Beyond my budget!
Merryl Hammond
A newsletter from a local writers’ group advertized various Writers’ Retreats. They generally last between three and five days. Some are held in deliciously exotic locations, many offer “yoga for all levels,” (they clearly haven’t seen me lately!), and all feature erudite experts who will lead participants in writing exercises to unblock our repressed creativity, and so on. There’s also plenty of free time to relax, explore, and enjoy local cuisine.

Sounds dreamy! But by the time I added up travel, accommodation, and meal costs to the several hundred dollars charged for registration, it was all way beyond my budget.

Plan a Self-guided, At-Home Retreat

Time to make a different plan! I opened a new document and typed the following headings:

  1. Title of self-guided retreat: Professional retreats go by titles like “Write by the Ocean” or “Blue Mountain Writers’ Retreat.” Choose anything relevant and lofty-sounding for your retreat.
  2. Goals: You might choose a creative writing-related goal, or do intensive research for a new project, or do something more administrative to do with promoting your last project (set up Amazon Ads; upload a Kindle version; pitch for podcasts or guest blog posts, etc.). But I’d caution you to ask: Is this goal really “retreat-worthy”?
  3. Budget: By my calculations, I would have spent well over $1,000 to attend one of the retreats I saw advertised. I set a $200 limit for my at-home retreat, which would cover a couple of restaurant meals and a massage. What budget would work for you?
  4. Preparation phase: To make the most of your actual retreat days, it helps to prepare mentally and logistically beforehand. For example, I went to the library so that I would already have the books I needed on hand during my retreat; I stocked up on groceries so no such mundane chores would divert me during my retreat; and of course I warned my family that I would be “away”/unavailable for five days.
  5. Program: I created a table with activities and evaluations/reflections for each day, divided into morning, afternoon and evening slots. (See details about suggested activities below.)
  6. Logistics: I moved into our guest room for the week, to signal to myself and my family (who kindly humored me on this and many other points) that I really was “away on retreat” for the week! I did minimal housework and meal prep the whole week, with my family gamely covering for me. I made a sign saying: “Respect the flow” and placed it beside my keyboard. I closed my office door when writing and stayed in there for as long as possible without leaving. I found that my ideal “work chunk” is somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. What’s yours?

Suggested Activities

Borrowing mercilessly from ideas gleaned from the professional retreats that had initially inspired this idea, I planned for:

  1. Some physical activity (early morning walks or bike rides, a mini-yoga session following along on YouTube).
  2. Outings to “inspiring places” nearby that I seldom make time to visit (playing tourist in my own neighbourhood to get a fresh perspective on things).
  3. Visualizing exercises (again, YouTube is the best source: there are even some clips for visualizing success that target authors specifically).
  4. A couple of treat meals out, both to avoid time-wasting meal prep and clean-up at home, but also to mark the fact that this week is really special.
  5. Intensive reading and learning about writing (I devoured Stephen King’s highly recommended “On Writing” [2000], and watched some excellent Ted Talks on the craft of writing; I read several poetry books, and started reading a new book in my genre).
  6. Brief daily journaling to reflect on the day’s activities, insights, ideas for new projects, and feedback for my next retreat.
  7. But mainly, mainly reams of uninterrupted, focused time to write and brainstorm about my next project(s).


This first retreat could not have gone better! I was infinitely more productive than during a normal week. In fact, as the title says, this was the most productive week of my life.

  1. In the end, I spent less than $30 on restaurant meals, $85 on a 1.5-hour massage, and had no other out-of-pocket expenses.
  2. I felt strangely validated: “Only writers go on writers’ retreats, right? I am on a writer’s retreat, therefore I must be a writer!” (I still have a hard time believing in myself as a writer even though I’ve published five books with mainstream publishers, numerous others with non-profit organizations, and self-published another one just last year. Maybe it’s “imposter syndrome” or maybe it’s internalized sexism, but either way I still need a confidence boost…)
  3. But it’s the explosion of creativity and productivity that was so remarkable. Maybe “cascade” is a better term, because each new idea seemed to spark a related but independent idea. I started the week with one new blank document open on my desktop, and planned to focus on that project for the five days. By the end of the week, I had five separate documents, each representing a potential new writing project, and each, I can absolutely guarantee, would not have been “born” were it not for the magical creative bubble that my at-home retreat provided. My total output for the five days was 63 pages, or 12,650 words. That’s 12.6 pages or 2,530 words a day. King (2000:156) recommends that writers should set a goal of 1,000 words a day. I got two-and-a-half times more. And not to be competitive or anything, but the famously prolific King says he sets himself a goal of 10 pages or 2,000 words a day (2000:154). Ha! (Granted, he sustains his output consistently, year after year. Maybe I need to go on a permanent retreat! Mind you, King admits that his wife is a major support to him. Maybe I just need a wife!)

So there you have it, fellow writers. I cannot recommend this strategy highly enough. What will it take for you to design and manage your own writer’s retreat?

To your success!


Merryl Hammond is a health professional diagnosed with bipolar disorder eleven years ago at the age of 51. Almost overnight, she flipped from being a researcher and consultant to a locked ward patient. In her best-selling memoir, “Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country,” she takes readers through the vivid details of her struggles with bipolar. By being fearlessly honest in retelling events, she hopes to demystify this misunderstood mental illness, and to humanize the people it affects. Her mission is now to fight the stigma against all forms of mental illness, in all age groups. Her memoir is a testimony to hope and recovery. One of her planned future projects is to edit an anthology about bipolar disorder by patients, family caregivers and health professionals. Please contact her for writers’ guidelines. or

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