse from where I dream to one day afford a couch. Eventually, the stores changed and I saw Magnotta Winery and signs for Niagara wine tours. I turned onto highway 55, past Trius Winery, Pillitteri Estates, Stratus Vineyard. Oh yes. I was close and I knew a glass RELAX Riesling awaited me. I envisioned the blue bottle catching the sun from the window and my shoulders relaxed. I looked at my computer bag on the passenger seat. The first printed shitty first draft of my play slept there. She’d been beckoning me to get out and run amok with her – soon, my sweet. Very soon. And then I pictured the two smart, fun women and cheerleaders I was about to spend my long weekend with, who I’m sure already had a glass in their hands. I grinned. Life was as it should be. I was ready to let go of the usual daily stuff and dive into another writing retreat. We’ve got a number under our belt now and the system is honed. I knew a great, productive weekend awaited.

So let me give you a guide to a great retreat and share some key principles we live by:

  1. Start with good snacks, food and drink. This one has never been a problem for the Restless Writers. We usually have a signature cocktail each retreat, WAAAY too many Pringles and a fridge that is still too packed by the last day. We’re slowly learning realistic quantities of food to bring, but at least we know we’ll be well fed. We are also budget and time conscious. So we share meal prep (each taking charge of one) and rarely go out because it’s expensive and takes away valuable writing time. Go with what works for you, but whether you go Skip the Dishes, potluck, or venture out for meals, plan it ahead of time, so you’re all on board.
  2. Bring your comfies. This means moccasins for me, fuzzy slippers for Sharon, an electric blanket for Beckie, and Prosecco for Maria – for that girl, comfort is defined by a glass of the bubbly in her hands, no matter the hour! Ego is left at the door for RW and you’ll find no fashion shows at our retreats.
  3. Have a kick off and write down your goals. We like starting our retreats by having an activity to shift our minds into creative mode. Keep it simple and consider a writing exercise or guided meditation, or something to open your mind and help release fears and blockages. We also always discuss and write down our goals for the weekend. It forces us to focus in and remember this isn’t just a girls’ weekend away. We’ve got work to do and we’re here to help each other get there. Writing it down makes us accountable to each other.
  4. Have your materials ready.  Bring your favourite pen, lap desks, sticky notes, markers, cue cards, extension cords, earphones, whatever you need to be productive. For us, these are precious weekends, so we don’t want to waste them not having what we need to get busy.FullSizeR001(1)
  5. Don’t over plan or over schedule. We’ve sometimes done this in the past: had a strict agenda detailing every hour, invited a yoga instructor to run a class for us, booked a few wine tours. We’ve relaxed a lot over the years and try and let each retreat flow as it needs to, which leads me to…
  6. Respect each other’s needs and be honest. Everyone’s creative process is different, and as a group you need to both recognize that and respect it. At the same time, each person needs to feel safe to be honest with what that means for them. The writing is about you in the end. So speak up for what you need, and give space to others at the same time. As an example, this past retreat, I felt in my zone and was happy in my pajamas indoors all day. Sharon needed to get herself outside and walking. We know we don’t have to do everything as a group. We are our own guides in our work and we appreciate that in each other.
  7. Be kind to yourself. The purpose of a retreat is to give you time and space for your writing project. Give yourself the freedom to explore. Let go of judgment. Don’t worry if you’re “doing it right,” nor compare what you’re doing with the others in the group. They’re slogging it out in their own way. And if you don’t meet your goal at the end, consider that maybe you set the wrong goal, or if you’re frustrated, figure out if you spent your time the way you wanted to, or were more focused on mixing drinks for everyone, procrastinating. Either way, take stock and learn from it. It’s all good.
  8. Do a postmortem. We’ve gotten better at our retreats because just before we leave, we go for coffee and do a final check in. Did we like where we stayed? Was the space good? Did we like our kick-off meeting exercise? What do we need to bring next time that we forgot? Was the price right and the time of year good? Do we want to have a more formal agenda? Take notes and learn each time how your group ticks.

