Earlier this month Courtney attended a week-long writing workshop and retreat in California. She flew to the airport in San Francisco and then drove an hour into the mountains onto an artists’ retreat called Djerassi. For the majority of the year, Djerassi hosts month-long residencies for all sorts of artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, and of course writers (find out more info on how to attend here). But for this particular workshop, nine women writers gathered together along with their workshop leader, Nova Ren Suma, to rest, relax, write, and above all yield to whim.
Related: Interview with Nova Ren Suma
While away, Courtney had spotty Internet and cell reception, but it turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. She turned to the hills, the fog, and her community of friends and fellow artists to clear her mind and tap deep into her creative spirit. Today she’s sharing a little bit about her time at Djerassi and some of the long-lasting benefits one can receive from attending a retreat.
This was my second time to attend a writing workshop and retreat at Djerassi with one of my favorite authors of all time, Nova Ren Suma. The first time I rode down the winding, tucked-away road to the ranch it was with a sense of exquisite wonder and disbelief. The land itself was stunning—redwoods climbing out of the soil and spilling away to reveal vast, rolling hills with golden grasses waving upon each crest. All of it stretching and stretching out toward a blue haziness in the distance we were told was the Pacific Ocean. My heart couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be spending the next week here, to write, to be my truest self, so far away from everything familiar. That first time, the ranch sucked me in and kept me wrapped in its fog, held me in safe arms.
This second time, though, I came back knowing. I knew the curves and dips of the road. I knew the deer, whose ears flicked at my passing footsteps but who kept munching grass anyway, unafraid of my curious gaze. I knew Hank, a dog who lives on the ranch and loves nothing more than to run after a pine cone, if I’ll only throw it for him. I knew so many of the sculptures this second time. That cheeky yield to whim sign and the iconic Torii sculpture and the oversized cart of squash. I knew the Artists’ Barn—oh that wild, wonderful place where I’d written an incredible number of words the last time I was here. I knew all of these things and more. Like the people. Those who work and live at the ranch and the writers who’d be returning with me.
Last time I hadn’t met any of the other writers in person, but this time I knew most of them! We were old friends by now, and we all knew the trust and friendship and joy that lived between our hearts.
Before I left Texas, I told myself the most important part of this retreat was to relax. I didn’t put any pressure on myself in the form of word counts or number of chapters I should finish or even if I should have a direction for my plot. My number-one priority was to give myself room, to spend my time however I desired, and to let my mind unravel from all the worries, anxieties, stresses, and fears of my everyday life. And you know what? The first three and a half days I was there, I didn’t get one bit of writing done. I took hikes. I read a book. I chatted with dear friends I hadn’t seen in years and made new friends with the women I hadn’t met before. We held a spring equinox ritual involving spirit animals, nature offerings, and intentions. I drank wine. I ate delicious food. I went to bed early just so I could wake up and climb a huge hill to sit on a bench by myself while the sun stretched its rays over the valley.
By the time the fourth day rolled around, I felt reinvigorated, ready to tackle my manuscript with renewed vigor and inspiration. I developed a plot. I dug deep into my characters. Above all, I let myself have fun. I definitely could have stayed at Djerassi for a few more days just writing and enjoying the freedom to create, but even so, my time there restored a positive perspective within my mind. It’s benefited me in ways that I know will last me a long, long time.
An artist’s retreat might not be for everyone, but if you’ve never done any sort of retreat—one that speaks to your passions and interests—I can’t recommend them enough. We all need time away, if only to appreciate the beauty and splendor of home upon returning. For me, here are the top three benefits to attending a retreat, in particular a retreat with all women.
You Have a Rock-Solid Excuse to Ignore the Internet
I love social media and the Internet, and I’m not shy about proclaiming this love.
That being said, I can’t deny that it can be quite wonderful to step away for a bit of time. At Djerassi, the Internet is barely functional. I had one dot of cell service the whole time. And it turned out to be absolutely amazing for my self-care. I could check my email to make sure nothing important had come through, but otherwise, it wasn’t even worth it to try and check Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. My feed would sit there for eternity trying to load. After the first few hours of this, I gave up and just decided to enjoy my completely valid excuse not to check social media.
And guess what. The Internet went on without me. My friends and family back home, even though we missed each other, all got along fine without texts, tweets, snaps, or Instagram comments from me.
Now that I’m back, I’m planning to keep this in mind. I’ll still be active online of course, but now I don’t feel so obligated to scroll all the way through my Instagram feed or check every single new snap that’s come in from every single person I follow. I don’t need to check Twitter every half hour (yes, some days it’s that bad). And I definitely don’t need to have my email open at all times. I can relax a little. Everything will be fine.
