The Value of Retreating

One of many sunsets during the retreat.

In early July, I spent seven days at a creative retreat organized by Rabbit Hole (a company that designs live interactive gaming experiences). We stayed in a house on a river in Indiana with an outdoor grill, fire pit, and decks. While I set specific writing goals, I didn't think much beforehand about what being on a retreat means.

Today I looked up the dictionary definitions of the word “retreat.” As a noun, it can mean a place of privacy that affords peace and quiet, an area where a person can be alone, an area for withdrawal for prayer and study, or the act of withdrawing or going backwards, especially to escape something hazardous or unpleasant (or enemy troops). As a verb, its meanings are similar and include pulling back or moving backward, withdrawing from enemy forces, or withdrawing to a quiet or secluded place.

In different ways, all these definitions applied. I consciously decided to withdraw for the week from unnecessary email, most social media, and business concerns.

Michelle (no longer a baby) taking a break on the dock.

I also withdrew, without really planning to, from other aspects of life. For instance, from being concerned about how I present myself. Rabbit Hole was founded by my niece Michelle Lilly and her friend and business partner Eleanor Hyde. I've hung out with Michelle since she was born (she was a super-cute baby, by the way, not that I'm biased), and the retreat included other writers, musicians, and artists who are family or are friends of Michelle. All had come to work on their own projects (games, plays, music, art), not to evaluate or do business with me. Which meant I packed and wore what was comfortable and weather appropriate without a lot of thought about how I looked. I brought only one pair of shoes–sandals with a gym-shoe like sole. In other words, I could ignore the lines most women walk every day, such as do I look:

  • too young (skirt too short; hair too long; dress, skirt, leggings, or jeans too tight; sweatshirt or T-shirt too big/too loose)
  • too old (too much gray in hair; skirt too long; blouse buttoned too high)
  • too sexy (blouse cut too low; skirt too short; heels too high; hair too wild)
  • too conservative (shoes too flat; make up too sparse or too polished; hair too straight and neither too short nor too long)
  • too serious (not smiling; arms at sides)
  • too silly (smiling too much; gesturing too much). 

I just wore what I wore and looked how I looked. How relaxing was that?

A cemetery a few steps from the house.

It also felt wonderful to be free of scheduling. As I wrote in my last entry, I live by schedules because that's how I make sure I get things done. But because I dropped out almost everything other than fiction writing, I felt confident I could write the number of words I wanted to write without a fixed plan. So I never set in alarm for when I would get up, and I went to bed when I got tired, rather than at a specific time.

Also, Monotone, Indiana is in a different time zone than Chicago, where I live. My laptop stayed on Central Time, the clocks in the kitchen were set to Eastern Time. The clocks in the bedroom were all blinking because apparently the electricity had gone out at one point. My iPhone kept switching time zones, which probably had to do with cell phone towers. All of this gave me a wonderful feeling of time being fluid, and of having no pressing demands.

A zombie game we played (similar narrative to Walking Dead).

Retreating means not only pulling away but moving toward. I was looking for peace and to jump start my creativity after a few busy months getting my third supernatural thriller released, finishing a semester of teaching, and writing an appeal. My plan was to relax by immersing myself in fiction writing (I'm working on The Illumination, the fourth and final book in my Awakening Series), and I did that. But I also completely enjoyed simply being in a place with all these people who love telling stories, and care about telling stories, as much as I do, and who tell them in very different ways. Michelle, Eleanor, and I spent about eight hours playing a game called Her Story. It required using keywords to search for video clips of an interview of a woman who was connected to a murder. By finding and watching the clips, which could not be seen in chronological order, we pieced together the woman's life and what had happened. So it was both a game an an alternate, non-linear way of figuring out a mystery/suspense story. As the next series I plan to write will be mysteries/legal thrillers, I not only had fun, I learned about my genre.

The house, which Rabbit Hole found through AirBnB, had a VCR and a bunch of videotapes, including the original Star Wars trilogy. So one night we stayed up late and watched Star Wars. (I admit it; I went to bed before Empire Strikes Back.) That, too, was a great experience that took me back to how I excited I felt about that movie when it came out, and the sense of wonder it engendered.

These surprises and others (including the neighbors' over-the-top fireworks displays on July 3, 4, and 5) reminded me that while focusing on productivity and sticking to schedules has served me well my whole life, it's also important to be flexible and try new things. Not just to foster creativity but to have a happy and fun life.

One of the cloudy days on retreat.

Finally, I appreciated how responsible, considerate, and cool everyone at the retreat was. Depending on the day, we had between 3 and 8 people staying in a small two-bedroom house. Everyone brought or bought more than enough food to share, washed dishes when they saw them piling up in the sink (no dishwasher), cleaned counters or tables when needed, and cooked. Those who stayed up late or got up early were mindful that others were sleeping. And we all checked with one another regarding workspaces and whether what we were doing might disturb anyone else.

The only downside for me was that while I loved taking walks, sitting near the river, and watching sunsets over the water (see photos), many, many, many bugs also enjoy the same, and are not at all put off by eco-friendly bug spray. I am pretty sure I got more insect bites in one week than I've had in the last 10 years. And I am absolutely going back if Rabbit Hole hosts the retreat again next year.

When is the last time you went on a retreat? If you haven't been on one, would you like to? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.