As I reflect back on our last retreat, I guess the last lesson is: Be ready for anything. I mean anything. Because just when you think you’ve gotten used to being down from the usual four to three because one of you is across the country, that fourth girl just might shock the shit out of you and show up at your doorstep!

You just never know what a retreat will bring. Have fun and happy writing!FullSizeR

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Dispatch from out west

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Last fall, I said good-bye to the hours-long commute, fast-food chains, and crowded shopping malls of southern Ontario, and hello to the small-town living, majestic mountain views, and independent spirit of the BC interior.

I also had to say good-bye to my Restless friends. Or at least good-bye to our in-person meetings filled with food, wine, and conversation. I was sad to go, but also excited about my new adventure.

Four months in, and I am still settling into my new home. I miss my friends and my family every day, but I am also making connections with people in my new community and trying to contribute to the Restless Writers from afar.

Making it work

As Sharon said in her previous post, Restless Across the Miles, long distance relationships take work. But keeping those ties strong is important, so we are making the effort. We have cobbled together a system that works for us. We rely on different kinds of communications technology to keep us connected–from email and texting, to Google Duo and FaceTime. That, and our ongoing dedication to helping each other become better writers, is keeping the spark alive.

It’s not always perfect. The last time I joined a meeting with FaceTime, Beckie said it was a bit like being joined by a robot, with my disembodied face peering from the iPad duct-taped to my customary spot at the table. I have missed the odd joke because of a technical glitch. I have to keep my devices charging or our connection will cut out mid-critique. I definitely miss toasting my friends with prosecco in person, and my virtual attendance means none of Sharon’s baked goods for me. (Insert crying emoji here.)

A change will do you good

But there is also a positive side to me being the Restless Writer who has gone walk-about. I like to think that my long-distance perspective helps to bring new thinking to everyone’s writing. I know it has brought something new to my own. A change can jar you out of your typical habits or patterns of thought, and bring something new to your craft.

A physical move expands your horizons both literally and figuratively—which can ultimately make you a better writer. For me, I am learning to be sensitive to the things that make different regions distinct—and that’s the kind of thing that can give my writing colour and authenticity.

Regional vocabulary is one example. Skookum. Bougie. A skiff of snow. Kootenay time. I am learning new words and phrases that I could use to make dialogue featuring a local character ring true. Place names are also foreign to me—but I am starting to understand when someone talks about “the Valley” or “the Junction.”

The things that people do for fun are new to me too. On any given day, you can make a quick visit to the hot springs, take in a quirky burlesque show in town, or play in legendary powder at a local ski resort.

The natural environment is completely different out here. Growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario meant that I took some things for granted—the morning sun rising slowly and brilliantly over the still water; the gentle rise and fall as you follow the road over the Escarpment; the “lake-effect snow” that makes Ontario highways so treacherous.

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Here, my surroundings continue to surprise me. Like how the mountains look ever-more surreal as I try to follow their smoky march north. How the falling snow gets back-lit by the halo of a street-light. How precisely the river reflects back the treeline. How the snow berm on the mountain pass can tower metres over cars driving through. How the sunshine seems to reach the bottom of the valley for only a few hours a day, and only a few days of the week. Did I mention all the snow?

Small-town BC is very different from suburban Ontario. For example, where once I could shop in happy anonymity at one of the big supercentres in the GTA, here I can’t walk a block without running into three people I know. “Business casual” means something very different out here—Blundstone boots, down jackets, and toques are all included in what is appropriate in the workplace.

There’s a grit to people here. Independent spirit and a yearning for solitude, yes. But also true caring and engagement, a sense that we are all in this together. I am learning more about my new community—and appreciating it more—every day.

Disruption and making it new

Disrupt it all

My job as a writer is to take note of the people around me. Not just what they wear or how they talk, but the things they care about and what makes them tick. I want to know what brought them to this place, and what keeps them here. What makes this community thrive? And what secrets does it hold? Anything that jolts you into looking at the world with fresh eyes can help you do this.

You probably don’t have to make a 3,000-kilometre move to disrupt your way of thinking, but hey, I like to go all-in.

I can use my fresh perspective to capture what makes this place so distinct, to think differently about the people and the world around me, and to ultimately tell a great story. Hopefully I can bring a bit of that “make it new” insight to the Restless Writers too.

