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Saxapahaw, North Carolina

Time, money, travel delays, pet care, for those not child-free like me–child care, and a number of other factors prevent writers from making the time for a dedicated retreat. I should know, I just returned home from my first one after months of planning!

When I told my love that I wanted to take a writing retreat he asked why I didn’t want to stay home and write. We have a few quiet acres, my office is already laid out for me, and I could just order in food from town. I reminded him we have a little flock of chickens, a dog, and cockatiels. The dishwasher is always full and either ready to start or ready to be emptied. Any time I’ve told my love that I’m busy and can’t be interrupted, he still comes in my office and lays on the floor with the dog and starts rambling.

I listed all of these things and told him I needed a few days dedicated to my own writing, not writing projects for clients, not articles for editors, not critiques for my writing groups–just my short stories and my poetry. I didn’t want to chase chickens, feed, walk or bathe the dog, or have postal deliveries and folks peddling their faiths knocking at our door interrupting my creative flow.

In a series of minor hurdles, my original plans for my solo writing retreat this winter were foiled. As you’ll read below, everything happens for a reason. A few months ago I took my love on a surprise day trip for his birthday. On our way back home we stopped at a coffee shop in Pinehurst, North Carolina. It was our first time there and the town is too cute! I thought it would be great to spend my writing retreat there and have the freedom to walk to coffee and restaurants in town.

A few weeks before I reserved my room at an inn downtown I realized I had read the rates wrong and the fee was far above what I was willing to splurge on myself. I researched various online B&B providers, and for a little while considered using free nights we have at a hotel chain, but my love said a chain hotel would not be right for a retreat. He was right.

I didn’t want to travel far (one of my tips below) so I searched for unique spaces within a one-hour drive of home. An inn I had heard of before showed up in my search. It’s about 20-25 minutes from home, has a trail to the Haw River, and looked like a pastoral relaxing space where I could spend a few nights. Plus, the rates fit my budget!

river landing inn breakfast

One of the great breakfasts at the inn.

I just spent the last three nights at the inn, the River Landing Inn in Saxapahaw. (The mill village of Saxapahaw is the meeting spot for my Pen and Paddle.) The owners, Matt and Meredith, both work full-time jobs so they don’t have time to market their space, so it’s a bit of a secret. Plus, staying in a space that used to be barn was far more inspiring than a chain hotel! I had the whole place to myself all weekend except for guests Saturday night.

saxapahaw general store

Eggplant parm from the Saxapahaw General Store.

A few pleasant surprises made my productive weekend more special. Matt was kind enough to offer a custom breakfast time (basically dawn) for me since I get up so early (before dawn). That trail that goes down to the Haw? Yeah, it goes to the village too. I walked the shaded riverside trail less than a half mile to the village countless times over the weekend. (While many folks up north are buried in snow – it hit 80 here!) Blue heron, kingfishers, snapping turtles, and a few snakes graced my walks.

haw river

Haw River

My calendar is already marked with a few tentative dates for my next retreats. Another writer told me she went on a retreat with her friend where they spent the entire time focused on business items and marketing, like updating their websites, coordinating speaking gigs, etc. That sounds like a good idea too – but for my needs right now, I needed time for my own creative writing. While I love my clients and the stories I get to tell for them and through journalism, it feels like I’m always juggling everyone else’s needs. The fiction and poetry that I get so much joy from take little precedence.

haw river trail

Trail to town. That light!

Other than not spending time on anything related to anyone else’s writing needs, I had no specific agenda for the weekend. No word count targets. No page number goals. On my first night I wrote stream of consciousness and a prose poem came out of it. Then I read short stories. On my second day I wrote down a few thoughts for stories/poems as soon as I woke up. Then after my (sunrise!) breakfast I wrote the beginning of a story. Afterwards I revised several pending stories, finishing one that has been straggling for over a year. I walked to the village for a late lunch, reading stories while I was there. When I got back I submitted a few stories and poems to literary journals and contests, typed up handwritten poems that hadn’t made it to the computer yet, and released a few ladybugs outside that had been crawling over the writing desk in my room. After grabbing dinner in town I came back and popped open a bottle of wine and wrote some poetry. Before going to bed I decided to do some family history research for my next short story collection. Three hours later I had discovered my great-great uncle was a sea captain on a schooner out of Galveston, Texas, plus obituaries for several other ancestors. My last full day played out similarly, except I took an early morning run, had breakfast with another guest, and my love came out to visit me and have dinner. I spent my last morning doing yoga, checking email, and digitally penciling in those future retreats.

writing retreat

Sleeping with stories.

Now that my first writing retreat is complete, here’s a bit of advice if you find yourself searching for your own space of literary respite for the first time:

  1. Stay close. Don’t “waste” time traveling. Flight delays, traffic, and other variables could throw a wrench into your plans if you have to travel a long distance.
  2. Weigh options. I was not interested in renting a cabin or a house because then I would need to grocery shop and cook. While I love cooking, I wanted to maximize retreat time for writing. If that’s your prerogative too, look for a hotel or inn that serves breakfast, then you can order in or eat out for other meals. For budget-conscious folks, it might make more sense to find a space with a kitchen and cook for yourself, or cook in advance. Find what’s best for you.
  3. Listen. You probably do this already, but listen to your surroundings. I overheard interesting conversations at restaurants, and on my trail time I listened to tree frogs and cries from hawks. From my room I heard cows and roosters and shotguns. All of this is fodder for creative writing.
  4. Agenda of no agenda. As with anything, find what suits you best. Maybe you have one writing goal for the retreat, or maybe ten. Use the time to get that done. I found having an agenda that didn’t involve anyone else’s writing but my own was what I needed.
  5. Disconnect. Maybe you’ll power down your smartphone, leave your laptop at home, and only rely on pen and paper. Perhaps you’ll check email twice per day. To whatever degree that suits you, pull the cord somehow. I changed my voicemail recording and set up an away message on my email. I signed into email once per day. Fortunately, nothing urgent came up.

Now I’m back and writing and posting content for clients, researching my next article, and letting my writing group know that I’m hosting a Cocktail Hour in downtown Raleigh next month to celebrate our group growing to more than 850 members. It’s a relief to know a few more stories and poems are now out at journals getting reviewed, and that I have a clearer focus for my short story collection. That will have to wait though–I need to clean the chicken coop this afternoon!