How to Schedule a Creative Retreat

Pam RuBert, Alien Invasion. Art quilt, 53 x 72 inches. ©2006 The Artist

I mentioned last week that I was headed on a writing retreat in Crested Butte to finish my book. And now I’m happy to be back. Pam RuBert said she’d like to know more about such a retreat as she writes in addition to making her art. So, Pam, let me tell you about my retreat. I think it could be a loose model for anyone who needs to finish any big creative project.

First, I made this up. I didn't read about retreats anywhere, so I don't know if my way is the “right way,” but it worked for me. I had gone to the exact same place more than 10 years ago when I had three or four essays due for museum catalogs and other publications. At that time, I drove from Oklahoma to Crested Butte to write. I must have snagged a laptop from the museum as I didn’t have one of my own at the time. Or was I writing (gasp!) in longhand? In any event, I got the essays done and it was a success.

With my deadline (Wed., July 25 is D-Day) looming, I decided last month that I would clear the calendar and go off alone to put the finishing touches on my book. This was a clear boundary. I had my online classes to check in with and occasional emails from clients, but I did not schedule phone appointments or check voicemail. (I’m really bad about the latter anyway.)

This family house in Crested Butte is old. Very old. It’s so old that there is either a lot of cleaning and fixing up to do while you’re there or so much that you are overwhelmed at the prospect and choose to accept your surroundings as they are. I chose the latter.

I didn’t have daily goals like “I have to work on the book for 5 hours.” I went with my moods and natural rhythms. Arriving on Saturday night, I put in a couple of hours before going to bed and I think just 3-4 hours on Sunday. I took a number of naps and stayed up late. I had no cats to wake me up in the morning and no husband around to feel guilty about ignoring. (I sent said hubby flowers on Monday to thank him for his support and loving me enough to let me flee when I need to.)

In total, I was there four full days. Monday (which was a godsend–a rest day for the Tour de France and, therefore, no TV in the morning) and Wednesday were my most productive days. Without a doubt, those two days made it worth the trip. I accomplished what I went there for.

These were the things I felt were important for the success of my retreat:

  • The boundaries I set before going. Next time I will even delay my classes a week so that I don’t have to worry about them.
  • The support of my husband.
  • Being in a new environment–different surroundings. And yet they were familiar. I know the town and sites. I didn't feel like I had to play tourist and visit all of the stores or see everything. (This last sentence, I think, is critical.)
  • Tea. More tea.
  • Having dial-up only. I had the coffee shop around the corner for high-speed access in an emergency, but I only used it once. A slower Internet connection meant more focused time offline.
  • Being responsible for relatively few household chores. I painted the front door (as I had promised my parents I’d do) and swept the sidewalk, but few other responsibilities. I mostly did these chores as breaks in my computer/thinking time. They honestly re-energized me.

I had to do it during the Tour de France, but this was hard. I feel compelled to watch the live coverage of the Tour first thing in the morning. This isn’t the best way to start a creative day. If given the choice, I would schedule it at a different time during the year.

I'd love to hear about other creative retreats and how they work for you.

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5 thoughts on “How to Schedule a Creative Retreat”

  1. Alsyon, Your retreat experience makes me think of a productivity change I’ve made recently. I normally am very focused on specific goals, which translate into specific tasks I want to accomplish each day. This normally works very well, however, I have found that doing this day-in day-out, seems to not allow for enough creativity. What I’ve recently changed is I allow one day a week to be totally unstructured. A sort of “mini-retreat” in the middle of each week. For that one day, I don’t pay bills, don’t set goals (other than the major creative project I wish to devote the day to), I just work on something creative….all day. It’s working wonders.

  2. My husband, Gene, and I come to New Mexico to get away from the humidity and heat of Central Texas for 4 months. This should be enough to keep me going. But, at some point during the vacation, my friend Sue comes from Michigan. We do 3-4 days of daylight to dark art things. Sketch, paint plein air, hit the local galleries, etc. We make no plans/schedules. We talk, laugh and support each other without being critical unless asked. Gene takes us out to dinner in the evenings. This time is like getting the batteries charged. A great retreat for all of us. I look forward to it every year.

  3. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Clint and Jo: Inspirational stories. Clint, I hope we hear more about your unstructured creative day. I’m fascinated by the concept.

  4. Mary Daniel Hobson

    Hi Alyson, I loved hearing about your retreat. For the past several years, I have been doing a similar thing. Although I stay at home an work in my studio. I stock up in advance on groceries and clear my calendar of all commitments for 5-10 days. I schedule at least 3-4 a year — they represent a crucial part of my creative process. I recently blogged about it — you could check it out Thanks for sharing your experience retreating. all best wishes, Danny Mary Daniel Hobson

  5. Thank you for your blog Alyson! Your analysis of what makes a great retreat is spot on. With similar goals in mind, I started my own art retreat on Whidbey Island earlier this year. We take groups of 5 to 10 women to inspirational locations to paint, share ideas and instruction, stir the pot of creativity and enjoy refreshments and hors d’oeuvres while were at it. It’s a great jump start for everyone’s creative process — painting is the way we get there, not necessarily the objective. You can find us at, and I hope you come by and check us out sometime.

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