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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part VII: Appreciate Home

Now that I’ve taken my own advice and joined Facebook, I see that some of my fellow Pembrokers are suffering from Cambridge withdrawal. Although by the time I turned in my final portfolio, I thought I was ready to go home, upon my return, especially during the first couple of days, I pined for the creative environment, the pastoral setting, my fellow writers, the more civilized society …

In order to transition to everyday life after returning from a writers retreat, though—and not alienate your loved ones, who are surely happy to have you home—take a moment to appreciate your hometown.

For example, in Los Angeles, there is such a thing as air conditioning. Not necessarily in my apartment, but at least in many public places. The mall, for example. Not so in Cambridge.

Also, in Los Angeles, you can eat Mexican food. And Cuban food. And Ethiopian food. And whatever kind of food you could possibly want …

… at practically any time of day. You see, grocery stores are open twenty-four hours a day here, and pharmacies don’t close at, say, six p.m.

The City of Angels may lack the bucolic walk through pastures along the River Cam to the Orchard at Grantchester, but there is a lovely little park nearby, and tea at the Huntington Gardens, and the beach, and the mountains …

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is world-class, but so are the Getty, LACMA, and MoCA. Even a quintessential U.K. experience—Scotsman Irvine Welsh reading at a bookstore in Cambridge—ultimately isn’t so singular after all: he’s appearing in Los Angeles on September 18.

And L.A.’s movie theaters are the best the world.

What do you appreciate about your hometown?


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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part VI: Stay Connected

Part of what I enjoyed so much about my studies at Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, was the sense that my fellow classmates were holed up in their dorm rooms or at the library or at a café or pub nearby or at the Orchard … all writing. There was an atmosphere of community even in isolation.

Maintain that camaraderie by staying connected with your fellow retreaters even after you’ve returned home:

  • Collect contact information, especially email addresses, and add them to your address book, whether on your phone, in your email, or in an, uh, address book.
  • Join Facebook. Not only will you be able to add a whole slew of new friends, but you’ll be able to track their continuing progress, and they yours.
  • Exchange pictures via email, Facebook, or Flickr.
  • Organize a group get-together shortly after your return. In fact, set the date and get commitments while you’re still together at the retreat.
  • Make a lunch or dinner date with fellow retreaters in your area.
  • Share your work completed during the retreat and ask your peers to share theirs. This should not be for critique, however, but for enjoyment only.
  • Form a writers group. Meet regularly in person or online. This creates a continuing support network, sets deadlines, and provides feedback on your project going forward.

Caught in the ’Net

U.S. News & World Report asks, “Does Grammar Really Matter Anymore?”

Pop+Politics discusses plagiarism versus aggregation.

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part V: Continue the Work

Often you will attend a writers retreat with the express goal of finishing a piece of work. Indeed, when you apply to attend, you may be asked what you will be working on and what you hope to accomplish while you are there. Because my recent three weeks at Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, were spent enrolled in a graduate-level writing course, I was required to hand in a portfolio at the end with, among other things, a completed short story or novel excerpt.

Although accomplishing your goal can be very satisfactory, however, it may be ultimately detrimental to your smooth transition back to everyday life. Having left the idyll of an environment designed to foster creativity, it may be difficult to continue to work, especially if your departure from the writers retreat came at a stopping point in your project.

Instead, take a page from Hemingway, who reportedly stopped working each day in the middle of a sentence, and return home with the project unfinished. For example, when I left Cambridge, I knew I still had work to do on the chapter I had been working on during my stay and have since inserted additional scenes. Because the piece will have such a close connection to your experience at the retreat, you will be able to carry that inspiration and motivation through your return home.

Also, before you go—perhaps when you sit down to analyze your stay—set new goals for the next stage of the project or your next piece.

Alternatively, if you do achieve the goals you set for yourself during the retreat and completed your work, try to start a new piece before you leave. If you’re stumped on what to write, go back over what you’ve written in your notebook during your retreat for new ideas.

Finally, after you’ve been home for a couple of days or a week, pick up the work you did while at your retreat and read it through again. Don’t read it with a pen in hand or a finger poised over the cursor—just read. Enjoy what you’ve accomplished.

Then read it again, this time with a pen (or cursor). In other words, start polishing from a place of retrospect in which you can apply what you learned throughout the duration of your stay.

Any other strategies for retreat recovery?

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DailyWritingTips offers “10 Ways to Find 10 Minutes to Write.”

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part IV: Extend the Experience

You’ve just spent two weeks (or two months) at a writers retreat. Now what?

