Writing Retreat Reading Material

What are your favorite books on writing?

I’ve been slowly doing some blog housekeeping, and one post I came across recently was a list of 37 favorite books on writing, culled from both my own list at the time (2011) and readers’ comments. Help me to update the list by adding your own favorites in the comments, below, and I’ll add them—and those mentioned in the “37” post comments—to a new list. Can we reach 50?

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

Retreat II: Simplicity and Routine

Header photo “03 Tea and Breakfast” by Louis du Mont via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Continuing to think about what makes retreats different from ordinary life, I am reminded of the importance of simplicity and routine. During spiritual retreats, for example, participants often follow a strict schedule and eat simple meals at specific times. This is designed to free minds and hearts for greater focus and meditation.

Routine can also be good for writing and other forms of creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who popularized the concept of flow) studied the lives of 100 highly creative people and found that they often streamline their daily lives to reduce the need to make mundane decisions and to allow for more uninterrupted creative thinking. In the morning they might get up at the same time every day, do the same tasks in the same order, put out clothes the night before, even eat the same breakfast every day. What is the benefit? By not having to think about when we get up, what we do next, what to fix for breakfast, or what to wear, we reduce interruptions and conserve mental energy for more creative tasks.

“Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise. They wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important. Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with…. But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, p. 145 [emphasis added]

Questions for Reflection

  • Do you have any routines that help to free up your mind for writing?
  • In the past, have you assumed that routine is always detrimental to creativity?
  • What are some ways that you can simplify and streamline your daily schedule, especially before, after, and during writing times?

See also 

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

Retreat I

Header photo: “Walden Pond in Late June” by Cbaile19 CC0

Every once in a while, I touch my phone in a certain way so that the apps move down, like this:

I usually fumble around until the icons inexplicably return to their normal position. Last week, after having done this for the umpteenth time, I wondered if the feature serves a purpose, so I googled “iPhone apps move,” which filled in the phrase “iPhone apps moved to bottom of screen.”

Ahhh. I am not the only one.

Hold that thought…

A Retreat by Any Other Name

Before we go any further in this blog series, I should explain what I mean by a DIY summer writing retreat. The idea has been percolating in my mind for several months but didn’t come to the surface until my friend Christi Craig recently attended a novel retreat in Vermont (read her thoughtful reflection here). I began to think about not just writing retreats, but retreats in general, including a handful of spiritual retreats from my college days, and why retreats are worthwhile.

Retreat: A period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation. (Oxford Dictionaries)

Retreat: A period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director. (Merriam-Webster)

A good retreat takes us away from what is normal and familiar. It provides quiet and simplicity and space for self-reflection. It allows us to look at ourselves and the world in new ways.

More important, a good retreat gives us the tools and support we need to carry our changes and growth and new habits back to our usual world. In this way, a retreat marks a transition, a before and after, not just a respite or break.

For myself, I enter this summer with no grand plans or false expectations of sudden renewal, but with the goal of—as much as possible—adopting an attitude of retreat in the midst of everyday life, so that I can make small but real changes in how I approach and practice my writing going forward. This means paying closer attention to choices I make throughout the day, simplifying life as much as possible even in the midst of work and appointments and socializing, pausing before reacting, making time for meditation and focused writing. It also means gathering and reflecting on wisdom from those who have gone before me, other writers I admire. This blog is my way of keeping myself honest and recording those reflections.

Back to My iPhone (or “I’m Not the Only One”)

My internet search revealed that when one double taps the home button of an iPhone (without pressing in the button), the apps move down so that people with short fingers, like me, can more easily reach the upper apps if using only one hand. Who knew?

My point with this anecdote is that I’ve learned that whenever I am struggling with or searching for something, almost always I find that others share the same concern or need. Writing is no exception, perhaps especially so, as I consider myself a fairly typical, run-of-the-mill writer. My needs and questionings certainly are familiar to others, so as long as I’m embarking on this summer project, why not see who else wants to join me for the ride? And, along the way, we can help each other.

See also the New York Times review of a new Morgan Library & Museum exhibit about the quintessential American writer on retreats, Henry David Thoreau: “Thoreau: American Resister (and Kitten Rescuer).”

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

What about your writing makes you go gaga?

A bit of a shorter post today inspired by a lunchtime conversation with a friend. We found ourselves talking about the aspects of writing that bring us joy or happiness or whatever other word one wants to use—and those that don’t. The question we were circling around was this: How do we know when a project or story or goal should be shelved, unfinished for now, in favor of something new?

Our conversation reminded me of this description of how “writing creates you as you write it” by poet Reg Saner (from the March/April 2010 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle).

“[T]he interface between words and your sense of this world is a virtual place, and the locale where writing happens. Figuratively speaking, it’s an ecotone, the biologist’s name for a transitional boundary between diverse communities of life forms. It’s therefore also a zone where unexpectedly interesting things may happen….In essence, it’s a place where self-organizing, which is to say self-evolving, happens through interaction with the written word.”

