Notes from Greenbank: My quarterly writing retreat




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As some of you know, I travel four times a year to attend what I call silent writing retreats…

SILENT because I do them solo, with nobody to interact with (on purpose!) so that I can get a bunch of WRITING done…

which includes reading, thinking, mapping, outlining, revising, and other writerly tasks.

I also tend to sneak in some exercise depending upon the weather (yoga, walking, hiking) and scratch cooking of some of my favorite dishes I rarely make at home, such as tabbouleh.

Fairy Tale Cabin

This summer’s quarterly silent writing retreat took place in this charming 109-year-old fisherman’s cabin in Greenbank, WA (a community in south central Whidbey Island).

I was there for a week in July. Before I even started writing what ended up being around 8,000 new words toward my novel, Eminent Domain, I finished adding my latest changes to my Trust Fall: Stories manuscrip. Yippee skippee, I was able to email that off to my editor that first Monday.

Beyond writing new sections for the novel, I also did some revisions and updated the timeline as well as brainstormed the texture underlying the relationship between the protagonist and a new acquaintance. That often means spending some time figuring out past histories and conjuring character sketches to see where the two attract each other and where they repel each other.

It’s so much fun creating a story from scratch, though it’s a lot of work, too.

On top of all that, I zoomed my way through two critique groups and participated in a writer’s interactive workshop on dealing with professional envy (a rich topic, to be sure!).

Later in the week, I took trips into Langley and Freeland to get some walking in, enjoy the beautiful weather and landscape, and visit a local friened

TOP TO BOTTOM, L to R: The best fireplace ever; an old-school soaker tub with Epsom salts (yes!); a funky wind sculpture in the front yard; the living space of the cabin; my office for the week; the cool chandelier overhead the main living space.

I also had some great amenities to pick from at the cabin, including a gas stove with nicely seasoned cast iron pans, a fantastic fireplace with snapping, dry wood to burn (an open fire is a required ritual), and a sweet bathtub to soak in.

While on my retreat, I also cooked a lot, tried out some new walking shoes, and had all kinds of encounters with wildlife, including chipmunks, rabbits, owls, and deer.

The only moment that left me a little discombobulated was my penultimate night there, when a big ruckus on the roof and porch turned out to be the shenanigans of a raccoon the size of a golden retriever!

A nod to Port Townsend

This retreat occurred at a time when I’m usually in attendance at the Port Townsend Writers Conference.

I reserved this cabin thinking there would not be a live event this year, and it turned out there was. George Marie was gracious enough to include copies of Intention Tremor for sale at the conference bookstore.

Because Greenbank is about a 10-minute drive to the half-hour ferry to Port Townsend, I plotted to make a side trip over to the Centrum campus midweek to see longtime writing peers.

Wendy Call, one of my favorite teachers, readers, writers, and overall human beings, at her reading event at Port Townsend, July 2022

So many members of my extended literary family have bonded around the desks and tables and chairs here, coming from both near and far, that I would have been remiss in not dropping in.

And now I wish I had given it more than an afternoon… so many wonderful people to see!

I did stay to attend one of the readings (this one featured Wendy Call, David Haynes, and Melissa Febos).

Why a silent writing retreat? And why quarterly?

I started creating these retreat spaces almost 20 years ago with January retreats to set the tone for my writing year, followed by my annual trek to PTWC.

Previously, I had applied for so many writing residencies and just began to feel unseen and overlooked. It got depressing. Why was I not deserving of this time? With two little kids at home, I needed the break, but I couldn’t get it in this way.

Then I gave myself a reality check. Was it this validation I wanted most? Did I need a nonprofit to fund my getaways?

No, and no.

What I really needed was actual space and time to write. Back then, my children were still in grade school and I was working as an editor and publisher. Time and space are golden resources any time, but especially then.

The January retreat plus summer conference grew to include the YAWP intensives also held at Centrum that sparked up in consequent spring, fall, and winter seasons… and became the space where I wrote most of my book, Intention Tremor.

One of my first retreats at Fort Worden in the Aerolite, November 2015

The next thing I know, I’m booking out quarterly retreats at the end of the year and making them a big priority in my schedule (which is saying something, given all the client deadline work I am committed to already).

Some of my retreats were done in the camping trailer (first, the Fun Finder, and later, the Aerolite, which is what we camp in now).

The video below shows a gusty November in 2015 when I thought the wind would blow the trailer over!

Other retreats have taken place in A-frames, hotel rooms, seaside apartments, AirBnBs, VRBOs, and a whole lot of cabins (some of them with mice, and some of them without electricity).

The truth is, I’ve come to rely on these retreats to “right the ship” through the year when work and family commitments expand and contract. The everchanging landscape of my work life and need to spend time with family often come at a price: disrupting the flow and progress of my creative work.

Now that my children are grown, it would seem that I don’t need to do these anymore. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Retire the retreat? Never!

My brain seems to unlock new portals when I set up my writing space in a new and unfamiliar place. I hear, see, taste, smell, and feel differently. I notice different things, or notice the same things but with a kind of depth I just can’t replicate if I’m at home or running errands in town.

It’s this measure of unfamiliarity, matched with an immersion in nature and long stretches of solitude, that really draws the words out, clarifies problems with plot, and permits me to experiment, explore, and go where my energy takes me.

These days, the kids say “that’s fire” to describe something really cool.

What can I say? My retreats are fire!

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