Bloom Where You're Writing! By: Noelle Sterne


What writer hasn’t drooled over the thought of getting away to write for a whole day, week, or month—even an hour?

My best fantasy is a cozy private cottage nestled in the majestic Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I sit at the knotty pine desk by the picture window, laptop purring, the splendid view prompting me to ever more creative flights.

Three times a day, a gourmet tray mysteriously appears outside the door, and after a few minutes, I quietly open the door, pick up the tray, and enjoy the solitary feast by my private fireside. The rest of the time, with a Mozart CD playing, my novel and I deliciously rekindle our love affair. When I need a break, I dip into the adjoining indoor heated pool-jacuzzi or wander down the enticing wooded path outside the cottage and pick a few wild flowers.

Few of us, though, with ever-increasing obligations, spoken-for finances, and multi-roles incessantly demanding our attention and time, can afford our versions of this dream. But we can reach it in different ways with some innovative and economical writing mini-retreats.

First, Listen for Your Preferences

Before barreling to a retreat we’ll hate, we should recognize our needs and preferences. My solitary cottage, with the birds and grasses gently whistling, and only the server’s padded feet three times a day, may seem like a romantic ideal. But is it for you? I’m not even sure it’s for me. One experienced writer admitted that at a recent retreat, where he had all the time to himself and fantasized he’d put in twelve hours, he could still only work four hours a day. He refreshed himself with wooded walks, conversations and commiserations with the few other writers there, a few in-room pushups, and poking in the local town’s antique shops.

Do you crave absolute quiet? Or would you go bonkers without at least a few human voices? Do you thrive better with workshops and assignments (even if it’s your own self-assignment of the latest chapter)? Do you feel the need for physical activities, occasional introspective lectures, writers’ gossip fests, yoga classes, a pizza or sushi in town? Noise or quiet? OM or uproar?

As you identify your preferences, for formal retreats or otherwise, consider the following locations for your own writer’s retreat.

Cafes and Restaurants

The time-honored writers’ haunts, as attested by many writers (J.K. Rowling, Natalie Goldberg, Hemingway), cafés and restaurants remain excellent. See Juliet C. Obodo’s Writer's Retreat New York—Best Cafes for Writers, Bloggers and Students (CreateSpace, 2011). It contains not only listings by geographical area but information on typical purchases and which cafés have free WiFi. A section on “Café Etiquette” offers great advice: “Purchase something on the menu besides a cup of coffee,” p. 11). See also other city writers’ travel guides from Writer’s Retreat: www.writersretreatcityguides.com.

When I lived in New York, some of my most glorious sessions were in a little café with delectable homemade Hungarian pastries across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The shop always hosted a mix of passionate and unruly-haired students from the nearby university, young mothers with baby buggies awkwardly parked in a corner while they furtively grabbed a cuppa and a chocolate fix before the next diaper change, and would-be dedicated writers like me.

With the others, I learned to stretch one mug of coffee for hours and project insulated solitude—bookbag propped on two chairs, notebook pointedly open, and chronic scowl—so no one would sit down, start a conversation, or try to pick me up. But I thrived on the humanity around me and went regularly to write at the “Hungarian,” as the natives called it, and felt homesick if I missed more than two days.

Get a Room

“Borrow” a study, guest room, or patio from a friend or relative for an afternoon or day. Make sure they understand your purpose and don’t feel they have to entertain or feed you or check in at discreet intervals. Offer something in return, such as babysitting, cooking a meal, taking their dog to the vet.

To get out of my own small apartment to write, I struck a bargain with a nearby neighbor. I watered her plants while she was at work in exchange for weekly writing sessions at her living room desk—overlooking the Hudson River. She always left me coffee and supportive little notes.

Check Into a Hotel

Not literally. You don’t have to book a room. Nice hotels have great lobbies, and with your briefcase, papers, and laptop, you’ll look like you’ve just arrived for an important meeting. And you have—with yourself.

Settle into a cozy alcove or a corner table in the bar. Order club soda with a twist. One writer became such a fixture that when the bartender saw her coming he always set out a big bowl of pretzels and served her with a smile.

Check Out the Library

Despite our abilities today to research anything in the universe from our cozy computers, real public libraries are still treasures. When I was creating the riddles for my children’s book Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles, I rediscovered the wonderful children’s section of the public library down the street. The young people’s encyclopedias overflowed were pictures and easy-to-understand texts (I hadn’t majored in dinosaurs in college). Few people used the children’s section, and the only challenge was fitting my ample adulthood into those small chairs.

I sat for hours gathering information, letting riddles rise up the geologic layers of my mind and percolate to the top. The children’s librarian looked over occasionally with a kindly smile. I took heart too from the parents showing their kids different shelves and subjects and helping them choose books (real books!) for the week.

Explore too college and university libraries in your area. They often have beckoning cubbyholes and semi-private tables, and the quiet, studious atmosphere is conducive to serious writing. I used to smuggle takeout coffee containers in my tote and settle into one of those cubicles, feeling very professional.

A writer-graduate student friend discovered small specialized charming libraries in the music and art history departments of his university. He alternates his retreats between them. You may need an alumni or resident card, and these can be bought for small annual fees.

