The Five Day Writer’s Retreat by Buffy Greentree is a guide which promises to “rejuvenate your mind and sustain your passion” for writing. Will you stay the distance or disappear down the pub late on the second day?
Every writer out there reads writing guides at some point in their journey, even if it’s so they can nick a structure on which to write their own. I have a box full of them in storage somewhere, from a time when I diligently read every guide I could find on the basis it would make me a better writer. I procrastinated just as diligently in doing the actual writing required to achieve that goal, of course.
However, there were some lessons learned along the way which stuck with me and shape what I write now, and I’ve often thought of revisiting that box of books in my spare time (he laughs) to see which of them still holds up. Disclaimer: I was supplied with a review copy of this book; Greentree is a friend of a friend. That won’t change what I have to say about it, but it only seems fair to tell you in advance.
Greentree styles her guide in the manner of a guru leading neophytes on an actual retreat, where knowledge is imparted and built upon on each of the five days, and how you deal with that is going to depend on your personal taste in teachers. Being a horrid old grouch of a thing, I found her approach felt a bit touchy-feely for my liking. (I’d prefer to spend my five days being bawled at by Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartman until I had matters perfect and could enjoy a victory gin.) Having said that, it’s easy to forget how the process of writing feels for the first year or two, when everything seems to hang within reach and the criticism feels personal, and the book provides a soft landing for novices who may be struggling with that process.
Ten things I took from the book
The basic ideas Greentree deals in are sound, and you will have heard many before:
(1) get up, sit down and work (morning is the best time of day to write);
(2) set a routine and stick to it;
(3) don’t let your internal editor dam (or damn) a first draft in progress;
(4) write what excites you, not others;
(5) clear your mind and surroundings prior to writing;
(6) treat writing as leisure, not work;
(7) analyse your writing methods for strengths and opportunities to improve;
(8) search to access the ‘flow’ via your writing;
(9) focus on living well in terms of stress, sleep, eating and exercise;
(10) and set goals with achievable steps.
Greentree’s focus on life outside of writing is something that many guide authors just assume will fall into place for newbies, and she offers good advice in this area. In my experience, the life/write balance is one of the most difficult aspects for a writer to work out. If you’re already exhausted when you sit down at your desk, it’s unlikely that you’ll produce anything of great worth in that session; worse, you may come to resent writing as contributing to your exhaustion.
Use the Flow, Luke
Flow is this semi-mythical state of being that creatives (among others, such as sportspeople) aspire to, much in the same way that every Padawan wants to learn to use the Force. Except flow exists; I say ‘semi-mythical’ because the trick with flow is applying it to a repetitive, sustained and taxing activity like writing.
Want to know what flow is? I think the example people will most relate to is when they play immersive video games. In their minds, they gradually become the avatar on the screen, and the chain of action of (1) reacting to events on-screen, (2) mapping the desired movement of the avatar, (3) pressing buttons to make that movement, and (4) watching the avatar respond becomes shortened. The consciousness of the player drops out of the chain, which shortens to just involve what’s happening on-screen; essentially, you become the avatar. I’m sure that everyone who’s played video games has had the experience of ‘losing’ time to the game while in this state – hours of play can evaporate.
So, how does this flow relate to writing? Essentially, you ‘become’ the writing—that is, your active consciousness lets go and you enter an almost-trancelike state—and without the constant nagging distraction of your higher level thinking, your productivity increases markedly. I wouldn’t mention it if I hadn’t been there several times myself. The trick is, of course, to replicate the conditions allowing flow so you can produce it on command.
Like all guides, different parts are going to resonate with different writers. I have a more bearish outlook than Greentree does when it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of being a writer. But I’m going to pay attention to anyone who claims they can pump out two and a half thousand words in a good hour’s typing, because that’s about three times the speed I can manage.
I can see this guide appealing particularly to older novice writers, who often need a gentler hand until they can build up the requisite hide required to workshop and submit. They’ll appreciate the book’s leading structure. Intermediate and advanced writers will find less of value on offer and may prefer a more concise read. But it’s certainly worth a look as a Kindle Edition for a fiver.
Proceed to ‘15 tips for novice writers, part 1’, or return to Re: writing.
As always, feel free to unleash below.