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Guest Post: Bess Cozby–Five Tips for Making the Most of Your Highlights Retreat

Bess CozbyI am a compulsive planner. I love making lists. I love checking off boxes. So, when I’m planning on a trip to Highlights, I like to plan accordingly. The Highlights Retreat Center is a magical place, and every time I go I want to make the most of it.

I’ve been to Highlights several times now and have discovered a few things that help me make the most of my time there. Here are five tips I use to plan my retreats. Maybe they will help you plan your own!

Pack Well
When packing for Highlights, I try to pack light and smart. I’m personally not a big pajamas writer. I try to treat writing like a job, so that means getting dressed and sitting down at a desk. I usually pack a pair of leggings and jeans, a few T-shirts, and my favorite sweatshirt. That’s about as dressed up as I get. Other writers want to look much more put together. Others show up in sweats. All are perfectly acceptable. Do what works for you. Highlights is a place where you can nurture your most creative self–so wear what you want!

I always pack a pair of hiking boots, because trail-walking is an essential part of my Highlights experience. You never know if it’s going to be muddy or what sort of little bugs are hanging out in the woods, so I err on the safe side and just wear boots. Tennis shoes also work well.

Other things you might consider packing: a notebook (Highlights provides one, but I like to keep all my notes in one spot); a book to read at night (I usually pick an old favorite or nonfiction, so it doesn’t end up distracting me from my own writing); your own toiletries (if you’re picky about shampoo, et al); yoga clothes (there’s sometimes yoga in the barn, if that’s your thing); and a picture or two to inspire you!

Plan Your Project
Plan your projectWhen I go on a Highlights retreat, I try to set goals beforehand. This helps keep me focused and makes me feel like the weekend has a specific purpose.

A good rule of thumb for goal-setting: be ambitious but also realistic. If you usually write 1,000 words a day but aim to write 10,000 words a day at Highlights, you’re probably going to disappoint yourself and feel frustrated. But 2,000 words a day, given the extra time and focus you’ll have, is a reasonable but still aggressive goal. You’ll feel satisfied that you set a challenge and met it. And you can always change these goals along the way.

I just turned in a final draft of my manuscript to my agent, so I will probably be drafting while I’m at Highlights. This could change as I get closer to the date, but I’ll nail down my writing plans the week before. Having this done before you get there will allow you to dive right in! Pro tip: If you’re going with a friend, talk about what you both hope to achieve on the way. This is also often a question I ask other writers at breakfast: “What are you hoping to do today?” Accountability is a great way to keep yourself on track.

Break Up the Day
At Highlights, your day is naturally broken up by mealtimes. When I’m planning my days, I take this into account. I have found that each time chunk can be useful for different types of work. The key here is knowing yourself and when you’re most productive and creative. Here’s how it works for me:

  • Before breakfast–I usually get up early, brew a cup of coffee in my room, and throw open all the shades. Early-morning writing, when my brain is still not quite awake and my inner editor is still snoozing, is magical for me. Sometimes I free-write, concentrating on a particular scene I want to tweak at a deep level or something where I need to get out of my own way. Working deep within a draft while the cabin slowly lightens around me is the perfect way to start the day.
  • Between breakfast and lunch–This is a solid chunk of writing time when I’m more fully awake and can get down to business. I like to bring a second cup of coffee back with me from the Barn. During this time, when I’m fully awake, I try to tackle my most difficult writing task of the day.
  • Between lunch and dinner–This is the longest stretch of uninterrupted time. Usually, I’m feeling a little sleepy after lunch (the food at Highlights is AMAZING), so I like to take a break and go for a walk in the woods. There are tons of trails! This can be a great time to grab a writing buddy and talk through plot problems or go on your own and soak in the beauty. You will come back to your desk inspired and ready!
  • Between dinner and bed–For me, this is the least productive part of the day. I often feel like curling up with a book and a cup of tea in my cabin. Luckily, Highlights provides many places to write. I usually spend this time in the Barn with other writers to help keep me on track, but I set less ambitious goals. Sometimes I even just read over what I wrote that day or plan for the next. When I’m visiting Highlights in August, please come join me and Lauren in the Barn for communal writing time.
  • Bed–I try to be in bed early enough that I can read a bit before drifting off. I’m not a night-owl writer, but this may be the magical hour for you. Take advantage of the quiet! Also, don’t forget to look up when you’re outside. The stars at Highlights are gorgeous.

Plan to Unplug
Plan to UnplugHighlights does have Wi-Fi, so you can access the Internet if you need to use your phone, check your email, do research, or post a photo of your awesome writing view. But it can be creatively rejuvenating to unplug as well. One of the first things I do at Highlights is turn off my phone and put my computer in airplane mode. I try not to bring my phone with me to meals or on walks so that I can be fully present. Not everyone can or wants to unplug that fully, but I’ve found it creatively refreshing. No news. No status updates. No urgent emails. Just writing. The world will still be there when I return.

A few tips for planning this: Set up an away message on your email, put up a status on Twitter that says you’re checking out for the weekend, and let anyone who might worry know that you’re away from your phone for long stretches of time. I also usually post a pic to Facebook so it’s obvious I’m unplugged in the woods.

Instead of being hooked to my phone, I plan certain times to check it, and I try to keep them to a minimum. If you’re on the fence, try it for a few hours. You’d be amazed at how great it feels to step away from it all and just focus on your writing!

Embrace the Spontaneous
I’m not the first nor will I be the last person to say that Highlights is a magical place. You might get a new idea you want to explore or be inspired to take your story in a new direction. While still being disciplined about your time and goals, consider letting your creativity lead you. Even if it’s just for one chunk of the day, embrace the unexpected–you never know what may come of it!

Along those lines, one of the best parts about Highlights is getting to talk with all the other writers attending. As much as I love all the time alone in my cabin, I also love working in the Barn in the evenings and hanging out after a meal because I’m having a great conversation with someone, or inviting a new friend to join me on a walk. Give yourself breathing room. Spend some time in the stone garden, play with the neighbor’s dog, or even take a nap in the sunshine in your cabin or room. I try to think of Highlights as both a work trip and a creative vacation. You’re in a beautiful, secluded place where you don’t have to worry about meals and can embrace your most creative self. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m allowed to just rest and relax and that that’s fueling my creativity, too.

Posted on: June 19, 2017

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