So far we’ve suggested analyzing your experience and maintaining the productive strategies you developed there as ways to make the transition back to your everyday life. But let’s be real: it’s going to be hard to stay motivated once you’ve left an environment expressly designed to foster creativity. How can you extend the experience even after you’ve returned home?

  • Take pictures. Digital technology now allows us to click away to our heart’s content, shooting snapshots not only of our fellow retreaters but of the setting and space in which we worked. Download these onto your desktop; send them to your friends and family. And go old school: pick a few to develop and blow up for a collage to frame and hang up where you write.
  • Bring home local treats, and figure out where you can get them in your hometown. I spent my writers retreat in Cambridge, so I imported British candy bars and English tea. Scones are now on my repertoire, and I’ll have to hunt down clotted cream for a very occasional indulgence.
  • Buy souvenirs. Decorate your writing space with trinkets from your trip, and shop for items of clothing that will remind you of your time away every time you put them on. A piece of jewelry—a necklace, bracelet, or ring—that you’ll wear often is an especially effective keepsake for recalling your experience on a daily basis.
  • Send yourself postcards. You’re already picking them up for friends and family. Take the time to write yourself a note as well about what you learned or experienced that day. Mail them on your last day—or, better yet, get someone to post them for you after your departure—and look forward to revisiting your retreat after your return.

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part III: Identify Good Habits, and Keep Them

It’s been five days since I returned home from Cambridge, where I was studying fiction and screenwriting for three weeks at Pembroke College. Writers retreats like this one can be life-changing. How one reintegrates back into real life, however, is integral to the long-term effect of such a getaway. So over the past couple of days we’ve been discussing how to make the most of a writers retreat after you’ve returned home.

Now that you’ve unpacked and done your laundry—and are continuing to struggle with jet lag, as I am—turn back to the analysis you conducted upon the completion of your trip. In those pages you probably identified habits or routines or rituals that proved helpful during your stay—whether related to your writing or not. Now your challenge is to maintain these under circumstances not necessarily tailor-made to fostering creativity.

The most prominent feature of any writers retreat is the focus on the work. It was refreshing that my only job for three weeks was to write. Likewise, my first priority now that I’m back at home should continue to be writing.

This is obvious in the abstract. The question is how to implement it in real-world ways by prioritizing it in my schedule and eliminating distractions.

Since my time at Cambridge was part of graduate coursework, my writers retreat is perhaps unique in that half of my days were regimented. I had to be in class by nine a.m. four days a week. Additional afternoon, evening, and weekend activities were also scheduled. At the outset of our stay, we were given a three-week calendar with these obligations blocked out. I had to plan ahead in order to complete my homework on time, and the chart helped me identify chunks of time I could dedicate to work. Such a visual tool is easily transported to my everyday life.

Meanwhile, as mentioned previously, I didn’t see a television throughout my three-week stay. Although the absence of a boob tube was a refreshing break from my media-saturated existence back home, I love my TV. I won’t be throwing it out. Also, the Olympics commence this evening—I love sports and could watch the competition twenty-four-seven. But I can be, and have been, more judicious in my viewing—the TV doesn’t have to be on all the time to keep me company during the day.

Unrelated to writing—but perhaps not, given Haruki Murakami’s recently published memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running—I got out and jogged about three days a week during my time in Cambridge. It was easy to get motivated with so many riverside trails so close to college.

And I hoofed it everywhere: to the Orchard (a three-mile walk, each way), to the pub, to the grocery store. Los Angeles is far from a pedestrian-friendly town, but I’m lucky to live within reasonable walking distance to a bookstore, a movie theater, the Farmer’s Market. I can keep up the daily perambulations.

In addition to a television, what I also didn’t see throughout my travels in England were paper towels. Blow dryers were standard, as was recycling. The food served at Pembroke’s cafeteria, the Buttery, was organic, local, and free-range. Fruit and juice both on campus and in the stores were labeled “fair trade,” guaranteeing that fair prices were paid to Third World producers.

The country is damn civilized. Clearly, sociably responsible living is possible, a lifestyle I can aspire to maintain.

What I can’t do much about, now that I’ve returned form Cambridge, are my commute times. At Pembroke, it took five minutes to get across campus to class. In L.A., it takes an hour in the car to get anywhere. (Although the time could be used for focused thinking, a topic discussed by guest speaker Jill Dawson.)

