When I went on my first do-it-yourself writing retreat in the summer of 2014, I needed it more than I knew. I’d taken time away from journalism to finish graduate school and was quickly burning out in a different field. I squeezed freelance writing into my free hours, but missed reporting and longed for substantial time to dig into stories. My friend Allie, also a writer, had a solution: We’d go on a vacation, but the sole purpose of our trip would be to write.
It was surprisingly easy to make our DIY writing retreat a reality. We pooled our resources; settled on St. Ignatius, Montana, a tiny town 45 minutes from Missoula; and found a cabin on an organic farm that we could rent through Airbnb. Armed with Bananagams, writing projects and a healthy sense of curiosity, we dragged along our then-partners and settled into an easy routine that has characterized our travels together ever since.
In the mornings, we’d wake up, make coffee and sit with our mugs at our laptops until noon, looking up from our projects only to compare notes or gawk at an errant cow sidling past our borrowed front porch.
After lunch, we’d take breaks to swim in a nearby mountain reservoir, drive to quirky small-town museums, walk the perimeter of the farm or troll the National Bison Range for wildlife. Then we’d come home and lounge on the porch sipping cider until the sun set over the mountains.
I look back fondly on those few focused days in Montana as a period of intense, concentrated growth that put Allie and me on exciting new trajectories. I remember leaving St. Ignatius in the last week of July as the saddest day of that summer. But less than a month later, I had secured a job offer at the newspaper where I would spend the next four years. Allie would go on to successful developments with a novel, and glamourous writing residencies including New York’s legendary Yaddo.
The two of us lead very different lives now, lives that no longer feature the partners or the dreams we brought to Montana with us. But as we buoyed each other in our work on those mornings in Montana, we continue to cheer on each other’s successes in the sometimes challenging careers we’ve chosen.
We’ve both been successful, on our own terms and in different ways, but I don’t think this would have been possible if we’d waited around for it. And that may be the real value of the DIY retreat: By making space for our writing in that basic but not unserious way, Allie and I, though newcomers to publishing, asserted ourselves as writers before anyone else would; sometimes the most important approval your work can get is your own.
When young writers approach me now about breaking into journalism or publishing, I suggest jettisoning the desire to even ask that question. Writers write; artists create. Both require work, but neither requires a decoder ring or a permission slip. If you’re looking for a “yes” from the official channels, it might never come. Don’t wait for it.