Sometimes I would actually feel guilty about not sharing something on social media. So when I read this quote on the Buffer Blog, it really resonated and got me thinking about personal boundaries for myself. “I am a people pleaser, a ‘yes’ person by default. One of my biggest challenges is saying no to others, regardless of the request. Saying yes is easiest at the moment when I’m giving the answer; saying no is easiest at virtually all other times. Social media presents a litany of opportunities to practice saying no. And it’s okay to say no as often as you want” (source).
Take a moment to read that last sentence again. Guys, it’s okay to say no! I really got to experience that at Djerassi, and I plan on carrying that mentality forward throughout the next few months.
Related: Why Leaving Facebook Could Be a Healthy Decision for All of Us by Barbara Guillaume
A Retreat Allows You to Let Go of Guilt
I kind of hinted at this one above, but I feel it needs its own section. Even though I’m no longer religious, I was raised as a Catholic. Society also makes women feel like they’re responsible for many things, chief among them the well-being of other people. My personality is also predisposed toward perfectionism. Needless to say, those are three big factors that work toward making me feel super guilty about a lot of things at any given time.
For example, I feel guilty on the days I don’t stick to the work schedule I’ve set up for myself. I feel guilty for not getting enough writing done. I feel guilty for leaving the dishes unwashed or my room messy or dinner uncooked. I feel guilty when the cats’ water bowl is almost empty. I feel guilty for watching too much TV. I feel guilty because I’ve been driving without car insurance for a month and a half, and I feel guilty that my inspection sticker and registration are wildly out of date. I feel guilty for slacking off on guitar practice. I feel guilty for not calling my parents more. I feel guilty for not calling my grandparents more. I feel guilty for not calling my long-distance friends more. And I know I shouldn’t feel guilty, so I feel guilty for feeling guilty!
This is just a fraction of the guilt I feel, and it’s already way too much for one person to carry around all the time.
Here’s how I navigated around the guilt with my retreat. I requested the time off work, told friends and family I would be mostly out of touch (which I was), and then I just went away. By explaining in advance what the deal was and carving out the much-needed space for myself away from everything, I could let go of any guilt I was holding on to for tasks unfinished. Sequestering myself away meant that I put myself in a position where I couldn’t take care of any responsibilities, even if I wanted to, and that did wonders for easing my conscience and letting me enjoy my time in the mountains with not a single obligation weighing me down.
You Will Form Lifelong Friendships
This is the number-one takeaway I’ve experienced from both of my Djerassi retreats. The first one I attended was in June of 2014. Luckily, Austin is a hotbed of activity and tends to attract creative types, so in the years since then, I’ve met up with several of my fellow attendees when they passed through Texas
There are three women in particular—Rebekah, Jessica, and Susan (author of upcoming magical realism novel The Secret Ingredient of Wishes)—who’ve transcended the title of “writing friend” to just plain friend. We first met online through a writing course, but since then we’ve kept in touch and cheered each other along in our respective writing journeys. This past retreat was the first time we’ve all four been in the same place at the same time.
The thing is, even though we live in four different cities, I go to these ladies when I’m stressed, when I need to vent, when something incredible happens in my life, or just when I find something funny on the Internet. And they do the same with me. I never would’ve dreamed of finding such rich friendships, but it just goes to show that when people are drawn together because of something they’re all passionate about, it tends to create really special, long-lasting bonds between them.
One of these women, Rebekah Faubion, author of the upcoming fantasy novel Of Blood and Promises, summed it up perfectly while we were at Djerassi last week. She said signing up for that first online course and subsequently attending Djerassi was one of the best, most important adult decisions she’s ever made, and it has changed the course of her life. I very much agree with that assessment. I can trace the twist and slope of my life and clearly see how it diverged onto a completely different trajectory because of my decision to go on that first retreat.
This quote from an article in The Guardian sums up how I feel about my Djerassi retreat friends, “People can grow up to be very different from you, leading very different lives elsewhere in the world, and yet they remain immutably your friend for always, because of the love and effort you both [give] and [receive]” (source).
I’d like to finish by saying that sometimes spending money on a retreat feels like an unnecessary indulgence. Or if money’s not an issue, even just spending the time away can bring on those feelings of guilt. But I’m a firm believer in self-love, and I honestly believe that attending a retreat (one that’s right for you) can completely transform you on the inside. The money and time I spent are nothing compared to the incredible brilliance I felt blazing inside me upon returning home from Djerassi both times I went.
My wildest hope is that we all have an opportunity for this kind of deep rest and renewal.
If you’re interested in attending a Djerassi retreat, you can visit their website and find more info here.