How I set up my own personal writing retreat
I took four days off last week and I didn't get the T-shirt, but I DID get a lot of creative work done
I took off four days last week and sent myself on a writer's retreat.
Up in the mountains, near a lake, with almost no distractions.
I wanted to get a couple of creative things done:
I had hit a snag—a bout of self-judgment—in my writing, so I wanted a jumpstart on new stuff. I wanted VOLUME, not finished pieces.
I wanted to develop a new daily writing rhythm. I needed a new set of habits.
I really enjoy being out in the woods, though I rarely go. So, getting into a new environment was key.
And I want to be the kind of person who goes on creative retreats. There's some ego wrapped up in there. Like I want you to think that I'm Henry David Thoreau and every now and then, I visit Walden Pond to tap into my genius.
I found a venue that checked all the boxes
It turns out that UCLA owns this massive compound in Lake Arrowhead, about two hours away from Los Angeles. It's saved for family camps in the summer, but available for anyone to rent a cabin otherwise. The campgrounds can house HUNDREDS of people, and I think I was one of only TEN people staying there.
This place has everything. Cabins, no TVs, good wi-fi, pickleball courts, an ice cold pool, basketball, walking trails, and a camp-style restaurant. A view of the lake at any given time. Pretty affordable. Dream retreat situation.
My daughter asked me, "You're going alone to the woods, to write?"
"Sounds like the first chapter of a murder mystery."
And it WAS a murder… of my old habits (zing).
I made myself sit at my desk, every day, with a few outdoor walks here and there.
I created the atmosphere to write
The Spartan living room of this small two-bedroom cabin had the two things I needed:
A wood-burning fireplace
Free, on-call delivery of firewood
Guys, I burned SO MUCH wood. An entire forest of wood. Conservatively 200 pieces.
The delivery guy was so nice at first — happy to deliver fresh wood before nightfall. The first bucket of wood was airy, light, aromatic… and burned up in ten minutes.
After two more calls, the delivery guy was clearly annoyed.
For my 9:45 PM firewood delivery, he must have picked the knottiest, densest logs from the pile. Every one, petrified from the early Cretaceous Period. They weighed twenty pounds apiece and required a flashpoint as hot as the surface of the sun to burn.
I was a needy little writer, but I witnessed a crackling fire 16 hours a day, which always makes (I was told) the writing come easier.
I made an agenda and promptly threw it away
I had my best friend ChatGPT make me an agenda, and WOW was it thorough. I told it that I wanted a three-day agenda that prioritized personal, professional, and comedy writing, and it made me writing prompts, breaks for outdoor walks, and an aggressive set of goals. OpenAI wants its users to be AGGRESSIVE on retreats.
And so I ignored that agenda.
I let my writing drift here and there—with the following constraints…
I gave myself permission to be very offline
I put my phone on Focus mode and really never turned it off. I checked email here and there, but I am proud of how offline I allowed myself to be.
It helped that the cabin had no TV, or else I would have tricked myself into watching the NBA In-Season Tournament, which would have led to a show, then I'd wake up at 2AM with the Seth Meyers sign-off.
I also really didn't call my wife or family. Like I was on the dark side of the moon. I called Katie on the drive home, "I really didn't talk to you. Is that okay?" She said yes and that she was glad that I could focus and be present in the moment. And that she knows that we're all good -- we don't have to talk every single day to know that.
I don't deserve this goodness.
I didn't settle for bad coffee
My cabin had a Keurig machine, which I promptly banished to the closet.
Instead, I brought my full French Press setup and a bag of whole-bean third-wave Pretentious Man™ coffee, which is delivered monthly by Trade Coffee (#ad).
Does this make me a mid-life crisis cliche? Or is this the very prerequisite for being an artist?
I really don't care. I drank the good stuff.
I had a soundtrack
A few months back, I saw Death Cab for Cutie and the supergroup The Postal Service perform their now 20-year-old albums Transatlanticism and Give Up. Both of these albums are inseparable from my memories of my 20s.
But it was the opening band that caught my ear.
The Beths and their three albums have been on rotation ever since.
My Apple Music "year in review" lists have ALWAYS been dominated by my kids—Bluey, Moana, Tangled, Frozen, Jojo Siwa -- but was this year ALL The Beths.
And so The Beths was my soundtrack for this retreat.
