We sat facing one another in a circle, each curled up in or perched on a tired chair or the couch we had pulled in from another corner of the cabin.
Our attire alone practically gave away our reason for gathering; we wore our favourite threadbare slippers and reliably soft tights layered under folksy, hand-knit scarves and throws like uniforms. None of us were strangers to the art of getting comfy for the long-haul of creative work or deep conversation. We were on retreat, and we were ready.
Having tackled the polite introductions over wine and dinner, this part of the evening already felt more natural, less stiff. We had gathered and eaten together that night in the central kitchen, making one big dining table out of the four or five small ones provided, so we could begin to match names to faces and connect all the degrees of separation between us. Wine was poured, chocolate was inventoried and distributed. Dessert before business. I was hooked already.
Now, with pens and cue cards in hand, we put our trust in our appointed leader and began with a series of lighthearted ice-breaking exercises and conversation starters. The possibility of having to talk out loud on the spot still gave the butterflies in my stomach reason to stretch and flutter their busy wings, but this group of women, with their easy laughter and relaxed authenticity, were dissolving my anxiety by the minute.
“Use this cue card to write down your intentions for the weekend,” our leader guided us “You don’t have to share what you write but keep it close by while you’re here.”
What happens, I thought to myself, hand hovering over my card, when you come to a writing retreat with no writing intentions?
It’s quite possible that registering for and attending my first retreat, clearing all the related hurdles of fear and insecurity, had taken all of my attention and intentions. Sitting there, my mind raced around all the possible goals I could set for my weekend—write more, try some different genres, pick up old pieces and ideas—but I hadn’t come with a list or a plan. To be honest, I hadn’t set my own words onto the page for a very long time.
I wrote “Finding an intention” on my card.
It was late January of 2020, just before the world put a pause on precedented times and ways of living.
We left town on a Friday evening, heading east on the Trans-Canada highway. Our destination was Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, only 45 minutes from Thunder Bay. Out on the Sibley Peninsula, the park is set on a thin finger of boreal wilderness stretching into Lake Superior. Close enough to make day hikes and retreats more than manageable; far enough from town to feel remote and secluded.
Winter is long here in Northwestern Ontario; it’s dark when you wake up and dark before dinner. Blink, and you might miss the mid-day sunlight. By the time we turned down highway 587 and drove by the quiet community of Pass Lake, our headlights were straining to light the road. Clumps of soft snow were drifting across the windshield and swirling with the darkness; every curve swallowed us deeper into the woods.
Following the signs for the Ranger’s Cabin, we pulled into the dimly lit parking lot of our home-base for the weekend, stepping out to a silence deep and still. We made a few quick and nervous trips back and forth in the dark through the snow, piling our overpacked bins and bags into the foyer, our giggles masking a city-borne paranoia of being patiently watched by a pack of wolves waiting for one vulnerable opportunity to arrive.
In the Ranger’s Cabin, we discovered an expanse of a facility well equipped for groups our size: two wings of dorm-style bedrooms, enough for us each to bunk alone, and a couple shared bathrooms that led to and from a large, well-stocked kitchen. A conference-sized meeting room doubled as our yoga studio and group work area, while a sunny sitting room at the back offered quiet views and a dedicated, non-social space for uninterrupted contemplation. A series of well-used cross-country ski trails led right from the door and into the woods, so we stacked our skis and snowshoes along the side of the building and left our boots by the door, ready to go the moment inevitable writer’s block and restlessness kicked in.
It was practical and institutional, more functional government field station than Scandinavian hygge. But it was also clean, warm and private, providing plenty of space inside and out for gathering or seeking seclusion when and as needed.
Anchored by this group of writers and tucked away in our own slice of wilderness, with only one unreliable bar of cell service and no wi-fi, it dawned on me with a kind of stunned giddiness just how easy it was going to be to withdraw from my regular life and settle into the company of my own thoughts.
As a noun, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines retreat as “a place of seclusion” and also as “a period during which co-workers or people sharing a common interest meet away from their home or workplace to exchange ideas”. In this case, my first writing retreat was true to form.
As a group of writers, we were a diverse bunch. Our ages, occupations, and family lives spanned decades, backgrounds and different decisions but we were united by our creative and professional relationships to writing.