With warm wishes from out west,

Maria

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#HappyEverything

It’s 2018. Screw resolutions. Especially the expected and traditional ones.

Instead, let’s view the new year as a fresh start, a way to share in the spirit of renewal with friends and family. There is something exhilarating about a new year. It can represent new opportunities and new stabs to improve ouGOTOMTGRWrselves and to be better towards others.

Looking back, 2017 was an eventful year for the Restless Writers. Probably the most jarring was that one of us moved across the country (like, super far away). After the initial shock (that it really happened), we swiftly figured out Google’s Duo App to be able to keep our monthly get-together inclusive. This resulted in duct-taping our writing pal (and phone) to the back of a wooden chair. Phew, still a foursome.

We celebrated weddings. A first (just babes at barely 30). And a second (a duo rocking 80). Both teary (for reasons unique), yet happy and joyful like a wedding ought to be. The message here—love like there is no tomorrow. Let’s all live this one in 2018.

We attended funerals. We mourned friends and loved ones. And continue to do so.

We also made stuff. Cool stuff, like nachos in a Bundt pan (thank you, Pinterest). Healthy stuff, like kale and quinoa salad. Sad stuff, like flower arrangements and picture boards. Comfort stuff, like chocolate chip cookies and gooey brie puff pastry. Festive stuff, like trees made from plastic spoons and paper stars made from an old dictionary.

RW stuff

We performed stuff. Personal stuff. Fearlessly, among friends. And discovered the “central moment of powerful truth.”

We wrote stuff too. Poems. Chapters. Resumes. Sympathy cards. Obits.

We received more rejection emails. Some encouraging, some downright icy.

Oh! How can I forget about a fun first for us—we planned a one-day writing retreat. Soon to be an annual event!

And as usual, we continued to talk business plans, value proposition, refining our brand, “setting up shop,” craft markets, Etsy, Amazon Handmade, and loads of other creative pursuits because, let’s face it girls, we will never quit our daydreams. Not ever.

On that note, may this new year give you the opportunity to renew, to love, and to follow your daydreams.

Happy New Year. Happy Everything!

daydream

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Restless Across the Miles

“I just wanted to let you know that I miss you. I’m running around today but I’ll try to call you tonight.”

That’s an actual email from a former beau. We met in our last year of university and upon graduation, found ourselves in a long distance relationship when he headed home to the west coast and I stayed in Ontario. We made it work for a year with visits every few months and regular phone calls until a brunette in his post graduate program caught his eye. Laura or Linda, what was her name? It definitely started with an “L” – not that I’m still peeved about it or anything 20 years later.

After we broke up, I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, unemployed and sequestered in my parents’ basement for large spans of time as the upstairs hardwood floors were being refinished. The sadness and varnish fumes overwhelmed me in equal parts and right then and there I knew I’d never be party to another long distance relationship.

Until now.

The Restless Writers are going long distance! That’s right, our fearless Maria has headed west for some big adventures. While we couldn’t be happier for her, there’s no escaping that the move brings with it some changes for our small RW family.Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 11.34.53 PM

The sound of the ‘clink’ from our congratulatory prosecco glasses had barely faded before each of us began rhyming off the pieces we’d have to work out. Meetings. Retreats. The general merriment and ease that comes from meeting together once a month for more than five years – what would happen to all of that?

The truth is, we don’t know. BUT. That is not stopping us from diving in to find out.

Based on my experience with the above mentioned long-distance love, I feel like I have some good insights that might be helpful as we embark on this journey.

Embrace technology – Unlike 1996, when I relied on a fax machine (a fax machine people!) to send letters back and forth to my paramour, 2017 is looking A LOT brighter when it comes to options for bridging the distance. We’ll be connecting virtually for our meetings and would like to use something that is reliable, easy to use and free. After looking at a few options, we are going with Google’s Duo app – the FaceTime of the Android world. We have downloaded it to our mobile devices, tested it and we’re ready to go.

