The Benefits of a DIY Writing Retreat

July 10, 2019 § 24 Comments

jovarnishby Jo Varnish

My Submittable let me know that my friend C and I hadn’t been successful in our application to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. I spent my mandatory few minutes wallowing, and then called C to fill her in. Similarly resilient through the disappointments this writers’ life hurls our way, we were open to a new idea. A Do-It-Yourself writing retreat.

We had already secured our partners’ support in leaving them with the kids and pets for three nights, we had set aside the money to pay for the camp – we could do this.

We decided on anywhere near Madison, Connecticut for our retreat’s venue, being midway-ish between C’s Massachusetts home, and mine in New Jersey. I immediately jumped on Airbnb. After coming dangerously close to accidentally booking a bargain of a stately home in Madison, Georgia, I found the perfect cottage. It had two bedrooms and sat on the banks of Oxoboxo Lake. What a name.

We would write, and relax by the lake, kayak, enjoy wine by the fire pit in the evenings: it would be our own Barrelhouse Camp. C and I are well acquainted with the writers’ getaway. We first met two summers ago in a retreat in France. On the day I had arrived, I had walked into the living room of our stone house in the tiny village of Villeferry, to meet the group. C was dramatically sprawled across a chaise lounge, eyes closed, hands on her face. “I have a headache,” she said and then she opened her eyes. “Oh, you’re younger than I thought you’d be.” We fell in friend love at first sight. We later spent a weekend on a writing course in Boston. We talk every day. Every single day.

We arrived at Oxoboxo Lake with long lists of goals, and huge excitement. As a mother with deadlines and work and pets, knowing I have an hour to write at home isn’t really an hour of fully focused writing. The on-call brain is always chugging along, reminding me the laundry in the basement needs to be switched to the dryer, I don’t have sandwich food for school lunches the next day, the dogs need a walk, the gas bill needs paying. Not to mention the fact that at any point in time one of my kids might call or text or Instagram message or snapchat me. Or Facebook message or Facetime me. Or yell from upstairs.

At Oxoboxo Lake, I was free to write in a way I have never been before. Even at the French retreat, or the Boston weekend, the time was punctuated with excellent workshops and craft sessions. I was hungry to learn and be part of those communities, but our weekend on the lake was different.

We chose our spots and stuck to them. C had the day bed directly in front of the picture window framing the lake. I wanted the armchair a little further back from the window. The view didn’t even seem real. Mist suspended over the grey lake in the early morning cleared within a couple of hours, burned off by the sun. The sky brightened to postcard blue, and the lake’s surface shimmered. We could hear the kids next door shrieking in the distance, jumping in, swimming. I got started writing at 9 am each morning, and apart from eating, didn’t stop until 7 or 8 pm each evening. After a late dinner, we organically continued writerly activities: we drank wine, we brainstormed, we read our day’s work, we critiqued, C even built me a writer’s website.

We never did make a fire. We never sat outside in the glorious sun. We didn’t kayak or even take a walk. I literally didn’t leave the cottage from our arrival on Thursday afternoon to our departure on Sunday, and none of that feels like a waste. I wrote thousands of words, edited even more, and submitted like crazy. It wasn’t Barrelhouse Camp, but it was inspirational and it was productive. I got home feeling reinvigorated, ideas spilling forth despite the laundry which had to be switched in the basement.

And isn’t this what a writer’s life is all about? Accepting a rejection and moving on, whether that’s researching new venues to submit your work to, or creating a DIY writing retreat. Barrelhouse Camp would have been an opportunity to learn and create and meet like-minded folk, but our weekend was a great alternative. We reaffirmed our close connection (I forgot my toothbrush and C immediately gave me hers – that kind of close) and re-energized our writing lives. Hopefully next year, we’ll make it to Barrelhouse Writer Camp. If not, I know exactly where we’ll be.

Having moved from her native England aged 24, Jo Varnish now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.  Her short stories and poetry have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Manqué Magazine, Nine Muses Poetry, and Cathexis Northwest Press.  Currently studying for her MFA and working on her novel, Jo can be found on twitter as @jovarnish1.  The website C built her while at the DIY retreat is at

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