Some of us were paid to write by day and finishing manuscripts at night. Others were using the weekend to start new books, or birth fresh ideas. There was a poet, a university professor, and a playwright. A few of us were trying to rekindle and reconnect to our creative selves after a long absence while others were opening that door for the very first time. One of us was there to take a complete break from writing anything, enjoying instead the company of like-minded souls and a respite from the writing life. As wordsmiths of many stripes, we were all welcome; we all belonged.
But there’s another definition of retreat I like too, using it as an action, a verb, for retreating into seclusion: to “withdraw into privacy or security, one’s own thoughts, etc., to take refuge.” The dictionary also makes a special note that to retreat in military references is “the act or an instance of retiring or withdrawing in the face of opposition, difficulty or danger.” And though that usage can hold a negative connotation, in this scenario it felt like a win, a gain, to retire and withdraw.
Indeed, for three days, within the privacy and seclusion of the retreat, I was able to step away from the practical and emotional demands of my life as a parent, partner, freelancer, daughter, friend, volunteer—everything essentially, except my whims in the moment. With no to-do list and no one to caretake, I had permission to withdraw, be selfish, tend to only myself and ultimately let my thoughts wander, explore and sometimes settle.
Going on retreat in wintertime added another layer to our seclusion: insulated by the snow, there was a quieting effect on sound but also mind and body. There is no rushing in deep winter and the early sunset nudged us inside, where reading, introspection and creation came more easily. Throughout the nights, it was perfectly still and quiet, amplifying the clink and clank of the radiators and the occasional squeak of the bathroom door.
Moreover, our agenda was simple and the format appealing: everything was optional, informal and lowkey. There were opportunities to gather and discuss matters related to the art and practice of writing and facilitated writing sessions. There were mealtime chores for lunches and dinners that we democratically divvied up, taking turns heating, serving and cleaning up our pre-catered meals. A yoga teacher drove in for one night and morning to run classes for those who were interested; the mild, moonlit evenings made night skiing and snowshoeing possible for the brave.
In short, there was space and time aplenty to be alone or together, to gather informally or write in solitude. With the encouragement and camaraderie of a group of other women writers all moving through the same liberated space of limitless, creative play, I was able to get out of my own way, unblock my creativity and get words on a page.
“Creative clusters, where we gather as peers to develop our strength, are best regarded as tribal gatherings, where creative beings raise, celebrate, and actualize the creative power which runs through us all.”
(Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 25th Anniversary Edition)
A retreat from the pressures of life and a chance to feel like a writer again were just part of the larger gains I came home with after that weekend.
Some participants brought and shared their collection of books on the practice of writing, creating a little makeshift library in the foyer. Through this, I was introduced to Lynda Barry, Julia Cameron and Annie Dillard, the concepts of ‘morning pages’ and ‘artist’s dates’, how to write a descriptive scene and techniques for dropping into creative flow.
We also discussed the real challenges of this work as women, parents, and single-income earners, often balancing other careers and commitments. We talked a lot about battling writer’s block and fatigue, about imposter syndrome, how and why to avoid the productivity competition with yourself or other writers, and how sometimes you just need to remember how to enjoy using words.
When I asked the published authors how they paid their bills and wrote their books, they were both honest and philosophical. Many were retired before those novels took form, and some were supported by their own pensions or the pensions of their spouses. Others had successfully secured grant funding, or won cash awards in writing competitions. We reflected on the long history of the arts and arts patrons, and I took comfort in realizing that as my own sponsor and funder, it was okay to put my client work first sometimes (or a lot of the time) and that patience and self-compassion are key to surviving an artistic life.
Over dinner one night, some of the writers spontaneously shared some of the work they had produced that day. I still think about those poems, the snippets from those essays, and how even though I wasn’t ready to share, I enjoyed being part of the trusted group that got to hear those first raw and powerful drafts.
And we talked a lot about the importance of having a writer’s group. It turned out that many of these women had been organized as a group for decades, supporting each other to start and finish manuscripts, plays and projects, reading each other’s work and attending each other’s readings. Their group, their retreats, one writer shared, were more like a dream, an aspiration, than any particular place, entity or event. Having a group helped your dream stay alive, she told us, and when you were ready, bring it to fruition.