In other words, we don’t just write about our experiences and transitions; our writing is part of and contributes to our experiences and transitions. Writing becomes part of our “self-organizing” and “self-evolving.” Writing is inextricably linked with our becoming. Saner suggests that we have different topics or places or issues of “interactive intensity.” For example, although he grew up in the Midwest, he rarely writes about his birthplace, because it doesn’t make him go “gaga.”

It seems fitting that after thinking about deep work and the difficulty that often comes with getting words into the world—and after reminding ourselves that writing is by its nature often not fun—we can also remember that it is okay to want and expect our writing to bring us joy and satisfaction. When it doesn’t, we can ask what needs to change.

If you are a writer or an artist or a creator of any kind, and what you are creating isn’t making you go gaga at least some of the time, if it’s not a place where interesting things are happening, maybe a different subject or place or idea is calling to you, one that you are drawn to because of who you are now or who you are becoming.

Questions for reflection:

  • Does writing bring you joy at least some of the time?
  • What about your writing makes you go gaga?
  • In what aspects of your writing do “unexpectedly interesting things” happen?
  • Is “interaction with the written word” a space that nurtures your own self-organization and growth?

Tomorrow’s Post: What is a DIY Summer Writing Retreat?

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post (a version of which was first written June 13, 2010, and later revised) is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

The Deep Work of Writing, part 3 of 3

“Concentration” by Arend (CC BY 2.0)

Before we move on from Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I want to share some of my thoughts on the book, what I like most about it, and examples of what a commitment to deep work might mean for writers (or at least this writer).

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve followed Cal’s work for years. Deep Work continues themes and approaches from his earliest writings, including a willingness to defy common wisdom, reliance on research, and an emphasis on rules and strategy.

I could never and would not want to schedule my days as minutely as Newport. I value passion more than he does. I also came away from his latest book feeling there is another part of the story to tell, one that includes more female examples and voices. These caveats aren’t meant as criticisms. Rather, they offer support for how, even so, I continue to find value in his insistence on the efficacy of a structured workday, in his argument for why “follow your passion” is not always the best advice, and in his example of how to live and work in ways that cut against the grain.

What I like most about the concept of deep work can be found in a Study Hacks blog post titled “Resolve to Live a Deep Life,” in which Cal posits these commitments to deep living:

  • You systematically train your ability to concentrate intensely.
  • You build your workweek around protecting and supporting many occasions to work deeply.
  • You take bold measures to demonstrate respect for your attention. Read more

Let’s reword these commitments a bit to focus specifically on writing:

  • Train our ability to write with more concentration and intensity.
  • Build our days and weeks to protect and support the deep work of writing.
  • Be bold in respecting our attention and writing.

These commitments as part of a DIY summer writing retreat would go a long way toward not only getting more words on the page, but also adopting a new mindset so that we continue to write more and with deeper meaning once summer has ended.

How might we train, support, protect, and respect the need for deep writing? Here are just a few ideas I’m trying and hoping to put into practice:

  • Schedule writing appointments with ourselves, giving them high priority. Write them in pen. Draw bold circles or squares around writing time. If we are part of a larger household, post our schedule in a public place.
  • Practice for how to respond to requests on our attention that interfere with our scheduled writing times (I can’t make it then—I’m booked solid that day—Not a good day for me).
  • When we are waiting in line or otherwise have time to spend between this and that, resist the urge to check social media or email or the internet. Instead, think about a current writing project, what we will write next, what revisions we’ll make. Allow ourselves to become mentally obsessed with our writing, so that we can’t wait to get back to it.
  • Refuse to apologize for, explain away, or downplay our writing.
  • When we do write, engage as fully as possible with our own work. Log off. Sign out. If necessary in the beginning, use apps designed to block digital distractions. This is a relationship between us and our words, between us and our life’s calling. It matters.
  • Remember that research, reading, revising, and editing can also be deep work when we approach them with “distraction-free concentration” and at our fullest abilities.
  • We can continue to train for deep work even when we have no time to write, by consciously refusing to use our phone to alleviate every twinge of boredom, by scheduling for shallow (and, yes, fun) time on social media so that it doesn’t expand to fill the entire day, and by being more mindful in general as we go about daily activities.

One more aspect of Deep Work that is worth thinking about. Newport argues that, for knowledge workers, the ability to concentrate and work deeply is a rare but valuable commodity at the moment. We writers have been told (and told) how important it is to have a brand or platform, and we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that all time spent on social media is a good investment in our writing. Some of it may be, but—speaking only for myself—I would gladly exchange many hours I’ve spent scrolling newsfeeds for stories, poems, and novels.

Questions for reflection:

  • What does it mean to you to be bold in respecting your attention and writing?
  • Do you talk about your writing with the kind of respect you hope to get from others?
  • Does your writing time always take a back seat to anything else that comes along?
  • What are the biggest distraction temptations while you write? How might you plan to avoid them?
  • What are some ways that you nurture the deep work of writing?

See Also

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.