Philadelphia!” the bus driver calls out, as he pulls over to the curb and opens the door. It’s pouring rain. I’ve got my laptop, 400 printed pages of the novel I’m working on, and clothes for three days. Somewhere in this unfamiliar city is an Airbnb room I’ve booked. I’m not even sure which direction to walk.
While trying to fix the handle on my flimsy umbrella, I glance down, and there on the sidewalk are the words, spray-painted in red, “Protect Yo HeART” — emphasis on ART. What better omen could there be for someone embarking on a DIY writing retreat?
Over the past five or so years, I’ve been a resident at three artists’ colonies. Each time, I’ve produced more work during a two-week stay than I would have in six months at home.
Leaving home to work on creative projects ratchets up motivation and output for a few reasons: You’ve come all this way, so you’re less likely to waste your time perusing Facebook or Instagram. And uninterrupted writing time allows you to keep an entire book (or album or series of paintings) in your head at once, so you can more easily see your project’s big-picture possibilities. Plus, new sensations, sights, and smells are known to spark creative breakthroughs.
While I love participating in organized artists’ colonies and all they offer (like home-cooked dinners and the camaraderie of other artists), this time I wanted to strike out on my own. At this point in my project, I wasn’t looking for group feedback or instruction.
This would be the quick-and-dirty version of a writing colony at someplace easily accessible by bus from my home in New York and with a good selection of places to stay through Airbnb. A couple of weeks after deciding to do it, here I am in Philly. In the rain. Lost.
Eventually, I manage to hail a cab. A schnauzer named Baby greets me at the door of my temporary lodging. I’ve already told my host, Patricia, about my DIY writing-colony plan, and that I’ll mostly be in my room, working. She points out the amenities, tells me about some good restaurants in the area, and leaves me to it.
The weekend was ideal. I revised my novel, went for walks, and ate out a few times. I didn’t have to break out of the headspace needed for my project at all — other than for short breaks to pet Baby. It was also affordable and convenient, and unlike typical residencies and conferences, it required no application.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Not everyone is looking for such a bare-bones experience. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sirenland, an exclusive six-day writing conference held each year during early spring in Positano, Italy. The conference takes place at a five-star hotel, Le Sirenuse, the week before the hotel opens for guests, so the Sirenland writers have the place to themselves.
“The atmosphere ends up feeling like a wonderful Italian house party,” says best-selling author Dani Shapiro, one of the conference’s founders. Still, the workshops, each limited to 10 residents and led by accomplished writers, are heavy on craft; the participants are serious about their writing.
Elizabeth Bradbury, a documentary filmmaker, has attended Sirenland numerous times. Some of the workshops, she says, “are like taking an entire semester of a graduate-school course in one week.”
Bradbury credits Sirenland with kick-starting her writing commitment after a long pause. “I stopped writing in my early 30s because of marriage, family, career, kids,” she says, adding that the sup-portive and encouraging atmosphere recharges her so much that she’s able to maintain that focus even after she’s home.
A typical day consists of a two-hour workshop in the morning, where attendees’ manuscripts are critiqued. After that, lunchtime can be spent at the beach, writing, even going sightseeing. In the evenings, participants can attend writing-related panels.
With lavish meals and an ocean-view room, luxurious Sirenland, at $4,200, is one of the pricier writing conferences. Bradbury uses an inheritance from her father to fund her trips, saying she knows he’d approve of the way she’s spending the money.
Learn more at www.sirenland.net.
The positive connection between creativity and physical action has been well documented, and some creative retreats include a physical component, precisely for this reason. Sirenland cofounder Dani Shapiro also offers writing retreats in Connecticut that include daily yoga classes.
“I’ve come to believe, in my own writing life, that our stories — both the ones made of memory and the ones imagined — live somewhere within our bodies,” she says. “It isn’t all happening from the neck up. And it’s essential to have practices that allow those stories to reveal themselves to us.”
But sometimes you simply can’t get away. This was the predicament Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, faced while writing the book that made her famous. “I was a single mother, with a toddler underfoot,” she says, adding, “It’s important to be alone with your thoughts, even if it’s just for a few minutes in the morning.”
If spending time away from home isn’t possible, you can always grab a journal or a sketchbook and steal a few minutes for yourself. Consider it a micro-artist colony.
Regardless of how or where you choose to express yourself — at home, at an instructor-led center, or by building your own outing — the most important feature of any creative practice is making the time to be alone with your imagination.
Considerations for Choosing a Retreat
Desired level of feedback: If you’re looking for input or a group experience, a conference might be a good choice. Not all colonies and residencies have a workshop element.
Timing: Summer artists’ colonies tend to be in high demand. If your schedule allows, consider attending in the fall or winter; spots may be more readily available.
Location: Do you want urban, rural, or both? How easy is it to get there? Some colonies are located far from airports, which might require the additional expense of renting a car or taking a long taxi ride.
Additional expenses: Are lodging and meals included? If you have dietary restrictions, make sure the retreat can accommodate your nutrition needs.
This article originally appeared as part of “In Search of Inspiration” in the May 2016 issue of Experience Life. To order a back issue, call 800-897-4056 (press option 3 when prompted). To get all the articles from each issue of Experience Life, subscribe online at https://experiencelife.com/articlesubscribe.
More Creative Spaces
These artists’ colonies serve an array of disciplines.
Creative Landscape: Ucross, an artists' colony in Wyoming. www.ucrossfoundation.org.
Photography: Light Work, in Syracuse, N.Y., offers monthlong residencies, including a $5,000 stipend, a furnished apartment, and 24-hour access to Light Work’s facilities. www.lightwork.org
Writing: Hosted by novelist, poet, and creative consultant Vanessa Matthews, Writing Retreats Cornwall offers a variety of one-day workshops, short courses, and residential retreats. www.writingretreatscornwall.co.uk
- The Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) offers a budget-friendly, multidisciplinary alternative that pairs participants with a mentor in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. www.atlanticcenterforthearts.org.
- Located just outside of Chicago, Ragdale offers inexpensive stays of either 18 or 25 days to architects, artists, writers, musicians, and composers. www.ragdale.org
- Literary, visual, and performing artists can stay in Mineral School’s converted elementary school near Mount Ranier, Wash. www.mineral-school.org
To locate additional opportunities, visit www.artistcommunities.org.