How to attend a writer’s retreat without leaving home

Someone asked if this blog is dead. It’s a fair question. I haven’t posted anything new since June 5th, and before that, May 17th. But no, commatology isn’t dead. It’s just summertime, and in summer this writer is busy in the garden.

August morning in the garden.

August morning in the garden.

I used to feel guilty when I didn’t write all summer. That was before I recognized that writing and gardening are two sides of the same coin, and I need both forms of creative expression as much as I need air and water.

And then there’s the incubation factor. Last night we listened to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the amazing Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. They were discussing productivity, and Popova used an analogy from Thoreau that carries extra meaning when you live and write on a farm. Thoreau pointed out that a hen lays just one egg in a day. The rest of the time, all she does is scratch and feed on things to nourish the next egg. For me, this process doesn’t have to be confined to one day. Sometimes I nourish the next egg for months.

Still, when I go for long stretches without writing, I eventually start to feel out of balance. So when I saw Laura Munson’s post about creating a writer’s retreat at home, I was keen to try it. Now, this isn’t anything like the rural writer’s retreat I attended in April. That retreat was geared toward learning and connecting with other writers. This one aims at producing an egg. Here’s what Munson recommends:

  1. “Sleep in. And I mean late. Like til 10:00. You’ll likely wake up around 7:00, but challenge yourself to stay in bed for a few more hours in a sort of wakeful trance….” (I managed to stay in bed until 8 a.m. So much beckons on the farm that 10:00 is simply impossible. I was pretty happy that I managed to stay put until 8:00 though,  but I have to admit it was more like sawing logs than wakeful trance.)
  2. “Still in bed … write the first line in your mind … grab your bathrobe, and go directly to your desk.”
  3. “DO NOT CHECK YOUR EMAIL…. Or God forbid, Facebook.”
  4. “Write the first line.”
  5. “Then go make a smoothie….” (Not being a fan of smoothies, I made coffee.)
  6. “… Go back to your desk. Give yourself two hours. At least. Two hours at your desk, writing. I repeat…do NOT go on the internet. Not for one nano-second. Even to research something for whatever it is you are writing….”
  7. “Noon-ish. Now take a break. Make lunch. Sit somewhere and let go of the thoughts. Notice the world around you. Sit outside if you can. Watch birds. If your head is busy, start counting the birds you see to keep the thoughts from taking over. I’ve counted a lot of birds. Amazing what you notice when you break life down to winged things.”
  8. “Now take a walk…. Allow something to happen….”
  9. “On your walk, if you really get cooking, try this: Interview yourself, as if you are on a national morning show like the Today Show. Ask yourself driving questions about the thing you wrote this morning. Things like: What is your piece about? What’s at stake for your characters? What made you want to write it? What’s in it for the reader? What’s in it for you?  … Once you get [answers], go home as fast as you can and write them down….”
  10. “Now return to what you wrote and read through it keeping those talking points in mind. They will be your guide in the progression of this piece, wherever it may go.”
  11. “Or maybe you nailed it in two hours this morning and it’s ready to put on your blog, or pitch to a magazine or newspaper. But if you’re like 99.9% of the rest of us writers, you likely have more work to do. And that’s good news. Because you can control the work and just about nothing else about the writing life….”
  12. “If you want to write more and you have the time, go for it! But set yourself up for completion by starting small with those two pure hours.”
  13. “Print out what you wrote at the end of the day, draw a bath, and read it out loud to yourself with a good pen. Mark it up.”
  14. “Start the next day the same way, only now you can meditate on the piece you started and take it further. Begin by plugging in your edits from the night before and you…are…IN!”
  15. “Have fun! …”
  16. “Rinse repeat….”

I (roughly) followed these guidelines for two consecutive days, and voilà! I finished a creative nonfiction piece I’ve been scratching and feeding all year and submitted it to a couple of journals. That feels great.

Now … back to the garden to feed the next egg!

This morning's view from the dreaming chair in my garden.

This morning’s view from the dreaming chair in my garden.



10 Responses to “How to attend a writer’s retreat without leaving home”

  1. Debbie G Meek

    Loved reading this Leslie and so admire your healthy sense of humour. Whether aspiring writers or not, we could all benefit/appreciate that intricate web we call life by ‘loosely’ adhering to this daily practice.

    • commatologist

      And I admire your sense of priorities, as when you chose to spend the day at the beach yesterday despite all the chores that thought they should get done. Thanks for reading, Debbie!

  2. Marion Shukin

    Oh, the words I have written, so many of them, and never put pen to paper … well, other than in my journal. Started, stopped, breathed deep, breathed deeper, baby steps … and ground to a halt. Maybe this will be my starting point … hope always springs eternal!

    Loved this.

  3. commatologist

    You must write, Marion, and here’s why.

    One of my favorite quotes, by Martha Graham (and this should carry extra weight with you because it was said by a dancer – look at the amazing Kaia for inspiration and know she gets her courage and determination and boldness from you):

    “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action,
 and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. 
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. 
The world will not have it. 
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. 
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. 
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. 
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”


  4. carin

    Oh this is good! Thank you. And I will happily take the smoothie option… (good luck with your submission; I suspect it won’t have much trouble finding its home)

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Carin! For some reason my spam catcher thought your comment was spam, and I’m only seeing it now. How strange, given that you’ve commented many times – and I always appreciate it when you do!

  5. theresa

    I loved this, Leslie. Sometimes it really takes a small shift in how we see the day and our place in it. And wonderful that you finished things!


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