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Mind the time change – While we’re settling in for an evening of nibbles and pages in the Eastern Standard time zone, Maria will just be coming off her lunchtime nap. And by the time evening reaches Maria, the RWs will be heading for bed (except for Beckie, she’s a night owl). Sometimes, being a few hours apart can make it feel like there is just never a good time to connect. To help, we’ve kept our first virtual meet up to our regular start time but we may have to play around with this as we go.

Communication is key – This virtual RW thing is new for all of us and there are bound to be some stops and starts. My hope is that if we can be open and honest about what is working and what isn’t, we’ll be able to find our way through.

Be wary if Maria mentions a new friend whose name starts with “L” – Unlike my former beau and the arrival of terrible Linda or Laura, we are excited for Maria to make new friends. And wouldn’t it be cool if some of those friends were writerly types. Maybe we could even Brady-Bunch it and have a big meet up.

There’s lots to be sorted out but we’re on our way. Our first meeting since the move is in a few days so we’ll be sure to report back to share how it’s going.

If any of you have experience with being a part of a long distance writing group we’d love to hear how you coordinate along with any other ideas you might have for us as we begin this new chapter. See what I did there? 🙂

Stay tuned…

 

 

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Get thee to Stratford for writing inspiration and instruction this fall

Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario by Ken Lund

The Restless Writers are suckers for writing retreats and conferences, so we are super stoked to help spread the word about exciting opportunities this fall for writers to hear from award-winning authors and dig deeper into their own projects.

Attend all or part of a writers’ festival

If you haven’t made plans yet to attend the Stratford Writers Festival, what the heck are you doing with your life? It’s happening October 20-22, 2017, in Stratford, Ontario.

This year’s line-up includes events and sessions with authors including Heather O’Neill, Scaachi Koul, Kerry Clare, Jennifer Robson, Glenn Dixon, Eden Robinson and Terry Fallis. The venues are all in downtown Stratford, so expect to be inspired not just by the special guests but also by the surroundings.

Visit the Stratford Writers Festival website for all the details or buy your tickets today.

Sign up for a writing retreat

If—woe betide!—you can’t make the festival but still want to gain inspiration and instruction for your own writing, check out the Write Now Retreats taking place on October 23-25 and October 30-November 1.

The Write Now Retreats are open to writers at any stage in their work. Whether you’re still at the idea stage or you have the words “The End” in sight, you will benefit from these intimate and insightful sessions.

There are four different retreats available for registration:

  • Writing Technique and Creativity Retreat with Kim Echlin, October 23-25
  • Memoir Writing Retreat with Alison Wearing, October 23-25
  • Finesse Your Next Draft Writing Retreat with Farzana Doctor, October 30-November 1
  • How to Write a Cookbook Retreat with Theresa Albert, October 30-November 1

The retreats provide instruction from award-winning authors who also teach regularly, access to one-on-one coaching with the instructor, creativity techniques to keep up the momentum on your projects, support from fellow writers, time to write, and world-class accommodations in downtown Stratford.

There is a comprehensive list of FAQs on the Write Now Retreat website where you can learn more.

I’ve got my eye on the retreat with Kim Echlin. Which one speaks to you and your goals? Check out the website for all the details, and register soon—there are only a limited number of spots.

Go the DIY route

If you don’t have the time or resources to attend these structured writing events, take a tip from the Restless Writers and plan your own one-day retreat. Wherever you are in your writing or your life, you can make space to pursue your creative goals.

Happy writing!

Maria

Photo: Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario, by Ken Lund, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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6 Ways to Quiet Your Inner Asshole

woman in gardenYou know who I’m talking about. I know you do. I call mine Anders. He’s a big, bulky, piece of shit of a guy who’s actually sly and sneaky despite his size. He knows me well—oh so well—and can spot the tiniest crack in my psyche and bust it wide open with a single punch: “You’re not that good. Why bother?”

He’s an asshole.

And when I talk to other writers who are frustrated and feeling defeated, I know their inner Anders’ are showing off their bulging biceps. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, calls this your “monkey mind.” (Clearly, I haven’t done the Zen acceptance work she has to be as composed about it.) It’s that voice that never shuts up and makes up excuses why you shouldn’t or can’t write: Too untalented. Too unworthy. Too busy. Too poor. Too tired. (Feel free to add your own to this endless list.)

