My 5-day solo writing retreat

I had worked it all out: I was going on a five-day solo writing retreat at a friend’s house in Vermont. Just the time and space I needed to do a deep dive into a final revision of my novel. The house sits atop a beautiful ridge in South Strafford, just north of Norwich. I’d have it all to myself, with a recently renovated kitchen to cook in and a big wood stove to keep me warm. I could walk to a pond on the property, cross-country ski on trails, browse in the cute bookstore in Norwich Center.

Then on Wednesday I heard a weather report: massive amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures. The house is off the grid, relying on solar heating and a wood stove, so keeping it warm and powered up takes some effort. Then our friend called. He was worried about my being up there by myself. The long, windy, steep driveway gets icy and difficult to navigate in snow and freezing cold. I’d have to constantly feed the stove and drain the pipes before I left. It was looking untenable and frankly, unappealing.

I looked at the weather map. Reports showed the Cape getting the least amount of snow, if any, and the warmest temperatures. Suddenly Provincetown was looking very promising. I could take walks around town, gaze at the ocean, eat clam chowder. I looked on VRBO and found a cute condo right on Commercial St. across from the bay. And the price, being off-season, was right. It was just the cozy spot I needed.

Day 1

Get a later start than I hoped and leave Boston around noon. Driving through Orleans, I notice that Mac’s Seafood on route 6 is open, so being on the Cape and all (and with PJs closed for the season), I have to stop for a chowder. When I turn onto Route 6A, the bay welcomes me, the water sparkling like ice crystals. Actually, it is ice crystals, as it’s a chilly 29 degrees outside. I find the house and am excited to see that it’s one I’ve biked and driven by for years. Called the Figurehead house, it’s a yellow colonial featuring a bust of a woman above the front door, like on the prow of a ship.

I pull into my parking spot in the rear and the reality hits me – this sojourn I’d been talking about, planning, and preparing for has finally arrived. I’m suddenly gripped by panic and trepidation. Can I really do this? Be alone for five days to only work on my novel? To not be able to pay bills, rummage around in the pantry for snacks, blame my husband for my lack of progress? Will I last the whole five days? Or go insane and eat my manuscript for dinner? No, I reassured myself. I can do this. I brought enough Tupperware containers full of stews and salads to last a month. I invested money in this. There’s no procrastinating, no turning back.

I unload the car, making as many trips as possible to delay the inevitable task of getting down to work. I unpack the contents of the cooler into the fridge, arrange all the non-perishables on the counter neatly, then rearrange them. I place my toiletries in the bathroom, unpack my clothes into the bedroom bureau. The place is small but has everything I need: a bedroom with a comfy-looking queen bed, a tiny galley kitchen, a living room with a sofa, coffee table and table for two, with an electric fireplace that gives off the illusion (and heat) of a real one, and a huge TV equipped with Netflix. Season 5 of Grace and Frankie drops tomorrow. I’m going to be okay.

Outside, people walk by in thick winter coats and hats, strolling and walking dogs. But inside it’s warm and cozy. I wonder if it’s time for a drink. The clock says 2:35. A bit early. I’ve yet to start working. Maybe I should eat more? Maybe I should’ve gone on a retreat with other writers who could guilt-trip me into working. Then I remember a friend who went on a 7-day silent retreat. If she could do that for a week, I could do this for 5 days. At least, thank God, I can talk out loud to myself. I’ve always wished for hours and hours of uninterrupted time to write. This is my chance. I need to embrace it. I know how privileged and lucky I am to have this time, to afford to stay here. I’m jumping in … but first I need to see what’s in these drawers in the coffee table.

Finally, I’m able to focus. My goal is to go through all 34 exercises in Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction to delve deeper into the emotional beats of my main character’s inner journey. I number each one in my journal, identify the scene in my story to flesh out, brainstorm ideas and free write, and cross-reference the exercises on my printed manuscript so when I’m finished doing the exercises, I can go back and rework the scenes. So far, so good. I put in about four hours.

Day 2

Today, I work for a solid two hours in the morning, then take a break to walk into town and get a massage because my back is killing me. Damn laptop. By the time I get back to work it’s 2:00 pm. I get right to work. During a break I Google the Figurehead house and discover it was built in 1850 and occupied by Captain Henry Cook. A schooner in his fleet came upon the eight-foot statue of the woman in 1867. The crew cut her in half and brought her back to Provincetown to grace the roof above Cook’s entryway. I name her Mabel and decide she’s my muse. With her help, I work through until 7:30, getting a good 7-1/2 hours in. I reward myself with a Grace and Frankie episode.

Day 3

My good intentions to be writing by 8:00 am are foiled by a call to my husband and an old friend I hadn’t talked to in months, but I’m at work by 10:00. And by 1:45 I’ve finished my final exercise! That deserves a celebration. I take a walk into town and pick up a bottle of wine (finally!) and some shrimp potstickers by the pier. When I return, I flip through the pages and pages of notes, ideas, scenes to cut, scenes to add, scenes to enhance. It’s daunting. I open the wine and have several glasses. Recharged, I tackle the first few scenes marked on my manuscript. I actually get through about six scenes before I hit a wall at around 8:30. Time to end the night with a few Grace and Frankies.

Day 4

I feel time slipping away. Only two days left on my retreat to implement all the changes I want to make. With a fire under me, and a fake one in the fireplace, I get to work. It’s pouring rain and barely above freezing outside, so no walks or massages to distract me today. I put in the most productive day yet, a full 8 hours of rewriting and reworking scenes. At 7:00 I take a break to talk to my best friend in California and drink some wine. Then a Grace and Frankie before bed.

Day 5

I can’t believe it’s my last day here. Where did the time go? I have to be out of the condo by 4:00, so I get to work by 8:30. I have a productive day, getting through several more scenes, but when I look at all the pages I’ve marked to rework, I realize I’ve hardly made a dent. There’s so much more to do! But it’s time to pack up, load the car, and head home. I’m disappointed I didn’t make more progress on the new draft, but then I realize: now I have a roadmap and a plan. I’ve located all the scenes I want to work on and brainstormed new ideas for them. I know exactly what I have to do and how to do it. Picking it up at night after work and on the weekends will be so much easier now with this guide. I say farewell to Provincetown and my muse, hit Route 6, and drive home.

9 comments

  1. LeslieT

    It’s amazing how long it takes (me, anyway!) to make real progress. We should all have a muse like Mabel.

    But what was in the coffee table drawers???

  2. Deborah H Good

    Love this. The endless circling the laptop, the obvious dawdling, so familiar. Sounds even more productive to me than you thought.

  3. I’m always amazed how quickly the day gets away, how long it takes to write a good paragraph, how much thinking needs to be done, how long it takes to reconnect with the story after a break. Hope springs eternal with each stretch of time I’m granted for novel-writing.

    • Bonnie

      I hear you, Evelyn. That’s why having 5 days in a row was such a God-send. It’s so hard to dig in when you only have a few hours here and there. Good luck with your writing!

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