Dreaming of running away to write a novel, memoir or a few short stories? Me, too, just about every day! I’ve escaped a couple of times and here’s my take on how to plan a great writing retreat:

  1. Don’t go empty-handed. I used to think that if only I could retreat from all the responsibilities of my ordinary life, literary lightbulbs would pop on all around my head. So, I managed to arrange a semi-retreat where, for one week, I had every morning free to brainstorm. Amid all the pressure I put on myself to create, I wasn’t able to come up with a single bright idea. The next time I retreated, I packed a draft of over one hundred pages. When I didn’t feel especially creative, I edited. Much better.
  1. Think carefully about how much solitude you want. I once read about an author who set herself up – for an entire month — in a cabin on a small island accessible only by private boat. Perfect, I thought: I could get so much done in a place like that! However, on a recent self-catering retreat in a rambling manor where a half-dozen of us often gathered in the communal kitchen or dining room, I found the minimal socialization a pleasant break. In a lot of ways, it recharged me. Note the adjective “minimal”; I recommend a place where it’s easy to avoid social interaction when you want to. Make sure you have a private room spacious enough to stay in for long periods of writing time – you don’t need cabin fever on your dream retreat.
  1. Choose a location with few distractions. Most people would consider this a no-brainer. Not me – I’ve often thought it would be great to retreat someplace where, after a longish day of being creative, I could stroll out my door and wander sidewalks lined with inviting cafes, shopping and other diversions. I’m reconsidering this, though, after hearing from my good friend, Wanda, who went to a renowned arts center in a scenic mountain town for a few days of intensive work on her novel. “But it turns out they have yoga, and I hadn’t brought anything to wear so I had to go shopping. And then I ran into old friends and we went for lunch and…” She had a great time, but she didn’t get much work done. There goes my idea for a writing retreat in Manhattan.
  1. End your retreat with a real treat. I recently spent three weeks in the rambling manor mentioned above. It’s in the south of France, in a town so small there’s not one café. Seriously. I didn’t mind the lack of shops and eateries because, after all, I was there to work. And I was looking forward the carrot at the end of my writing stick— five days in Barcelona, where there’d be plenty to see and do. (And there was.)
  1. If you discover a great retreat, share it. See that photo up top? One of those buildings in the distance is La Muse Artists and Writers Retreat. I heartily recommend it. But don’t book the Erato – that’s my room, and I’m going back!




I often daydream of retreating to a rustic cabin, far from the madding crowd. I also love the poetry of Robert Service, “Bard of the Yukon.” So, during a recent trip to Dawson City, how could I not visit his one-time home?

Born in England in 1874, Service immigrated to Canada at the age of 21, found employment as a bank clerk in Victoria, BC, then, about ten years after the height of the Klondike gold rush, transferred to the Yukon. In Dawson City, he quit his day job to become a full-time writer. I imagine him in his little cabin, at his desk with the woodstove crackling behind him and the wind howling outside, as he puts finishing touches on “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” If you ever pass through Dawson, do yourself a favour and visit this heritage site – it’s free and fascinating. Here are three things I took away from this writer’s retreat:

  • It’s okay to write on the walls. Service was in the habit of writing on his wallpaper. Who knows if that was to stoke his creativity or just a symptom of cabin fever? Either way, it seems to have worked. Apparently, he also scribbled aspirational messages. A framed specimen of his wall writing reads: “Rebuffs are only rungs in the ladder of success.” Robert-Service-wallpaper
  • You can compose on anything. I want a cabin retreat but don’t want to be without my printer — and, okay, the Internet. Have you ever felt you just couldn’t start your literary masterpiece without the right technology? Service had what looks like a pocket typewriter to me. (This one, in his cabin, is identical to the one he actually used, which now resides in the tourist information office in Dawson.) Robert-Service-typewriter
  • A love of verse can lead you to the most interesting people. We missed the scheduled live reading of his work, but the guide was kind enough to give DH and me a private reading. (Whoops, I forgot to write down her name.) She read beautifully, introduced us to a few Service poems I’d never heard of, and told us she’s been in Dawson for about 30 years. Why Dawson? “I wanted to get as far away from Ontario as I could.” But Ontario has followed her, in the form of a mother who drives out with a trailer every summer now. “She can’t go in reverse, though. She’s managed to get all the way to Alaska and back to Ontario without ever having to back up.” Service could’ve composed a great poem about that, I’m sure.      Robert-Service-guide

Dawson is a very literary small town, and just down the road from Service’s old place is Jack London’s cabin. But that’s for another post.





Good House is Good Recovery Fiction

May 23, 2013

And speaking of drunkenness (see my last post, Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?), I just finished , by Ann Leary. Protagonist Hildy Good lives on prime property just outside a coastal town north of Boston. She is the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first women hanged for witchcraft in nearby Salem. Hildy […]

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Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?

April 1, 2013

Thirty pages into a memoir of recovery from alcoholism, I suddenly stopped and flipped the book over to study the photo of the author: Had I read this book before? Then I realized that no, it just seemed that way because I’ve read several such memoirs and they all have the same basic structure. Chapter […]

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I.O.U. a Great Nonfiction Story

October 19, 2012

Good nonfiction can make a complicated, difficult topic comprehensible. One of the most confounding matters of modern times is how the global financial system went off the rails in 2008. How is one to understand Too Big To Fail banks gambling with other people’s money and then getting taxpayer-funded bailouts? I watched several documentaries and […]

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The Power of Story

June 14, 2012

It’s obvious the ability to tell a great story will get you far in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. But literary devices—the use of scenes, specific detail and suspense and more—can turn informational nonfiction into a riveting read, too. By “informational,” I mean the sort of book you read mainly to find out about a […]

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Margin Call Shows How Writing Less is More

April 18, 2012

Any writing instructor will tell you that revising is a crucial component of the writing process, and a big part of revising anything — from an academic essay to a short story — is cutting unnecessary words. If you want your writing to excel, take the advice a step further: Cut unnecessary information. Aiming for […]

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Are Rejections Worth Saving?

April 3, 2012

I’ve been cleaning my office and today, in the file cabinet, I found a rejection letter from a literary journal dated October 17, 1992. The message is two lines, the standard thanks-but-no-thanks. After these two printed lines, though, is a handwritten note that runs all the way down to the bottom of the 8×11 page. […]

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The Best Books on My Writing Bookshelf

March 9, 2012

I own 62 books on writing. I had no idea I had this many writing guides until I counted them just before sitting down to compose this post. At least a dozen of these didn’t especially inspire me and I should really get on with it and clean house but it’s difficult for me to […]

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How do you write a great ghost story?

October 24, 2011

What kind of ghost story do you like? If you want to write a great ghost story, you need to understand the answer to this question. I know what I like: stories that fall into a sub-genre of ghost fiction often referred to as psychological ghost stories. In this kind of fiction, emphasis is on […]

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