Goldberg continues to say that the monkey mind will never leave. It stays with her even with all her success as an author. It is persistent, determined, smart, and doesn’t need any sleep.

On the other side for me is Ariadne. She is my goddess who barely has a form because of her brilliant light. I can make out hazel eyes like the sea, scarlet lips, and tresses of golden locks that flutter over a silky whiteness that flows into eternity. She sings when I write – just because I’m writing. She asks nothing more of me.

Elizabeth Gilbert says all she promised the universe is that she will write. She never promised she’d be good. That’s how I feel with Ariadne. She doesn’t wonder why my character just asked for soup. She simply tingles with anticipation when I open my notebook and pick up my Bic Round Stic pen. (Yeah, I don’t need anything too fancy.)

For Ariadne, the exploration writing allows is what matters.  Anders, on the other hand, gets all caught up in wanting to know where it’s all going and makes me second guess every word I put down.

So, how do you quiet a guy like that? While you’ll never shut him up completely, here are six ideas:

  1. Shut up and write. (This is Goldberg’s mantra. And really, all six of these could be this one.) When you write anyway despite his resistance, you make him weaker.
  2. Create structure. (This is another steal from Goldberg.) Make an appointment with yourself to write and keep it like you would any other meeting. He’ll always try to throw you off and send you a grocery list or a great Old Navy sale reminder.
  3. Read your favourite book that gives you chills and made you want to be a writer in the first place. It drives Anders nuts when I pick up Shakespeare.
  4. Talk to a close friend who inspires you and reminds you who you are. Anders hates the Restless Writers!
  5. Go for a walk and be present with the earth you are walking on, the maple trees on your way, the pansies you pass. Take notes as you walk to notice what is extraordinary around you. That’s our gift as writers and Anders gets bored pretty quickly.
  6. Remind yourself you’re an artist and create. “Dependence on the creator within is really freedom from all other dependencies.” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way. Anders’ mission is to make me completely dependent on him.

Even now, he is telling me, “You’re a fake. There’s nothing original here. You just took all this from other authors.”

Well, Goldberg, Gilbert and Cameron wrote their books to inspire other writers and they have inspired me. That is my truth today.

Anders can have his tantrum. He’s an asshole anyway.

 

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How to plan a one-day writing retreat

sunsetIt’s almost summer and another year has gone by where our ‘small but writey’ group has not taken a proper writing retreat—something we have traditionally looked forward to almost as much as Dyment’s buttertarts.

Retreats have been one of the ways we’ve tried to stay motivated, inspired, and productive. But as many of you know, the days get busy and each of us struggle with squeezing writing time into an already packed life.

This often makes the idea of a retreat seem impossible. But it’s not! The Restless Writers are trying something new this summer—we’re planning our inaugural ONE-DAY retreat.

 

Check this out. You can do it too.

1. Start small

Consider the following three elements: time, space, strategy. Start there and leave everything else behind. I mean, everything. Netflix included.

2. Rethink your definition of a retreat

Of course we’d love to spend a month or more at a private villa overlooking the ocean while we write, but with families and jobs we’ll be settling on someone’s backyard. For the price of a potluck, we’re carving out an entire day to devote to writing.

3. Make it official

We’ve put it in writing. We have a most official agenda for the day, planned meal times, and a couple activities to keep us energized, like a short hike and a game of bocce ball.

4. Make a commitment

Set a goal for what you’d like to accomplish and craft it prior to the retreat. Commit to yourself and honor your time.

5. Be flexible and creative

We happen to be starting with the backyard format, but there are other options to explore such as the obvious coffee shops, libraries, and bookstores. But how about a picnic table at a community park? A cool hotel lobby? An empty room at the YMCA? A friend’s empty RV? How about your own car parked at the waterfront?

So, get your portable writing kits prepared and be ready to take advantage of mini retreat opportunities. Gift yourself a chunk of time! It’s not only an investment in your work but in yourself as a writer.

Writing groups everywhere!

Unite. Inspire. Dream.

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