Attempting My First DIY Writing Retreat

Summary Takeaway: I did not need a writing retreat as I referred to it at the time of planning. I used the idea of a writing retreat to justify to myself going to Joshua Tree. I found that once I was there, I was really craving being outdoors, hiking, taking in the desert landscape. I did complete some writing I wanted to get done but wanting a writing retreat and lots of outdoor adventure time in the same 3-day experience was too ambitious. I spent the majority of my trip enjoying hiking and being in the park. I’m not disappointed at all with this. Maybe this was even the ultimate purpose of the retreat, to invigorate and inspire me in my life holistically, including writing but also beyond it.

The first sign of me not needing to travel somewhere for a writing retreat was probably my last-minute planning. Up until the night before leaving, all I had done was book the Airbnb. With COVID cases and hospitalization so high in January, I didn’t gauge till the week of the trip if I felt safe and in good conscience traveling. I’m in the LA area, so Joshua Tree is a 2-hour drive in my own car, but traveling nonetheless. Thankfully, the cases had gone down significantly locally and across southern California. So I made the decision to proceed with the trip, still practicing social distancing, mask, and public health measures!

After catching up with a dear friend that night (and after she sent me a mini-playlist for the drive and her own JTree recommendations), I took to the ol’ oracle of Google and searched “how to plan your own writing retreat.” Here are some main takeaways I gleaned that helped me better frame up my time.

Prime the pump. Do not – I repeat, do not! – go on a writing retreat having not written or even having not thought about your project for weeks or longer.

Jennifer Louden, “A Guide to Creating Your Own Writing Retreat

Good thing I had been in a writing class at the time of this trip! Good thing I had signed up for workshop critique the following week upon returning from this trip! I felt vindicated, even relieved that my inclinations for a writing retreat weren’t totally baseless.

The story I worked on during this retreat had its first beginnings in 2019 and in recent months I’ve brought the pages to the workshop in a structured setting. Big shout out to my Voices of Color Workshop. This group’s feedback has given me insight into paths and bridges to cross as I keep working on the story.

Create a daily writing plan before you get there. Come with an outline prepared.

Kelly Notaras, “DIY Writing Retreat Guide: Everything You Need to Succeed

You’d think someone justifying a trip as a writing retreat might’ve had an outline sooner than the night before they leave. Well, that person was not me this time around. Luckily, based on workshop notes I got in a prior class meeting, I was able to put together a little plan and list of story parts I wanted to work on.

A redacted outline and itinerary for Day 2 with my daily intention written top. I did go on that Warren Peak hike in the morning and also manage 4 hours of writing!
(two after lunch and two after dinner)

If I weren’t in writing classes right now, who’s to say how this writing retreat would’ve gone. Maybe I wouldn’t even have had the idea for a retreat in my head if I weren’t needing to get writing done for a deadline. I probably would’ve just gone fully for that outdoor adventure and camped instead! That being said…

Let yourself sit quietly and think. 80% of writing is thinking, so let yourself ponder. Take walks. Sit quietly looking at the sunset. Let your creativity have some space to open up. 

Kelly Notaras, “DIY Writing Retreat Guide: Everything You Need to Succeed

When I make time for it, hiking and spending time outdoors expands my creativity and outlook on the regular. I’m privileged to be able to prioritize being outdoors for leisure, but even so, modern work culture and the digital, industrialized world literally removes us from being able to access and connect with greenspaces and nature.

I acknowledge and understand the irony of typing this out on a blog, of sharing photos of hikes on social media. It’s something I think about a lot, if and how I should share these outdoor adventures online when I’m very often preaching “get off your screens!” The internet and social media have very dark, real-world consequences (queue up the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma), but it still also serves as a place for wholesome learning, sharing of resources, and finding community. At the end of the day, this is where I feel like my writing and sharing my own experiences online add to.

Now, this is where my craving for being in nature and writing practice met, and nourished each other in my life overall as I am integrating my experiences from this trip.

I spent one day on this trip driving through the whole park. It was my favorite day of the trip. I learned so much from reading the signs set up along the park road, at trailheads (have been following up my curiosity with reading in the weeks since). I started around sunrise at the west entrance and spent the day making my way to the south entrance, stopping as I pleased to explore, do shorter hikes, and more importantly, to just be.

At the Cholla Cactus Garden, I felt so present and content in the landscape. I spent a good chunk of time there and just remember thinking to myself, these are the feelings and moments I live for.

Since returning, the invigoration and inspiration have led me to regain my agency at work, respect my own promises and boundaries, and refocus my energy. I know, super vague, so an example I’ll share is that I’ve been hiking weekly, knowing it will positively affect my mental and physical health. It all comes back to small decisions I can make on a daily and weekly basis to regulate and better myself.

Did I need to travel to get to this sense of peace at being? This invigoration and inspiration? Not necessarily, so the second part in writing this blog post (although it’s the one I actually wrote first…) leads me to reflect on what travel itself means to me.

I’ve done my best, and am continuously learning how to travel with intention. For me this includes some due diligence, taking time to read up on a destination’s history, and plan some sightseeing or more niche stops based on my interests. I love reading and learning via that medium, also planning and organizing things to do once I get into it, but there’s only so much one can fully read or look up online.

Intentional travel also includes critical thinking, from being self-aware of my privileges of time and money from a white-collar job, to how to engage in a place I’m not from to avoid being a waltzing-in type of tourist/visitor (but I think we’ve all done this to a certain degree until we learn better), to best support local business and communities instead of opportunists who flock to a destination for their own stake and profit (Dr. Kiona’s Instagram and podcast have expanded my mind in how to travel with all of this and community in mind, on local and global levels).

Joshua Tree is an incredibly popular location and gets a lot of tourist traffic because of its locale in southern California. I am a part of this tourist traffic. Regardless of how intentional I am, it doesn’t stop or slow the challenges the area faces. Arguably, my being there in any capacity might accelerate them depending on who you ask (i.e., the rise in rental properties, fewer owner-occupants who have different community interests). Because I am a visitor and I don’t have the knowledge around the social/economic impacts and longevity of the area, I can’t make much else comment on these types of issues other than acknowledging the nuanced reality.

Lastly, intentional travel for me includes self-awareness and self-reflection. This is different from critical thinking because it addresses myself and my why. Sometimes I feel that people use travel as a way to escape themselves and their problems. I’m all for spontaneity and living life in the moment, but I also believe that you can’t escape yourself. Wherever you go, all your personal inner workings and ways of being are going to be with you, including the ones that are challenging to confront and hold space for.

The why for this trip was simple enough, get writing done and spend time in nature. But on my first night, I quickly realized I was not ready to be alone in silence with myself and with my thoughts. I lost sleep from overthinking but knew I had to recalibrate my mindset the next day. I had to remind myself, hey, I’ve got this! I’m here for myself so let’s hold space for it. It’s uncomfortable and here are the reasons why and here’s what we can do now to process and let it go

I’ve found that, for better or worse, relaxing, just being, soaking it all in, presence, usually happens for me after going through all of the planning and reflecting, and the anxieties that emerge. Practicing presence is something I do in different ways every day. I think a lot of us practice it each day, trying to slow down, but know it’s a fleeting thing in itself.

Depending on the setting, the unplugging, the being in my center while traveling takes time. Isn’t that what part of traveling and taking a trip are? Going from one destination to another, moving through the challenges that arise and once they’ve passed, savoring waves of joy, each ebb and flow with presence. Isn’t that the act of life itself?