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What I Learned On My First Writing Retreat

book inc Peer Artist Leader Shanda McManus began her Baldwin For The Arts residency with high expectations. But she quickly learned, she is the initiator of her distractions.

By Shanda McManus

May 18, 2023

Near the top of the list of my writing goals right after publication was attending a writer’s retreat. I pictured myself in an idyllic cabin in the woods that was well-appointed inside, with a writing desk near a window with plenty of sunlight. I would bask in the comfort and solitude without distractions and write for at least eight hours a day. I would produce copious amounts of quality work for those few weeks of the ideal artist’s life. I would be focused on my craft without the interference of work and home responsibilities. I could be legitimately unavailable. I would not allow technology to distract me. No texting, No social media. No answering emails. At night, I would read. 

I applied to several residencies with this vision in mind. Attending a residency became a holy grail for me, and it would lead me to a writing flow state. So, I felt energized and validated when I was accepted to Baldwin For The Arts (BFTA)—a beautiful retreat founded by well-known author Jacqueline Woodson. The website describes BFTA as a space to explore, create, and breathe free from the distractions of everyday life. As a practicing physician, wife, and mother of five, that sounded like what I needed. 


Shanda at Baldwin For The Arts 

The retreat was located less than a three-hour drive from my home. I packed my manuscript, legal pads, sticky notes, and Muji pens. I decided to write longhand for the week to stay as low-tech as possible. I brought nonwriting creative activities like coloring books, clay, and my portable speaker. I also opted to bring my food, although I was offered a personal chef. On my arrival, I was welcomed by the supportive program coordinator and Jacqueline Woodson herself. Natural light poured through the windows of the two-story cottage, which was well-appointed and comfortable. There was even an exercise room and yoga space next door. The cottage felt like the home of a friend with many personal touches and books.

The first night, I felt strange being alone. Was that just the wind I heard? I checked the locks on all the doors and windows twice. I am a city girl, and the woods make me uneasy. I tried not to think of slasher movies or bears.  I wondered what my husband was doing. I reminded myself that I had wanted to be alone and chided myself until I fell asleep. 

The next morning that cottage felt less spooky. I set up my work table and lit a candle. I planned to try a new revision technique where I would read a chapter aloud and mark it up, and then rewrite the section in longhand. I brought a new notebook to fill. After 15 minutes, during which time I had read one page, I stopped and made another cup of tea. Then I checked my phone, you know, just in case of an emergency involving my kids or husband. There were no messages. While on the phone, I checked Slack messages from my writing group, and then I found myself in the hole of Instagram motivational content. This used up an hour. Now back to the manuscript, I forced myself to sit and work for at least an hour. I am not sure how much I got done between looking out the window and wondering how much time before I would stop for lunch and then a nap. 

As you might have suspected the week of daily eight-hour sessions did not happen. The yoga and exercise did not happen, either. During my one-week residency, I managed three hours a day of sitting at the writing desk in patchy blocks. Although I completed way fewer pages than I had intended, my new revision technique taught me the importance of slow work and how sore writing longhand can make your arm.  I did not stay technology free as I answered emails, texted, took phone calls, and used social media. As far as my alternative creative activities, I did listen to a few favorite playlists, play with my clay, and listen to Kindred by Octavia Butler. At night instead of reading, I watched Abbott Elementary.

The truth is I was lonely during my week away. Also, as comfortable as the space was, I realized I am most comfortable at the desk in my family room. Another truth I came to understand was, wherever I am, I am the initiator of the distractions and procrastination hampering my writing time. During my residency, I was forced to own up to this reality. And honestly, realizing this made me feel more empowered because this was something I could control. I did not need a mythical getaway to get my writing done but old fashion self discipline.

Will I attend a residency in the future? Yes, if I am awarded another but I will not go seeking to complete a huge amount of writing or enter a flow state. I will use the time and space to recharge. I will look for residencies that provide opportunities for community like group meals and readings instead of being alone the entire time.

As far as writing, I do my best work at home when I turn off my phone and stay at my desk. Exploring and creating within my everyday life.

Shanda McManus

Shanda McManus is a family medicine physician. Her writing has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.

Shanda McManus is a family medicine physician. Her writing has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.