And I don’t have a private chef—shopping for groceries and making dinner place demands on my schedule I didn’t have in Cambridge. Not that I’d give it up—I enjoy cooking. But maybe I don’t have to do it every day. Maybe leftovers can free up my schedule a little every once in a while.

A regimented schedule, limited distractions, a healthy and socially responsible lifestyle—these are all habits I developed while at Cambridge and hope to maintain now that I have returned home. Tomorrow we’ll discuss ways to keep motivated by extending the writers retreat experience.

In the meantime, what are your strategies for retreat recovery?

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A British lecturer of criminology has ignited a heated debate by suggesting the acceptance of the “most common mistakes as variant spellings.”

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part II: Jet Lag

I’m notorious for not unpacking. Suitcases can sit un-unpacked on the floor of my office for literally months until I need them again.

It was a shock to my family after this trip, then, when I unpacked and did all my laundry my first day back from Cambridge. Since Monday, though, I have failed to take the steps necessary to immediately get back into a daily routine, and my jet lag is lingering as a result.

It could be the direction in which I was traversing the globe, but I had hardly any difficulty adjusting to the time difference when I arrived in Cambridge. It helped that I was in the classroom at 9:30 a.m. the morning after my arrival—I didn’t have time to experience jet lag.

Upon my return, however, with nothing on my schedule, I had long stretches of uninterrupted days to not adjust to the time difference. It’s perfectly understandable that I would wake up at two or four in the morning my first few nights at home. What weren’t acceptable were the afternoon naps followed by early bedtimes—I never gave myself a chance to adjust and kept waking up at an ungodly hour.

When returning from a trip abroad, unpack, do your laundry, and resist the lure of the afternoon siesta. Muscle through the first few days of jet lag and get back on track as soon as possible.

What other tips do you have for getting back into the groove post-writers retreat?

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The Onion reports “Rules Grammar Change.”

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Life After a Writers Retreat—Part I: Analysis

First, an apology: a full two weeks have passed since my last post—a period of time I regret letting go by, as my (double-digit) views have plummeted with my neglect!

As mentioned in previous posts, I’ve spent an invigorating three weeks studying fiction and screenwriting at Cambridge University’s Pembroke College. I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned there and will continue to do so, but what’s been on my mind this week is reintegration back into my “real” life.

There’s no doubt in my mind now that artists retreats are invaluable for writers. Even more important, however—and what I’ve been struggling with this week now that I’m back in the States—is how to deal with what comes next, once the chef-prepared meals have run out and the nature trails have disappeared and the TV is back on*.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this and come up with a few strategies.

First, analyze your experience.

This coping mechanism actually started as an assignment for our fiction track with Emma Sweeney. Twenty percent of our grade was based on a commentary analyzing the development of our work during the course with references to the required reading and guest speakers. It wasn’t a popular assignment, but I actually found it quite valuable to revisit my notes and class materials and spend some time evaluating my writing in this new context.

The requirements of the assignment were pretty fluid. Here were some of the options for tackling the commentary:

  • offer an analysis of your creative process;
  • account for the ways in which your reading has informed your writing, in terms of both content and craft;
  • comment on the technical obstacles you have encountered and the tactics you have employed to overcome them;
  • attempt to place your creative work in a cultural, commercial, and genre context;
  • discuss your approach to editing and redrafting;
  • ask questions of your work: What did you aim to achieve, and did the finished product match or confound your ambitions? What might you have learned in producing this work, both as a writer and as a reader?

Basically, the commentary amounted to an analysis of what we had learned during the course.

After this assignment was handed in, however, I took it a step further. I walked from Pembroke down to Michaelhouse, a contemporary coffeehouse inside a working chapel, and spent a couple of hours analyzing what I had learned not just in the fiction course but throughout my time at Cambridge, both in and out of class. Topics ranged from the exercises and techniques I’d acquired to an evaluation of quality versus quantity in the production of my work to the social aspects of the trip.

Those few pages in my writer’s notebook were just the first step in preparing for my return home. In the coming days, I’ll explore additional strategies for dealing with life after a writers retreat. In the meantime, do you have any additional tips?

*On a side note, the day after I posted “TV Free” below, Ben Richards, a writer on MI-5 and creator of The Fixer, was a guest speaker in our screenwriting class. In addition to showing clips from his cool shows, he extolled the virtues of HBO’s excellent The Wire, and I missed my TV again.

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Oops! Grammar Girl is on a book tour with her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and one sharp-eyed Minnesota reporter discovered a grammatical error on the book’s back cover—proof that mistakes can happen to anyone.

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