Why Can’t I Do This At Home?

October 15, 2019 § 20 Comments

I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?

If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?

Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:

Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript

Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar

Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time

It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.

photo by Tawnya Bragg

At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”

A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?

Probably not.


But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.

We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.

We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.

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§ 20 Responses to Why Can’t I Do This At Home?

  • ninagaby says:

    I’d rather be in Tuscany or Costa Rica but, that said, I am planning a visit to my hometown where I will go each and every morning to my old favorite coffee shop after a walk around my old favorite reservoir to write and organize my WIP for 5 days. 5 hours every morning. Then I’ll play with friends and family in the afternoon. I am unreasonably excited about this.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Allison, your retreat in Lancaster, PA was fantastic, energizing! And this essay reminds me of the good writing I got done then…and must continue to build on now. Cary Tennis posed simple-but-not-easy questions. I will sit down and ask myself them this morning.

  • The absolute best thing a friend once said to me( when faced with two- acres of weedy garden beds/ apropos of 200 pages of rewrites) was: ” You can get a lot done in an hour.” Breaking it down in to small chunks like that was all I needed to get moving. I still say it to myself for almost any seemingly impossible task to clear the way.

  • francisashis says:

    Really awesome idea to fix up a certain time only for innovative writing and then supervising like a real guide without criticism and bossing over to ensure that some great works are accomplished without any pressures.That is a unique idea of a unique editor,hats off.Thanks a lot for sharing.👍👍👍

  • francisashis says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing.

    On Tue, 15 Oct 2019, 17:03 BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, wrote:

    > Allison K Williams posted: ” I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany > right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, > candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after > breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and wha” >

  • kfinevet says:

    Allison, I’d love to be your groupie and follow you from retreat to retreat! But I will have to make things work when I get home and really appreciate the tips. Thank you!!

  • Joanne says:

    Loved being able to vicariously “attend lunch with your group and Cary” through this column. Accountability in the form of others who’ve heard us commit to our goals is a real motivator and the only reason I’ve gotten certain work done in the past few years. Kudos to you for bringing it to a retreat the way you did — it sounds awesome

  • DavidWBerner says:

    It’s about commitment. Commit the the time you have and stay with it. Like working out – going to the gym – commit.

  • passion138 says:

    I don’t know Tuscany before
    after I read first paragraph in this blog, I begin search “Where is Tuscany?” and get 8 reason from online articles to visit this place soon. Thanks

  • […] I share my experiences on the Brevity blog, and write travel mini-essays on Instagram, but I don’t write travel articles for mass media […]

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