Thursday, January 15, 2009

Guest in Progress: Julie Wakeman-Linn

Writer Julie Wakeman-Linn is one of those dynamos who seems to be able to do about sixteen things at once, so it’s no surprise to me that among her many projects—teaching, running the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary conference, editing the Potomac Review, writing…and I imagine she also has a personal life!—she was also able to recently create the perfect writing retreat for herself. Caution: After reading this, you’ll want to hop in your car and head off on your own retreat at the beach!

How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat
By Julie Wakeman-Linn

Didn’t get into Yaddo? Couldn’t accept those VCCA [Virginia Center for the Creative Arts] weeks in the middle of September? Still desperately need a getaway for your writing sanity? You, too, can craft your own writer’s retreat with a little planning. Here are ten easy suggestions to have a wonderful relaxing productive runaway.

First: Find an insular community, preferably one that had a Brigadoon atmosphere. What is Brigadoon in 2009? One town with no chain restaurants, two independent bookstores, and an excellent spa is Duck, North Carolina. Go in the off-season; the beach is beautiful and not crowded. Also it’s cheaper so you can rent a great big house and everybody spreads out in its corners.

Second: Only take people you can totally trust, who are either amused or enraptured by your first draft outbursts. The dog actually works the best for this role but spouses and best friends are all right. Once I and my old dog revised 150 pages in a week long retreat in the Outer Banks. But if your retreat is the Christmas/New Year runaway, take lots of nice wine and the people you bring along will listen to you anyway.

Third: Recognize that writing routines may change on a customized retreat. At VCCA the rigor in the daily schedule is a wonderful boon, but this isn’t the case at the beach. As the days unfold, somebody wants to walk, somebody wants to shop, somebody wants to do watercolors and you never know what the next hour will bring. Use the confusion of many people and many activities to sneak open the laptop and be so absorbed they leave you alone. A totally devoted spouse is very handy here. He will hush the others and lead them away. Very important -- Be open to a change in bio-rhythms when the tides and dolphin hunting factor into it. I found that I could write in the late afternoon, when at home I never can.

Fourth: Avoid the news. It’s generally all bad and very distracting. On retreat, I only scan the NPR arts and entertainment headlines. It’s delightful that some pundits think our new president will be a strong positive force for poetry and the arts. I knew I liked him. Instead of the news, take a huge pile of books in a wild variety. Encourage your housemates to also bring a pile of books. Sample everybody’s.

Fifth: Satiate on excellent food, preferably served by a waiter. Again this is fairly hedonistic but I have this theory that fresh seafood is good for the left brain. Remember calories don’t count on a writer’s retreat. Just work in two beach walks a day. It helps if you become the person who goes out for the daily dolphin report.

Sixth: Unlike a ‘genuine’ retreat where the schedule is set, drift into moments of creativity. If everybody else in the house wants to go play miniature golf or see that latest blockbuster film, feign a headache and stay home. The quiet of a beach house can be perfect. Or if you were very good the night before and drank nothing so the headache excuse is too fake, then give the crowd a dreamy look and say your main character is up to no good and you have to see him or her through it. My crowd will shake their heads and leave me alone. It is very helpful if your housemates are all numbers people--economists, finance professors, even accountants —they dismiss and forgive the voices in the writer’s head.

Seventh: Use Hemingway’s adage. Stop in the middle of a scene or the middle of a sentence when you close up a writing session. It makes it much easier to resume. I find my characters are working out their own problems while I’m napping or reading or putting in a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Eighth: Get a massage. Lying there on the table, totally relaxed, is wonderful for the creative juices. I came out of a massage with a renewed vigor and a clear idea how to handle the opening order of scenes.

Ninth: Eschew any marketing worries. They are anathema to relaxation and to creativity. Save the research and queries and spreadsheet organizing for the cold harsh light of January, or whenever you return.

Tenth: Have a HUGE goal, so huge you can never achieve it in the time allowed. It is very freeing to face an impossible task. I set out to write 100 pages. I was nuts but I’m tickled to have produced 5 pages of notes and 5 new scenes in progress and polished another 15 pages. What is a novel but an impossible task anyway?

Eleventh: Be open to amazing self revelations that arise out of oddball activities. Every day I had to seek out a new spot to watch the sun set. This obsessive activity cleared so much junk out of my head that real ideas blossomed from the compost of to-do lists, syllabi planning, and impending committee tasks.

I know I cheated because I promised you ten and gave you an extra one. That is the glory of a little self indulgence like a retreat –you reap unexpected gifts.

So create your own retreat. Relax, recreate, re-envision. Your writing life will be stronger and your regular life will be more peaceful for your escape.

About: Julie Wakeman-Linn edits The Potomac Review and teaches at Montgomery College. Her novel, Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion, was a finalist for the 2008 Bellwether prize and a number of her short stories have been published in literary journals and in the anthology Enhanced Gravity. She is program co-chair for the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary conference. Check out all the news at and You can contact Julie through either website.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.