The truth is, I've never been to a real writers retreat, although whenever I visit my mother, it feels like a retreat.
In the late summer of 2000, my mother and stepfather retired from their day jobs and relocated from San Jose, California to La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. They don't live in town, but across the water from town, in a little community loosely connected with a town called El Centenario, and their front yard is the beach.
When I'm at home, I keep theater hours, partly because I spent years doing improvisational comedy, and am accustomed to starting my day between ten and noon and ending it around two in the morning, and partly because my husband works from home - as I do - and tends to work late into the night, so that he can better communicate with his counterparts in Hong Kong and Tokyo.
When I visit my mother, our iPhones are essentially useless because the cost of data is exorbitant, and even though my mother has high speed Internet access, it's unstable at best. She has a casita - a guest house - that she rents when family isn't in town, and that's where we stay. The glass doors open onto the pool. The windows look out on the bay of La Paz, part of the Gulf of California (formerly known as the Sea of Cortez). It's a peaceful place, with no streetlights or traffic, or even noisy neighbors.
Within thirty-six hours of arriving there, my schedule shifts. I find myself waking up around four - just before false dawn, and taking my laptop or a notebook and pen out to the private patio just outside the windows. I bring coffee or orange juice, and I write until the sun comes up. It's only a couple of hours, but it's intense. Then I go back to bed with my husband, if he's traveled with me, or with my thoughts, if he has not. When we don't have specific plans, I spend my days going from writing to swimming to wandering on the beach and in the mangrove forest.
It's not the sun that's ruling my schedule, though. It's the sea. My mother was on the beach the day before I was born, and when I was a baby, the first thing I heard in the morning, and the last at night, were the foghorns over the water. The sea is in my blood. Is it any wonder that my best writing is done by the water?
As this is a public beach on an open port, it isn't white sand, and it isn't pristine. Some days I am fortunate enough to come almost nose-to-beak with egrets or hawks, other days I find beached hammerheads, or used dime bags. My mother tells me that once there was a dead body that washed ashore (or was killed) in the mangrove, and when she called the police their response was not to rush out. It was more than a day before they came, and when she asked about it, they shrugged and said, "He's still dead, isn't he?"
There is no television, and no movies unless I choose to watch them on my iPhone or laptop. Mostly, after dinner, I retreat to the casita with a glass of limonada - sparkling limeade - or a beer, and maybe some cheese and crackers, and I write more. I tumble into sleep around nine. Sometimes even earlier.
While I'm always pleased with the amount of writing I get done when I'm there, I long for an experience that combines the intense writing sessions with just a little bit of external accountability. It's weird; I'm the managing editor of an ezine. My main blog (at missmeliss.com) is essentially an open journal I've been keeping for nine years. I write in the public eye all the time, and make my living writing copy for the web. But I'm incredibly shy about sharing my fiction with other people, and I know that a workshop where everyone is in the same boat would help me.
I've attended one writing workshop - the August, 2008 session of Algonkian, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. I pitched a science fiction-comedy and got a favorable response from agents, but then went home, had a year full of things that were decidedly un-funny, and couldn't look at it. This year, it's finally speaking to me again, and I want to finish it, and I KNOW it's saleable, but I need help from people who are not my friends.
My fantasy experience would be to go write in a cozy inn in Scotland, or to attend one of Natalie Goldberg's writing courses in Taos, New Mexico, but I can't afford a cozy inn in Scotland, and Ms. Goldberg focuses on memoir. I'm a young forty. I don't have enough experiences to create a decent memoir with yet. And anyway, I want to write fiction - tell stories - not bare my soul and subject people to my perceived childhood trauma.
For now, then, I have my imaginary retreat, and I have the Word Lounge, which is what I call my writing room, because "office" feels too corporate, and "studio" feels too arrogant. The Word Lounge has a sofa, and shell wreathes and model ships and lovely candles, but it also has a wooden desk, and three computers, a picture window that looks over my cozy neighborhood, and my podcasting gear, because I still do improvisation - I just do it on the 'net these days.
It may not be a real retreat, but most days, I can find a creative bubble and float in it for a few hours. At least until my husband or one of the dogs needs me for something.