As it would turn out, I would meet with those writers again, in person and over social media. Now part of a collective with a common thread—my own a creative cluster—I have direct access to support and inspiration to develop my strengths, interests, knowledge and experience, a place to check in, feel less alone in the struggle to create, and to talk all things writing.
“A writer’s life is full of paradoxes. You have to be interested in people yet be proficient in one of the loneliest jobs there is. You need inspiration and passion, yet you must also possess the self-discipline to trudge through writing 400 pages of a manuscript.”
(Bob Mayer, The Novel Writer’s Toolkit)
When I say, “I went on a writing retreat,” it always gets the same reaction, especially from my women friends. I do it too, when other people tell me they are going, or have gone on, any type of retreat: yoga, writing, music, whatever. A little gasp escapes, maybe a clasping of the hands, and the inevitable, “I’ve always wanted to go on a retreat!”
We have taken it in our minds a million times, imagined the secluded locale, envisioned the cozy room with a nook and a view, and the magical feeling of uninterrupted, unscheduled time. Unburdened by the relentless drudgery of our domestic and work lives, we can think all our thoughts and express ourselves with words, colours or movement in communion with other people called to the same pursuits.
But taking a retreat is often associated in my mind with the luxuries of time, money and legitimacy—I had talked myself out of attending others in the past, letting my image of the retreat, with all its free time in glorious abundance, hang for decades like some Shangri-la just out of reach.
This time however, I was a little older, braver and in a privileged position of being financially secure with a flexible freelance job, an ex who would have our kids for the weekend, and a good friend to register with. We somehow had found a very affordable retreat that prioritized chocolate and had no mandatory readings, drowning out all the remaining reasons I’d typically use to not go. And it was completely worth it. I returned from those three days in the woods feeling revitalized and refocused on my creative life.
Right now, that weekend feels like it happened in another lifetime. Within a month of the retreat, we entered a global pandemic that wore me down so thin mentally and emotionally that I have hardly written a single creative thing in the past year. A year and a half ago, I felt like I was on the cusp of a creative breakthrough. Then COVID happened. I’m only now starting to revisit the pieces I can pick back up and move forward with in this new pandemic reality.
Like bread-making, knitting, learning to play my guitar, and finally doing that really deep clean of my closets, my interest in writing or doing anything other than staying afloat fell by the wayside as lockdowns and stay-at-home orders piled on top of virtual everything through five different seasons. If I’m not writing for my supper, or parenting my kids through a pandemic, I’ve wanted to be numbed out watching Netflix or outside walking in the woods where at least I have the illusion for a moment that our lives can be dedicated to things unrelated to how to avoid one super-contagious virus.
More than once I’ve had the thought that if we’re not really living, then what is there to write about? When we’re not able to do things that spark joy and delight, what can we draw on to make art?
But as I edit and polish this post, reflecting on that weekend and the past 18 months, I’m taking my second-ever retreat with my same intrepid writer friend. Like bookends around COVID-19, we are once again in a rustic cabin off the grid on the Sibley Peninsula, doing this on a shoestring budget but with just the two of us, as per lockdown restrictions. This time, we came with clearer intentions, more tools for dropping into creativity, and a lot to talk about.
I read parts of this essay to her as we philosophized about the renewed sense of purpose, creativity and confidence that can sometimes come from long periods of time away from writing. Our regular lives are busy and loud, punctuated by brief spurts of quiet and creativity when we can carve it out, but we’re always listening, thinking and taking mental notes. We wondered if we might just be learning the same thing over and over again: to take time for our ourselves, for art, to be less concerned with productivity and output and have more fun with words.
Like being on a path or an orbit that loops back around, we create writing seasons that come and go with perpetual regularity. Our creative bursts are always welcome, the new growth a pleasant surprise; and when the winter dormancy arrives, it can be a quiet relief.
We celebrate this continuity in nature. Maybe I just need to learn to celebrate my own creative tides in the same way. Make hay while the sun shines, I think it goes. And the rest of the time, worry less about what I’m not doing, find the things I enjoy, take notes as I go, and write when the season returns.