Hit the Beach, Park in the Park

In good weather, beachfronts and parks are excellent. Pack a blanket or folding chair, and take a thermos of a comforting drink. One writer confided that some of his highest writing moments were when he sat in a neighborhood park propped against a tree trunk, laptop on his knees, latté at his elbow, and birds chirping encouragement.

Go to the Mall

The local mall can be an oasis, especially if you’re not interested in buying (stash your credit cards at home). In my neighborhood, a large mall is ten minutes away. A Starbucks reigns in the courtyard with a three-storey atrium—high, light, roomy. The management thoughtfully arranged café-like tables and chairs, and I make dates with myself to go, setting up my laptop at one of those tables and spreading my notes and files over the whole table, discouraging visitors (see Hungarian above).

The background din of the mall helps me concentrate and focus. And when I reach an impasse on the screen, I need only look up and survey the people parading from one shop to the next: their walks, struts, shuffles, shapes, sizes, costumes, mannerisms, and slivers of conversation.

You never know where a mall session can lead. Another writer told me how, from sharing a Starbucks table, he met the man who became the researcher for his historical novel. Another mall-writing aficionado started an informal weekly critique group of writers in the stuffed leather chairs in an alcove of her mall. My own writing sessions at the mall grew into my “Starbucks Chronicles” column in the Absolute Write newsletter.

Rent a Room

Rent a motel room for the day. Yes, this costs something, but rates on weekdays are less expensive than otherwise. Bring a big bag of your favorite foods, junk or otherwise, and hang out the “Do Not Disturb” sign. Just makes sure the room faces something more than the interstate. And turn the TV to the wall.

Save to Splurge

Because you’re not spending anything with all these free or almost-free writing retreats, save up if you want a real getaway. Your goal may be that divine week in Big Sur, Provincetown, the Scottish castle, the Greek Isles, or the magnificent cruise ship to Maui. When you’re ready, indulge. Such retreats can give you much-needed respite from daily duties and refill your well of inspiration, drive, and purpose in your current work.

Home is Where the Start Is

Finally, though, sometimes the best retreat is no retreat. Our nests can be supremely soothing. So stay home. Put on your cottons—or a crisp professional shirt. Choose a favorite room or spot. Maybe you’ve got one already; it’s your shrine.

Hide all electronic lures. Announce your retreat to your household, with a firm voice usually reserved for sending the kids to bed. Plug in a coffee maker or teapot nearby, prepare your food in advance, or order in. Decide on the project you’ll work on. Congratulate yourself for not having to pack or make all kinds of advance arrangements and for not spending thousands on a “writer’s retreat.” You’ve just made your own.

* * * * * *

We don’t have to feel deprived or self-pitying because we can’t “get away” to a formal writer’s retreat. They’re all around us, waiting only for our ingenuity. And after our self-fashioned retreat, we’ll return to our routines not only refreshed but proud of our writing self-affirmation and progress on our latest draft. So award yourself, knowing you can “retreat” anytime and anywhere you choose.

Thoughts? Have you ever attended a writer's retreat? Ever try any of these "versions"?

Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle visits many of the writer’s retreats she describes in this column. They have helped her publish over 250 fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com/

Image Credit: Freedigitalphotos.net


  1. Thanks for the encouragement Noelle. The other day I was describing my setting to a friend that can't seem to get started on her writing. I let her know that her setting in a rural tree-filled wonderland is the opposite to my space where, if I open my curtains, I'm faced with a parking lot and a graffiti covered garbage dumpster. Nothing can stop my brain from pouring out what it contains.

    Best wishes, Susan in Campbell River, BC

  2. Susan, thanks for your insight and for pointing out to your friend what a lovely "writing retreat" she has! And more power to you for writing despite your setting. Keep pouring!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Noelle,

    Loved this piece. Great resourcefulness and take-away value. Thanks much!

    Jennifer @ Pen and Prosper

  5. Thank you, Jennifer. Great fun to write and picture writers in all these settings!

  6. Very nice! Setting makes such a difference. I usually light a candle to summon my muse, but I will never forget one writing session many years ago. I was stuck on a passage in Jocasta, and I ended up going for a long walk. I would walk for a while, then sit on a bench and write for a while, then get up and walk some more.

  7. Jennifer Brown BanksOctober 25, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Thanks Victoria, for your feedback. I like the idea of lighting a candle; I usually combine this with some soothing herbal tea to get my muse in the mood. We appreciate your thoughts today.

  8. Victoria--

    Your impetus was write, er, right, about going for a walk. That's another idea, especially, as you discovered, for stucknesses: get up, walk around, wipe one counter, water one plant, and ideas start flowing or popping. Thank you. P.S. Love your Classics-based books!

    Jennifer--Getting in the mood is important. I have a music-coffee-home page ritual . . . .


Let us help you grow into the writer you were meant to be.

Jennifer Brown Banks---Manager of Operations

Announcements & Updates...

Share your calls for submissions, success stories, writing related news.

Dr. Serena Wadhwa joins the Coffeehouse team
of instructors!

Coffeehouse is now on Twitter! Be sure to connect with us to get the latest, up-to-the-minute happenings and find out what's brewing.

Check us out @http://Twitter.com/coffeehse4write