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Ten Women Writers, Seven Days: A Recipe for Disaster?

May 17, 2012

What do you get when you put ten middle-aged women in a big house on the beach for a week, miles from civilization, with no real schedule or set plans, no husbands, no kids, and no jobs? In other words, no responsibilities?

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of drama. Well, not if all of the women are writers. In that case, you get a seven day retreat of around-the-clock creativity. A week of nothing but writing, eating, sleeping, talking, laughing, sharing, daydreaming, and taking long walks on the beach.

I just came off such a week, and I’m still adjusting to the “re-entry” into my normal life. 

To be honest, when a writer friend first invited me to participate in this type of writing retreat three years ago, I balked. As someone who grew up primarily surrounded by guys and who has never been too keen on all-girl gatherings, a week with nine other women sounded almost nightmarish. But my friend assured me this was different. She’d been doing it for several years and raved about the experience. I decided to give it a try, and I loved it so much, this last week was my third year in a row.

What is the recipe for success?

First, we plan the week almost a year in advance, so everyone commits early and plans accordingly. None of the typical “Sure, it sounds fun, count me in!” without a corresponding financial commitment, which often leads to last minute backing out. Our house mother, as we like to call her, signs the rental agreement on the house only after everyone ponies up her share of the cost. We have to sign early or we risk losing the house. If you back out, you lose your payment unless the group finds someone to take your place.

Second, the week away is incredibly cheap. Even though the house is large and would be expensive for one or two families to rent, the per person share is small when ten people split the rental cost. And the only other expenses are: (1) airfare to Norfolk, Virginia (because the ten women come from all parts of the US, we have the retreat on a remote part of Virginia Beach, which is centrally located for both the fliers and the drivers), (2) $100 each for the food kitty, and (3) the shuttle cost to and from the airport. Our house mother enjoys cooking, so she willingly (and lovingly!) makes scrumptious dinners every night except one. The deal? The rest of us clean up on the six nights she cooks, and for the seventh night, we go out to dinner (even this meal is covered by the food kitty). For breakfast and lunch, you’re on your own with the groceries bought at the beginning of the week (and replenished as needed throughout the week with short grocery store runs), and everyone cleans up after themselves.

Third, every woman has her own bedroom and bathroom, so privacy and time to oneself never becomes a problem.

Fourth, everyone understands that our primary reason for being there is to write. Some of us are more serious about it than others, and that’s okay. The house has a huge family room area that we designate as the writing room during the day. If you’re in that room, you’re either writing or doing some other quiet activity so you don’t disturb the writers. If you want to schmooze with others or talk on the phone, you go downstairs to the kitchen, out on the deck, or take a walk on the beach. Nights are our social time. We play games, talk about books, drink wine, hunt for crabs on the beach, watch American Idol, and even make jewelry, thanks to one member of our group who brings the supplies and teaches us how.

It’s hard not to be inspired by this

Somehow, it works, and it works splendidly. On Friday evening, we come together one last time before our Saturday departure and share some of the writing we’ve created over the past week. It’s a magical time, listening to each other read aloud and hearing the unique voices and stories. I’m always amazed at how respectful and kind all of the women are to each other, and most importantly, how supportive.

As one of the gals said at the end of our week this year, “If only we could somehow bottle this and sell it.” If only, indeed.

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Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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3 Comments
  1. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    May 17, 2012 9:13 am

    Sounds like heaven to me. I know of other women who do this. I wonder if any guys do?

    I have a group of women friends who get together once a year for several days. It’s not a writing retreat, although writing is often involved, but it’s definitely directed towards creativity and support. We cook for each other, and we either take on something to learn while we’re together, or share something we’ve learned during the year. (This is the only time I ever paint or draw, because we have an artist in the group who guides us through some new technique and who is very encouraging.) We also meditate together and talk about our intentions for the coming year which elicits support. There’s time for silliness and wine, but really what comes through is the focus on creativity and living an intentional life. It’s great to be with people who believe (and live as though) writing and art is core to life, not just an add-on. I always leave full of energy, new ideas and with a boost to my confidence and spirit.

    It’s wonderful that you have the house-mother who organizes this. In our group there is also one key person who makes our time together happen.

  2. Julie Compton permalink
    May 17, 2012 10:28 am

    Mary Ann, what you say – “what comes through is the focus on creativity and living an intentional life” – is so true. When I’m at this house with these women (only one of whom I knew the first year I did this), I feel as if I’m with people who “get” me and completely accept me.

    As for guys, who knows? I can’t imagine a house full of guys gathered to write or paint or do some other creative endeavor! How interesting it would be to be a fly on the wall for that type of retreat! But maybe they DO happen. It’d be neat to hear from someone who has done this.

  3. May 17, 2012 3:49 pm

    Julie, Each November, I drive to St. George Island on the gulf for a week-long writers retreat – all women – and wallow in a great creative peak. What a luxury to be able to just write – no phone, no TV, no husband (though he’s a love, he tends to interrupt me for some unimportant something when I most need to concentrate on my writing!), the beach beckons for thinking time, and the company is inspirational. This is Fiction Among Friends – our house mother and founding member is Persis Granger, and our writing mentor is Adrian Fogelin. Although our numbers are limited, our group is open to any who may want to join us (go to http://www.fictionamongfriends.com to check it out.)

    We share a house (and bathrooms, but not beds!); divi up meal prep; do writing prompts and exercises with Adrian who also works with us on character and plot development (wonderful); and share our work in critique sessions. We even do brainstorming on each other’s writing “roadblocks”.

    The most interesting part of the creative process is that 8 women can be writing away in the same area and be so quiet, and then after a couple of hours everyone begins to stir – to the bathroom, to the kitchen for a drink or snack. After a bit of chatter and clatter, we settle on our separate nests and work away until meal-time.

    I get my best work done during that week and look forward to it each year.

    Thanks for reminding me, Julie. It’s time to re-up for next November!

    Mary Lois

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