I DOUBLE-DOG DARE YOU to put on The Beths, hold a coffee in your hand, and walk around nature -- or even down your street -- and NOT BELIEVE that anything is possible. That dreams are real, love is inevitable, and hope is yours.
The mix of rhythm, sound, pace, vocals, all infused with hope and passion and vulnerability and the poetry of life.
I brought books, but only as decoration/inspiration
I didn't intend to read, but I brought a stack of books that I could flip through if needed.
The Creative Act, Rick Rubin
Ignore Everybody, Hugh MacLeod
War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont
The Practice, Seth Godin
Bossypants, Tina Fey
The Pathless Path,
I invited a friend to join
I've knownfor almost twenty years now, as he's married to my wife's best friend.
I can think of no better definition of a pure writer -- someone who pushes limits, tries new things, and no matter the reception, success or failure, he keeps making new things.
I've participated in table reads of his screenplays, edited drafts of his short stories, and even voiced a pirate in his fantasy fiction podcast:
Norm joined Substack around the same time as me, and has already racked up a **thousand** subscribers who await his weekly personal stories, full of dark humor, vulnerability and the cleverest turns of phrases.
And since my cabin had two bedrooms, I asked Norm to join me. He came for about half the time, and it was great to split it up like that.
We didn't do any of the PROPER or EFFICIENT writer-y tasks (like editing each others' drafts or brainstorming ideas or critiquing our use of subjunctive clauses), BUT it WAS awesome to have someone there to hear my first-draft jokes, shoot hoops with, and to talk to about the ups and downs of living a creative life.
Give him a follow if you're not already:
And finally, the results!
The main outcome was eight honest and pretty fun pieces of writing. All drafts. Two have been posted so far:
“Like and subscribe” if you’re not already:
A surprise “a-ha” moment for me:
I re-read the last few pages of Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod — and he summarized his work as "two strings" that work together, separate and off each other. For him, when he wrote the book twenty years ago, it was his "drawings on the backs of business cards" and "internet stuff."
Made me realize that I've been one-stringing it for a long time. I've been very focused on running agency businesses for a decade-plus. I love working on hard problems with clients. I love the consultative nature of it. It uses all my strategic talents, and sometimes taps my unique creative skills. But only sometimes.
Because my "second string"—which I've let atrophy for years—is "stage time." Even admitting that is stupidly hard, for some reason. Like wanting to tell stories and make jokes is somehow less than. My stage time was once improv comedy and Shakespeare, and then public speaking and all-company presentations. But now it's non-existent. And that's just not me.
So I'm on the hunt for stage time in 2024. Presenting to groups, conferences, podcasts, and whatever I can find.
I’m not kidding. I’m getting after it.
I'm going to an open mic storytelling event at The Moth this week, with a five-minute story in hand. (wish me luck!)
A few things I didn't expect:
I wrote something so personal, I had to stop, multiple times, to wipe away tears. Is it even a writing retreat if you don't cry, bro????
I discovered a batch of writing in my computer from a similiar writer's retreat in January 2020, inspired after reading Cal Newport's Deep Work (thorough recommend). Get away and start something. I read that and booked a cabin that week. The topics were NEARLY identical to what I'm writing about these days (wrestling with my professional identity, being conflict-avoidant, wondering what I'm good at, and telling stories about work and life). The difference between now and then? An ounce of bravery to actually let anyone read this stuff.
I saw a coyote (see the photo above!)
I admitted to myself that I DO want to be a writer, and known for my creative artistry, and not just my business success stories. And I am not sure what to do about it, but (checks internet) "admitting it" is the first step.
Listen, I get it.
I'm lucky enough to have all the things needed to be able to get away like this. A perfect venue, the financial ability to go, a flexible work situation, a supportive spouse. etc etc etc. I could go on forever. I have all the privileges you can have.
The one thing I didn't have before, but maybe I have now, is to be brave enough to want to do the work that happens on a "creative retreat." The artistry work. The emotional work. The hard stuff.
So maybe that's all you need to hear. All the other details and anecdotes I’ve listed here are fine, but it's the BRAVERY you need.
If so, I hope you find it. Whether stepping out of the routine into the crisp mountain air, or just stepping one toe out of your rut.
Go for it.
Did I miss any important “personal retreat” details? Do you want to know what my food routine was? (news flash: I didn’t fast)
Thanks for following along. Hope you’re in the midst of a great holiday season.
‘Til next time…